A few months ago when I had the chance to appear on MSNBC’s “Up W/ Chris Hayes” author Robert Wright asked me if I felt a sense of urgency about recruiting others to the free-thought position. Or is it enough be satisfied with one’s own skepticism and adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward belief? Is it rude and intolerant to challenge the beliefs of others? I didn’t have a great answer at the time he posed the question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.
From time to time I’ve heard this position expressed: “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t impose your religion on me.” Personally I sometimes resonate with that attitude. Tolerance is often in short supply in our world. It sounds nice to say that belief is purely a private matter, but I’m not sure that is even true. Every single day the news brings us examples of how belief negatively impacts our world. Here are just a few examples:
- Surveys consistently show that people of faith are far more likely to deny the reality of global warming and its anthropogenesis. There is often a connection between religiosity and a hostility to science.
- In my home state of Texas, the religious views of the state Board of Education force publishers to alter the content of textbooks, which are then sold throughout the rest of the country.
- A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention vigorously reconfirmed their position that gay rights are not civil rights. On so many issues of social justice theology has acted as a brake on progress.
- Still every day around the the world people kill other people over theologies, beliefs, myths and other unprovable ideas. A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.
And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. I often wonder if belief impacts just about everything in our society. For instance, does belief in a punishing God contribute to a generally pervasive punitive approach to life, as exemplified in our draconian “war on drugs?”
So, I guess I’m leaning toward the position that there is no such thing as benign belief. It ultimately disables critical reasoning.
On the other hand, I also think that skeptics and freethinkers can at times shut down conversation as well. The best way forward would be through conversation not confrontation, to be challenging but also charitable.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
My latest TV addiction is The Borgias on Showtime, an historical drama portraying the exploits of the infamous family of Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century. Great writing, great acting, great production values. It’s just fun to watch. With all the church-sponsored wars, torture, heretic-burning, and papal children, this mini-series just might do more to discredit organized religion than the writings of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens) Sure it’s historical fiction, but I don’t think they have really had to embellish the dark side of Christian history all that much. The show should help dispel the myth that the Church has been mystically guided and protected by the Holy Spirit through the centuries.
But while I was watching the show this question came to mind: Is religion the problem or the symptom? What I mean is– would all the crusades, inquisitions, and witch-hunts of history have happened anyway, regardless of what religion was in power? Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of Osiris instead. Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?
Homo Sapiens is an intensely and incorrigibly tribal species. We naturally look for ways to define “the other.” And religion has been one of the most potent expressions of our tribal tendencies. I’d be willing to bet that for most believers today, the tribal identity of their religion matters far more than the metaphysical claims. And that, of course, is one reason atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are so often perceived to be such a threat. Our ancestral past has generally conditioned most people to viscerally condemn and ostracize those who threaten the tribe. Most people don’t want to be sitting in the home team bleachers wearing the colors of the visiting team.
Well, the days of the Borgias are clearly not entirely behind us. There are still plenty of religious folk who would like to impose their ways on others. Last week I read in The Times that Buddhists and Muslims are now fighting in Myanmar. Buddhists?! I thought they were supposed to be peaceful. Go figure.
But the quickly increasing numbers of skeptics and doubters gives me hope. Maybe we as a species are slowly and painfully maturing. Maybe we are gradually shedding the parochial tribalism of the past as we come to understand that the only hope for the future of our fragile planet is to recognize all humans as members of the same tribe.
First of all, I just want to say thanks to everybody who commented on yesterday’s post (5/22). I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to respond. So I’d thought I’d do a quick follow-up today–mainly to the questions that were raised.
“Adtz” gave a great response to Julia’s question about the Israelites and their Canaanite origins. I don’t have much to add to that. Some scholars have suggested the possibility of a small band of escaped slaves who joined up with the Canaanite tribes, but hardly any credible scholar thinks that anything like the mass exodus portrayed in the Bible ever happened. And “Yahweh” appears to be the result of a merger between two earlier tribal gods “Ya” and “El.”
Julia, you also mentioned that you had trouble wrapping your mind around the Trinity. Good for you! I take that as a sign of sanity (and I’m not being facetious.) Theological discussions about the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity are incomprehensible. When you try to follow the logic of the Trinity, it always ends up reminding me of that old Willie Nelson song, “I”m My Own Grandpa.” Of course the concept of the Trinity as we have it today emerged gradually in the early centuries of Christianity’s existence. And in those early centuries various Christian groups had a broad range of opinions regarding the divine/human nature of Christ.
Chris Breman asked how others have worked through the process of leaving religion. Some of you shared parts of your story, but if anybody wants to share more, I’m sure it would be helpful to others. I’m convinced there are many secret skeptics out there. (See “The Atheist at the Breakfast Table” in the latest issue of Psychology Today.)
Finally, I really liked John Stutzer’s description of a dinner in a VFW hall for volunteers fighting the 1993 Mississippi flood as the best “communion” he ever had. A lot of great images and symbolism there. Those kinds of moments can help us recognize and affirm a common humanity that transcends the tribal labels we so often use to define ourselves. Christian communion has often been a vehicle for separating people, especially along doctrinal lines. I’m all in favor of experiences that bring us together.
Thanks again, everybody, for the good conversation.
The religion page in our local paper features a section called “Wisdom,” which is a collection of quotes from religious texts. I’ve been reading it each week hoping to find some actual wisdom. No luck yet. Here is a quick sample of what they’ve printed lately. Tell me what you think.
Jewish: “God spoke all these words, saying; I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Exodus 20:1-3) Note that the text does not say that the Lord (Yahweh) is the only god, just that other gods should not be worshiped. The passage was probably written when most Israelites were monolatrous and not strictly speaking monotheists. Interesting from a historical perspective but it doesn’t count as wisdom. And please don’t tell me it’s a passage about God’s opposition to slavery. He let the Israelites hang on to their own slaves.
Muslim: “As to the Righteous (they will be) in a position of security. among Gardens and Springs; dressed in fine silk and in rich brocade, they will face each other.” (Surah 44:51-53) Says who? Just because the Prophet says he spoke to Allah, we’re supposed to believe him. Also note that paradise is described n a way that would be very attractive to people living in a desert. The divine origin of the text would be more convincing if paradise didn’t sound so much like an oasis. So strike two for wisdom.
Sikh: Truth is the highest of all Virtues; but higher still is the living of Truth. (Sri Rag) OK, at least this one sounds a little more like a wise saying. But it’s really just a platitude, which is what most religious wisdom boils down to. Like “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s not mind-blowing wisdom. It’s just common sense if you want to go through this life with at least a few friends.
I’m pretty sure, however, that I did encounter some wisdom the other night when I got to hear a lecture by the eminent biologist E.O Wilson who was speaking about his latest book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth.” I already tweeted this quote, but it’s worth repeating: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Now that’s what wisdom should sound like–something your mind can ponder for a while and can make you see things in a new way.
Today I just want to share a couple quick reflections on what I’ve observed since publicly coming out on MSNBC as a freethinker who can no longer affirm the metaphysical claims of Christianity. Certainly some believers have reacted with hostility and judgment. Of course that was to be expected. I didn’t come out for the fun of it. (Although I am puzzled that some Christians apparently don’t think that their omnipotent God is capable of defending himself.)
I have been more surprised, however, by the number of church-going friends and acquaintances who have voiced their own doubts. They’ve been saying things like this: “You know, I just never got the Trinity.” And “It makes no sense to me that the death of Jesus paid a ‘sin debt’ and satisfied the wrath of an angry God.” Several have said they flat out don’t accept most of the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity but somehow find meaning in it anyway. Some have admitted to attending church mainly because of social convention. Maybe skepticism in the pews is more rampant that we suspect.
Of course all of this is only anecdotal evidence, but the responses have made me wonder if this is a small glimpse of a larger social trend away from belief, or at least away from orthodoxy. The most recent U.S. Census showed that people who identify as “none of the above” have been increasing faster than any religious group or denomination, and dramatically so. Are we reaching a tipping point in the acceptance of secular humanism and freethought as a legitimate way to go through life?
On the other hand I still know too many people who feel like they have to keep their non-orthodox views to themselves. They fear that being labeled as an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, or freethinker would jeopardize relationships and possibly even their employment. All this in a nation built on freedom of conscience. Can you imagine how bad things would be in a theocracy? (Yes, I know some of you guys would say that we already live in a semi-theocracy, but I’ll stay out of that debate for now.)
Picking up on yesterday’s post about the demise of theology…
Within the past twenty years or so we have seen an explosion of new insights about the origins of homo sapiens. Fields such as evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics and paleoanthropology are challenging many long-held assumptions about human nature. For the most part, however, theologians and preachers have been completely absent from the discussion. Almost every week the NY Times’ science page reports important new findings from these fields of study. Yet the preachers I watch on television and follow online never reference the knowledge revolution that is going on around them, despite the fact that there are implications for almost every core doctrine of Christian orthodoxy: creation, the “fall,” redemption, free will—-just to name a few.
- If Jesus died for the sins of humanity, was his atoning death efficacious also for all hominid species? What about Neanderthals, homo erectus, or homo habilis? Did they need saving too? If not, why not?
- If original sin is limited to homo sapiens, why is that so, and when did original sin take root?
- At what point in the evolutionary process was a “soul” inserted into the genus Homo?
It seems like these would be questions religious people might like to ponder, but the conversation has not been happening. Theologians and preachers routinely assert that God endowed us with “free will” so that we can “freely” respond to God’s love, but any discussion of free will that does not also address neurochemical and genetic issues is utterly pointless.
And why aren’t seminaries and other schools of religion offering mandatory courses on the neurology of belief? Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain would be a good place to start. It seems that people preparing for a career in the belief business might want to know at least a little something about the role neurotransmitters play in religious experience.
It’s not happening because those engaged in theology have largely decided to live in an intellectual isolation of their own choosing.