The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

Christopher Hitchens published a book this year called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Full disclosure: I have not read it. I have read excerpts from the book, and interviews of Hitchens describing his book, and reviews of the book. If someone gave me a free copy I might read it, but I’m not going to spend money on the thing.

I take it that Hitchens has decided religion is the root of all evil. Stephen Prothero wrote in the Washington Post:

Historian George Marsden once described fundamentalism as evangelicalism that is mad about something. If so, these evangelistic atheists have something in common with their fundamentalist foes, and Hitchens is the maddest of the lot. Protestant theologian John Calvin was “a sadist and torturer and killer,” Hitchens writes, and the Bible “contain[s] a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”

As should be obvious to any reasonable person — unlike Hitchens I do not exclude believers from this category — horrors and good deeds are performed by believers and non-believers alike. But in Hitchens’s Manichaean world, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Indeed, Hitchens arrives at the conclusion that the secular murderousness of Stalin’s purges wasn’t really secular at all, since, as he quotes George Orwell, “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” And in North Korea today, what has gone awry is not communism but Confucianism.

In other words, in order to prove his claim that religion is the cause of all evil, he defines all destructive mass movement of history as “religion.” See this about “moral clarity.”

Hitchens is not so forgiving when it comes to religion’s transgressions. He aims his poison pen at the Dalai Lama, St. Francis and Gandhi. Among religious leaders only the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes off well. But in the gospel according to Hitchens whatever good King did accrues to his humanism rather than his Christianity. In fact, King was not actually a Christian at all, argues Hitchens, since he rejected the sadism that characterizes the teachings of Jesus. “No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism” in postwar America, writes Hitchens. But he’s wrong. It was the prophetic faith of black believers that gave them the strength to stand up to the indignities of fire hoses and police dogs. As for those white liberals inspired by Paine, Mencken and Hitchens’s other secular heroes, well, they stood down. …

… What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself.

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn’t know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about “Negroes” — with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty — that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

Hitchens sees himself as quite open minded, of course. This is an excerpt from the book:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically. …

This is from a guy who still defends the invasion of Iraq, mind you. And get this from an interview:

[Interviewer]Your book discusses the problems with the Abrahamic faiths, but then says Eastern religion is not the answer. It seemed like your main criticism of Eastern religion wasn’t so much about its tenets so much as one sex abuse scandal at one ashram.

Oh, no. My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, “Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.” It’s the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you’ve got that’s unequivocally worth having.

In other words, this blockhead who says he stands for “free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake” dismissed centuries of philosophy from the entire continent of Asia because of a sign on a tent. If he’d checked, he’d have found that the sign doesn’t mean what he assumed it meant — Asian philosophy regarding the nature of mind would take a lifetime to learn — but I’ll leave that alone for now. In any event, IMO, Hitchens has a mind that were better left outside with the shoes.

I’m pointing to Hitchens because he exemplifies so nicely one of the real roots of all evil — I’m not saying it’s the only one — which is fanaticism. People can be fanatics about religion and non-religion alike, and even the most benign and innocuous human activity or belief becomes pernicious in the hands of fanatics.

Hitchens fancies himself to be an openminded man of logic and reason, but his intellectual dishonesty reveals him to be quite the opposite. In the last episode of The Wisdom of Doubt I argued that religion gets screwy when people use it to bullshit themselves about themselves. Here we see an atheist bullshitting himself about himself, to similar results.

Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (1951):

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

Hoffer goes on to say that fanatics of all stripes are more like each other than they are like moderates of the same stripe. “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not,” he writes. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that atheism is a religion, but the point is that a fanatical atheist and a religious fanatic are more like each other than, say, a dispassionate guy who doesn’t believe in God but who doesn’t attach his ego to atheism. Or, for that matter, than a sincerely and deeply religious person who doesn’t attach his ego to his religion.

If you know much at all about Hitchens, you see how well Hoffer describes him. In his life he has swung from one ideology to another, embracing each with passion. He’s a classic fanatic.

I wrote awhile back about elective ignorance. People practicing elective ignorance start with a point of view and then admit into evidence only those facts that support their point of view. Those with a really bad case of elective ignorance become incapable of acknowledging facts that contradict their opinions. Thus, Christopher Hitchens came to the remarkable conclusion that Martin Luther King was not really Christian; acknowledging MLK’s Christianity contradicts his faith that religion is the root of all evil. If the facts don’t fit, change ’em.

Ideologies can be understood as a form of codified elective ignorance, or a strategy to make the world easier to understand by limiting one’s cognitive choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Since we all have finite cognitive resources, adopting an ideology is one way to obtain a workable understanding of issues without devoting the time and brain work required to become an expert. As long as a person appreciates that his understanding and knowledge are incomplete — if he has the wisdom of doubt, in other words — and he remains open to changing his views, he’s not a fanatic.

Fanatically attached to, ideologies become a substitute for thinking. When confronted by a new situation, instead of looking at it directly and seeing it as-it-is, the ideologue runs through the list of cognitive choices his ideology affords him and picks the one that seems to relate. No amount of empirical evidence that his choice is wrong will shake his faith in its correctness. The real world is hidden from him; the ideology is all he can see.

Hoffer writes that people become fanatical because they are estranged from themselves. This looks like a paradox — I’ve been talking about ego attachment, and also talking about alienation from the self. When the ego attaches to something, that something becomes a projection of the self. When ego attaches to a religion or a cause or an ideology, that religion, cause, etc. becomes inseparable from self-identity. It is no longer just an opinion or an interest or a practice. It becomes who you are. Fanatics cling to ridiculous positions because being wrong feels like an existential threat.

Now, some of you are probably thinking Hitchens is right and that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is, unfortunately, an easy thing to be fanatical about. Religion presents itself as a solution to our deepest pain and fears. It’s a perfect escape route for people running away from themselves. This is particularly true of dogmatic, authoritarian religions.

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote that people who fear personal freedom, who are uncomfortable with their own autonomy, tend to escape into authoritarianism and conformity. Religion that combines passion with absolutism is the perfect medium for fanaticism. Let’s check back with Hoffer and The True Believer

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

Hoffer goes on from there to quote from an official history of the Communist Party claiming that Marxist-Leninist theory answers all questions and even perfectly predicts the future. Fanaticism is not just found in religion.

History shows us that when authoritarian religion gets mixed up with political power, the results can be nasty. The Inquisition — which was as much about political authority as church authority — is a grand example. We should fear for the Middle East; whose residents seem determined to fold themselves into some kind of authoritarian Islamic theocracy. And we should fear for ourselves as long as fundamentalism is affecting the outcome of elections.

But religion is not always absolutist. In 1946 the liberal evangelical theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote an essay titled “Mystery and Meaning” in which he extolled the virtues of not-knowing —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248]

What Niebuhr is talking about here is the wisdom of doubt.

In this old post I wrote about Saint Anselm of Canterbury, a leading theologian of the 11th century.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

I admit that the word epistemic gives me a headache, but it has to do with the validity of knowledge and belief. So Anselm’s approach to faith is not about trying to get his belief system validated. Beliefs by themselves have no purpose. Faith is not an end in itself. Rather, Anselm says, faith is a means for seeking a deeper knowledge of God (or the Dharmakaya, or the Great Whatever). A religion that isn’t looking past the dogmas to a deeper truth is a dead religion. Conversely, a religion that is not absolutist, and which accepts the imperfection of understanding, is not necessarily a wishy-washy religion as some assume. It can be the deeper and more wholesome religion.

And in the first installment of The Wisdom of Truth I linked to a dharma talk by Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center, called “The Distance Between Faith and Doubt.” In this talk, the sensei says “Doubt is what unseats the ego.” Doubt — accepting the limitations of one’s understanding — prevents ego-attachment. People without doubt mistake their own ego for the voice of God. This is what makes religion fanatical, and dangerous.

I cannot think of a better antidote to fanaticism than the Precepts of Engaged Buddhism of the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Here are the first three:

1 Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

2 Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

3 Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

When dealing with fanatics it’s tempting to push back with equal and opposite fanaticism, but that doesn’t work. Fanaticism isn’t easily cured, but it’s best to deal with it as coolly and dispassionately as possible.

See also the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (the Third Patriarch of Zen; sixth century).

Update: See also “Not Knowing is Most Intimate,” a dharma talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer.

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10 Comments

  1. maha  •  Jul 3, 2007 @9:07 am

    Mr. Nice Guy — I didn’t pick up that Bunting hates atheists, and I certainly don’t hate atheists.

    You seem absolutely certain that anything an atheist says about religion can be dismissed out of hand as pure hostility with no basis – a position rather at odds with your theme of the wisdom of doubt.

    There’s plenty about religion to criticize. The problem with fanatical atheists — and this was Bunting’s point — is that they don’t understand religion well enough to criticize it effectively. I know they think they understand religion, but they understand it the same way Glenn Reynolds thinks he understands France. There’s plenty about France to criticize, but the slams Reynolds and other righties generally throw at it are silly and off the mark.

    This is why about the only people who agree with Dawkins, Hitchens et al. about religion are other atheists or people already inclined in that direction. It’s not making a dent in anyone else, because what Dawkins, Hitchens et al. say about religion doesn’t resonate with people who understand religion more closely and intimately than Dawkins, etc., do.

    If you want to criticize religion, criticize religion, but do it honestly. Stop throwing tantrums. It’s not helping.

    You and Lucy both are proving Bunting’s points nicely, I must say.

  2. maha  •  Jul 3, 2007 @9:39 am

    would it be any different ,or easier to hear, if the atheists said
    ” please sir/madam , may I tentativley put forward the notion that there may not in fact be a god…… ?
    would they then be allowed to the table ? … I certainly doubt it ….. may as well be raucous.

    Lucy — have you not picked up on the fact that I don’t believe in God, either? By a strict definition of the word, I’m an atheist myself.

    This is not about proving which side of the atheist/theist divide is right. It’s about being able to tolerate each other and talk to each other.

    You and Mr. Nice Guy suffer from what I call “avowedly with them” syndrome. “Avowedly with them” is a phrase from one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, in which he said that the slaveowners of the South were not appeased by promises that the federal government would do nothing to end slavery in the South. Before the U.S. civil war the slave-owning South was not satisfied by compromise on the slave issue or promises to leave slavery alone. Either the federal government pledged its undying support and approval of slavery, or they would leave the Union. Which they did, when Lincoln was elected President in 1860. And then we fought a civil war over it, which you may have heard about.

    Lincoln said of the slaveowners that it did no good to promise to leave them and their slave owning alone. They demanded that everyone be “avowedly with them.”

    Anyway, “avowedly with them” syndrome is an inability to be objective or to let anyone else be objective. People either agree with you entirely — love what you love and hate what you hate — or you shove them into the enemy camp.

    This is not “doubting,” dear. It’s dogmatism. All you’ve done is trade one dogma for another.

    Free yourself. “Free yourself” doesn’t mean you have to be religious. It means finally freeing yourself of religion by being objective about it — neither love nor hate, neither approval or aversion. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak out about bad things religion does, and it does a lot of bad things. It means that when you do speak out about it, your punches actually land someplace. What you’re doing now is just flailing around in the air because you are too emotional about the subject to see it clearly.

  3. Lucy  •  Jul 3, 2007 @12:05 pm

    flailing around? Hmm, I’m 52 yrs old I do not have the energy to flail around…..
    I know a lot about the Catholic church so I think I have the knowledge to be a critic of it.
    I think the burden is on those who are religious to persuade all of us atheists what is so great and lovely about being religious and not the other way around. I dont think its realistic to avoid emotion all together in debates, its often what swings the argument in ones favor. Clinton won one debate when he challenged someone who was picking on his wife …… its human nature.
    Faith is not something which CAN be ” seen clearly ” I think …. how could one EVER be ‘” objective ” about something like suicide bombing ?

    I know a little of the American Civil War , there was a bloody fight and the outcome was a united country without slavery , a very good thing. I think many in this world are still slaves to Big Religions, I would like to free them ( without the bloodshed if possible )

    Freedom starts by ending the childhood indoctrination , let childen be until they are adults and then see if they choose a religion ….. I think we may find that ( again , sorry to harp on it , like circumscision , but its so weird to me ) they will NOT choose it …..

    ( ps those HIV studies are bunk too )

    pps
    Congrats on your anniversary , great blog …. gift coming

  4. No More Mr. Nice Guy!  •  Jul 3, 2007 @12:38 pm

    Maha, you are a blogger I greatly admire so it is perplexing to see you flailing around and lashing out at your commenters like this. It seems to be me you are defensive and emotionally invested in your beliefs, and projecting this onto other people. I’m not “avowedly with” anyone. Yes, I had bad experiences in my religious upbringing but if there was ever a time when I hated religion, I’m past it. People have a right to believe what they like, as long as their actions don’t harm anyone else. (A *big* problem with religion.) I accept that people can’t be forced away from religion – all you can do is educate them, expose them to other ideas, and hope that they will learn to think for themselves.

    Someone once asked Richard Dawkins if he was preaching to the choir with his books about atheism. He replied that there are many people who would like to join the choir but afraid to come out of the closet as atheists, and he hoped that his book would give them the courage to do so. Believers often don’t have any idea how uncomfortable or even dangerous it can be to be openly atheist – maybe not so much in New York but certainly in Phoenix, where I live, and most of the US for that matter. When you are constantly bombarded with the soundbites, rituals and images of the dominant religion, and told that you are evil, stupid and satanic for not conforming, any book which stands up for atheism can be a lifeline.

    There are a lot of atheists out there who are calmly and dispassionately analyzing religion, the good and the bad, and how it originated. Not surprisingly, only the “bomb throwers” get any press. But there ARE atheists that believers can learn something interesting from. Read Hector Avalos on religion as a scarce resource, or Alan Cromer on how the brain may be hard-wired for religious thinking rather than scientific thinking. Read about how religions evolved and borrowed from each other. Above all, take your own advice: take a deep breath and don’t be so caught up in the rightness of your position and the wrongness of everyone else.

  5. maha  •  Jul 3, 2007 @12:42 pm

    I think the burden is on those who are religious to persuade all of us atheists what is so great and lovely about being religious and not the other way around.

    In an ideal world, no one would have to persuade anyone of anything. One could choose to be religious, or not, without penalty or indoctrination or intimidation. I have absolutely no interest in trying to persuade atheists that religion would be “great and lovely” for them. I’m just saying that it really is great and lovely for some of us. It’s not always bad.

    The very fact that I’ve had to restate this same theme to you several times tells me you aren’t being objective.

    Regarding the HIV studies — These studies have been popping up since the AIDS epidemic began, and the statistical evidence is compelling. I think there probably is something to it. In any event, circumcision is such a minor deal that I wonder why anyone gets bent out of shape about it (no pun intended), as long as its done competently in sterile conditions. There are bigger issues — abortion, birth control, stem cell research, end of life decisions, teaching evolution in schools, state-sponsored prayer or religious observance, etc. — that are far more important, and on each of these issues I side with atheists.

  6. Lucy  •  Jul 3, 2007 @12:59 pm

    I think it ( circimscision ) makes me so angry because I see it in the same way as the religious thing…. its a thing thats done to you without your permission …..
    ( my best friend , Irish ,( married to an American ) had both of her sons circumscised for no other reason than they would ” look like ” their dad !!!!
    Yes,it is a minor thing in
    in the great scheme of things but its a symbol to me of ” power over” another human …. and it started as a religious/sex is dirty / stop them from masturbating / its cleaner / kind of thing ….

    My arguments are not personal towards you in the least, argument and debate is all good fun and if we learn something new or meet someone interesting , all the better!
    I am not a hostile person, I can be passionate when I ‘m arguing my side of the strory ….. sorry if you interpreted it as such ….

  7. maha  •  Jul 3, 2007 @1:36 pm

    It seems to be me you are defensive and emotionally invested in your beliefs, and projecting this onto other people.

    I’m a Zen Buddhist. I don’t have beliefs. It’s a practice, not a belief system. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe the Buddha was God. I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t believe Jesus died for our sins. For that matter, I don’t believe in sins. So exactly what is it that I am emotionally invested in and defending?

    I will defend others’ belief in those things as long as they’re not forcing them on others. I am very much opposed to forcing religious belief on others.

    I’m not “avowedly with” anyone. Yes, I had bad experiences in my religious upbringing but if there was ever a time when I hated religion, I’m past it. People have a right to believe what they like, as long as their actions don’t harm anyone else. (A *big* problem with religion.) I accept that people can’t be forced away from religion – all you can do is educate them, expose them to other ideas, and hope that they will learn to think for themselves.

    You’re assuming that all religious people are intellectual zombies who need to be rescued from their delusions. That’s one sided. Some are, some aren’t.

    Someone once asked Richard Dawkins if he was preaching to the choir with his books about atheism. He replied that there are many people who would like to join the choir but afraid to come out of the closet as atheists, and he hoped that his book would give them the courage to do so. Believers often don’t have any idea how uncomfortable or even dangerous it can be to be openly atheist.

    Try being a Buddhist in the Bible Belt. Try being anything but “Born Again” in the Bible Belt, for that matter. I remember when I was in first grade a teacher led the class in the Lord’s Prayer (this was ca. 1956) and I was the only trespasser in the class; everyone else was a debtor. At recess some kids accused me of being Catholic (Lutheran, actually) and shoved me around, which is upsetting for a six-year-old. I could go on and on with other things done to me or I’ve seen done to other people in the name of religion that was damn hostile.

    I also stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance some time during my college years, partly because I objected to the “under God” thing and partly as a protest against the Vietnam War. I still won’t say it. I’ll stand quietly while other people are saying it, but I don’t say it myself until they take out “under God.” Maybe not even then.

    I will defend atheism with the same energy with which I defend religion. I have done so on this blog.

    maybe not so much in New York but certainly in Phoenix, where I live, and most of the US for that matter. When you are constantly bombarded with the soundbites, rituals and images of the dominant religion, and told that you are evil, stupid and satanic for not conforming, any book which stands up for atheism can be a lifeline.

    I don’t doubt that Dawkins and Hitchens resonate with you on a deep level. However, if their aim was to talk religious people out of being religious, they’re missing by a mile. Their punches are not striking religion as much as just annoying it. They aren’t hitting religious people where religious people might really feel it. That’s because they don’t know religion well enough to address it in a way that actually means something to the religious.

    There are a lot of atheists out there who are calmly and dispassionately analyzing religion, the good and the bad, and how it originated. Not surprisingly, only the “bomb throwers” get any press.

    And it’s only the “bomb throwers” I criticize. I don’t like lies and misrepresentation, which is why I have a major problem with Hitchens and almost as big a problem with Dawkins. Dawkins is more often factual than Hitchens, but he still swings and misses because he doesn’t see clearly what he is aiming at.

    But there ARE atheists that believers can learn something interesting from. Read Hector Avalos on religion as a scarce resource, or Alan Cromer on how the brain may be hard-wired for religious thinking rather than scientific thinking.

    I’ve read some of Cromer, although it didn’t stick. I remember thinking I could make a better case than he was making about the brain being hard-wired for religious thinking. I don’t believe in anything supernatural; all religious phenomena, I say, have a natural cause. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true or valid. You just have to understand what it is true or valid of.

    Read about how religions evolved and borrowed from each other.

    Believe me, I have. Religious history is a deep interest of mine. I probably know more about what a bastard religion Christianity is than you do. Yet I defend it, because I understand it. I don’t believe it, but I understand it. That’s seeing it for what it is, without judgment, aversion, or approval. Good and bad.

    Above all, take your own advice: take a deep breath and don’t be so caught up in the rightness of your position and the wrongness of everyone else.

    My “position” is that whatever is rattling around in someone else’s head is none of my business as long as they aren’t bothering me with it. I hate people who assume only they are right and everyone else must be wrong. That’s why the fanatical atheists really bother me, and why I think that fanatical atheism is not helping any of us. I’m trying to find a middle ground here; I’ll stand with anyone telling the truth, atheist or religious.

  8. Lucy  •  Jul 3, 2007 @2:18 pm

    Maha , I am not a fanatical atheist and neither is No more Mr nice Guy as far as I can see.
    How is one supposed to ” land a punch ” against say , the Catholic Church? By quietly promoting condoms and family planning ? , or by raisning holy hell about AIDS being a scourge in Africa that could be prevented by condoms! ….
    there is a time to be militant , especailly when people are DYING ,,,, mildness does not work with these people .
    Whats wrong with a full frontal assault on the most stupid beliefs eg. those above above birth conrtol and condoms in Africa . In some things there is no “middle ground ” ,,, abortion is another area with no real middle ground, The Plan B contraceptive and more access to contraceptives in general was supposed to be the ” middle ground ” , and this Admin tried to shut it down, and is still adamant about not giving any funds to provide family planning or womens health care in third world countries .

    I think if people are informed , loudly, about how religious /political decisions affect ordinary people around the world they will think twice about praising the ( usually mean old men ) who run our religious organizations.
    I know little about Eastern beliefs, eg Buddhism, I will learn more about it . It seems to promote peace and harmony as so we should certainly learn more about it .

  9. maha  •  Jul 3, 2007 @2:59 pm

    I’m not necessarily advocating mild, just smart. The reality is that only Catholicism can reform Catholicism. People standing on the outside cannot impact what’s going on inside. And direct insults of Catholicism only tend to make Catholics circle the wagons, as we say here in America.

    If you are going to criticize a religion, you must be very disciplined and surgical, factual and very specific. In the case of abortion policy, for example, target the effects of a policy, talk about how it causes problems, show people what happens when Catholic belief on abortion is imposed by law. Stay focused, stay on point. Don’t throw in the kitchen sink, lose your temper, or say that all religion is evil.

  10. No More Mr. Nice Guy!  •  Jul 3, 2007 @3:40 pm

    This will be my last comment on this thread. If by the end of it, I still haven’t made it clear that I’m not a bomb-throwing fundamentalist atheist who hates religion and wants to see it destroyed, then that’s fine… life goes on. (Anyone who wants to continue discussing this topic with me is welcome to comment at my blog.)

    You’re assuming that all religious people are intellectual zombies who need to be rescued from their delusions.

    Pretty certain of that, aren’t you? 🙂 No, I’m not assuming any such thing. It just seems to me that the majority of religious people simply believe what they are told to believe, without really thinking about it. I want to see people thinking for themselves without blindly swallowing a package deal of beliefs and prejudices, and to be exposed to alternative ideas. If they start thinking for themselves, but go on holding religious beliefs, that’s fine – at least they will be more thoughtful believers and less likely to be rigid and fanatic, and hopefully less likely to persecute other people for believing differently.

    Try being a Buddhist in the Bible Belt. Try being anything but “Born Again” in the Bible Belt, for that matter.

    If you don’t think Phoenix is the Bible Belt, trying spending a week here.

    I don’t doubt that Dawkins and Hitchens resonate with you on a deep level.

    “There you go again.” You seem to feel that anyone who agrees with Dawkin et al must be responding on an emotional level – it couldn’t possibly be that they weighed the arguments objectively and found them intellectually compelling. As I indicated, I haven’t even read the Hitchens book. From what I’ve read of Dawkins, it seems to me that he is simply examining religion scientifically without the usual obligatory genuflection to it, and this lack of reverence, more than what he actually says, is what makes people go apeshit against him.

    Dawkins for example never said that religion is the root of all evil – his argument is that religion gives people a useful excuse to commit violent acts or to manipulate others into committing violence. (See his famous essay “Religion’s misguided missiles” in response to 9/11.) Another point he often makes which pushes people’s buttons, but which I strongly agree with, is that inculcating children in religion is a form of child abuse. We don’t label children liberal or conservative because we know they’re too young to understand the issues – why should religion be different? I say, teach children to think for themselves as they grow up, expose them to a variety of ideas, then give them freedom to choose their path. Don’t narrow and stultify their minds.

    It’s the same with circumcision. I’ve always wondered how much the claims for its health benefits are driven by religious conviction. If they are supported by science, fine – we should follow the truth wherever it leads. But I still think circumcision of children is ritual mutilation and abuse – especially female circumcision which is a ghastly and barbaric practice. I would say basically the same thing as above – wait until children are older and about to become sexually active, then give them the pros and cons of circumcision and let them make the choice.

    Oh well, that’s my two cents worth. I don’t harbor any ill will against you, Maha – I think you are by far one of the most thoughtful people blogging from a religious perspective.

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