Some questions from a believer

images

When I linked to my most recent Daily Maverick column on Google+, Mike Smuts responded with a lengthy comment that included some interesting questions. I thought I’d respond to them here, seeing as not everyone who read the column might spot the conversation on Google+. Mike’s full comment is posted at the end, but because of it’s length I’ll start with only his questions, with my responses interspersed.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

Of course, they certainly can. Being an atheist doesn’t guarantee that you’re sensible, fair or rational. In particular, it doesn’t guarantee that you are also skeptical of easy answers, or that you apply something like the scientific method to your own beliefs. So, for example, many atheists might be fundamentalist in their approach to various other emotive issue – perhaps climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views. They might believe in things which are (to my mind at least) as implausible as gods are, like a soul or free will.

Having said that, when atheists are fundamentalist, they cause offence and irritation. Religious folk who are fundamentalist cause death. And I do also think that fundamentalist is less likely with atheism than with religiosity, seeing as many (if not most) atheists are also skeptics.

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

Agreed. Not to mention the simple stuff like “women are not inferior to men” and “keeping slaves is a bad thing”.

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

Yes, your route is a better route than the literal, fundamentalist one. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best route. Imagine a fresh world, without the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed. Here, you have the choice between picking up a strange text that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational. First, there are plenty of modern books like that around – Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne come to mind. You’re using the book you are because it’s embedded in your culture, not because you’ve been able to make an objective choice that it’s the best book, despite it’s flaws.

Second, there are books that can serve these purposes without including a bunch of false/outdated claims. There are other sources of inspiration, awe, wonder and moral guidance. And all of these things speak to functions and events in your brain, not in your spirit. Your approach of thinking this sort of religious practice to be a “function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner” not only gives extra credence to a particular way of “not knowing”, but is also somewhat circular in assuming that we can’t “know” in spiritual matters. We can’t “know” that leprechauns don’t exist in a scientifically absolute manner either – but we have no good reason to believe that they do. All that we do know about the brain gives not a shred of support to the existence of a soul. Yet, somehow this idea is still treated more seriously than the claim that leprechauns exist.

And it’s easy to see why. We would like to be immortal, we would like to be reunited with loved ones in the hereafter, and we might like to have a better life after death than the one we have now. I understand all that. But wishing for it to be so doesn’t make it the case. It’s far more plausible that we are born and then die, and if we apply the same level of critical thought to claims regarding souls as we do with regard to claims regarding leprechauns, we would all agree on this. But we can’t apply the same level of critical thought, because we’ve experienced centuries of brainwashing involving various metaphysical notions, where we now see them as innately plausible rather than implausible.

Lastly, I’m really not that bothered by believers like you. You’re unlikely to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those that do that sort of thing count you among their number, and that number is used to buttress claims for teaching creationism in schools or other ways of making religion interfere with public life. That number is cited in censuses, and politicians can then say “we are a Christian country”, and act accordingly. And in general, these attitudes don’t contribute to fostering critical thought in terms of things like science, and might support truly dangerous beliefs involving prayer, homoeopathy or attachment therapy rather than medicine. They don’t contribute, in that they create a space for beliefs walled-off from the usual standards of critical enquiry.

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

Some atheists are more angry than others. Some strategies to counter religious beliefs are more productive than others also. Being angry has worked to convince people of the flaws in religion, and being polite has also done so. It’s a strategic choice. Mine is (most of the time) to be polite, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with being hostile, by definition. The key problem here is, again, that your question comes from a position of religious privilege, in that there is plenty to be angry about. Organised religion protects child abusers, for example. It can encourage homophobia, and teaching nonsense to kids in schools. As I’ve argued on this blog on numerous occasions, it can infantilise us- particularly with regard to our ability to reason about moral judgements. Read Greta Christina on this – she’s got a litany of reasons why we’re angry.

This is the question where I strongly doubted your sincerity. It’s a very easy dismissal of atheist concerns to label us as angry or aggressive, because it allows for religious folk to appear to be the reasonable ones, who’d be willing to hear us out if only we behaved. Does the movement offer anything of real value? A bizzare question. First, because much of the good any person does is not because they’re religious, but because they are inclined to do good. Second, because you should ask whether religion, on balance, offers anything of real value that can’t come from elsewhere, at lower cost to the species (cf. why we’re angry). And third, isn’t encouraging rationality, and trying to eliminate unfounded beliefs “of real value”?

Try this thought experiment: Someone comes to you, and expresses views that you think are completely unfounded, and wrong, and are known to result in various forms of social ill. But the views comfort them, provide them with a framework by which to understand life and so forth. They might even have books, written by people they consider their spiritual leaders in these regards. You present them with all the evidence supporting your view, which obviously outweighs theirs. Their texts are pre-scientific, and their views are simply the result of ideological blindness as far as you can tell. But they have faith in their viewpoint, and are unpersuaded. Now imagine that this person is a racist, or a sexist, and that those are the views they are defending. And now, tell me how you’re different. And then, think about the double-standard – it’s not okay for them to hold the views they do, contrary to all available evidence, but it is for you?

Of course, religion can (in general) not cause the harms those beliefs do. But it also can do so. And until everyone who is religious is simply religious in the fuzzy way the Dakwins study revealed, it will keep doing so, and be allowed to get away with it because it’s been given immunity from the usual level of critical enquiry.

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

Sure, and I suppose I’ve mostly answered this above. The point of the Dawkins data – as well as reported experience of people in the UK, Norway, Denmark, etc. is that religion is more and more a personal thing, or a social club, or something equally innocuous. So yes, it’s a sign of progress. But as I said in the column which prompted your comment, at one extreme this isn’t really religion in the typical sense anymore. And as I said above, these sorts of “believers” don’t really bother me, and they are going to keep increasing in number, which is great. But until it’s no longer the default that, for example, interfaith bodies are consulted by governments (with no secular representation), or that politicians can appeal to centuries-old texts to justify discrimination or bad educations, we’ve still got work to do.

The full comment:

I think I may actually lose a couple of followers with this comment. That’s because I’m actually a ‘believer’, but mostly interact with ‘non-believers’. This is not due to some secret mission to convert anyone, rather I enjoy a more philosophical and intellectual approach to life. Something sadly missing in discussions with many (not all) Christians.

Yet, in some ways I can identify fully with some of the results in the poll you mention. For me this is not so much a case of ignorance to the bible’s contents, but rather a more modern approach to my faith. A faith in which, ironically, I’m much more comfortable with questions than absolute answers.

I’ll try to explain and keep it short(ish). I think post-modernism, the information revolution and many other factors have presented a challenge to Christians. A very healthy and necessary challenge. Furthermore our history in South Africa of having had a ‘Christian-Nationalist’ system didn’t do Christianity any favours. The irony is that it substantially watered down discussions around faith, religion, etc.

While I fully realise the conflict in this statement, I can fully understand that based purely on logic one should reject faith of any kind in anything that cannot be either scientifically proven or logically argued. It’s also incredible how quickly the first natural philosophers, through reason only, were able to theorise the existence of atoms. More than a 1000 years before the first electron microscopes came into being. They were able to do this once they (mostly) rejected the idea that fables or myths were a viable avenue of understanding the physical world / cosmos.

I’m not going to try and justify faith or my believe here. It’s a personal choice for me. Suffice to say that with some exposure to non-believers I have long since dropped the idea of non-believers going to hell or facing some eternal punishment. I have gotten to realise that judging someone on their believe or non-believe alone is about as reliable as judging someone on skin colour, language or eye colour.

It’s in relation to the last paragraph that I’m actually engaging with you here. As a ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ individual coming from a Christian background and ‘Christian-nationalist’ environment (the latter still exists in many South African’s heads) the fact that most of the people who were also ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ tended to be non-believers influenced my view of believers to a great degree. I’m obviously referring to Christian believers as that reflects the context I have experience of. Thus, without conscious contemplation of the matter, I started to accept that Christians were behind the curve, conservative and often fundamentalist.

Now, I’m not saying that the previous sentence doesn’t hold, at least, some truth. But, in the same way that many (not all) ANC politicians seem to believe that racism is the sole domain of whites, I made (what I believe to be) the paradigm error that fundamentalism and its lessor cousins of prejudice and others were the sole domain of Christians (or other believers).

At this point I should perhaps point out that many of the ‘non-believers’ I refer to above would have been agnostic rather than atheist. Then I moved away from the city to the platteland about ten years ago and my ideas of ‘non-believers’ got a bit shaken up. I was suddenly thrown into a very small pond. In such a small pond one can’t be very selective of who you make friends with. This is both a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ thing. On the ‘good’ side you’re forced to befriend people with ideas you’d normally be isolated from. On the ‘bad’ side you have to stomach things that you personally may detest, in my case it means, amongst other things, to stomach racism and homophobia (of course I’m not saying ‘accept’ or ‘keep quiet’ about). You also discover that the very same people who have these (for me) ‘shady’ qualities also embody some other very exemplary qualities, from which you can learn and by which you can be enriched.

Basically my idea of non-believers got shaken up because here I was no confronted with non-believers, including atheists, who were not in all aspects (in my view) ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ or the like. In fact, I found many to be, in relation to some matters, fundamentalist… That was a shocker to me.

What follows is not meant as trick questions, I’m genuinely curious to get your take thereon. If you actually read this far into my comment and are willing to spend some time on this somewhere in future I’d welcome slightly longer answers than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

My sincere gratitude if you read all the way to this point! If we can have a constructive discussion on this I’ll appreciate it. I’m not looking for the shallow kind of to-and-fro one often encounter on the internet. I trust that my comment is above that

One Pingback/Trackback