I was briefly puzzled when I heard about atheist blogger Leah Libresco’s conversion to Catholicism. But I was immediately un-puzzled when I read Dan Fincke’s post on it, which reminded me that “the very premise of Libresco’s blog was that she was romantically involved with a Catholic.” Oh yeah. Duh.
I was struck by many things in the “Godless Perverts” panel video Shaun posted yesterday, but one thing in particular that I’ve been meaning to write more about was the idea of the narrative of redemption through suffering (Maggie Mayhem segues into Charlie Glickman discussing it, starting at around 30:25 of Pt. II). I’m going to try to tread very carefully here as I discuss the ways in which I think this concept is relevant to nonmonogamy, so please accept the caveat that I’m trying to make somewhat broad conceptual associations in order to see if they’re fruitful.
When we “come out” as atheists, many of us face the usual types of reactions. Some people accept our decision right away (or don’t really care–i.e. it’s not really their business how we live our lives); some say they knew all along and are genuinely happy for us; some completely reject atheism and, thus, reject us along with the proverbial bathwater. If I think about people as roughly falling into three camps–true believers/theists, nonbelievers, and “weak” believers (i.e. those who may identify as religious but whose religiosity operates more as a cultural identity, or quasi-ethnicity, than as a dominant life philosophy)–all of these reactions make some sense to me. The true believers are likely to want nothing to do with an atheist (except the ones who might think they can “save” us, but that’s another blog post altogether), and may even feel threatened by an atheists’ presence in their lives (because, as everyone knows, we recruit). The nonbelievers will either embrace our newly-announced identity or be indifferent, neither of which harms us much, though the former can certainly help.
The middle group, though, are the ones who tend to respond angrily. Some people seem to get very angry when I share my atheism (or skepticism of almost any kind, honestly) with them, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why.
(Big assumption alert)
I think the “weak” believers get angry when we decide to live our atheist lives openly and unapologetically because, at least on some level, they’ve bought into the narrative that pious people deserve to be rewarded and wicked people must be punished. Even though they may not go to church every week, or observe all of the holidays, rituals, etc. required by the most devout members of their religious identity group, they still want to believe that their lukewarm belief–and, often, adherence to at least some elements of their religion’s moral/ethical rules–will gain them a reward. In other words, they’ve given up some things in order to convince themselves that they’re a good “insert religious identity here,” and if atheists are living happy, free, unapologetic lives and not being punished for it, the “weak” believers’ entire ideological framework is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards.
The historically religious narrative of asceticism and punishment leading to reward/redemption is so powerful that, I’m arguing, it has become a powerful secular narrative, even in the minds of those who do not strongly identify as religious. Hence, they often can’t articulate why they’re mad at us. Usually they say things like, “why can’t you just keep that to yourself?” or “did you have to shove that down my throat?” when we’ve done no such thing. They feel threatened because our unpunished existence directly contradicts the narrative not only that they want to believe but that has motivated actual life choices they’ve made, and these choices often involve sacrifices that they would not have made were it not for their belief in the reward/redemption at the end of the narrative.
When we come out, and especially when we openly and honestly live our lives, as polyamorous, we tend to get the same spectrum of response. Some people simply can’t accept our choice, or they may feel threatened that we’ll try to “steal” their partners, etc. This is always sad, but I think we can all deal with it. Some people (often the similarly nonmonogamous) embrace our choice and/or take a “it’s not really my business, but I’ll show tepid support” attitude, or (occasionally) express mild disapproval but tolerance. Again, the latter responses are not my favorites, but I don’t worry too much about them. They might be described as falling into the YKINMK camp, and that’s understandable. The angry responses, however, can be tough to grok. Why do other people get so exorcised over our chosen lovestyle?
My answer is that mononormativity operates as a secular form of the historically religious narrative of suffering leading to reward/redemption. Here I’m defining “suffering” extremely broadly. In the case of monogamy, what I mean is that monogamous people deny often themselves the pleasure of multiple intimate relationships (these need not be sexual–remember that many monogamous people believe that even having close friendships with people other than one’s spouse is a form of cheating). This sacrifice has a cost, but it also has a reward. Monogamists feel a kind of secular piety, a sense that they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they tend to think that the sacrifice is the very thing that gives the monogamous dyad its special status.
I’ve seen this sentiment over and over again in online forums and in conversations with “devoutly” monogamous people. People have told me that I just don’t understand what “true” love is because I’m not giving 100% of myself to each of my relationships (because, you know, it’s mathematically impossible and all that). People seem to feel the strong need to prop up their own lifestyle choices and to devalue mine, even though my being polyamorous doesn’t in any way directly affect their monogamous relationships. So why should they be angry? I think they get angry because they believe that my successful, happy, unapologetic polyamory does threaten their relationships. If they’ve sacrificed to be monogamous, they must be rewarded and, conversely, those who deviate from mononormativity must be punished. Our lack of suffering does not compute.
I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s unique to polyamory. Quite the contrary. Normativity in all of its forms elicits this desire for secular piety on behalf of its adherents. Deviation from the norm is systematically demonized, most notably in popular culture (which is overwhelmingly heteronormative, sex-negative, pro-theist, etc.). If gay/polyamorous/freethinking people live their lives openly and happily, how can “normal” people maintain the fiction that their ways of living are worthy of praise and reward (especially in the absence of something as dramatic as an actual intervention of a deity, the full wrath of a state apparatus, etc.)?
I’m also not saying that people who obey normative rules are bad people. In fact, I think their obedience is largely due to their desire to be good people. And I also believe that they are aware of the sacrifices they make for normativity. Thus, they experience a real sense of loss when non-normative beliefs/practices are shown to be completely benign (or, gasp, rewarding). Studies of loss aversion have shown fairly consistently that humans tend to react much more negatively to losses than they react positively to gains. This is not only true in economic situations but in social ones as well.
Some people surely feel that monogamy involves no sacrifice at all. Given the statistics on infidelity within monogamous relationships (over 50%), I’m not sure we can fairly say that a majority of monogamous people see things that way, but certainly many do. I don’t think they get mad when we say we’re polyamorous and show that we’re happy that way.
However, I believe that most monogamous people are “weak” monogamists. They are monogamous by default, without ever really knowing alternatives exist. I say this, by the way, as someone who for more than 30 years thought exactly the same thing. “Weak” monogamists are aware that closing off a large part of our humanity (love/sexuality) to all but one person for our entire lives causes us suffering. In order for that suffering to be bearable, they must believe that the reward outweighs the sacrifice. This, for me, explains their often visceral reaction to our living (and loving) openly.
Polyamory challenges our culture’s dominant, cultural narrative about love/sexuality because it shows that stable, committed, loving relationships are still possible when all parties involve have other stable, committed, loving relationships. And challenging people’s dominant cultural paradigms, especially when those people haven’t examined those paradigms very deeply (one of the pernicious things about normativity is that it seems, to most members of a society, simply to be “natural,” not culturally constructed and reinforced)–makes people angry.
Had a great time at the Reason Rally, despite the rain and chilliness, and despite it using every last scrap of social energy this introvert could muster. Adam Savage’s was perhaps my favorite speech, especially this part at the end:
I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me.
This nicely summarizes a thought that I’ve meant to write about for a while. It’s one of the less obvious negative consequences of religion, and something I myself didn’t realize until I’d been an atheist for several years. The idea of God I grew up with was everything Adam Savage describes in the quote and more: an ever-present companion even in my most profound loneliness, someone to pour out my worries to, share my joy, amusement, and exasperation with, someone who understood me at the deepest level, and, while he might not always approve, always loved and forgave me. Atheists mock theists for their “imaginary friend,” but perhaps they don’t really consider what it would be like to have such a friend that you actually believed existed. It means always being loved, always having support, never being alone. I, like many ex-believers, mourned the loss of this friend deeply when I found it was impossible to believe.
It took me a lot longer to realize that those experiences of feeling loved, supported, and listened to were real. Of course they were: I genuinely felt them. The interpretation I put on them was false, but the feelings were real. And what that means is that that support, that love, that listening ear, was only ever myself. The wise, calm voice I heard speaking back to me, giving perspective on my problems: that was me too. I had all those resources within myself the whole time, but I believed they came from outside of me. I didn’t give myself nearly enough credit. That friendly presence is not lost to me; it’s where it always was.
I started out saying that this was a negative consequence of religion, and I still think it is: religion, for many people, teaches us that the best and wisest part of ourself is not ourself at all, but external. It teaches us that we are dependent on someone else for love, forgiveness, wisdom, and encouragement. And that is a travesty. But on the other hand, perhaps the teachings about God enabled me to develop that part of myself. I don’t know; I’d have to hear from people who grew up atheist, whether they have anything like that sense of self-affirming internal companionship. (Evidently Adam Savage does, but I don’t know his religious history.) My guess is that some do and some don’t; and certainly not all religious people gain that particular thing from their notion of God. For some, indeed, God seems to embody many of the worst aspects of themselves, the bigoted and judgemental, the hateful and fearful. But I was lucky enough to be raised with a version of God that was everything best and wisest and most loving, as I could conceive of it, and perhaps that helped me develop that part of myself in a way I might not have otherwise.
So it may be that this is a possible positive as well as negative aspect of religion: providing a venue for people to shape and nurture their own best impulses. To the extent that my childhood religion did this for me, I’m grateful to it, as much as I resent it for telling me that those things were external to myself. Perhaps one thing the atheist movement should work on is encouraging those impulses, teaching people how to develop that supportive, forgiving, wise voice within themselves. Even though I recognized that it was present and accessible to me, I’ve lost sight of it in recent months, and I think I’d do well to recover it. I’m never as happy, healthy, and well-balanced as when I’m being my own imaginary friend.
I have had a number of conversations about relationships, sexuality, and exclusivity over the years. I’ve heard many proposed reasons why polyamory cannot work for people in general or for specific individuals. But what are most interesting are the objections which are intended as critiques of polyamory, but if analyzed they turn out to be apologies for remaining jealous or possessive.
Now, I’m not quite an evangelical for polyamory, although I believe that it would be the inevitable outcome of people being honest with what they wanted, assuming they are willing to do the necessary work to mature and be capable of maintaing healthy relationships.
But what many people who argue that polyamory is not for them or is not ideal (or sinful or some other equivalent to it being wrong) seem to be doing is romanticizing poor relationship attributes. That is, there is a difference between saying that you are happy in your exclusive relationship and saying that you could not be polyamorous because you are jealous or possessive.
Further, many arguments against polyamory could be viewed as arguments against relationships in general. This is true especially when people ask me why I’m getting married if I’m polyamorous. The assumption seems to be that to marry is to sacrifice through exclusive commitment, which somehow makes it more meaningful. Perhaps it is a reminder that marriage’s origins (as a cultural institution) are ultimately derived from a property relationship.
Essentially, much of our modern concepts about relationships are based upon the model of marriage, or at least engagement, which are ultimately derived from property relationships. And so when people argue for the conservative idea of monogamy, they are stuck in a cultural tradition forged in the fires of seeing our romantic partners as our possessions, rather than true equal partners.
Yes, I think that’s it. Much of the romanticization of exclusivity are essentially about thinking about other people as property. How many “love songs” talk about belonging to each other, being mine, etc? The myth is that the closeness of that special exclusive bond creates something which is unattainable or at least cheapened by non-exclusivity.
And being in two serious, intimate, and loving relationships, I can safely say bullshit. Much like there are many myths about the worthiness of faith, love of god, etc there are myths about relationships. And much like faith being irrational and unhealthy, assumed exclusivity in relationships, which is ultimately derived from property relationships historically, is unhealthy.
Your lovers and romantic partners are not your property. You are not sharing what is yours in being polyamorous, you are just recognizing the reality that they will love other people and are grown up enough to not demand that they ignore this fact.
Sex is ubiquitous. We see it all over the media, entertainment, and our lives. Most of us think about sex quite frequently, and many of us have a fair amount of it. One thing all of our ancestors had in common was some kind of sex.
Artificial insemination, of course, makes it possible to pass your genes along without having sex, but I doubt more than a handful of people are virgin parents, Mary being no exception no matter what Christians try and tell you.
Religions have varied relationships with human sexuality. In our Christian-drenched culture, this relationship is somewhat strained, but this is not the universal relationship between religion and sexuality. Many Hindu temples, for example, depict sexual acts of all kinds; no prudishness inherent there.
Many new age religions celebrate sexuality in many ways, and I have found many religious people in my years among the polyamorous community. One is likely to find orgies, swingers, sex rituals, or just sex-positive monogamous couples in all sorts of religious traditions.
And yet in the West, where Christianity reigns over any other religious tradition, sexuality has a sort of schizophrenic role to play. On one hand, sex is (as I said) ubiquitous. Secular culture is ripe with it and much of it is great (which is to say some of it is not). And then there are the critics of this phenomenon, mostly from conservative Christianity, who view sex as something limited to marriage.
Which is, of course, excluded from everyone except monogamous couples, one of which is a man the other is a woman.
I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I think that this strategy is somewhat smart, from the point of view of maintaining conservative religious lifestyles. There is a real separation from the mainstream American culture and that of the conservative America which tries to keep its distance from the rest.
Several years back I was invited to attend a Battle Cry event in Philadelphia. What was presented to me there, and what many (many) subsequent discussions with former conservative Christians (as well as current conservative Christians) have shown me, is that there is a concerted attempt to create a Christian culture which keep people protected behind a wall of Christian culture. The goal is to have people protected from the evil, Satanic, secular culture. One part of that is to keep their sexuality repressed, at least until they are married.
And they somehow expect their sexuality to open up and flower when marriage happens, as if one can turn off all that emotional association to sexuality in a day. It’s all a myth, a fantasy, a lie.
If you tell people that sexuality is sinful, that your lewd thoughts are Satan’s influence, and that when you have such feelings you should pray for forgiveness, then you are setting up the best guarantee that many people will keep coming back again and again. It initiates a cycles of activity which keeps people tied to their religion (bonus to anyone who gets the word-play there).
The parts of this cycle go something like this:
The vast majority of people think about sex frequently.
Most of those people’s thoughts, if they were raised in a conservative religious environment, will be seen as sinful or even evil.
Church teachings, including youth groups, provide young people with ways to combat these feelings (especially if they are homosexual in nature).
Those methods do not actually stop those thoughts or feelings, they just associate them with a religious ritual, activity, or belief.
Because people think about sex frequently, they have a built-in reminder of their religious upbringing, training, and the emotional associations inherent to that process.
This guilt (or even fear) often sticks with people even if they move away from their faith.
This cycle is not good for a sex-positive society. And a sex-positive society is good for everyone. Conservative religion, Christianity in particular, is not good for society or the people in it. Sex is only one example of why this is the case.
And while I would prefer people not be raise in religious environments, if I have to choose, I would prefer them to be raised in a moderate of liberal religious home where the damage is less severe. Yes, parts of this shame, guilt, and sinful views on sexuality still exist in many aspects of liberal Christianity, but it is less severe even if often nonexistent. Liberal theology allows people to be exposed to reality, including the truth about sexuality and its role in our lives, and thus it is the lesser of evils.
That’s right, liberal Christianity is the lesser of evils, especially when it comes to sexuality. That is not to say it is not still bad.
So, last night I attended the debate between Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, and Dinesh D’Souza who is an author and professional defender of Christianity. Dave Silverman I have known for many years, and I was glad to get a chance to talk with him before the debate about how he was feeling about it. It is always a question concerning what kind of reception an atheist debater will encounter, even in a liberal city such as Philadelphia.
Dinesh D’Souza was in the room as well, but I refrained from talking to him despite having lots of things I could have asked him. I had not previously met Dinesh, and my “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” shirt might have put him off, a bit. It was not the right time or place, and there would be a time for questions after the debate (I did get a chance to ask one, too).
The debate took place at the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania in University City (West Philly), so it was in my neck of the woods. The hall was not packed, but it was full enough. It was clear, from the level of clapping and cheering at certain times, that Dinesh brought a larger contingent, but I did see a fair showing of the Philly atheist community including Margaret Downey, Carl Silverman, and Staks Rosch. I wonder if the rain might have kept some people away as well, even though it had not rained much around the event.
Also joining me was my friend Honest Discussioner who had come into town for the day. We had spent much of the afternoon at the OccupyPhilly events around city hall, as we are both interested in the Occupy movement and wish to better understand its developing message as well as where it will go as a movement. He took some video and there will be both vlogs and blogs upcoming concerning that issue. For now, I will skip any commentary concerning that and dive right into the debate.
We all have the same facts
Dave Silverman started things off with a 12-minute argument about why Christianity is not good for America. “We all have the same facts” he said, and the facts, he thinks, point to Christianity not being good for America.
Dave laid out three metrics to address this question; society, science, and sex. His basic argument was that with issues like marriage rights, women’s rights, science education, and sex education, the effect of Christian belief on social policies is detrimental to our culture.
Pointing to the many other western democracies and their relative secularization and societal health (of which the US is an outlier), it seems clear that the less religious a nation is, it is likely to be healthier. These statistics have existed for some time and have been a core part of the argument for whether religion actually makes societies better. And while it is not proof, the data seems to indicate that you can have a healthy society without a prevalence of religion. Dave goes the next step and argues that it is evidence that religion, specifically Christianity in this case, has a detrimental effect of society. I think the case for this is strong, even if it is not absolute. But is anything absolute when it comes to science?
Athens and Jerusalem
Dinesh D’Souza’s opening argument was not surprising, coming from a person who has heard him debate before. His argument boils down to the claim that the philosophical foundation of American political structures, culture, and values are dependent upon the philosophical and political influence of the ancient Greeks (Athens) as well as the cultural and theological influence of Christianity (Jerusalem). Whether it is Ivy League schools, inalienable rights, or the civil rights movement, Dinesh sees the roots for all of these things within the Christian tradition. I will not dispute the role of Athens, and certainly Christianity has had a great role in American history, but Dinesh’s claim here is stretched too far.
Perhaps his most outlandish claim was that the institution of slavery, in America at least, was questioned exclusively by Christianity. He seems unaware of the influence of socialist activists and other abolitionist movements from early on which were not affiliated with Christianity. It is true that many churches did take part in these movements, and in the 1960’s their role was critical, but to claim that this was exclusively a Christian struggle is simply not true.
As is common for Christians who take a more “nuanced” perspective on theology, D’Souza claimed that it was only a small percentage of the Christian community that is opposed to science (specifically evolution). Within the liberal Christian circles in which Dinesh and other religious academics swim, I have no doubt that this is true. But in the United states belief in evolution is not dominant (except among those with higher education, like Dinesh and his colleagues). Among most people, Evolution falls behind creationism.
Again, this is correlation and not proof. But as Dave Silverman points out, the fact that religious conservatives push so hard against evolution, stem cell research, etc is indicative of there being a disjoint between science and Christian theology. It is the evangelicals, after all, that take the scripture more literally than educated academics. And as I (and again) as well as manyothershaveargued, there is a profound methodological and epistemological difference between theology and skepticism (the scientific method and reason). Despite the fact that moderate and educated Christians tend to accept evolution, they still don’t seem to grasp the implications of the scientific method upon revelation and dogma.
In fact, this very fact came to light in conversations with some audience members after the debate; scientific empirical methodology is quite alien to both theologians and many philosophically minded people (especially the postmodernists). In a discussion about the possibility of a soul or life after death with what appeared to be UPenn students, reference to established scientific research by neuroscientists only brought questions of the assumptions about naturalism, and not understanding that these experiments and their results actually happened. There was, quite clearly, a disconnect between the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. It is a common misunderstanding that I believe Dinesh may also be guilty of.
Christianity’s influence today
D’Souza claimed that the foundations of the wonderful society in which we live is due to Christianity. Silverman, in response to this, asks “what about today?” In other words, even if Christianity was good for the foundations of our society (a point Dave does not concede), is it still good today given the detrimental efforts of people who act based upon their adherence to Christian theology. It’s a fair question. Dinesh’s answer is that the values we have, even as secular people, is standing on the mountain built by Christianity. Our moral intuition is given to us by god (and not just any god, but Jesus). His assertion is that without this scaffolding, which cannot be replaced with theories based in evolution or any other purely naturalistic worldview, we could not have the values we have. Further, our blessed science was even given to us by people committed to Christianity, such as Kepler, Newton, etc.
We are a secular world standing on the shoulders of Christian giants, Dinesh D’Souza seems to be saying.
Dave concedes, as he should, that Christians (which he distinguishes from Christianity, which Dinesh seems to miss every time he talks about this) have indeed done many great things in the world. They help others, achieve great things, and are often wonderful people. Dave sees this, and I agree, as giving the credit to the theology rather than the humanity of these people who do the good things. This is stealing credit from humanity and giving it to Christianity, the sources of which are often opposed (scripturally) to many of the achievements of post-Enlightenment society. This, in my opinion, is what makes Christianity so bad not only for America, but as Dave Silverman closed his comments, merely bad.
It is the usurping of what is good about us and claiming that we cannot possibly achieve these things without Jesus. It is the claim that we are fallen, fundamentally broken (or as John Calvin put it, total depravity), and in need of a fix. It is the creation of a problem that is then turned around, like a good salesman, into a sales pitch. Not only does Christian mythology create the problem of our fall from grace, it presumes to provide the cure of redemption. It is god’s cure for a problem he was responsible for. It is absurd, anti-humanistic, and ultimately anti-life (thank you Nietzsche).
Dave responded to Dinesh a few times during the debate by saying that Dinesh presented no actual arguments for why Christianity is good. I think what he means by this is that Dinesh’s claims about Christianity being the foundation for American culture, politics, and society are spurious, there is a difference between Christianity and the people who claim the title (especially since most Christians are not consistent or coherent in their theology), and that the negative effects of Christianity, even if there are positives, far outweigh the good. I think Dave Silverman is right here (anyone surprised?).
The only point that Dinesh has room to argue is that Christianity does deserve its place at the table in America. However, while it deserves this right, this place cannot be a privileged one. People have a right to vote for candidates who reflect their views, to believe as they wish as private citizens, and religious ideas will exist in the larger public conversation about policy, legislation, etc. However, the position of Christianity to influence those who do not believe is imbalanced and often oppressive. And even if there are secular arguments, as Dinesh proposes there are, against things like abortion, gay marriage, etc it is clear that the overwhelming majority of political pressure in these areas are derived from Christian theology and not secular arguments.
The bottom line for me is that even if Christianity was the primary foundation of our western culture, and without it we would not have the concepts we think of as secular now, that does not necessarily make those foundations nor their effects good. I could point out the fundamental problems of our western world, as focused on by the OccupyEverywhere movement and other social commentary, and show that Dinesh’s argument seems problematic even if valid. That is, even if he is right in his claims about Christianity’s role in our American society and culture, it seems that the influence was either incomplete (in other words, the imperfections are evidence of our fallen nature), or that God’s plan for American was not to be a good Christian example. Oh wait, or there is no God intervening in history.
The fact is that our culture is in need of growth in terms of economics, emotional maturity, and education. Christianity is not the source of skeptical inquiry, the scientific method (which grew around Christianity like a tree grows despite the obstacle of a fence), or of our Constitution. So, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, which Dinesh D’Souza made reference to (and which has no legal standing in America today), this nation is not philosophically, theologically, or historically indebted to a “Creator” even if there is one.
The idea of freedom of and from religion, the separation of church and state, and the general establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution is a powerful protection from Christianity to those who wish to steer clear of it’s discriminatory and archaic ideals. Yes, Christians have grown and changed with the times, in reaction to the enlightenment and other historical breaking from the bondage of religious power, but Christianity still has a scriptural source which is tied to a barbaric ideology.
No matter how intellectual, nuanced, and sophisticated theology becomes, Christianity cannot outrun its essence or its bronze-age past. Whether in terms of the horrors it has caused, the poor worldview it presents, nor the ignorance it perpetuates, Christianity is no friend to any person and so is therefore no friend to America.
Dinesh D’Souza may claim that things such as forgiveness, universal brotherhood, or the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of god are what is central about Christianity, but that forgets so much more of what the scriptures tell us. There is also a redemption for crimes we are not responsible for (the Fall), support for slavery, and multitudes of atrocities beyond anything we would consider acceptable today. If this scriptural tradition is the work of the creator and value-giver of America, we are indeed doomed. Yes, one can visit the cafeteria of the Bible and choose what one likes (as Dinesh claims not to do), but to take it all in context is to see a tradition that is not good for America or anywhere else.
Is this a win for Dave Silverman? Is this a win for secularism and/or atheism? I don’t think debates are about that. Surely, most of the people there left with the same opinion they had. But ideas get planted, discussion continues, and we move forward. Little by little atheist messages are heard, absorbed, and we slowly become part of the conversation.
Christianity is in a privileged cultural position, and its tentacles reach deep into our American psyche for sure. But around these tentacles lie aspects of our humanity which are evolutionarily and historically prior to Christian thought. On top of all that are secular ideas derived from philosophy, science, and in some cases rejection of religion. Nietzsche is a good example of this latter.
The fact that religion usurps these ideas and cloaks them in theological language is why it seems to so many that it is Christianity which is the foundation for all of these ideas. This is an illusion. This is what religion does; it often will attach itself to ideas and claim them as their own. And the longer we don’t point this usurpation out, the more the original idea and theology intertwine until we cannot tell them apart. After enough time of this process the sophisticated, nuanced, and evolving liberal Christians don’t even realize they have done so, and they genuinely believe that the Christianity they carry is a coherent descendant of the teaching of the Old Testament, Paul, and the Gospels.
We need people like Dave Silverman to keep indicating this delusion. Keep it up, Dave.
OK, some people are stupid. But even many who are not stupid; those who have the cognitive ability to understand complex ideas, who can make logical decisions, and who can think effectively through problems in their lives, still believe stupid things.
It’s a lack of skepticism, I think, which is at root here. It’s the inability (laziness, perhaps?) to apply methodologies that could show someone that their rationalized conclusions are not true, or at least not supported by evidence. And we all do it. We all believe things which are probably unjustified by evidence or reason.
The question is, I suppose, what amount of justified versus unjustified beliefs we hold. Or perhaps it is how often we apply the skeptical sieve to ideas we run across. Or perhaps it’s something else. It’s all tiresome, really. Being a skeptic is hard.
That’s why most people don’t do it.
And I get it. I get how those human biases get caught up in our brain. I get how the ideas, unsupportable as they are, seem to meld so harmoniously with that feeling of sense that pervades our worldview, even if that worldview is itself unsupported. I get how when we think of an idea which does not fit there, it feels like its musical theme that is inharmonious with the background music; it’s like the sound of a honking car when you are listening to some Beethoven piece. Or, perhaps, it’s like some annoying Beethoven when you are stuck in traffic. Analogies are stupid.
I get how easily we reject things that are supported by evidence, because the other thing we believe feels better to us. I get how people are confused by other worldviews and shake our heads disbelievingly when we hear someone state a set of facts to support something that sounds so obviously wrong. I get what it means to be human in this sense. But that does not excuse it.
When someone claims that 9/11 was an inside job, that President Obama is a Muslim, a Socialist, and anti-American, or that evolution is a lie and that the world is less than 10,000 years old, part of me wants to just curl and give up on the world. Part of me wants to allow the vast majority of people wallow in ignorance and lack of skepticism and for me to go seek out enlightened and educated people to enjoy life with.
Part of me does not want to write this blog, knowing that in most cases I’m singing to the choir (and nobody wants to hear me sing, I guarantee). Part of me wants to give up on trying to present any argument for people who are not going to listen, to challenge themselves, or to learn.
But there are the exceptions. Like Nietzsche said, all that is rare for the rare, but you have to give the rare the opportunity to discover they are rare. And our environment is part of this. In many cases the environment makes a huge influence on even a more normally gifted person. I want to be a small part of that environment, just in case receptive voices pass my way.
I was not an exceptionally intelligent child. I am not a genius. I am, likely, above average intelligence and I certainly have some intellectual strengths, but I am not exceptional cognitively. However, had I not been given the rarer opportunity to attend a very good prep school, college, and grad school I would likely be more like my extended family; generally conservative, historically ignorant, and relatively prone to my biases and stuck there. The community I was raised in, without my educational opportunities, would likely have produced someone with less perspective, who is less self-challenging, and less interested in the truth.
Some issues are not mere matters of opinion; things merely to “agree to disagree” about. Some things are actually matters of fact. And even where there is room for subjectivity, there is still room for evidence and reason to make certain conclusions better than others. Some ideas are just stupid, but many people still believe them. Remember the whole Obama nationality argument that led to a birth certificate coming to light? Yes, many people still think he is lying about that.
President Obama has claimed to be a Christian (and this claim itself would make him worthy of death as a Muslim, according to the Koran. If he’s a Muslim he’s a pretty bad one), his policies are more in line with centrism than any form of Socialism (he actually back away from policies which were hardly Socialist, and moved towards the conservative end, pragmatically), and Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for 9/11 (they are annoyed that so many think that Bush &co could have pulled off such a thing, I suppose).
Yet the ideas that these facts compete with are prevalent. And not mere ideological brain-washing is at fault, either (although there is that). Hannity, Beck, etc are not the creators of stupidity, they are mere ushers of it, in other words. And yes, Michael Moore is guilty of much of the same. Jon Stewart, however, is the freakin’ man (even if I do sometimes disagree with him).
But, being a little biased myself, I will likely call out the conservative voices first. It is somewhat ironic to watch the relativism, postmodernism, etc that seeps into conservative worldviews when it comes to them believing what they want. And what’s worse is they are the ones decrying relativism, most-likely. But, of course, this has nothing to do with conservatism.
That is pure, undiluted, human stupidity. It is our humanity which often misleads us, not mere ideology. Our cognitive and behavioral imperfections (evidence against a loving all-powerful god, for sure) are the source of all bad ideas, whether religious or secular. It is the source of stupidity of all stripes. So whether you want to call out the dumb stoner hippies/new agers, Tea Baggers/truthers/fundamentalists, or the masses of uninformed American people watching reality TV and basically being the suck, I don’t blame any particular stupid ideology because I know that the same unskeptical methods lead to each.
This has been your cynical message of the day. Please go on with your lives as if nothing has happened.
That’s right, folks, not only do we have the right to be blasphemous, but there is a day set aside to have our fellow heathens (and those freedom loving believers who feel like blaspheming others’ ideas) express their inner blasphemer.
For those of you who don’t remember, or who were not paying attention way back in the early days of the atheist movement, it was September 30th 2005 when those now-famous cartoons were published in Denmark. You know, the ones that made all the Muslim leaders laugh and go on with their lives…or to protest their publication which led to violence and ultimately to more than a hundred dead. Same difference.
The fact is that many of the cartoons were not offensive at all. Most were not funny. But because some Muslims believed that the very attempt to try and depict Muhammad (the prophet guy, not just any Muhammad of which there are many tens of thousands).
The event brought lots of attention, world-wide, to this issue. The atheist community responded by many people stepping up and advocating for people to express their right to blaspheme whatever they want. There was PZ’s issue with a cracker, many campus organizations responded with chalk drawings of Muhammad or blasphemous messages of all kinds, and many individuals have, of course, stepped up in their own ways.
And I, of course, will take part. I have one of my favorite shirts ready to wear tomorrow, and I inevitably will have people ask me if I’m Muslim…because people are stupid and ignorant. And while it may be too late for you to get your own shirt, I urge you to find a way to express yourself in some blasphemous way tomorrow. For example, one Halloween several years ago I dressed up as the crucified Christ, with wrist wounds and all, carrying a cross I had made around with me even to a Halloween party. I wish I had pictures of that. Perhaps I will have to re-create that wonderfulness in a Halloween to come.
That’s like in a month, right? Where do I have some wood….
Remember, blasphemy is a victimless crime. So if you feel bad about hurting someone’s feelings, just remember think “What would Shaun do” and then do it anyway…because people have no right to expect non-believers to follow any rules set by religious traditions. And if you are still caught up in this respect thing, remember that if you don’t actually believe a thing is true, right, wrong (or whatever) you don’t actually respect it. You may respect someone’s right to something, but that is not the same thing. So, celebrate the fact that you actually can blaspheme (assuming you are not in one of the many countries where you cannot) and express yourself.
Oh, I almost forgot about this song which persistently gets stuck in my head. Your welcome.