On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Some quick thoughts on liberal Christianity and polyamory

Here are some thoughts I just sent to someone I’m corresponding with via email.  The conversation originated from an argument on a polyamory email list about religion and polyamory.  I will not quote any of what anyone else said, as this email group is intended to be private, but I feel comfortable sharing my own thoughts, especially since they are relevant to this blog.

My interlocutor had asked my to clarify a position of mine concerning internal logical consistency and justification when it comes to churches and the acceptance of polyamory.

The issue I was discussing, concerning consistency, has to do with a religious group being consistent to the ideas in the sources of their beliefs.  For Christians, that is the Bible.  The reason is that without that source, they cannot have any basis for knowing (not to mention justifying) the story of Jesus.  If the Bible is not authoritative, then they cannot have any basis for believing that Jesus said anything, resurrected, or even existed in the first place.  There is little to no historical justification for the historical Jesus’ existence outside of scripture, whether canonical or not.

A church that does not accept some of the Bible must admit, in order to be logically respectable, that they must then justify why they accept some of what the scripture says but not all.  And if they say they are just reading it differently, then they need to justify how the institution that is responsible for the very existence of those books to be included in the Bible interpreted them wrongly for so long.  When a group shapes a message and their descendants say that their ancestors got it wrong, my skeptical dander goes up.

A modern church, accepting polyamory, has to justify how they do so while still accepting the Bible which, along with the tradition in which it grew, rejects such ideas and practices.

I’m not expecting a religion to justify itself to my point of view, I’m expecting it to justify itself to it’s own sources, tradition, etc.

I understand that churches promote messages that will bring people in.  It’s called pandering.  The way I see it, liberal churches orient their messages such that they can attract parishioners, so that it can keep pastors employed.  Church growing is a business, in many ways.

The other aspect of this, as I said before, is that the liberal churches have people that really believe they are being truly Christian.  They don’t like the fundamentalist conservative doctrines, but they still are emotionally attached to their relationship with God and like some of the Biblical messages.  So they ignore the rest, explain them away, or claim they are no longer relevant.  AKA cherry-picking

I, personally, respect the consistency of fundamentalists over liberal theology any day of the week (and twice on Sunday–HA!).  While I disagree with both, I at least respect the fundamentalists’ consistency.  In other words, I am more annoyed by liberal and moderate religious people than the conservatives.

I’m glad that churches are willing to accept such things as polyamory and homosexuality, despite what christian tradition and scripture says.  I just think it’s fair to point out that such churches do so despite these things, not because of them.

Philadelphia Equality Forum

FSGP Equality Forum
On Sunday, May 3, 2009, in the rain and cool Spring weather, The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia had a table at the Equality Forum, which was an event celebrating GLBT culture in the city.

Now, the question is why an organization for freethinkers (rationalists, secular humanists, atheists, etc) would set up a table at an event such as this? Two reasons; the first is that the vast majority of its members are support equal gay rights and (the second) is that there are many potential new members at such events.

Sally Cramer came to pick me up around 9:30am on Sunday morning. That’s too early, in my opinion, to be doing anything on a Sunday. Sally is the President of FSGP and a good friend of mine. We set up the tent, organized the tables, and as other volunteers slowly made their way to our location near 3rd and Market, we got things started.

The rain probably kept many people away, including many other groups with tables. The people next to our slot on the street had no tent and so spent much of the day huddled together under an umbrella at their table. They looked so cute huddled together, but they left after a couple of hours of this. I wasn’t surprised.

Repent America was there too. They are not quite Fred Phelps and his crew, but they are close enough. For most of the day, we ignored them, and so did most of the people there. I don’t think they liked being ignored.

There were a number of churches with booths there. There are many liberal churches that accept gay members, many of which have gay pastors, ministers, or whatever they call the people that give sermons and all that jazz. We talked with a few of them and had some nice discussions. They are good people, in general, and they didn’t seem to mind our presence much at all.

But we also met quite a few atheists, “agnostics,”, and other non-religious people who were happy to see us there, and who may become members in the near future. The fact that FSGP is having a meeting and lecture at the William Way Community Center (1315 Spruce St; right in the the “gayborhood”) this Friday at 7:00 with Susana Meyer speaking will probably mean we’ll have a few more people show up to our meeting this month. We advertised it at or table, of course.

Most of the day was relatively quiet. We talked with many people, got almost no comments that were not completely welcoming, and had a calm, rainy, and cool day with some fabulous people. That is, until Repent America marched right towards our booth, both followed and also even impeded by, some gay and lesbian folks that were preaching a more inclusive gospel message.

Yes, that’s right folks, the “burn in Hell” Christians and the “God loves all equally” Christians marched right to us, set up shop behind us, and had it out with each other while we, quite amused, watched. OK, some of the volunteers made some comments and we gave a few pamphlets away that were titled “On Religion and Being Gay…What Freethought Has to Offer!”, but mostly we stood nearby and watched.

Bible Wars! Repent America v. Liberal Christians

And as the “burn in Hell” Christians found a place to stand and condemn through a megaphone for a while, many of the local participants did something that I actually disagreed with; they blocked them and tried to shout over them.

Why block them? It just feeds their persecution complex.
Why block them? It just feeds their persecution complex.

We, vocal heathens that we are, had some shirts on. The one I wore said “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist!” while some others wore the “Smile, there’s no Hell!” shirt with the smiley face on it. The people with the megaphones saw these and pretty much ignored us. We were for another day, I guess. They just wanted to make sure that everyone there knew that homosexuality is a sin and that they would all go to Hell. The rest kissed there partners, screamed gay pride slogans, and generally fed them everything they wanted to hear while they protested with more than 20 police officers nearby just in case.

In other words, there was no conversation (not that the people from Repent America were willing to talk anyway; they just ignored everything said to them). All I saw were two groups with different interpretations of a book of myths yelling alternative views at each other. All is vanity, I suppose. And while I prefer the “God loves everyone equally” people to be around, I found the whole thing quite silly, in all honesty.

Eventually they all went away, and with the yelling and the noise over, there was nothing left to do. The rain had slowed to a mere drizzle at most and so we took down the tent and went our ways (some of us went to Eulogy to get some dinner and fine Belgian ales). We’ll see how many show up on Friday for the lecture and if we see some more members sign up. All in all, I enjoyed the day.

So thanks to everyone who showed up to volunteer (Greg, Brian, Janice, Scotty, Glen and of course myself). A special thanks to Sally for setting up the event and having all of the materials ready.

What does ‘Moderately Religious’ Mean?

What does it mean to be moderately religious? What does it mean to, for example, be a Christian but to not accept the Bible as wholly and literally true? Or, perhaps more generally, what does it mean to accept a god but not all of what god is supposed to have said?

I’m wondering what it means to accept only some of the teachings of a religious tradition, some set of interpretations of scripture, and to accept them and to eschew the other interpretations. Does this not imply that the person who accepts only some of the points of their traditional theology is, in effect, a prophet themselves in some sense? Does it not imply that the scripture is secondary to the judgment of the person who accepts some of it?

One particular example would be to ask what it would mean to be Catholic and to accept the use of condoms or even abortion. Would you really still be a Catholic or would you instead automatically be a protestant of some sort?

There is a strain within many Christian communities that emphasizes the importance of the direct relationship with God. Many even argue that our sense of right and wrong are due to something that God put within us, and so it may not be a stretch, perhaps, that maybe God put within people the ability to determine what is true theology as opposed to man’s religion, right?

It is curious, however, that different people’s consciences are calibrated so differently. To be so sure, as some Christians are, that gay marriage is wrong while other Christians would disagree is a prime example of this . To agree that slavery is wrong despite the Bible’s condoning it (Lev. 25:44-46, Ex. 21.2, 7-11, etc), even in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:5, 1Tim. 6:1-2, Lk. 12:47-48), sounds like putting an awful lot of stock in the opinions of one’s self rather than scripture, to me. So what is to be done with these verses? Are they to be ignored, rationalized, or merely blindly followed?

I think there is a simpler solution to this problem. The idea of God, which seems so obvious to many people, is generally not in question. However, when people of various traditions are faced with aspects of the tradition, scripture, or faith that do not cohere with the rest of their experience, they will tend to eschew those verses that do not agree with what their experience and their own values tell them and attribute the tensions between scripture and conscience to the mistakes of man in expressing the deity’s teachings. The rejection of certain things that scripture says does not, as a result, throw out god. Instead, they throw out Biblical literalism.

But which verses are literal and which one are metaphorical, mythological, or simply wrong? The specific verses that are rejected are easy to toss out because they deal with issues which are directly related to experience. We see that stoning misbehaving children is not moral, thus people ignore the verse that tells us to do so (Deut. 21:18-21), possibly rationalizing this with some other verse or general idea that some older books are no longer valid, despite the fact that another verse invalidates this idea (Mat. 5:18).

We have every day experiences that show that, for example, the Bible’s condoning slavery is misguided, and thus likely the influence of man on God’s word and not true. And yet this one imperfection in God’s scripture is not sufficient to disqualify God existence, right? We have experiences that tell us that good people, whether they believe the right things or not, don’t deserve to be eternally tortured in Hell, but yet God is still real, right?

Doing this does not address the question of a god in general, but it does raise the question of the authority of the scriptures in general; if some of the verses are not true because they conflict with our experience, then why are the others still considered true, especially those that are taken on faith because they are in scripture? If the truth value of an idea in scripture is determined by them being in scripture, how do the other rejected verses avoid this same criterion?

The answer is what I call compartmentalization. We use certain types of standards and criteria when we evaluate the world but do not use these criteria for others. Generally, it is because there are some things, things like invisible yet ubiquitous and transcendent gods, which are necessarily beyond our direct empirical experience (yet are supposedly behind everything; we have to derive their existence using reason and logic, usually poorly).

We don’t have every day experiences, unless we search for them, that would challenge the core aspects of people’s faiths; things like the Trinity or the belief that a god exists. This is an idea that needs to be actively pursued to reject intelligently.

So, how can a person conclude atheism; the lack of belie in any gods? The simple fact is that there is no proof that gods don’t exist. But more to the point, there is no obvious experience in the world that a god is not necessary to explain anything at all, which would lead to the reasonable conclusion of not believing in any gods.

To find this to be the case you have to 1) be genuinely interested in the question to some degree, 2) have a fair understanding of the philosophical questions that are relevant, and 3) not be too emotionally attached to the idea that gods do exist.

Why #3? Because very smart people are very good at rationalizing reasons for ideas they already accept emotionally. That is, while people will not accept all ideas in their scriptures or religious traditions, they still will accept the general ideas and still associate themselves with the faith, even if they reject most of the ideas. They will find a way, mostly unconsciously, of making sense of the fact that they disagree with God’s word, but it’s still their God and it is still his word.

So what is moderate religiosity? To me it sounds like people who believe or need to believe in some god, but despite their lack of acceptance of the ideas in the books which tell them about their god, they still associate with the tradition which they largely disagree with because they are used to doing so. It is pure habit and intellectual laziness. And while many will seek out churches that share their values, this does not excuse the fact that most churches reject or simply ignore much of what their scriptures say in favor of a general idea that is supported by only some scripture.

If scripture is the true god’s words, then shouldn’t it all be considered equally true or suspect? And if they are all suspect, why accept the articles of faith that our experience with the world seems to make acceptable only through faith? After all, if their was evidence, faith would not be unnecessary. Moderate religious traditions sounds like a retreat from religious ideas while trying to hold onto the center. The problem is that the center is defined by the periphery, and so when the periphery is peeled away the onion of theology will reveal the hollow center.

Thus people are left with a vaguely defined, powerless, and useless idea of a god that no longer warrants the title. Moderate religion ultimately leads to a god that is indistinguishable from no god at all.