The Great Awakening and anti-Intellectualism in America

The Great Awakening

I have, for some time, had an interest in the historical period around the Revolutionary war.  I am, by no means, a historian but I enjoy reading about the 18th century in America, especially as it pertains to the development of our Republic here in the United States.  It’s certainly not a common topic for discussion on this blog, but today is an exception.

Today I grabbed one of the books I had bought some time ago (probably from a used book store, which is my personal kryptonite) about this time period to do some reading.  I ended up pulling out a book called The Role of Ideology in the American Revolution edited by John R. Howe Jr. (I wonder if there is any relation to the General Howe of the Revolutionary war).  It is a collection of essays, and I began with the first essay entitled The Revolutionary Era as an Age of Politics by Edmund S. Morgan.

The thrust of this essay is about the shift from religious to political influence in colonial thinking during the 17th and 18th centuries.  And in talking about the Great Awakening, started in part by the English minister George Whitefield, Morgan says the following:

Men and women who had worshipped for years without result under the guidance of an erudite but undramatic minister, found grace after a few hours at the feet of some wandering apostle.  The itinerant was often a layman who had never been to college and knew no Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, but had a way with an audience.  If God selected him to do so much without learning, was learning perhaps more a hindrance than a help to true religion? The thought occurred to many converts and was encouraged by the increasingly confident, not to say arrogant, posture of the itinerants.  Whitefield had warned broadly against ministers who preached an unknown and unfelt Christ.  His followers did not hesitate to name individual ministers as dead of heart, blind teachers of the blind.

The time-period here is the middle of the 18th century, the 1740’s to be more precise.  But what we are seeing here is precisely what many preachers, specifically televangelists, have become today; largely ignorant, charismatic people with an ability to keep an audience.

What we see here is the beginning of a part of the anti-intellectual protestant Christian American mindset.  Granted, it has become more complicated over the last 250+ years, but the basics are all here.  Most Americans are ignorant not only of theology, but of their own scripture’s history and the history of their religion.  They are simply acculturated, entertained, and emoted towards their faith, and then subsequently sustained by the occasional inspirational feeling that they associate with the charismatic mythology that they have been fed with a flailing spoon by people who don’t know very much more than their congregations.  Yes, they often know much of the scripture itself, but not the context of its composition nor how it relates to higher learning in the sciences, history, and philosophy.

Morgan continues in talking about what happened to the “erudite but undramatic ministers” after they were deserted for the more charismatic and entertaining itinerants:

At first the deserted clergymen merely looked upon the Awakening with skepticism.  But as its exponents (known at the time as the New Lights) became more and more extravagant, skepticism spread and grew to hostility.  Ministers who had spent their lives in the study of theology and who had perhaps been touched by the Enlightenment, were appalled at the ignorance of New Light preachers and dismissed their convictions and conversations as hysteria….

This reminds me somewhat of Karen Armstrong’s point in The Battle for God that fundamentalism (which this movement seems to be a necessary precursor to) is a reaction to modernity.  These “New Lights” (perhaps comparable in some sociological sense to “new atheists”?  Or perhaps not 😉 ) were in part a reaction to the recent Enlightenment, being a primarily emotional and anti-reason approach to religion.  The educated and Enlightenment-influenced clergy were understandably affected by this movement, since it took away not only from their sophistication and effort, but also from their wallets.

With historical hindsight, we can reflect that this is sort of pre-cursor to what is happening now.  These educated 18th century theologians were dissociating themselves from the uneducated and charismatic itinerants only to find that their congregations were abandoning them for those for said itinerants.  And, like many liberal theologians today, these sophisticated clergy were not quite yet aware that they were being deserted by reason and science as well.  Today’s clergy don’t have the excuse, like their 18th century analogs, of having less conflicting scientific discovery to deal with (no Darwin yet, for example) but they were often aware that what people such as Newton had discovered were at least raising their theological dander a little.  And while Newton himself was a pious man (to some degree), the discovery of natural laws was the beginning of the conflict between faith and reason, science and religion, naturalism and supernaturalism.

When we put this into our contemporary context, the appearance of Rob Bell and other accommodating religious thinkers is not a surprise.  Reason and much of the religious instinct, especially that led by our emotion, are in conflict.  To soften the blow of the success of scientific naturalism’s effect on religion and its many revelations, the liberalization of theology is a reaction to the fundamentalism which is, itself, a reaction to the Enlightenment.

It is a resignation on the part of some of today’s religious leaders that the Enlightenment and it subsequent naturalistic worldview (and to gnu atheism, ultimately) are forces that cannot be beaten, ignored, or entertained away; they must be dealt with, even if some insist upon maintaining their belief despite the immanent conflict between the faith that sustains such a belief and the reason that tells them they must resign–even if not all the way.

The Signing of the Constitution (note lack of Christian symbolism)

Fundamentalism is anti-intellectual, especially when it tries not to be.  Many are starting to realize, as we gnus are especially aware, that even the anti-intellectual cannot hide from the quality of reason’s success in changing our world.  And so religion and its allies resign and accommodate to this realization by shifting, a little at a time, until their religion is not much more than the a watered-down new age paganism, some Sunday social gathering of hymn-singers and socializers, or to some vague deism recognizable to many of our Constitutional fathers.  And if deism is all that can survive this neo-Enlightenment which is the science-driven worldview of the skeptic, the atheist, and the gnu, then that’s the right step in the right direction of history.

It makes me wonder if I should be less cynical and misanthropic.  I’m still skeptical about hat though.

Finally, I wonder (as I have before) if when American religious thinkers claim that this is  Christian nation, they are referring to this attitude that exists from before the Constitution.  Well, yes we are largely a Christian culture, but the simple fact is that the Constitution was composed, signed, and ratified after a period of time when the Colonial culture that spawned the Great Awakening and its anti-intellectual attitude gave way to a somewhat elitist deist crowd of people in Philadelphia in the 1780 and 1790s.  Yes, our culture is largely influenced by this anti-intellectual worldview from the Great Awakening (And, later, the Second Great Awakening), but our Constitutional Government arose despite this, not because of it.

Our attempt, here in the United States of America, at creating a more perfect union occurred despite our anti-intellectual Christian culture, not because of it.  The Great Awakening was not what created America, after all.  What created America was a desire for a secular government conceived of by men who, mostly, saw the effects of the Great Awakening as I see it; anti-intellectual riff-raff in a time of need for reason and education.

Let’s get on that.

Your partners’ needs

I have been thinking in the last couple of weeks about needs.  We all have needs, desires, and an urge to fulfill them.  Part of the reason we get into relationships with people, whether they are friends, professional partners, or lovers (or some combination thereof), is to satisfy the needs we have.  There are things that we want, and we try to fulfill them with the help of other people when they can help do so, or by ourselves when we can.

And if our partners are not fulfilling our needs, we may have to talk with them about that in order to solve this problem.  Or, maybe, we will need to find another person to help fulfill those needs.  Either there is some level of neglect or incompatibility going on when such a  need or desire is left unfulfilled, and we will not be as content as we could be if we were to fulfill those needs.


Not putting all of your eggs in one basket

One of the mistakes of the normal, monogamous, pair-bonded world is that it often relies on the notion that we are looking for a person to fulfill all or at least the majority of our needs.  Sure, a relatively healthy monogamous couple will have their needs for companionship fulfilled with drinks with their friends, visiting family, or a hobby which they do not share with their romantic partner, but certainly all of their sexual and romantic needs are to be fulfilled by that romantic partner, right?

Well, perhaps, but this expectation seems to be unreasonable in the vast majority of cases to have.  Sometimes the partner we find ourselves with is just incapable of fulfilling some need you have.  Whether that need pertains to a kink you are into which they are not interested in, a role-playing role they don’t want to fulfill, or they are simply the wrong gender (this, I imagine, occurs often for bisexual people).

Further, not only are our needs complicated and diverse, but they will often change as we age.  And they will not necessarily change along the same vectors as our partners’ needs, even if their ability to fulfill our needs complemented us well in the beginning.  We have to keep an eye out for what our partners want now, while keeping in mind that what they want may change over time.

But what is key here is that this incompatibility does not have to be a death-knell of a happy, rewarding, and fulfilling relationship; perhaps that partner fulfills most of your needs, just missing a few small ones.  Perhaps they fulfill a few very important ones.  But even so you may be happier with the ability to seek out fulfillment with other people.  This is one of the great strengths of non-monogamy; the ability to seek out variety without giving up on meaningful relationships nor what those relationships do give you.


Over-turning the coin

Now, of course it is important to remember that all these observations, while true for your needs and desires, are also true for the needs of your partners.  You may not be able to satisfy the desires of your partners either, even if you genuinely want to.  That is, perhaps, the hardest part of this on an emotional level; you want to fulfill your partners’ needs because you love them and want the to be happy.  But the simple fact is that your willingness to tie them up is insufficient because you are not getting off on it to, and that’s a part of their need.  Again, you may not be able to be all the things that your partner wants, regardless of your desire to please.  No matter how hard you try, for example, you may not be able to be a sexy woman who your partner wants, even if you can be a sexy man that they may want at other times.

Sometimes you simply need to allow your partner to fulfill their needs elsewhere, which is often hard because you cannot be a direct part of it (and sometimes you can).  And it is hard to do this sometimes, especially if you are prone to insecurities, fears, or anxieties about abandonment, some of which I have struggled with myself.

You should remember that in the same way that you may be able to fulfill a need with one person without thinking or feeling any less about another partner, your partners may be able to do the same and still love you and miss you when they are away.  The fact that you cannot fulfill a specific need (or set of needs) for you partner does not imply that you do not fulfill needs for them as well (or perhaps more so).  They are choosing to be with you for some reason, so do your best to fulfill that need and they will love you for it.


Selfishness in polyamory? Say it ain’t so!

Yes, it happens.  I have seen circumstances in which a relationship is not negotiated or practiced with full fair and equal compromises or rules.   It can occur in a number of ways, but perhaps more often it is where a partner has more than one relationship, but makes it difficult, if not forbidden, for their partner to have another relationship.  In many cases it takes the form of saying that they want to give permission to allow their partner to have other relationships, but only giving it in extreme, unwanted, or nonexistent cases.

Permission is not valid if it is not given in a way that fulfills a partner’s needs or desires.

In one circumstance I experienced a few years ago while in a triad (3 people all dating each other), one of my girlfriends went back to her ex (of 8 years) who had a rule that she not sleep with other men, but allowed her to be with women.  Thus we had to part ways romantically, which upset me greatly at the time.  Now, she agreed to this rule, but it bothers me that she had to agree to it (for selfish reasons of my own, but also for reasons of fairness).  Circumstances like this seem blatantly selfish to me, especially since he did continue to sleep with other women still (probably the ones she would bring home, which makes me wonder if that was the reason he allowed her to remain with women).

Personal experience aside (and I could cite more examples), this is an issue that irks me, and it is certainly one that has analogs in the monogamous world as well.  Fundamentally, this is an issue of demanding a double-standard; you allow yourself to fulfill needs but restrict others from fulfilling theirs.  It is a compromise of others’ needs but not of yours.

If you love someone, part of that is wanting to see them happy.  We all have a moral and philosophical obligation to take a hard look at how we are treating the people we care about and determine if there is not improvement we could make.  By submitting to our fears, insecurities, and anxieties we may find that we are holding people close to us in a desire for them to fulfill our emotional and/or physical needs while we are pulling them away from their needs, and we may be doing this without really being aware of it.  And because they love us and care for our needs, they tolerate this behavior for our sake.

But they will not do so for too long, nor should they.  Allow them to fulfill their needs and in the long-term, if they care for you genuinely, they will return that favor and your relationship will be strengthened.  Trust is difficult to give in situations like this, but to not trust is not a sign of healthy relationships.

I’ll leave you with a little Sting, who makes a fair point.

Set your loved ones free and if they stay, then you don’t have to hold them too close or lock the door.  They will be there for you when you need them, and you will be there when they need you.


Missing the dendrology for the Trees: PZ Myers and evidence for gods

I have been following the recent discussion occurring between such epic bloggers as PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Ophelia Benson about the issue of whether there could be any convincing evidence for there being a God.  It started last Fall with a post by PZ and went from there, and I have not weighed in because I thought many of the points were covered by others and nobody really reads this blog anyway (not even my mom reads my blog…).

Now, I generally agree with PZ, especially his views about how we should deal with religious people and their beliefs.  His views on accommodationism are pretty on-target, from my point of view, and it has helped clarify my own views in some cases.

But I think that PZ Myers is missing something in this conversation about possible evidence for gods, something which overlooks the larger question and replaces it with a smaller one.  I feel like PZ is trying to apply a general observation from a set of particulars, and is thus missing the dendrology for the trees.  The issues I have can be traced to comments such as this from PZ today:

Religion has had a couple of millennia to make a case for its fundamental concepts: the existence of the supernatural, the existence of deities, the effectiveness of priestly intermediaries, etc. It has failed. It does not provide support in the form of evidence or logical consistency; it also fails to show any pragmatic utility. Religion never does what it claims to do. At what point do we learn from experience and simply reject the whole worthless mess out of hand?

Now, I am not in disagreement with this statement.  Religion has failed to make its case over the millennia, and while it will most-likely not go away anytime soon, people would be better off rejecting the whole enterprise.

But my issue is not with religion per se.  My issue is with faith, theology, and the spiritual feelings (what Nietzsche calls the ‘metaphysical need’) that people have and which was probably the original cause, current maintainer, and future transformer of religion.  Yes, religion has failed to make it’s case, but belief in god precedes and is not necessarily contained within religion.  The question of the existence of god(s) is a general philosophical question that religions contribute to, rather than own.

So while religion may have failed, this does not necessarily discount god (although it is certainly not working in the favor of each).  The question of divinity is a more fundamental problem than the many trees of religion.  Religion discusses specific conception of gods.  Religion may play at trying to show a generic god, and especially among ecumenical and liberal theological schools it certainly does attempt to do so, but these games are constrained by the traditional definitions of gods that act as a restraining force against the larger philosophical question which is usually eschewed due to these traditional limitations.

So while I will agree that (to continue quoting PZ)

Religion plays Calvinball. There are no rules except what they make up as they go.

I do not think that the philosophical question of the existence of god always does this, even if it does very often.  I think that the question of god, being ultimately a question that must (if it is to be taken seriously) utilize rational means (including the scientific method and logic), the issue cannot be said to be a failure simply because religions have not made their case.  The case must be made rationally, and this is an endeavor that transcends religious ‘calvinball.’

So, could there be evidence for any gods?

Could there be evidence for a god? I doubt it.  My certainty of this doubt is pretty damned high.  I’d be a 6.9 on Dawkins’ scale as well.  But the issue is a philosophical and scientific one, and cannot be proven with absolute certainty.  It is logically possible that a god exists that does not want us to know about it or the evidence for which is still beyond our capability to comprehend.  This would not be the god of Abraham, of Hindu mythology, or of the ancient Olmecs, but a ‘god’ is not logically impossible in general.  This god may decide to reveal itself at some point, and perhaps its attributes would not be the traditional omnimax god (omniscient, omnipotent, etc), but THAT IS PRECISELY THE POINT!

The God that PZ Myers sees as impossible to find evidence for is the traditional western concept of a god, not any possible being that would deserve the name (an issue that becomes important in this discussion, but which will nonetheless be left for another time).   If the traditional western concept of god were all that this discussion were about, then I would agree with PZ Myers (as Vic Stenger did with his God: The Failed Hypothesis) and I think Jerry Coyne might as well.

The issue is that there are a plethora of other potential gods that might exist, be logically non-problematic, fit the naturalist worldview, etc whom decided to hide itself for whatever reason.  I don’t believe in such a being because I’m a skeptic and the evidence does not exist for such a being and I reserve belief for such presented evidence.  But if such a being existed the evidence could exist at some point (perhaps), and we would have to reserve our belief until such potential evidence presented itself.  I’m not holding my breath, and neither should anyone else, in my opinion.  The evidence as it exists now leads me to say that everyone should be an atheist now unless they 1) have said evidence already or 2) are delusional.

And those who claim to be have #1 have not convinced me because their attempts at evidence has, as PZ points out, failed for millennia.

PZ continues:

In science, we’re used to incremental progress and revision of our ideas. Evidence is our currency, it’s how we progress and it’s what gets results. It is a category error, however, to think that the way to address free-floating word salad and flaming nonsense is to take the scalpel of reason and empiricism and slice into it, looking for definable edges. No, what you do is look over the snot-ball of self-referential piffle, note that it has no tenable connection to reality, and drop-kick it into the rec room, where the kids can play with it, but no one should ever take it seriously.

Again, I agree.  But this is NOT addressing the real issue.  PZ is still addressing the existing traditional theological parameters for a god and declaring that they have failed, and I agree.  Further, evidence for a generic god has failed as well, but this is not the same as saying that evidence cannot exist to convince me, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, etc ever.  But the fact that we should not take it seriously is due to the accidental circumstances of lack of evidence that is not the logically necessary state of affairs for all times.  We simply do not know what will come in the future, no matter how certain we are.  That claim that no evidence is possible to convince someone like PZ Myers is not, as Jerry Coyne observed, the proper application of the scientific method.  God is a scientific (or at least a rational) proposition, and science deals in probabilities.

Perhaps an analogy would suffice.  Let’s pretend that, for whatever reason, we lived in a world where fossils simply did not survive.  For whatever reason, the evidence of ancient and prehistoric animals simply did not exist, or at least extraordinarily more rarely than they currently do. What if someone were to propose that at some point in the past large reptiles roamed the planet for millions of years?  In such a case, someone like PZ Myers would come along and say that the proposition simply failed to make its case, that no evidence exists, and the particular drawings of potential large reptiles were nonsensical.

Would it be logically justifiable to then declare that no evidence could surface to prove the proposition?  Would this analog to PZ Myers in this hypothetical world be justified in claiming that the proposed prehistoric reptiles, with their hypothetical body-structures and subsequent descriptions and drawings are failures and therefore ANY large prehistoric reptiles of these types did not exist?  Further, that no evidence could exist for them? The fact that evidence is not available does not mean 1) that the thing cannot exist or that 2) some evidence might surface in the future to support such propositions.

The argument that specific religious concepts of gods have failed, theologians have not presented sufficient evidence, and therefore any evidence for all possible concepts of gods could never be convincing is simply an egregious logical fallacy.

I’m an atheist because evidence for any concept of gods is lacking.  From this, I am willing to declare that belief in any gods is not justified.  This, as Jerry Coyne says, is a tentative conclusion, just as the theory of natural selection and gravity are tentative.  Do I think that evidence will surface which will convince me of a god existing? No.  Do I think it logically possible that it could happen? Yes.  But until it does, I’ll remain a committed atheist.  I’ll continue to consider new evidence as it come along.  But as PZ Myers has noted, all the evidence so far goes the other way.  Therefore atheists are justified to lack their belief, and theists are not justified in their belief.

But we wait for potential evidence, remaining skeptical and appropriately atheistic in the mean time.

Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians)

Edit: Me, being a horrible boyfriend, did not notice that my lovely lady-friend posted about respect yesterday.  She makes some good points as well.


One complaint from the religious and accommodationist alike is that we gnu atheists do not demonstrate respect for religion.  We say critical things about the doctrines of various beliefs, we are strident, and we are arrogant.  There are a number of points to be made in favor of a direct and critical approach (and many have made them in addition to my own comments), and one of them is to make a distinction between respect for an idea and respect for a person.  I want to take this idea and expand it a little; I would like to explore the distinction of respect for ideas, people, and rights.

Respect for Ideas
One issue I have with a number of people who are not comfortable with criticism of people’s beliefs is the issue of whether they actually respect another person’s beliefs.  Very often I will hear a person who does not share a religious belief with someone else say that they still respect their belief.   I am not sure this is true, at least in the sense I am using the word ‘respect’ here; I think what is being confused here is a respect for their right to believe what they want, not for the belief itself.  The issue for me, here, is whether it is possible, or even conceivable, to respect an idea that you don’t accept as true.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after having been tortured, crucified, and placed in a tomb.  I find this claim to be unbelievable.  The evidence that would be required to accept such an extraordinary claim are not present, the circular logic of the Bible being a trustworthy source is insufficient, and all I know about nature does not make such an event probable.  As a person who does not accept this belief as a possibility, is it meaningful to say that I can respect it?  Now, I must clarify; I am not saying that the belief should be mocked (necessarily), that a believer of such an idea should be disrespected, or anything like that.  I’m asking if the idea is itself respectable.   To put it more clearly, if the idea were encountered on its own, say if it were read on a piece of paper outside of the context of someone who may or may not believe in it, then could one think it respectable?

With this particular belief about Jesus, I would say that it is not respectable because it does not pass a rational test for probable occurrence.  But it is conceivable to have ideas that I don’t accept as true to be respectable in themselves.  Someone may have an idea that mint/chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, and I don’t agree (I hate the combination of mint and chocolate).  But this opinion is respectable because it is consistent with probable facts (it is conceivable and probable that people like this combination of flavors) and it is an opinion based upon a distinct set of physiological states of body that differ from mine; some people just prefer other flavors of ice cream.

More to the point it is respectable for someone to believe that Jesus was a real historical person.  I also happen to not be convinced of this proposed fact, but it is not an extraordinary claim; even if the New Testament is fiction almost completely, it is possible that the mythological literature that resulted was based on a real person who may or may not have been named Jesus (or Yeshua) but whose last name was certainly not ‘Christ’ (as this is the Greek word for the Hebrew word which we use today as Messiah, or ‘annointed one’).  A person who inspired the letters of Paul, the gospels, etc could have really existed; I think this is a respectable position to hold, even if I disagree with it.

But religious ideas are not like opinions of taste, nor are they only about opinions about the existence of historical persons.  Even if Jesus (or Yeshua) existed, the stories of miracles, divinity, etc are still up for grabs and in need of evidence and argumentation to be respectable.  We have different emotional needs, desires, etc about how we live our lives, but religious claims are not just about our emotional needs and desires for fulfillment; they are claims about reality, indeed often about the nature of that reality, and not just historical facts about it.  While for many people the different religious perspectives are akin to the various needs and desires that human beings have, and talking about those differences is like exploring the varieties of human experience with their ‘spiritual’ side or whatever, they are more than that.  Religious beliefs are more than mere metaphors for many people, and even when they are metaphors they are often still contradictory and not respectable.  That is one of the differences between the gnu atheists and most other people; we care about what is true, not what feels good or fulfills some need.  So when we say that we don’t respect an idea, we are saying that we don’t accept the idea as probable or even believable.  We are not commenting (at least not necessarily) on whether the idea should not be meaningful to you or give you some access to poetic beauty, we are saying that the idea does not seem possible to be true and in coherence with reality.

Respect for people

Whether or not we respect the ideas that people have, it is also possible to respect the actual person.  I may disagree with you, agree with you, or perhaps be unsure whether we agree due to some uncertainty of your or my belief, but that little to do with what I think about you.  Now, I have criteria for what I think makes a good person.  For me, it is a desire to be self-challenging, honest, and so forth.  These qualities are things I respect in a person.  I prefer a Christian who is willing to have a frank and open discussion about religion to an atheist who thinks the issue should not be discussed ever.  I prefer a staunch conservative who will listen and respond to issues politic than a liberal who toes the party line and refuses to listen to another opinion.  I prefer people who are wiling to go beyond themselves than to surround myself with an echo-chamber of agreement and demonization of the other.  I want not only to challenge, but to be challenged.  And I want to be around similar people.

A respect for another person, from another person’s point of view, will probably differ depending on what values that person has.  Another person may judge someone else based upon the empathy, kindness, and selflessness.  But what is important to recognize here is that this judgment occurs.  All to often I hear that we should not judge other people (having grown up in a very liberal Quaker environment, I heard this nearly every day).  But this is simply not possible.  Even a Christian who believes that judgment is for their god to make and not them, they are making a judgment.  No, it’s not a final or meaningful judgment in a cosmic sense, but all people evaluate the behavior, opinions, and accomplishments of other people and make judgments about them.  To say otherwise is a form of delusion and is not being honest with themselves; so obviously someone who values honesty will not respect that.

We all judge one-another and we all have varying criteria for making such judgments.  Whether we have respect for other people will depend on these values and will have little to do with the ideas those people have, although their is a relationship between a person’s behaviors, temperament and their opinions to some degree.  The bottom line is that a person’s opinion about religious or political matters will not necessarily tell you if you will respect them.

Respect for people’s rights

I may not agree with you or even like you, but I would be willing to fight for your right to say what you believe openly.  I think that freedom of expression is just about the most important right we as people can defend.

I have respect for people’s rights to belief what they want.  Well, belief is not really subject to the will, so I have respect for what people do believe and to speak openly about those beliefs.  But this respect has to be 2-way; Religious believers of all kinds have the right to their beliefs and to express them.  At the same time, those of us who disagree, think those ideas harmful, etc have the right to have our criticism heard on equal terms.  That is, no governmental power need help disseminate either view, support either view, or even address either view.  Religion should not get any support from the state, nor should the criticism of it receive any support or be silenced by any state.  The state should be simply neutral on such questions, and either support all or neither (the latter being the simplest and probably most wise choice).

You have a right to believe in Jesus, Harvey the 8-foot invisible bunny, or Xenu the galactic emperor.  You have every right to hold whatever ritual you want to (so long as it is not breaking secular law, infringing the rights of non-believers, etc), believe whatever doctrines you want, and to talk about, publish books and other literature about, and even produce audio and video media about your beliefs.  We don’t have to listen, of course, but you can do those things.  And we also have the right to respond to those ideas with ideas of our own (And no, nobody has to listen to us either).  I’m simply not sure how much religious believers would be willing to fight for my right, as an atheist (especially of the gnu variety) to speak my opinions.  I know there are some out there who would, and I respect them (as people) for that, but I also know many would not be willing to do so, and they have some help from the accommodationists.

The respect for the rights of believers is a road of many ways.  You have the right to your beliefs, and I have mine; even if my belief is that you should not have yours or that yours is stupid.  Nobody has to implement my opinion or agree with it, but I have a right to it.  My beliefs are that religion is here to stay for a long time, but I should be able to say what I want about religion.  You don’t like that? I don’t really care.

The Combination of respects

All three of these types of respect differ in ways that will be expressed differently in response to different people and their ideas.

I don’t respect Fred Phelps’ ideas, him as a person, but I do respect his right to hold them and promulgate them.  I am severely annoyed by his tactics, but he and his family/church have a right to them and to say them.  Perhaps we should just ignore them, but we don’t and they keep at it.  Fuck Fred Phelps, but he has the right to be a fucktard and I have the right to ignore him or call him a fucktard.

I respect some of the ideas (especially about the truth of religion, which they rarely address) of many accommodationists.  I tend not to respect them as people, although there will be exceptions, because their temperament is one of dishonesty, faux respect, and politics-playing.  I respect their right to their beliefs.

I respect many of the ideas of the gnu atheists out there, but certainly not all.  what I appreciate is that this disagreement is welcome among the gnus (I hope in all cases).  Thus, I tend to respect them as people as well, but there will be exceptions to this of course.  I respect their right to their beliefs and will continue to fight for the right to say those ideas.

I don’t respect blasphemy laws.  There is no right not to be offended, and to try and make it illegal to say certain things about religious beliefs is short-sighted and harmful to free expression.

I don’t respect liberal theological attempts at universal ecumenicalist worldviews; I find them absurd and short-sighted as well.  Religious traditions have real differences and contradicting goals, interpretations, and values.  To try and ignore these and find what is in common is good for sharing of ideas towards understanding, but ultimately the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of beliefs becomes absurd because it diminishes the importance of the scriptural and traditional sources and makes them mere human ideas (which they are) which undercuts the very tradition they are trying to respect.  The progressive idea that religion is merely a means of self-expression and window into our own spiritual journeys is a relatively new idea, and it cannot be reconciled with all religious views, thus the enterprise is self-defeating.  By trying to respect religion, they are actually disrespecting what the majority of religious believers actually believe.

This is an irony that seems to be missed by intellectual and academic theologians who want the various institutions of religion to be the beautiful thing which they themselves have created out of the various corpses of the religious traditions they had to kill to attain such a perspective.  This type of humanism would be better as a secular activity, which is part of what accommodationists are trying to do.  But in both cases they are ignoring the truth that the religious traditions they have slain to get their worldview still exists around them and is being dragged through history by legions of literalists, moderates, and others who still really believe, not merely as a metaphor, that their god(s) are true and that their will(s) are absolute.  Dangerous ideas!

There are a plethora of ideas about religion out there, and such ideas are part of the larger conversation about religion.  But they need to be directly addressed, and not merely thrown aside or minimized in an attempt to create some ecumenical pulp that is but a shade of the source from which they were extracted.  This only seeks to kill the religion and the truth at the same time.  Good luck with that, accommodationists and ecumenical theologians.

I’ll finish with a short story about an event that I witnessed recently among some friends and acquaintances.  Some liberal Christian people I know held a book-burning recently.  They took some conservative books from their conservative parents and burned them in disgust for the ideas contained within.  This, in my opinion, is the exact opposite way to deal with ideas.  Do not destroy them, hide them, or simply ignore them; face them, challenge them, and demonstrate the absurdity of them.  If you can’t do that, perhaps that says something interesting in-itself.  Perhaps one of the reasons many liberal Christians simply toss aside or physically destroy the carriers of ideas held by conservative Christians is that in some way they cannot directly confront them; they are too much like their own.  And the conservative/literalists will tend to have a significant percentage of scripture to back up their discrimination of the queer community, even if they can’t back up their conservative politics.  Their is a real battle between what a lot of scripture says about things and what a lot of liberal religious people value, and so it is difficult for liberals to directly confront their conservative parents, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The only real way to do this is to simply leave religion behind and not use any authoritative source for truth.  Freethought is still the best option for either liberal or conservative values, as it does not tie you to any doctrines or truths.  You only need to follow the evidence, not any book.

I think that one of the reasons that liberal theologically-minded people, accommodationist atheists, and other mainstream people are so annoyed by both gnu atheists and many literalistic religious people is that we are actually concerned with what is actually true.  Many other people are concerned with what their emotional needs and desires are; what makes them comfortable.  I think this is part of the reason that the issue of respect gets so thorny.  People’s ideas are so-often a reflection of their values, and we are not supposed to disrespect people’s values.  But the truth is that I don’t respect many people’s values, and neither do they respect mine.  As liberal and progressive people, many literally do not respect each-others values, even when one of their values is to respect other people’s values.  This fact goes a long way for me, and perhaps is a bane for many others.

So, let’s stop the pretenses of respect and start really talking about our beliefs.  Respect, for me, starts with honesty, not treating other adults with different ideas like emotionally insecure children.  My disagreeing with your belief is not disrespect, but people trying to shut critics up is disrespect because they are not allowing us the right to our beliefs.  Respect is really only relevant when it infringes on the ability to practice what we believe, and ironically it is the accommodationist and the ecumenical types that do this while pointing the finger of blame at their target.

Oh, the irony!

Monogamy is a sub-set of polyamory

There are certainly many people out there who are not practicing polyamory, right?  I mean, many people are not in relationships with more than one person.  People may date a few people while they look for “the one,” but ultimately, most people choose one person to be exclusive with.  Monogamy, is, therefore the norm.  Only aberrant people are polyamorous, right?

Well, not really.

First of all, allow me to clarify a few things.

Relationsips are not all about sex.

Yes, some relationships are all about sex, like the relationship one might have with a prostitute for an hour or so.  But outside of that and the occasional sexual tryst at the office or whatever, relationships have more dimensions than that.  Relationships are about common interests, goals, possibly emotional attachment, etc.  And yes, sex too.  But not always.

When we talk about ‘relationships,’ we tend to mean interactions with people we have romantic and/or sexual feelings for.  And unless the people involved are saving themselves sexually (and I don’t know why anyone chooses to do so, but I digress), sex is usually involved in such relationships.  But these types of relationships are one specific kind, and certainly not the rule.  Statistically speaking, in fact, they are the exception.  Most of our relationships are non-sexual, whether they are professional, educational, friendships, or based upon mutual animosity (everyone needs an arch-enemy, right?).

So, when we talk about relationships in general, we are simply meaning the set of interactions between people, some of which are based upon things like mutual sexual, emotional, and interest commonalities. Or, again, they might be based on mutual animosity.

Polyamory is not all about sex (but I repeat myself…)

I know people who are in deeply meaningful, intimate, and long-standing relationships who have never had sex.  You probably do as well.  But more specifically, I know people who are in polyamorous situations where one of their partners is not a sex partner.  That simply is not what those people need or want from each other, and they get that elsewhere.  But when I talk about polyamory with people, what seems to be discussed more often than not is how I can let my girlfriend (As if it’s up to me to allow her to do anything…) have other sex partners.  Further, how can my girlfriend allow me (as if she has to allow me to do anything) allow me to have other sexual partners.  In short, how can we be so slutty?

But this misses the point.  Polyamory is not just about sexual non-exclusivity.  It is about recognizing that we, as human beings with complicated and disparate needs, cannot have all of our needs met via one person.  I may like to play Starcraft (I do) and perhaps my girlfriend does not want to play (in this case she does, but that’s not the point).  She may like to be tied down and beaten a little, and I might not want to do that (whether or not either of these things is the case I’ll leave to your curiosity, because I’m that kind of sadist…and then of course I hint at the answer…maybe).  The point is that perhaps we have some needs that our partner cannot fulfill.  It seems perfectly natural that we would find another person to fulfill such needs.  People have relationships with many people that fill different roles in our lives, and we care about many of these people.

And we all do this (at least I hope that we do!).  But in the normal world out there we, for some reason that is not entirely clear to me, make a distinction between our ‘relationship’ and our friends/acquaintances/family.  Now, to some point this is because of the cultural language game that we play, and the term ‘relationship’ has this specific meaning and most people use it that way.  But I think that this language game begins to lose coherence as we start to analyze actual structure of people’s lives and what we do with our relationships of all kinds.  The more that ideas like swinging, polyamory, and other challenges to the assumed sexual exclusive (“monogamous”) relationship become part of the cultural conversation, the more this dichotomy between our “relationships” and our friends dissolves.  It certainly has dissolved for me.

So, polyamory is about developing intimate relationships with people whom we care about, and this recognition that we have complex and disparate needs often leads to sexual non-exclusivity.  And some people will find that they are able to be fulfilled sexually with one person (at least at a time), while maintaining other non-sexual relationships with other people.  And since polyamory is not just about sex, this arrangement can be called polyamory just as well as a triad, a quad, or some other sexual relationship configuration.  But this specific polyamorous arrangement of people is precisely the same, in arrangement, as what we call ‘monogamy.’  Therefore, monogamy is a sub-set of polyamory.

Polyamory as the standard?

Now, I am being a little cheeky here, but I think a serious observation exists inside this cheek.  I think that if we were to look at our lives more closely, we will find that what is called polyamory  (its lessons about communication, honesty, and whatever else it has to teach us) should be the basis about how we think about relationships.  Yes, some of use will end up in complicated multiple-person arrangements of sexual activity while others will have many acquaintances, a few friends, and one lover, but if that is where your needs and desires lead you then no polyamorous evangelical (if such a person exists, I might be considered to be such a person) would ever be at issue with you.   That is, the goal should be to be happy with what it is you really want in a healthy, open, and honest way, not to be a slut (necessarily).

Polyamory, as it is used in most conversations, is about sexual non-exclusivity, but it is not so necessarily and therefore not in all cases.  In the end, what I have learned about relationships, people, and myself while being polyamorous all people should learn.  It would help make relationships of all kinds healthier, and if those lessons strengthen your relationship, then it does not matter if you have 1 sex partner or 100, because in some sense we are all polyamorous; we all love more than one person, and sex is not the same as love.

Perhaps at some time in the future, the term “polyamorous” will be as useless as the term “atheist” will be.  Perhaps in the future people will simply follow there needs and desires towards whatever relationships work for them in the same way that people in the future will not believe in gods because there is simply not sufficient reason to do so and because they have taken the time to think through the reasons to attain these perspectives.

I know…pie-in-the-sky…

Accommodationism: the facts don’t matter

I have been thinking a little the last couple of days how frustrating the whole gnu atheist/accommodationist conversation has been on the blogosphere in recent months.  As I have argued previously, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the tolerance-monkeys we call ‘accommodationists.’  I think they are more concerned with tone and appearance in a way that makes them dishonest and ironically disrespectful.  But why do they annoy me so?

Today I was thinking about it and it became crystal clear that it is the exact annoyance I experience while talking with a creationist.  I begin to see, as I argue with them, that the facts simply do not matter.  In each discussion, facts are ignored and sophomoric philosophical dribble are uttered in place of an actual conversation about what is true.  Content is almost completely ignored while tone, respect, and other misused terms are bandied about with like antidotes, but which end up being more homeopathic than anything.

Ha! Accommodationist arguments are homeopathic! They are nothing but water, but the vanishingly small amount of actual argument is presented as a strength.  I like that.  Feel free to borrow it at your leisure.

And what’s worse, is that not only do they not respond to the actual content, they fancy their own arguments as powerful.  Just like a creationist; an argument that displays more ignorance and made-up silliness while they often throw the same accusation towards their targets (that would be gnus like me).

Why don’t they address the content; facts? Because they can’t.