"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Feb 4, 2011

missing the point

So, right at the start - I'm an atheist. I'm probably what you'd call a militant atheist. I don't buy into the whole "hard" and "soft" atheism thing, but I'm pretty sure that most of the "proofs" of God(s) merit the scare quotes. I don't even care if there is a God or a Gaggle of Gods. I'm not going to worship any of them. In all truth, I sometimes hope there is a God, just so I can tell him to piss off before I get shitcanned to Gehenna.

This does not keep me from appreciating the awesome genius of Hafiz of Shiraz, of Kabir, of Mirabai or the life and works of Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers, the Catholic Workers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the supremely wonderful charlatan, Alan Watts or a thousand and one Buddhists.

My atheism, and my opinions about the veracity of the so-called proofs of God, says absolutely nothing about the experiences, sincerity or intelligence of believers.

I don't worship or believe in Gods. These facts communicate exactly fuck all about anything, anywhere or when but my lack of worshipfulness.

That's a given.

What's not given, on the other hand, is this:

"...And yes, I realize most Christians will find that offensive, but it’s true. You may be highly intelligent and very well-educated, but if you believe in the Bible and think Jesus is your personal savior, it is almost certainly because you were surrounded with some kind of religious faith as a child. Those of us who enjoyed religion-free childhoods, on the other hand—and this includes Obama—don’t tend to fall down that particular rabbit hole..." 

The quote is from a feminist, so that out of the way first -

Feminists may in fact have properly identified patriarchy as a real problem.  They make a good case for it. I'm not really fond of the term, but I understand that many of them use "patriarchy" in the same way that I use "Spectacle," as a categorical descriptor, not as an actual entity. Feminism is a net benefit, in my unsolicited estimation - because its students and adherents tackle some shit that a whole bunch of dudes would rather not talk about, including but not limited to the feminist treatment of abortion, rape and marriage.

But, the above quote suffers from the same sneering snottiness that keeps other sorts of liberals, leftists and anti-fascists from making inroads into the commonholds of ordinary people. It's not only presumptive and insulting, it entirely misses the point:

Education has absolutely nothing to do with acting humanely or intelligently. Judging from the conduct of highly educated people - Albright, Clinton, Kissinger, Obama, Abrams, Kristol come to immediate mind - it may in fact correlate with depravity, for all we know. Neither does education guarantee some sort of assumed immunity from the culturally pervasive themes of the majority faiths of a society. Likewise, having a non-religious upbringing does not create a super-magic invisible barrier against interaction with the countless people who do believe religious stories, do take comfort in religious faith, and do act with intelligence, wit and humanity on a regular basis.

As an example, neither my wife nor I is religious. In fact, she's never been religious, and I was once a  wandering, wild haired, Anabaptist sort of street preacher before a series of events, study and personal crises led me to a resilient and deeply satisfying rejection of all consolation and salvation.

My children have had no religious indoctrination. We don't celebrate Christmas, the High Holidays, the Circle of the Year, Easter, Kwanzaa, Eid or any religious feast.

And yet, they know about and can identify Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, various trickster gods, Satan ,and because I have a fondness for the Shiva Nataraja figurines, Shiva God of Death. I let them watch Family Guy (yeah, yeah yeah), the Simpsons and Spongebob (delightfully perverse, that show) and those productions are ripe with religious and quasi-religious references. Most of their classmates are either Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim. Most of their relatives are at least nominally religious.

It would not be surprising if one or both of them flirted with, or embraced, some sort of religion over the course of their (hopefully long and healthy) lives. Because most people do.

Believing religious stories means only that religious stories are believed.

And until feminists, leftists, radicals, revolutionaries and the rest of us inhabiting these social margins figure that shit out, we're going to continue to miss the point...

15 comments:

Randal Graves said...

Go, Loki, go.

Your house sounds a bit like our house. No worship going on, but plenty of texts & such that deal with stories & myth, etc. Makes for good reading. Spongebob's definitely full of veiled bits for us non-kids, plus anyone who employs Motorhead gets bonus points.

At the end of the day, if you're not an asshole, I couldn't care less if you go imaginary cannibal with circular bread, sacrifice a beetle to your pet rock, or light candles in front of a poster of Led Zeppelin.

Jack Crow said...

They're fond of the Norse myth cycle, Randal. Very fond.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

My atheism, and my opinions about the veracity of the so-called proofs of God, says absolutely nothing about the experiences, sincerity or intelligence of believers.

Ahhhh... exactly how I feel. And yet, I find it's hard to get believers to believe that my atheism is not a personal attack on the believers themselves.

And in a nifty inversion, many of my lib-pwog friends have plenty of fuel for their hatred of "Tea Partiers" on the ground that those "Tea Partiers" are Christian, or claim to be.

Funny how another person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, can be so threatening.

Jack Crow said...

Charles,

I think the conviction that atheism is a deliberate offense has more to do with preaching and interpretation than anything else.

My breakthrough on that actually came after praying Matins or Vespers (I don't remember anymore) with a couple of Benedictine monks in Portland, Maine. I wanted to talk about the problem of atheism, and the older brother laughed gently. He told me that there was no atheist problem. There was only a religious problem with unbelievers. He couldn't conceive of a god who actually cared about belief or disbelief, and that's the god he taught and worshiped.

God looks at unbelief, he said, as a respite. As a sacred space where newness can grow. Not as a threat to his infinite infinitude.

*

If believers were taught to look at unbelief that way - they'd probably be less inclined to see it as active offense. But, I don't think most belief is really anything more than cultural accommodation. If it were actually faith in an infinite, all abiding, omnipotent deity - its adherents couldn't possibly care if God had his name on a dollar bill that will only circulate for a decade, at best.

Picador said...

I was raised in a non-religious household, and I'm generally pretty indifferent to people's religious beliefs. But I have a lot of friends who grew up in strict religious households where they were subjected to fairly severe emotional abuse that took explicitly religious form. I have a hard time criticizing these friends when they attack religion on the grounds that indoctrinating a child in certain beliefs (God sees you all the time a and judges you, you're a worthless sinner, having sexual feelings mean that you're unworthy of being loved by God, girls are fated to grow up to be domestic drudges and baby machines, etc) is a form of child abuse. To deny that this kind of abuse is correlated with certain religious traditions is to deny verifiable statistical data. Murdering your daughter for disobedience, or condemning a girl who gets an abortion after being raped by her step-dad, are also phenomena pretty well confined to specific religious traditions.

You can argue that these are fringe cases, that we have bigger fish to fry in terms of abuses of power, etc. But you're overstating your case when you deny that there's any correlation between religious belief and these kinds of atrocities:

Believing religious stories means only that religious stories are believed.

Sorry, but that is on its face just so much horseshit. People who believe Hindu stories also tend not to eat beef. It's a fact. You're just wrong.

Jack Crow said...

Picador,

Believing a story means exactly and only that. It's not the same as making decisions, later, because the you believe the story to be true.

I think you're confusing belief with the decisions which some people make from that belief.

And there is a difference. Maximilian Kolbe and Cardinal Stepinac believed the same stories. They belonged to the same faith. They accepted the same religious hierarchy. They worshiped a God with the same name.

One embraced and helped the Nazis. The other died at their hands.

Choices do not follow automatically from belief.

And that's the distinction you appear to muddle, here.

And frankly, you've misread me entirely if you think I'm mounting an attack on the idea that the religious faith is wholly separate from human atrocity.

Picador said...

And frankly, you've misread me entirely if you think I'm mounting an attack on the idea that the religious faith is wholly separate from human atrocity.

Then I've misread you entirely.

I agree with what I take to be your general sentiment: that some people -- especially "hard atheists" of the Dawkins variety -- posit religious belief as determinative of a huge range of human choices and historical trends that are in fact much more accurately explained with reference to non-religious factors, and that this over-attribution of causation to religious belief is both stupid and obnoxious.

But I don't think I'm "muddling" anything by pointing out that, the point above notwithstanding, some choices actually CAN be attributed to religious belief, in the sense that the choice would not have been made but for the adoption of the belief. This is not to say that the action is strictly dictated by the belief, but that the belief provides the basis on which the action becomes possible (or significantly more likely). This is, as I understand it, a pretty conventional understanding of "causation".

Not all Jehova's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions for their dying children. But almost nobody who is not a Jehova's Witness makes such a choice. In this case, the religious belief is properly said to have "caused" the choice.

Where does this get us at the end of the day? Nowhere terribly useful. Still lots of decent religious people, still lots of non-religious people doing terrible things from mundane motives. I'm still more worried about Barack Obama than I am about John Hagee. But I am worried about Hagee, and my concerns have a lot to do with what he claims to believe and what he encourages his followers to believe.

Jack Crow said...

Picador,

When two people believe the exact same story, belong to the exact same religious organization, at the same time in history - I think we have to look more than just "religion made him do it" for why they act, especially when their actions are so different. Members of Opus Dei existed in the same Church, at the same time as Romero was, using the offices of that Church, fighting the consequences of Opus Dei's support of maximalist anti-liberation dictatorships. Members of each group believed the same religious stories.

Hell, Sufis and Shi'a believe a large grouping of the same stories - and they act and believe differently (which doesn't even begin to account for some of the divisions, many of them outright bloody, between Shi'a...)

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

But I am worried about Hagee, and my concerns have a lot to do with what he claims to believe and what he encourages his followers to believe.

I'd wonder why, of all people leading all different forms of cultish hierarchy, you'd be so focused on John Hagee.

Seems to me the people worshiping at the altar of capitalism and Perpetual Growth are far more hurftul to humanity than John Hagee and his tiny following.

Would you even have known of John Hagee if some liberal wog hadn't bitched about him? I doubt it.

Jack Crow said...

Hagee is easier to fear. He's more optimally evil, especially if you don't really go for dispensationalism.

He's like a Koresh. Or Ben Roethlisberger.

Jack Crow said...

You know, Charles, as I think about this more - you're on to something. Seriously, who does more actual harm, when it comes to people who spend most of their days in front of cameras and crowds: John Hagee or Oprah?

augustus818 said...

A greatly elegant post. This made my day. Thanks

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I think that might be a toss-up, Jack. Both sell lies that make the listener/believer feel better about his/her lot, perhaps even superior to his/her fellow human.

What's worse: transparent hatred, or transparent greed?

Hateful and hurtful like Hagee, or ostentatiously grasping like Oprah?

I don't really worry about either. Neither one attracts my attention for more than a fleeting moment.

But I notice that libs and pwogs sure do hate them some Hagee.

Jad said...

"Education has absolutely nothing to do with acting humanely or intelligently."

The current thinking is, I believe, that acting humanely and with empathy is largely a function of being treated humanely and empathetically during early childhood.

The possible correlation (and I have strong suspicions, but no evidence) is between strongly dogmatic religions and strict authoritarian (i.e. abusive at best and violent at worst) transmission of beliefs.

Children in an atheist household are less likely(?) to be required to suspend the evidence of their senses and reason in order to conform to an arbitrary and counter-factual model of the world demanded by their caretaker's religion.

That's not to say that children raised in non-religious households don't suffer authoritarian violence or that children in religious households do. Certainly, though, there's one less feature of daily life that demands the child's acceptance of the authority of the caregiver.

Picador said...

Would you even have known of John Hagee if some liberal wog hadn't bitched about him? I doubt it.

Genuinely good to see you back, CFO, and I see your clairvoyance is operating just as reliably as ever. FWIW, I cited Hagee because he's the guy I see most often on the Christian channel that I get in my house, which is the only signal you can pick up crystal-clear in the city if you don't have cable. I vaguely remember him being connected to McCain around the last US presidential elections. What I've heard of his worldview sounds batshit insane. I'm sure there are much better examples out there of truly dangerous religious demagogues, but like I said, that doesn't mean I think Hagee is harmless.

When two people believe the exact same story, belong to the exact same religious organization, at the same time in history - I think we have to look more than just "religion made him do it" for why they act, especially when their actions are so different.

I don't see how this is any different from what I said in my last post about the mistake of over-attributing people's choices to their religious beliefs. But I think your apparent position -- that religious belief has a negligible causal connection to people's choices -- is equally absurd.