So, I seriously get annoyed with some aspects of liberal culture, especially where it intersects with religion. I’ve written about this before, many times, so I don’t need to sat too much (and yet, I will…). But it is a thing which grinds my gears fairly frequently, including today when I found this good criticism of Francis Spufford’s article at Salon.com by professor Ceiling Cat himself. Go read Jerry Coyne’s post. As usual, he makes good points.
While reading the post, however, I was thinking about this argument, which I have heard before, about how religion is a spiritual or emotional experience. Some atheists, while being smug and disrespectful (as we are wont to do) will compare religion to a drug, and there is some justification for this crude comparison.
But more generally, emotions act in addictive manners in more arenas than religion. It is certainly something I am familiar with. The the poly world, there are sometimes discussions of NRE being addictive, which leads some people to pursue new relationships almost unceasingly. This sometimes leads to situations where one starts to neglect those with whom they share intimacy, simply due to spending time pursuing more and more novelty.
As a Borderline, I am familiar with the desires to pursue the thrills of both intense joys and of (the illusion of) control. The highs are great, but the pretend goal of maintenance of those heights, and avoidance of the lows, is delusional. In my worst memories, I have images of having gotten the emotional reaction my anger–a result of fear in the absurd pursuit of being loved–was after, which is accompanied by the fleeting, deceptive, addictive pleasure of it all. Fleeting because a few seconds later it is clear that not only will the reaction not lead to them loving me, but that they will probably never want to be close to me again.
And yet the mind craves it, all too often. All too often because ever is too often.
And so here we are, back to religion, with Mr. Spufford arguing that we new new atheists are wrong because we do not get that religion is about the emotional experience and not primarily about truth. The turn-around, here, seems to be that it is Mr. Spufford who does not understand. I, a life-time student of religious history, theology, and its relationship to culture know all too well how emotion can lead us to belief.
It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.
which is, of course, reminiscent of the old Catholic idea of belief prior to understanding (which, if memory serves, was Thomas Aquinas’ dictum. Correct me if I’m wrong).
This idea is not inspirational. I am not led to see religion as more understandable because of feelings people have. Good feelings do not imply a good worldview, moral sense, and especially not good ideas. I am not less critical of you and your religion because you have pleasant feelings, which religion provides you with.
And then I think how often, we as humans (even within the atheist community) rationalize terrible ideas, policies, or moral worldviews based upon feelings. How much is misogyny the result of genuine feelings? How much is homophobia based upon feelings? Etc.
And the feelings don’t have to be bad ones. Perhaps some misogynistic MRA out there is motivated by a genuine desire to right the wrongs where the system is actually slanted away from men? Well, that instinct is generally good, but without a larger perspective to compare those instincts and feelings to, those feelings (if they are, in fact, good) are insufficient. Because while motivated to right a structural wrong, many MRA’s miss the larger point that the vast majority of structural injustices in our world are stacked in the favor of men. Our friendly MRA, and his good feelings which lead him to beliefs contra-feminism, are not sufficient.
Similarly with religion. Spufford and his family go to church, have good feelings, and so they believe the things believed by the people who are there when they have the feelings. How absurd is that? We, new atheists, know that you have good feelings while singing about Jesus. We are glad you are capable of good feelings, we want you to have good feelings, we just want you to get your head out of your ass and realize that the time and place of where those good feelings happen may have nothing to do with the feelings per se.
Or, if they did, then perhaps those feelings are not worth wanting anymore. Perhaps good feelings are not sufficient reason to keep doing something, you selfish asshole.
At some point, this conversation about truth/experience, science/art, etc comes down to moral principles; things like authenticity and integrity (which I am teased about, by more than a few people, for sharing with hipsters apparently. I was doing it before there were hipsters, so there…:P). These moral principles are structures by which we decide how to go about daily living. Do we care about other people, our environment (immediate and/or global), and what is true or don’t we? Are our good feelings we have at church (or whatever selfish pleasure we are pursuing) more important than the larger picture of our lives and those close to us?
In short, are your jollies more important than all the things that you could do besides them?
Are your emotions more important than the effect they have on the world around you? Are they more important than mine, your neighbors, etc?
Spufford, and others who make this argument, seem to essentially be saying that the good feelings that religion give them are more important than the larger question of whether religion is harmful to society as a whole–let alone whether they are true. They seem inclined towards associating their religion with emotional and spiritual self-improvement, rather than a larger cultural phenomenon with consequences upon history, power structures, etc. Because their religion only makes people feel good, unlike the fundamentalists who just hate everyone. Excuses.
Feeling good is great. But there is a reason I don’t want to try heroin. I have a feeling I will like it, if I tried it. That isn’t the question. If I try it, my intelligent mind will find ways to rationalize using it more, despite the detrimental effects it will have, upon extended use, on my life and the world around me. Spufford’s article is a rationalization of his addiction. It is a human behavior so common, so ubiquitous, that we forget that we need to step back and apply skepticism, rationality, and logic to the world to make sure we are not getting caught up in our addictions.
Emotions are not inherently bad. Emotions are an integral part of the tool-kit of decision-making and enjoying life. But when we see people so blinded by their preferences, biases, etc that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture, we need to be able to say that it is time to stop being led around by our religious dicks.