Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Comment Transcribed

An article on Jenn Q Public, certainly worth reading, got me thinking and the commentary by the trolls attached thereto really got me going. The following is my own offering on the thread:

‘They, who in quarrels interpose, often get a bloody nose.’

I am going to ignore Lord Palmerston against my better judgment.

I find comments ‘proving’ Jenn’s point about (A)atheists and the comments proving the (A)atheist point about ‘the Christian right’ equally interesting and alarming. The argument between fundamentalist Christian trolls and angry atheist trolls really illustrates why people on both sides are likely to see one another as the enemy and why those with no interest in taking a bold stance against either the evils of ‘aggressive secularism designed to destroy religion’ or ‘the fundamentalist attempt to force religion upon all Americans’ feel attacked from both sides.

The sad fact is that atheist criticism of the religious right is more accurate than not and the religious right’s criticism of Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins, at least when it comes to feelings of intellectual superiority and contempt for religious belief, is also more accurate than not. There are aggressive bigots on both sides who feel themselves entirely superior to the other side. Each side is equally convinced of the stupidity, insanity, or evil of the other. It would be difficult to tell an atheist troll and a fundamentalist troll apart if the argument wasn’t complete with its own flash cards.

I was raised in the Mennonite Church, which was one of the classical Reformation/Counter-Reformation Protestant movements. Much of my moral and ethical thinking (a belief in free will, a real but pragmatic commitment to non-violence whenever possible, a classical belief in freedom of individual conscience and the separation of Church and State, and my belief in the duty of all men and women to be good neighbors to one another) comes directly from core Mennonite doctrine even if my own personal brand of ‘critical realism’ has altered it in some forms. A reading of the Bible and a study of history has moved me more toward Unitarian Christianity and certain principles of Deism (though I am not a true Deist), but I believe in a creator with a plan for mankind and am a person of faith. So it bothers me greatly when the ideas of faith and God are attacked as childhood fables and dangerous cultural delusions by people who are essentially less ‘atheists’ than they are theological and philosophical materialists. Their religion is pure empirical science coupled with pure abstract logic and they have no room for anything that does not fit their system.

Nor is the attack solely from the left. On the right, self-appointed disciples of Ayn Rand such as Christopher Hitchens hold disdain for any sort of societal morality not based in self-interest and personal profit. This thinking has even infected certain religious groups, such as ‘prosperity doctrine’ charismatics and evangelicals who preach that if we believe then God will make us rich and if we are not rich then we must not be right with God.

On the other hand, when I went to work every day past a church with a big sign saying ‘Can America afford a watered down Christianity?’ I know who was being directly attacked by the question. They mean Christians like me, who believe in classical principles of post-Reformation Protestantism like free will, freedom of conscience, and the separation of Church and State and are rather repelled and frightened by the movement to pass arcane and often contradictory verses of Leviticus into federal law so that everyone’s sins stay safely ‘in the closet’ and do not offend those more moral than the sinners. I am also somewhat bothered by those who believe a nuclear attack on Iran will fulfill the requirements for the Rapture… and that belief is a real and powerful fact in many evangelical churches and to claim otherwise is simply untrue. The fact that it is also a real belief among politicians with some degree of power and influence is more disturbing yet, especially when one combines that with those people of faith who reject all science whatsoever because their attachment to literal truths in a book whose precise authorship is not open to scholarly proof and has been edited more times than the Oxford English Dictionary trumps empirical study and logical thought.

I believe in faith and a divine spark, as a writer I feel I have occasionally touched/felt the divine spark and been inspired as a result, and I believe in the value of empirical observation and logical calculation as necessary tools to understand the world even as faith, imagination, and the divine spark are necessary to understand the human condition.

In the end, sadly, I have to side more closely with the materialists than the fundamentalists in this argument. Not because the materialists are correct in their evaluation of religion and faith and God, which I believe they are not and which I find offensive, but because I believe they are ultimately right about the dangers of religious fundamentalism to individual thought and conscience and that those dangers are a much more serious threat to Americans than the petty nastiness of cynics. Faith, in the end, is too basic and true to be completely destroyed by cynicism or materialism. It is human nature to have faith in something greater than our own flawed reality.

Empirical reasoning, on the other hand, is threatened not only by dogmatic devotion to unswerving truth or the incorrect belief that religion and scientific fact are somehow incompatible but by infoglut, by natural human laziness, by the desire of most people to be told where to go and what to do and how to do it. For many people, thinking is too much effort. In an argument between pure faith and pure reason, either of which would be a great tragedy for mankind, pure faith has a serious danger of winning. Pure reason far less.

I have no ideological or moral commitment to absolute secularism. The Ten Commandments in a courthouse does not offend me and I do not believe Americans have an inalienable natural right not to be offended. Indeed, I believe the ‘right not to be offended’ is directly antithetical to principles of free expression. That said, I don’t believe that the religious right not to be offended trumps the rights of Americans to marry the people they love. To claim otherwise is no different than any liberal brand of PC. It’s all the same thing.

I deplore racism, homophobia, nativism, misogyny, and economic classism… but I do not believe you can legislate against bigoted thought or speech. What we can do is all stop giving credence to bigots, whichever side of the aisle those bigots may claim as their constituency.

My biggest concerns about this issue are two-fold. First, increasingly, the right wing fanatics (and that is what they are, I don’t care whom that offends) are increasingly gaining credence among the general population as the majority of Christians and the mainstream of Christian thought… which they are decidedly not. The second is that angry atheists are increasingly gaining credence as the mainstream of liberal thought, which they are also decidedly not. Even the majority of PC secularists are less anti-religion than they are against national displays of Christian piety in a multi-cultural nation, and while I do not agree with their core belief that everyone has a right not to be offended they are hardly evil. It is certainly secondary to the fundamentalist religious view that only THEY have a right not to be offended.

This comment is much the length of posts on my own blog, but this back and forth really got me going.


Anonymous said...

Wow, your blog is very classy. I've conversed a little with you on Liberal Values blog, but I didn't get where you were coming from till I read this. One thing I think we are in harmony on, and I'll "cut corners" in explaining, is my belief that Fundamentalist Christians are closer to "truth" about the nature of the Universe but are a greater danger to people's freedom and God's plan in their distortion of truth. Mike Hatcher a.k.a Mike B.T.R.M.

Mike B.T.R.M. said...

After some sleep, I came to the conclusion that my previous post was so brief, it hardly made any sense. Ultimately what I believe reality is, is much closer to what fundamentalist Christians believe. That being said, in a "prophetic" sort of way, I see the greatest threat to our freedom, rising from within the "fundamentalist Christian" movement. This I believe, if for no other reason, than suspecting that when push comes to shove, religious believers are more willing to fight and die for their convictions than say people wanting to "defend pornography as free speech" for example.

Chris Richards said...

Well, I'm very close to an anarcho-socialist, in pure philosophical terms. However, that is entirely unworkable in the real world because of the failings of human nature. So I tend to favor the lest individual constraint, the most equality under the law, and the society most supportive and empowering of its members possible under a workable republican system of government.

I think fundamentalist believers, of nearly any religious stripe, can't see the forest for the trees. They are so focused on individual portions of the message that they completely fail to process the message in its entirety. I wouldn't call them 'close to truth' at all, I'd call them dangerous distorters of truths.

Wakefield Tolbert said...

One can argue about the fact that supposedly we're in some multi-culti, PC fantasy land of cosmic justice.

Likewise, one might also argue, as did one socialist of yesteryear, that someday all faith would be abolished, the state would be the faith (there ARE some who pitch for that kind of thing in radical secularism) and science would make us all healthy, wealthy, wise, and all days would begin with a parade and end with environmentally friendly lemonade toasts.

Of course, as is the notion of a secular nation by default (one where no one religion takes the helm of social or cultural control) is a myth, so too is the notion that those who jabber about things like separation of church and state, mean us no harm.

Some of them very much DO.

The irony here is that generally the more secular types and atheist pitchmeisters are the ones in league with mutli-culti advocates. The problem being that no all this CULTI of the Multitudes MULTI respects secular values equally.

Islamists, for one, don't find much credence to the notion that the State can or should function Allah-less.

Multiculturalism fails on another front just as dangerously--it's own underlying assumptions; that all cultures are equal. (they are not) and that those societies that have religion but also etched out a place for science and can send men to the moon are on par with those that put bones in men's noses.

It was great liberal Yale scholar William Henry III who had to put all this crap to bed once and for all. Yes, he got nonplussed about some of the activities of this decreasingly powerful Agent of Doom (people who supposedly don't like dancing, sex, or beer) called the "religious right" (whomever they are by next Wednesday) but was more than happy to point out that it was the STRUCTURE--now changing rapidly--of Western society that even allowed religion and the secular state to live in comparative harmony--standing against all history. This structure of what was erstwhile barbarian hordes running around burning and raping everything on two legs, in turn came from the commonality and moral teachings of Christianity, as did the modern notions about the structure of the state. It had an imperfect beggining, yes, with the legacy of monarchy. But the point was that legal norms pulled from moral norms had to be above both commoner and tribal leader, the latter evolving into kings and then administrators.

Others, like UK theologian and historian "beastrabban", have pointed out that while you might think Christianity to be pure applesauce, it was the foundation of this faith that made the state aware that in the first place it could never supplant divinity and cultural values (though it tried to this day) and in the second place the very conception of God in the Christian awareness was one of a structured universe rather than the more primitive "animism" that characterized previous religions, thus in turn leading to a greater appreciation of science, and the notion that the cosmos in interpreted and structured and logical, rather than the playground of jealous gods tossing thunderbolts.

It was his and other's analysis (like Dinesh D'Souza and Nancy Pearcy) that the very attempt to divorce religion of Christianity from the State is doomed to fail.

Wakefield Tolbert said...

First, there can be no PURE secularist state. That is a fool's errand to try in what we see in an increasingly diverse population. Even if the Secularist has no religious competition, he then must find ways to fill in the cultural vacuum with something else.

In the past, these attempts ended up praising the mugs of Stalin and Mao and degenerate into cults of personality.

Sorta like, on the Statist Lite variety, schoolkids now being forced to sing "we've got to changey-changey, and then re-arrangey".

You know, Obama's Blue Shirt brigades.

So there really can be no true "naked public square" of nothingness as a cultural asset.

It is like saying that although Christianity and Judeo-Christian values helped found, build, and guide the very development of Western civilization after converting and/or chasing away all the Visigoths and Jutes and Vandals, and other European barbarians and unite them under a common banner, we no longer need it.

The equivalent of saying that now that the 40th floor of an office building is so expertly built, we no longer need the foundation or basement any more since we don't like the way it smells down there.