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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At Salon.com, Amy Benfer has roasted Bristol and Levi with an article beginning with this paragraph worthy of bronzing (the entire article constitutes a clinic on how to write, IMO):
She has been a (perhaps unwitting) symbol of her mother’s ultimate pro-life commitment; he cut off his mullet and agreed to wear a suit for the Republican Convention. She spent her first year postpartum making bank telling other young women not to even think of having sex; he was dubbed “Sex on Skates” by New York magazine and stripped down to his skivvies for cash. But perhaps, like the boy who pulls your pigtail on the playground, all those differences and petty squabbles were a sign of true love; according to this week’s Us Weekly magazine, it was all just a prelude to a big white Alaskan wedding: Bristol Palin, abstinence educator, and Levi Johnston, Playgirl model, have announced their (second) engagement.
I am pleased that, so far today, I have kept to my pledge to avoid discussing Sarah Palin on this site. Ooops.
[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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As IQ inches upwards, creativity is sagging, according to this Newsweek article:
Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.
Why is this happening? The article suggests some possible reasons. “One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools.”
So Mel Gibson has been exposed (once again) as an intolerant, sexist, abusive person. A recording of a phone conversation with his former girlfriend is now Out There on the internet and one can listen to Mel spill molten verbiage into her earpiece while she calmly refutes his charges.
All I can wonder is, So what?
What business is this of ours? This is private stuff. People lose control. Between each other, with strangers, but more often with those closest, people have moments when the mouth ill-advisedly opens and vileness falls out. The question is, does this define us? Are we, in fact, only to be defined by our worst moments?
That would seem to be the case for people like Gibson. The reason, I think, is that for most of us, the Mel Gibsons of the world have no business having shitty days and acting like this. For most of us, there is just cause for having these kinds of days and attitudes, because for most of us the world is not our oyster and we do not have the luxury of squandering time, friends, and money. Mel Gibson is wealthy and famous and, at one time, admired. He ate at the best restaurants, appeared on television, gave interviews, has his picture on the covers of magazines. Is seen with other people, regularly, who fall into that category of Those Who Have It Made.
Take a guess . . . what percentage of young adults from Philadelphia would be qualified to serve in the military? 92%? 45%? Now check this out:
A nonprofit group says that up to 90 percent of young Philadelphians are ineligible for military service because of criminal records, obesity or lack of education.
So you’re probably thinking that the problem is with young adults in big cities, but you’re an optimist:
Nationally, the Defense Department estimates that 75 percent of young adults are disqualified from military service.
Ouch. We need boot camp for everyone. We need to put a moratorium on French fries, television and the “war on drugs.”
Every other year, I pull jury duty. I received my latest summons with some chagrin, as it seems like I just had it. So sure was I that I had served in 2009 that I checked the box on the survey form that says I’ve just done the duty within the last 24 months. So I thought I might be excused.
But to do this post, I checked my records. It has already been 30 months since I last spent half a week sitting in the courthouse deciding someones fate for up to $1.50/hr. Oops. They’ll probably check and I’ll make those big bucks yet again this July.
I’ve sat on several juries, and been foreman a couple of times. Civil lawyers don’t like me. I get bumped from all lawsuits involving measurable things, like product liability cases. But criminal attorneys don’t seem to mind my rational bent.
I may have to try harder. Murder trials are very stressful. Maybe an Atheist shirt or button would help. Atheists are among the most distrusted demographics in this nation. Sex offenders get more respect.
How do I feel about this regular duty? Consider my official number.