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This post contains the final section (Part V) of Mending Fences, my attempt to grapple with how to handle religious differences (here is Part I of this series).
Where do we go from here?
It doesn’t take a genius to see that religion is deeply important to believers. You can see it in their eyes when a skeptic questions their tenets of “faith.” To me, that “look” is as though the skeptic is trying to tempt them to abandon the safety of a pre-modern community, which would cause them to get eaten by wolves in the forest. That’s the look I often get (or perhaps I’m projecting).
Even if the crazy things believers say aren’t true, they seem important to believers. When skeptics start to circle believers and display their skeptical questions, it seems to believers that we are tying to destroy something that is vitally important to them. Most good-hearted believers change the topic or run away. Other believers become aggressive or even violent. This puzzle some atheists, but wouldn’t you become violent if someone tried to destroy something you believed to be critically important? How, for example, would you feel if someone defaced your mother’s grave? Would you stay calm? Or would become angry? Maybe we don’t understand why believers believe their far-fetched religious stories, but certainly should be able to understand their emotional reactions when skeptics seem to take delight defacing and destroying aspects of religion that (somehow) have value for a believer.
Still, where does this bizarre stand-off leave us?
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Mending Fences, Part IV – The many things we have in common">Mending Fences, Part IV – The many things we have in commonMending Fences, Part IV – The many things we have in common"> Mending Fences, Part IV – The many things we have in common" title="Mending Fences, Part IV – The many things we have in common" />
This is Part IV of a series of post titled “Mending Fences.” Part I begins here.
The many things we have in common
Drawing stark lines to divide people into groups often invites suspicion and hostility. Instead of bifurcating humanity into two mutually exclusive groups–believers and atheists—we should carefully reconsider the degree to which atheists and believers are different. To the extent that we discover that we actually share interests, including a mutual interest in better understanding our differences, we dissolve big hurdles to working together.
Whether we see each other as essentially similar or essentially different depends on whether we are focusing on our similarities or our differences. When we consider the ways that believers and atheists are similar, we can quickly think of enough things we have in common to fill encyclopedias. Most of us enjoy good food, good music and fresh air. We contribute to flood victims together. We throw muggers in jail together. We want our children learn to appreciate Shakespeare, mathematics and history together at school. We shop together, work together, celebrate most of our holidays together (even religious holidays) and we all struggle to understand how it was that we ended up on this spinning planet. Most believers and most atheists have another thing in common: they are both attacked by religious fundamentalists. We are so much alike in so many ways that a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap of atheists and believers would present itself as an eclipse.
Truly, a Martian anthropologist who carefully observed the day-to-day behavior of most believers and most atheists would be perplexed to hear us grumbling about our differences. For that anthropologist, trying to differentiate humans based on our outward behavior would be as difficult as it is for humans trying to discern differences among the worker ants in an ant colony. Well, except for one hour per week when the believers went into a building with a steeple on top. Except for that hour, though, it would be almost impossible to tell who is who based on the way we live our lives.
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Mending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science">Mending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the ScienceMending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science"> Mending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science" title="Mending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science" />
This is the third installment of a series of postings I’ve titled “Mending Fences.” You’ll find the first installment here.
It’s time to call a truce.
Until recently, I didn’t think of atheism as a political movement; it didn’t occur to me that I was being systematically victimized. Rather, I commonly thought of a long personal history of rude, arrogant, and exclusionary behavior directed at individual atheists by individual theists. More recently, though, it has become apparent that atheists are victims of rampant bigotry. How else could you describe a situation where 15% of American adults are atheists, yet only one member of Congress (Pete Stark of California) has ever admitted to being an atheist? Thanks to the new atheists, atheists are now part of something that is akin to a civil rights movement.
Based on historical precedent, though, civil rights movements don’t become successful when they encourage their members to be angry and to call the the aggressors “stupid,” at least not in the long run. Nor is it productive to frame what we want to accomplish as a “war” on ignorance, or any other type of war, because “wars” (on drugs, terrorism) usually polarize opposing camps indefinitely. To stop discrimination against non-believers, we should borrow the successful methods used by women, blacks, gays and other oppressed minorities. In short, we need to add a strong educational component to our movement. Most of the people who make derogatory comments do so without examining the roots of their aggressive impulses. I agree with Hannah Arendt who, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that most damage is not done by people trying to cause damage, but by normal people who fail to think things through—that is the nature of what Arendt termed “the banality of evil.”
How do we counteract deep unexamined prejudices against atheists? We need to be savvy about our PR. We should patiently show others who we are. We need to show believers that we don’t threaten their way of life except to the extent that they must stop slandering non-believers. I doubt that theists lay awake at night worrying about happy atheists; rather, in my experience, theists are far more haunted by images of snarly know-it-all in-your-face atheists. We need to promulgate images of friendly faces of real atheist Americans. After all, functional atheists have lives the stretch far beyond sitting around fretting about people who believe in “God.”
We must also become visible. If all of the atheist Americans glowed as dots on a national map, everyone flying overhead would see tens of millions of law-abiding atheists from coast to coast. We are taxpayers. We fight in the military. We are actors, housewives, musicians, business people, parents, police officers, scientists and teachers. We are inextricably socially connected to believers. We are their brothers, daughters, co-workers and neighbors. We give to charity too, including prominent atheists who give billions to help the poor (e.g., Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). We spend disproportionately less time in prison than those who believe in God.
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[Note: This is Part II of a series of posts being the title “Mending Fences”]
When Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists” first launched their attacks on religion a few years ago, I was delighted. After decades of relative silence, the mass media was finally giving some atheists a chance to present my view that virgins don’t have babies and that dead people don’t regain consciousness. Harris, Dawkins and other new atheists dared to argue in public that there is no sentient version of God; they reminded believers that all believers were atheists regarding Zeus, as well as all of the purported gods other than their own God. The writings of the new atheists energized considerable discussion, much of it thoughtful. Even a cursory review of the many websites and YouTube videos considering religion makes it clear that many teenagers and young adults have actively joined discussions triggered by the new atheists.
In the wake of this energized discussion, many of us became proficient at pointing out the hundreds of contradictions and absurdities in the Bible. We repeatedly called foul whenever we spotted theists cherry-picking the Bible (none of you are wearing clothes made of linen and wool, I hope!). We repeatedly reminded believers of Carl Sagan’s caveat that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Many of us dug even deeper, studying the philosophy of science, so that we could clearly explain to believers that to be meaningful, claims had to be falsifiable. Not that these arguments actually convinced believers (at least, not in my personal experience), but they did serve to announce our view that religious claims must no longer be privileged—they shouldn’t be assumed to be true and that they must be put under the microscope (as Daniel Dennett urged in Breaking the Spell) like every other natural phenomenon. We made it clear that we weren’t convinced when believers attempted to explain their beliefs by reference to ancient apocryphal supposedly-sacred writings strewn with ambiguity and self-contradictions. Thanks to the arrival of the new atheists, all of these important issues started receiving unflinching media attention.
These past few years have been emotionally and intellectually exhilarating for skeptics of all stripes. Those of us who have maintained skeptical websites have become further energized and intellectually sharpened by reading each others’ posts and by carefully re-reading the Bible and the Koran armed with scalpels rather than intellectual queasiness. The books and media appearances of the new atheists, as well as the many websites by hundreds of newly awakened atheists, have created a community where there had previously been only isolated individuals. The work of the new atheists thus revealed to each of us that none of us was alone in scrutinizing and criticizing the supernatural claims of religions. Many energized atheists have boldly stepped out of their closets and started becoming vocal as a group, especially when believers callously asserted that all atheists are ipso facto immoral and hell-bound.
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I do not believe in any sort of sentient “God.” I do not believe in any sort of personified “Creator” of the universe. I never had any such beliefs. Nor do I think that science has all of the “answers” (as though we know how to ask the right questions).
Looking back over my past few years of writings, however, I can see that I have come a long way regarding my approach to religion. Prior to 2001, I was mostly in the live-and-let-live camp. Then came 9/11 when the destructive power of many religions (including American religions) came front and center. Out of mouths allegedly professing the words of God Himself, we heard plenty of bigotry (often aimed at gays, non-believers, people of Middle Eastern ancestry and, of course, members of other religions), war-mongering, anti-science, pro-ignorance, and biblical literalism.
I pushed back forcefully–one of my prime motivations for starting Dangerous Intersection was my strong reaction to the rise of conservative religions in the United States. Eventually, though, I came to realize that my reaction was overbroad. My concern should not so much have been against religion, but against those specific religious communities that encourage their members to engage in destructive behavior. I think that I understand why I made this error; following 9/11, almost all American religions chose to be silent in the face of the destructive behavior by competitor religions. I viewed that widespread silence as general approval. I assumed, based somewhat on the increasingly conservative views of several close acquaintances who had been religious moderates, that even moderate religious beliefs too often served as slippery slopes to fundamentalism.
I eventually developed a more nuanced view. I have come to believe that religions serve as grouping techniques that help good-hearted people do group-oriented good-hearted things and, yes, that religions invoked by mean-spirited and violent people amplify their destructive ways.
Even though I have my intellectual differences with virtually all people who profess religious claims, it turns out that many such people have more in common with me, politically and religiously, than many non-believers. There are many issues that we need to grapple with as communities and individuals, many of them having very little to do with religions claims. Further, after the 9/11 smoke cleared, I could see better that many good-hearted religious believers were of the live-and-let-live persuasion. These were important realizations. I eventually came to appreciate that many religious folks are truly my allies in what should be a joint quest to make the world a better place.
Over the past year, I spent many hours writing a long article on my own “spiritual” journey. Writing this chapter was an intense exercise in self-discovery that drew from many of the posts I’ve made at this blog. I originally planned to publish my article as a book chapter that was to be called “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.” My chapter eventually grew to an unwieldy length that branched off into several distinct (but related) topics. What follows is list of each of the Parts of “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.”
I. The day I discussed atheism at a church service
II. My atheism
III. It’s time to call a truce.
IV. What about the science?
V. The many things we have in common
VI. Where do we go from here?
I do believe that the full finished product works well on its own and I’ve decided to break it into several parts here at Dangerous Intersection. Parts I and II of my article are included as part of this post. I’ll post the other sections over the next few days. I hope this collection is as engaging for you to read as it was for me to write.
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At Slate, Mark Stern argues that creationism is dangerous:
Creationists reject not just evolution but most of the Enlightenment and pretty much all intellectual development since. Rather than celebrate the brilliance of the human mind, they disparage free thought as dangerous and sinful. Instead of extolling the virtues of creativity and imagination, they malign all unorthodox ideas as immoral and wicked. For all creationists’ insistence that evolution denigrates humanity, creationism is fundamentally anti-human, commanding us to spurn our own logic and cognition in favor of absurd sophism derived from a 3,000-year-old text. It turns our greatest ability—to reason—into our greatest enemy. Using our brains, according to creationism, will lead us to sin; only mindless piety can keep us on the track to salvation.
It’s easy to scoff at all this, to giggle at the vivid weirdness of young Earth creationism and then shrug it off as an isolated cult. But the 40 percent of Americans who reject evolution, as well as the tens of thousands of children or more who are being brainwashed with it in publicly funded classrooms, aren’t laughing
A friend of mind was raised as a fundamentalist, but he was also a relentless questioner. As an adult he questioned his beliefs until there were cracks in the foundation. He is now a free-thinker who describes his fundamentalist state of mind as follows: “I was taught to be afraid to question. It was like there was an electrified fence built around my religious beliefs, and I would be risking death to question those beliefs.” The man I’m speaking of is a ferociously smart man, but mere intelligence is not enough. It wasn’t logic that causes people to be fundamentalists, and therefore logic and facts will not undo the damage. That is certainly my experience.
I have much to say about religion and what it takes to communicate meaningfully with believers in my five-part series, “Mending Fences.”
George Dvorsky refers to getting past the frustration, anger and name-calling as “post-Atheism”:
I’m hoping to see atheists move past the religion bashing and start thinking about more substantive issues. This is what I mean when I say post-atheism. It’s time to set aside the angst and work more productively to help those who need it, while working to develop a world view and set of guidelines for living without God. It’s unfortunate and tragic that so many humanists have equated the movement with atheism, while completely forgetting their progressive roots.
Humanism is about the betterment of all humanity and the contemplation of what it is we wish to become. It’s about taking control of our own lives in the absence of divine intervention. And it’s about taking responsibility for ourselves and doing the right thing.
This is where our energies and attention needs to be focused. Not in ridiculous Facebook timeline posts that serve no one.
I wouldn’t call it “post atheism,” because the term atheism means that one doesn’t believe in God, and that is still true of the people who aren’t religious. But I do agree entirely that it’s time for atheists to move on. I get it, that we have been subjected to bigotry, but it’s time to move from our Malcolm X phase to our Martin Luther King phase. I discuss all of this in detail in my five-part series titled “Mending Fences.”
As for a good model to use for getting past the frustration and, instead, making the world a better place, I often refer to this declaration by Paul Kurtz as my starting point.
On the question of whether they believed the effects of global warming were already happening, the percentage of self-identified Republicans or conservatives answering “yes” plummeted from almost 50 percent in 2007-2008 to 30 percent or less in 2010, while liberals and Democrats remained at 70 percent or more, according to the study in this spring’s Sociological Quarterly.
Notice that the question wasn’t about causation. It did not ask the cause of the warming (human caused versus natural fluctuation), but merely whether the Earth was warming.
Perhaps Gallop should have coupled its question with these just to get at the root of this insanity (and see here): A) Do you trust thermometers? B) When your mother used a thermometer, did you trust her? and C) When scientists announce the following data, are these highly credentialed professionals actually acting as conniving scam artists who are out to try to somehow make a bunch of money?
Caveat: I know that I’ve betrayed my beliefs that the earth is, indeed warming. This is not to suggest that I ever advocated any sort of cap and trade approach to the problem, which I consider to be a fraud in general and riddled with corruption wherever it has been allegedly implemented (based, for example, on this Harper’s Magazine article titled “Conning the Climate,” (October 2007).
Rather, I believe that we need to have the intelligence and courage to directly regulate our production of CO2. I’m not confident that we’ll be able to do that. Why? Because America has an extremely long track record of failing to do what intelligence and self-restraint would require. We are a nation steeped in ignorance, as demonstrated by the large numbers of people who refused to believe basic thermometer data.
People don’t engage in climate denialism because they are “stupid.” Most evidence deniers are quite capable of considering evidence and making rational decisions, but there is a lot more going on in humans than rational thought. There is also our emotional/social side. To describe human animals, psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a lawyer riding an elephant. Public assertions that contradict clear evidence are public displays of group loyalty, and sometimes people are more compelled to display loyalty than to crunch data to a logical conclusion that conflicts with tenets embraced by the group. For the most part, this decision to choose loyalty over evidence is not a fully conscious one, but it can often result in a compelling display of loyalty to the extent that it is an expensive display. Amotz Zahavi has written extensively on this topic of expensive and therefore reliable displays. I discuss this urge to display as a badge of group belonging in my five-part series called “Mending Fences.” See also, this post on the work of Richard Sosis.
I would describe the process like this: It’s as though the felt compulsion to show loyalty to the ingroup erects an electrified fence in the mind of the group member protecting the group’s creed of beliefs from serious critical inquiry. If humans were really heating up the planet, it could call for humans (to the extent that they acted as good-hearted moral beings) to make dramatic coordinated changes in the way we run our society. But if this could be done at all, it could only be done by government fiat. But modern conservatives hold it as a religious belief that government is feckless and wasteful. Although it seems pointedly absurd for those of us who trust the readings of thermometers, it is much easier to deny rising temperatures than to admit this evidence but then explain why one is not doing anything meaningful about the problem. Especially given the fact that conservatives tend to live inland (coastal areas tend to have more liberal inhabitants–Jonathan Haidt explains this geographical dispersion).
Will Gervais has recently published “Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice” in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. he wondered whether a perceived increase in the number of atheists would lead to increased prejudice against atheists. He has found the opposite. Evidence or belief that atheists are prevalent actually reduces prejudice against atheists. Therefore, atheists would be advised to remind others that they are atheists so that others tend to believe that there are significant numbers of atheists out there. At The Intersection, Chris Mooney suggests that atheists should nonetheless avoid being confrontational, because confrontation tends tend “to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility.”
That is the combination I have settled into over the past couple of years. I don’t hesitate to tell others that I am a non-theist (I avoid the use of the word atheist because is suggests that I hold all of the same views as the “new atheists” (which I don’t, though there is considerable overlap). When I make it clear that I am a non-theist to a theist, however, I do so in a non-confrontational way, which, in my experience, invites much more productive dialogue. See my five part series, Mending Fences (start here), for my views in detail.
How prevalent are atheists worldwide? Here one of the opening paragraphs from the Gervais study:
But they are numerous. Globally, atheists are 58 times more numerous than Mormons, 41 times more numerous than Jewish people, and twice as numerous as Buddhists; nonbelievers constitute the fourth largest religious group in
the world, trailing only Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Despite the prevalence of atheists and the popular attention atheism is receiving, there is little scientific research on atheism and attitudes toward atheists. Yet religious belief is declining in the postindustrial world, and the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990. Under billboards reading, for example, “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone,” American atheists are increasingly making their numbers known. What effects might the increasing numbers and visibility of atheists have on attitudes toward atheists? This straightforward question has important implications not only for the specific social psychology of atheism and attitudes toward atheists but also for the broader social psychological understanding of the relationship between prejudice and perceived outgroup size, possibly suggesting a novel approach to prejudice reduction.