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Recently I read an article about Miley Cyrus and how she wasn't acting like she was twelve anymore. Miley says some really interesting things about what it means to find yourself when you're a child-star, and also talks about sex and the double-standard women face in Hollywood. Now, say I posted a link to that article here with a comment along the lines of how nice it would be if she turned out to be a Christian.

Something like that happened recently on a friend's FB page, only there my friend posted a link and a third party commented saying he hoped Miley was an atheist. That comment really got me thinking, because if I had said something similar coming at it from a Christian perspective, I'd expect some raised eyebrows around here. At a minimum. Such a comment would imply one of two things: either I thought Miley's comments couldn't be good unless they came from a Christian, or else I wanted all good things to be associated with Christianity. Either way, I can see how you guys might get a bit offended, or at least be confused why I should be concerned. A claim like that, if I heard someone else make it, would strike me as oddly provincial. And also selfish; whatever's good, I'd want to make it available to the most people possible. And since people tend to listen to their own groups more than they do "outsiders," that means I'd want wise people and thought-provoking comments coming from all corners of society – not just mine.

I think that's what struck me so hard about the comment I described above. Now, I really don't want to paint the whole secular humanism movement with the same brush, especially a negative one. Still, this isn't the first time I've heard talk along these lines. Around the time I was first exploring philosophy (so 2003-2004ish), I stumbled on an editorial, I believe by Daniel Dennett, explaining why secular humanists needed a label that described who they were, not what they were against. The solution they came up with was "brights." And the implication, to an intellectually curious but decidedly theistic twenty-something was: unless you give up your belief in God, you are somehow intellectually inferior than those who have made that leap.

I was reminded of that impression again when I read Dawkins's recent piece in the Guardian on whether he thought the Bible was a moral book. Apparently there's an initiative in the UK to make sure every school library has a copy of the King James Bible. Like Dawkins, I was shocked that this might even be an issue; whatever you think of the Bible theologically, Dawkins is absolutely right to praise it as a marvel of English literature. Dawkins says he was not approached to pitch in with the donations drive, and said he would have given to the cause, either privately or through his institution. I do reject his claim that bloody wars have been fought over transubstantiation (they were fought because the king or priest or whomever said those guys over there are not like us; butter-side-up/down would have served just as well as the rallying cry). But where he mocked theology (hardly a new move on his part) and where he ticked through the Bible stories at break-neck speed, implying that there was nothing to discuss here, I found myself getting a bit insulted. Not because it was the Bible (I'm a philosopher; I can be critical of the sacredest of cows without getting emotional about it), but because of the implication that theology was shallow, and that anyone who tried to dig into the Bible to make sense of these stories or to discover that they couldn't be made sensical, was somehow wasting their time.

What am I supposed to make of statements like this? That's what I've been banging my head against for the last two days. The only take-away message I can find (and perhaps I'm missing the point!) is that – if I ever say something worthwhile – it would be better if I was an atheist. That I will always be an un-bright, simply because I'm not convinced my senses can describe all of reality. And that, if I devote more than thirty seconds to wondering why God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, I'm wasting my time.

But let's leave personal insult aside, because this issue is about more than just me. There are more general reasons why an atheist should hope Miley Cyrus (to say nothing of smart people in other fields) actually turns out to be religious.

First, the more theoretical. It seems to me that one of secular humanism's major complaints is the damage religion does. Even accepting that religion is intrinsically harmful (which I don't believe), surely some kinds of religion are more harmful than others. I mean, would you rather have a Westboro Baptist Church shouting that God hates fags to everyone who walks by, or would you prefer someone like Matthew Vines. Columnist Leonard Pitts recently described Vines:

Vines is a Christian, a 22-year-old Harvard undergrad raised in a conservative evangelical church in Kansas. He is also gay and says he grew up being taught that the Bible condemns his sexual orientation. He took two years off from school to research and study whether or not that assertion is true.

The result is The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality. It's a video – you can find it online with a simple Google search – of a speech he gave in March at a church in Wichita that has become a minor sensation. Small wonder. Vines' speech is a masterwork of scriptural exegesis and a marvel of patient logic, slicing and dicing with surgical precision the claim that homophobia is God ordained. So effective is the video that after viewing it, Sandra Delemares a Christian blogger from the United Kingdom who had, for years, spoken in staunch opposition to same sex marriage, wrote that it "revolutionised" her thinking.

Personally, my vote is for more folks like Mr. Vines. I've watched the video and while I don't agree with some of his scriptural interpretation (in particular, the claim that Levitical laws have no bearing on Christians), but even so, I was more than a bit awed at the level of work Mr. Vines carried out. At twenty-two I don't think I could have done the work, or had the courage to speak about my research in my home community. Even just having the conversation is so necessary these days! And I can't imagine this happening (or at least not happening as easily) if Mr. Vines wasn't a favorite son of that community.

In my study of medieval philosophy I've come across some truly intelligent approaches to Christianity. I'm less well-versed in Muslim medieval philosophy than I am Catholic medieval philosophy, but I've been told Averroes and Avicenna could go toe-to-toe with Aquinas and Augustine on these points. There was an awareness of the philosophical issues posed (e.g.) by God's foreknowledge (How can I have free will if God knows what I will do?), evil (how could a good God create evil – and how does it exist if God didn't create it?), and power (can God do the impossible, like create a rock so heavy He can't lift it?). And because these philosophers raised these issues, you got a better class of theology. Less blind assertions, more logical introspection. That only happens when you have smart people on both sides of the debate, though. If you want a religion you can mock, then it makes perfect sense to hope that any smart person is an atheist rather than a religious person. But if you want a religion less prone to those abuses, that requires smart people saying smart things within the church (or mosque, etc.).

From a practical standpoint, it's even more important to have smart people inside the church as well as out of it. Christians and non-Christians agree on at least this much: organized religion, as it's practiced today, does a lot of damage. In fact, I'd say many (though certainly not all) atheists are driven more by bad organized religion than they are by philosophical points re: why theism is wrong. That's fine. And I'll actually join many atheists in criticizing the outlandish things done in the name of religion. But here's the thing: quite often, it's easier to accept criticism coming from inside the group than coming from without. Imagine if an Iranian started lecturing Americans over not respecting civil liberties, and then think how much easier it would be to really hear those same words if they came from a fellow American who was disgusted by what she saw in our country. The same goes for religion. Your average church-goer is going to listen more carefully to someone like Matthew Vines, a church member in good standing, because he isn't viewed as a threat and because he uses language and references the church is more interested in. It's just easier to really listen under those circumstances.

Now, some atheists may say they're not interested in reforming the church; they want to do away with it entirely. Personally, I have a hard time respecting this approach. If you honestly believe that something about religion or liturgy or whatever is harming people, then you do whatever you can to mitigate that harm – and trying to raze an entire institution is hardly ever the most efficient way to do that. You support people like Mr. Vines and try to bring religious people around to a view of their own canon that is more in line with principles you maintain for different reasons. Or you get them to practice their religion in what you think is a more benign way. Even if your long-term goal is no religion. You don't let people suffer in the short-term when you can help it – that's putting dogma over actual people.

But even if you think dismantling religion is the way to go, you'll still be better served by a better, more intellectually rigorous kind of religion. This was actual the approach Immanuel Kant advocated in Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone: a religion that (through history) relied less on historical accident and tribal affiliation, and more on pure reason. But the religion was supposed to be evolving and carrying the people along with it; you couldn't make a big jump if you wanted people to be ready for the more reason-driven "pure religion" (which secular humanists would probably recognize as no religion at all).

I honestly didn't mean to spend the last several hours writing out why I hate atheism so much. I actually don't hate atheism. I believe they are wrong on the basic question of whether we should only believe what we can give logical, empirical reasons for, but this is a deep philosophical question that wise men have been discussing since Plato and Aristotle pottered around the Lyceum, if not before. So I can respect people who believe differently. But I resent the idea, which I seem to be bumping into quite a lot lately, that believing in God is always some kind of a rational mistake. At its best, theism is a disagreement with atheists that what we see – what our senses can see, and touch, etc. – is all there is to reality. It's not a dismissal of science or logic or reason, but a simple recognition that there may be some things beyond their reach.

And yes, there's quite a bit of "at worst" out there, too. But that's a reason to hope for more smart theists, not less.


May. 25th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
I would far rather have religious people being intellectually rigorous, certainly, but I would hope that their intellectual rigor would eventually lead them to the fact that they cannot prove the existence of a deity and spend their intellectual energy on real and more worthwhile matters.

This is where things get complicated. I certainly don't think natural theology (the various logical arguments developed by medievalists for God's existence or their more modern counterparts) prove the kind of God religious people believe in exists. If they work at all (and that's a big if), there's usually quite a gap between the first cause or that than which nothing greater can be conceived, and the kind of God religions usually claim to believe in. Most theists I know who really think about their faith would agree, and probably cringe a bit when apologists trot out some of those arguments as if they proved Christianity (or Islam etc.) was true.

But you talk about philosophy like it's something that has nothing to do with religious claims. It's quite possible to show contradictions between concepts, even ones involved with religion. For example, take the idea that if God knows everything free will is impossible. (The gist is that what is known must be true, so if God knows I will eat chicken salad for dinner, I have no free choice in the matter.) This is a major problem in philosophy, and seems to tell us something about causality even if God doesn't exist. But even just looking at it from a religious perspective, this is precisely the kind of thing you need smart people wrestling with if you're going to have a better class of religion. It's not a waste of brain-power, I don't think.

If anyone can actually demonstrate that there are such things, I would love to know it. But if we can't perceive something, how is it real in any important ways? It's like talking about the weight of a song - meaningless. It might show off our intellectual chops, but so what?

This is precisely the problem. See the language you use. Demonstration involves a certain style of argumentation, the kind the sciences rely on. And you assume that "real" means the perceptible. But that's begging the question, isn't it? And it always struck me as the height of hubris, to think that my perception should be the measure of what was real.

More to the point, most people don't accept this view all the way. To take an example, why are we sure the sun will rise tomorrow? The law of induction says we can't (strictly speaking) make the jump from certain instances of the sun rising in the past to a universal law saying it will always rise - yet everyone does just this, and it's perfectly reasonable to make that jump. The point is that we all have assumptions about how reality works that we use to make sense of it. And no one thinks those unfounded beliefs are wrong; they're bedrock you build up from. This is actually a major topic in philosophy of religion, whether God can be one of these basic, unfounded beliefs (the technical term is primitive beliefs) and what makes our idea of God different than our idea of (say) freedom or causality.

Think about the scene in Deathly Hallows where Harry meets up with Dumbledore. If that whole conversation was all happening inside his head, if it was "only" a dream, would that make it less real? Dumbledore doesn't seem to think so.
May. 25th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
That was me, btw. :-)
May. 26th, 2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
Okay, how would you define "real" other than something that is either perceptible or logically deductible?

Perhaps more importantly, if we cannot perceive it, what is the point of saying it is real? If it cannot affect us, or us it? We might as well say that all fictional stories are "real" - they are equally imperceptible and un-affective.

The DH scene you reference - it is "real" in the sense that Harry perceives it, and it affects his later actions. But the conversation is not "real" in any other way - something that is only real to one person does not, for my money, count as true reality. That way lies madness.

Also, I would personally prefer no religion. A better class of religion is a second-best alternative, although it would be preferable to the crap presently out there.



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