Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Politics: Religious Conversation

In my last two posts, I've written a little about how politicians, journalists, and artists should bring themselves into conversation with the greater community as a whole. In the examples of Sen. Rick Santorum (in that appearance), Jon Stewart, and John Cage, I found positive examples of this conversation occurring. Unfortunately, for my next examination of conversations with culture, I'm going to levy some criticism toward a man who is actually far smarter than me, and who is not undeserving of respect, to illustrate what happens when conversation is not pursued constructively.

There are many, many, many examples of a breakdown in religious conversation in the United States, because of the dislike of moderate religious figures to speak publicly about religion. The moderate position is that religion is a personal belief, and other than speaking to a small congregation of like-minded believers, is not best suited for large public discussion.

Although I can agree with this view to a certain extent, what that creates is a religious power vacuum, where those who are looking for a religious leader find those who are most vocal: those leaders, on a overpowering national scale, can be extremely negative. Fred Phelps, Louis Farrakand, Pat Robertson, Jeremiah Wright, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Ted Haggard, etc.; these names are familiar to us because they typically come with extravagant, hate-filled messages of religion attached, whether it be Phelps protesting at Iraq War veterans' funerals because the Iraq War is a punishment for homosexuality or Jeremiah Wright's invective that 9/11 is a punishment for America's hubris.

I think most of us would prefer moderate religious leaders, who are passionate in their beliefs but holding moderate beliefs, would be preferable: religious leaders cut from the mold of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose religious beliefs inspired him to take on social problems in a manner that was mostly affirming and positive. Of course, sometimes that leadership comes from a non-religious direction; but specifically in religion I believe there need to be leaders who step forward to show what a compassionate, moderate religion would look like, who could bring the flocks of people readily in.

But my post is not about this religious phenomenon: it's about the mirror effect of that phenomenon. This phenomenon is currently happening in atheism, a movement known as New Athiesm. New Athiesm makes Athiesm aggressive and evangelical in the way that neoconservativism makes conservatism aggressive and evangelical. When one asks for prominent athiests, one is led to think of people for whom athiesm is prominent: people who make athiesm into a strong part of their lives.

This is the position of a select few scientists in the current wave of thinking who believe that it is not enough to not believe in God; the mission of an athiest is to spread his teachings (or lack thereof) to as many religious folk as possible. And I feel myself in a privileged position to criticize this New Athiest movement (led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris): I myself am an Athiest, and I have always been an Athiest and will, likely, always be an Athiest. But this New Athiesm is not serving the greater culture--a culture which has both athiests and religious folk, and agnosts and spiritualists.

To take an example of this effect, I decided to take the most concise work on the subject that I felt still represented a whole argument: the introduction to The Portable Athiest which was written by Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps this is disingenuous, and I should have devoted the time to read God is Not Great or The God Delusion or Letters To A Christian Nation before taking this up, but I have seen all three of the authors speak many times and I have a very strong belief that their conversation is a destructive conversation, rather than being progressive it merely embitters and divides.

It seems to me that there is what the poet Shelley once called the necessity of athiesm. One cannot avoid taking a position. Either one attributes it to a divine design. (You can tell a lot about friend or foe, depending on how he or she answers this inescapable question, and on how he or she faces its implications.)

Arguments for athiesm can be divided into two main categories: those that dispute the existence of god and those that demonstrate the ill effects of religion.
Or my favorite:

On the part of civilized people,...the main enemy we face is "faith-based"

The underpinning of both of those passages can be simply states as thus: "you are either with us or against us." This is an extremely divisive sentiment to be held; it pushes aside all of those who disagree with you and closes the door on any sort of a compromise. This isn't to say that there is some sort of a middle ground between believing in a spirit other than existence and not believing in it. People shouldn't compromise their beliefs. But at the same time, in terms of how our culture operates, it needs to have space for both sides to air their views and coexist; in that way, the bad parts of religion can be reformed out and the good parts can be preserved.

Of course, this would overshoot Hitchen's belief about religion: that it is wholly a negative force and has no potential for good.

My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or performed by a believer that could not have been performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)
This disingenuous challenge is moot: you cannot prove or disprove anyone's motives. It is possible to be kind because of religion; it is possible to be kind in spite of religion; it is possible to be kind irrespective of religion. And the same moves in the opposite direction. For instance, if I were to say that Mother Theresa did her good deeds because of her religion, he would probably counter with an example of an atheist who did the same thing because of religion, and say that therefore people don't need religion because they can do good things anyways. And then, on the other hand, if he were to say that the Inquisition could have only happened in an environment of religion, I might counter with Stalin's gulags.

This whole argument is moot, because we cannot tell the difference between coincidence and causality. Most of the major non-violence movements have been religious; holy wars are always religious. Most of the major abolitionist movement have been religious; most people who drink are religious. Hitchens sees violence as endemic to mankind. But he also admits that religion is endemic to mankind. So is it a chain (mankind is religious, religion is violent) or is it a parallel statement (mankind is religious, mankind is violent)?

The argument is also moot because, from the tone of Hitchens' work, we can presume that he is going to shoehorn any of his observations into his beliefs about religion. His work is dripping with contempt for religion and the religious:

What nonsense this is.
If religion is innate in us, then so is our doubt of it and our contempt for our own weakness.
The bare and narrow and constipated and fearful world of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Osama bin Laden
Children (who suffer worse at the hands of the faithful than any other group)
Logic-chopping polemicist
Considering the polemic involved in this text, and the ways in which his correspondence/causality flaw as well as other logical blunders pervade the text, it is ironic that he levy that charge in particular. But at any rate, the question of the book is not, "How can we make religion better?" or "How can we minimize the negative effects of religion," it is, "How can we force people to get over their ridiculous superstition?"

This is not the way that adults talk about grown-up issues, I hope. If I invite Christopher Hitchens over to dinner I won't call him a logic-chopping polemicist, even if I think he chops logic and employs polemic. Frankly, I doubt Christopher Hitchens would like to come over to dinner with me, because I refuse to join his war against religion. I know plenty of people who take positive ammunition from their faith and make the world a better place in spite of or parallel to or because of their faith.

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