Now, this is not the first time Bill O’Reilly and Dave Silverman have met up to create fireworks. Remember the tides thing? I do not know how much of Bill O’Reilly’s on-air personality is an act, or if he really believes what he says in segments such as these, but the things he says are believed by many people, perhaps (in some cases) because Bill O’Reilly says them.
So, O’Reilly claims that Christianity is not a religion, but is a philosophy instead. This is no different than the dozens of times I have heard Christians claim that their relationship with Jesus/God is not a religion, because religion is man-man and this is the truth.
Let’s start by granting that mere philosophical symbols and ideas are fair to display in government space. Much of what the Framers of the Constitution were doing, after all, is political and moral philosophy. Go to the Jefferson memorial and read the walls; that’s philosophy. Seeing images and carvings of Plato, Aristotle, or even religious and historically significant characters (such as Moses or Hammurabi) on government buildings is commonplace, because these figures play a part in our culture’s history—but so does religion, right? So what’s the difference?
OK, so let’s consider a non-Christian ideology such as Buddhism, which is fundamentally philosophical in many respects but also has many of the characteristics of a religion, especially where it is mythologized and supernatural components are included. Would an image of the Buddha, with some quotes from his attributed sayings, be fair game on government property? More relevant here, would Bill O’Reilly have an issue with such displays?
I do not knows what O’Reilly would think here, but my guess is he would be OK with it so long as it does not get in the way of his traditions. So long as Buddhists were not trying to usurp his holiday traditions, I don’t think he’d care. But should secular-minded people care? Should I care?
This is tricky, because the distinction between philosophy and religion is thin in many traditions, Buddhism included. I would say that insofar as any message on government property is not giving privileged or unequal support for any of the mythological, ritualistic, and supernatural aspects of any philosophy or religion, then there is no problem from a secularist’s point of view. That is, so long as Buddhisms presence in such spaces leans towards its philosophical roots, and not its specifically religious traditions, then I don’t think there is an issue.
But we’ll worry about that when Buddhists start becoming anything near a majority. So, probably never.
Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity is clearly a religion. Yes, it contains elements of philosophy, but I am not sure any religious traditions do not include philosophical ideas. But the essential component to the overwhelming majority of Christian theologies is the relationship between humankind and “God.” Christianity is not a mere collection of rational concepts or methods about finding what is true, beautiful, or wise, it is a set of metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe which has many traditional rituals, stories, and moral teachings.
The major distinction here is the presence of theology. Theology is a type of philosophy–the religious kind–and so if a tradition has a theology it is clearly a religion.
To claim that Christianity is a philosophy is to amputate a significant portion of what it does for believers. Where a thinker such as Plato used logic and dialogue to make propositions and criticisms about ideas, Christianity does this but it does so much more. To imply that Jesus was just a philosopher is to say he was just a man with mere ideas about the world. This view removes the divine messages including the metaphysical significance of the (supposed) sacrifice and makes concepts such as eternal life, eternal punishment, or even ultimate meaning impotent.
Wait…does that mean that this segment of his show reveals that Bill O’Reilly does not believe all of the mythological and metaphysical components of Christianity? Does that make O’Reilly some sort of humanist? Because if he does not think that Christianity is not religious (thus has nothing to do with supernatural claims) then why all the god-talk?
Again, I think this claim that Christianity is a philosophy is part of a set of cultural/apologetic moves to distinguish Christianity from mere religion. It usually takes the form of “I have a relationship with Jesus/God, and religion is a man-made lie!” In this case, O’Reilly seems to be doing something similar. “Christianity,” he might say, “is not a man-made mere religion, it is the true philosophy given to us by god.” Well, if so, Papa Bear, then that makes it a religion.
I don’t think Bill O’Reilly has thought this through, so let’s consider him appropriately pwned.
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.
Today, in a correspondence with some people on an email list about atheist issues, there was some discussion about how, in the past, I had helped with some efforts in Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, while living in Philadelphia. I replied thus, also making reference to prior discussions with people on the list about the lively issue, within the atheist and skeptic community, about being offensive or dickish to believers. I thought I would share my response, since I am that kind of guy.
Well, me trying to be logical and all, I figured what happened at my state capital might effect me at some point.
I know, silly….
I mean, sometimes I was too busy having interesting conversations with my professors and such, but sometimes one has to actually step up and do something. Beliefs have consequences. And what people in the world believe, as well as the perspective they have on what others believe, effects their decisions and actions. I remember talking with those girls at the Capital building that time we had set up shop. I remember how they, especially the one vocal and pious one, looked at us with “pity” and gave us literature. Yet they refused ours. These girls may not be in control of much directly (they were not representatives), but because they act as intermediaries between those with power and authority, they play a role in the halls of power. Now, maybe our conversation, in which I was polite and respectful to them personally (although I was honest about what I thought about their beliefs) did not have an impact, and maybe over time it did. I just don’t know. But such interactions with people near the levers of power (as well as the more direct approach to the lieutenants and holders of such power) is important in the long struggle we have as citizens and our constitutional rights.
Those who insinuate that any such attempts make other nonbelievers look bad are buying the game they are selling. They are, in fact, ironically being the very dick they tell us not to be.
You here a rumbling in the distance, and from the south approaches a storm. His name is Shaun, and with him rides the gates of Hell for any person who tries to limit freedoms of speech and expression by threats from people too afraid or disinterested (and not in the Platonic sense!) to be themselves to the world, rationalizing it as an attempt to not be a dick. I ride along with people such as Dave Silverman on a wave of honesty, one which hurts the eyes of those who have been stuck the the cave of theistic shadows for too long. “Too bright!” they proclaim, and pretend their injured optical receptors excuse their hurt feelings which are only secondarily related and really are a defense mechanism of fear and insecurity exposed by such light. And besides them, who are curled in a fetal position and lashing out at anything in their temporary overwhelmed state, is your philosophical brethren who (unknown to those blinded and hurt) carries the same light hidden under their heavy coat. Hiding such light, they hold them close, patting their back and whispering to them that they are sorry, that those people don’t represent all of us.
“It’s OK,” they say, “you can believe what you like, I don’t care. Let me be your friend and never be like them.”
While I sit back, amused and frustrated because I am aware that such a person could never really be their friend, because real friendship involves naked and bold honesty. Real intimacy involves the ability to say what one thinks, although perhaps not at the moment of greatest pain, but afterwords when the shock has worn off. I understand what my brethren means when they implore us to not be a dick, but what they don’t realize is that it is not our behavior that seems dickish; it is our perspective that offends, not our presentation of it. And I will not withhold my perspective in fear of it offending, because if the truth offends then should we never speak the truth? To live that way is to acquiesce to the fear and ignorance in which the theistic world lives. It is also to not be honest, which says little for the light they carry, hidden and shameful.
There is room for polite conversations with professors, neighbors, and friends. But there is a time when you realize that in order to talk with some people AT ALL, one must risk offense in order to maintain any level of relationship. With some, you will seem a dick even if you say nothing more than “I don’t believe there is a god.” In such cases, put away the silly desire not to offend, because such people offend themselves without your help. The offense you fear is not from you, but from the world itself that you act as a conduit for. Protect not those that fear the world, because you only protect cowardliness and thus take on its mantle yourselves.
What this email also refers to is the fact that I’m moving back to Philadelphia. Exactly when…I’m not sure. Latest April 2011. But soon, nonetheless.