February 28, 2013
So there’s more than one way in which I’m sick of being told that the way I think and experience the world is a blight on humanity that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Recently I had a heated Facebook discussion with a friend over this Times Room for Debate entry, which not only argues that religion is not a reliable source of morality, but also posits that atheism shouldn’t seek to replace religion, but to end it…unfortunately employing a host of unfounded generalizations and leaps of illogic.
In the interest of both critical thinking and compassion, can we look at what, practically and humanly, ending religion would mean?
Various cultures and government regimes, at various times, have tried, hard, to get rid of religion or specific religions. I do not know of an instance in which it has gone well, in which the attempt didn’t involve egregious violence and human rights abuses, or in which the culture in question was left ultimately better off. Or in which it even remotely worked.
Beyond whatever personal spiritual significance or comfort they hold to individual believers, religious thought and traditions are the cornerstones of more than a few minority cultures and communities. Who is anyone to say that these cultures have no value, to put oneself in a position of choosing which other people’s communities, community rituals, values, and devotions, should be suppressed and eliminated? If we’re talking about the distinction between religion and morality, what is the morality of depriving a minority population of its rights of self-definition and community traditions and values?
Has anyone really thought about how we would prevent people or communities from transmitting their belief systems to their children? If you knock down every church building, how are you going to keep people from teaching their children to pray alone in bed at night? How are you going to prevent me from hearing God in the wind in the trees or in the silences between raindrops? How are you going to prevent people from infusing art and literature with religious thought?
And before somebody answers that the solution to ending religious belief is just to teach people better facts, understand this: Religions are not arbitrary sets of false, irrational, or mistaken beliefs, or collections of simple superstitions of cause and effect or magical thinking or carrot/stick promises of punishment or reward for belief or behavior (though they can contain all of those things), which could simply be undone by giving people better information. (That thunder is the result of colliding warm and cool air masses and not the gods having wrestling matches, for instance. I know what causes thunder. That knowledge has never yet prevented the experience of it from being spiritual to me.) They are complex narrative frameworks of symbol, metaphor, and allegory. They are stories and vocabularies for a class of experiences that you can’t simply forbid people from having. You can’t keep someone from having an experience by denying them the language for representing or coping with it.
And so unless you’re going to all-out eliminate storytelling, you’re not going to keep people who are so inclined from finding personal significance and guidance in storytelling, or from using a certain type of story–myth, fable, fairytale, whatever you want to call it–to give shape and understandability to their experiences.
It’s not fair or intellectually honest to presuppose that those experiences are false or trivial just because you don’t share them. And frankly narcissistic to declare that, because you don’t understand or share it, that mode of perception needs to be eliminated from the realm of human experience and meaning.
There is bad religion, just as there is bad music and bad writing, but we don’t talk about doing away with those forms of thought and expression just because a lot of it is of poor quality. There is religion that advances truly terrible values; that doesn’t make religion inherently destructive or wrong any more than Twilight‘s existence makes all teen fantasy literature poorly written and abusive relationship-glorifying. It is a medium, not an end, not an ultimate good or evil in itself.
In the same way that the overwhelming (and baffling) success of Twilight tells us nothing about teen fantasy literature’s inherent quality or worth (the genre also includes the Wrinkle in Time quartet, His Dark Materials, and the Earthsea cycle), the popularity of anti-intellectual or violent fundamentalism tells us nothing about what religion inherently is or has to be. It is one manifestation.
Religion is not morality, we should do a better job of talking about what both of those things are and are not, and I fully agree that religion can’t be said to be the exclusive or superior source of morality. But that doesn’t make it either worthless, or worthy of eradication.
February 17, 2013
Call me crazy, but I love beaches in winter. This is Centerport Harbor, in Centerport, New York, where a friend and I took a long walk yesterday and watched some fascinating clouds roll in.
(If any of my geeky followers know the name of this specific cloud formation, I’d be interested; Google Image yielded no clear matches.)