Religion and Liberalism

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liberalism and progressivism, Religion

I’ve been struggling with an essay by Stanley Fish in the behind-the-firewall New York Times. Fish seems to be arguing that liberalism and religion are incompatible and that liberal society requires the diminution of religion.

Liberalism is in no way incompatible with my religion. However, I’m not going to dismiss Fish’s argument out of hand, even though I think he has several blind spots.

First, I want to repeat the point made by Mark Lilla in his recent New York Times essay, “The Politics of God,” that I blogged about here: Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible.

I cannot emphasize this enough: Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible. Lilla provides a long and thoughtful analysis of western civilization going back to the Reformation, and he makes a solid argument that joining religious and political authority, even when done in a reasonably progressive and benevolent way, leads either to totalitarianism or ongoing violent conflict, or both. As Lilla puts it, “Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics.” Lilla continues,

So we are heirs to the Great Separation only if we wish to be, if we make a conscious effort to separate basic principles of political legitimacy from divine revelation. Yet more is required still. Since the challenge of political theology is enduring, we need to remain aware of its logic and the threat it poses. This means vigilance, but even more it means self-awareness. We must never forget that there was nothing historically inevitable about our Great Separation, that it was and remains an experiment. In Europe, the political ambiguities of one religion, Christianity, happened to set off a political crisis that might have been avoided but wasn’t, triggering the Wars of Religion; the resulting carnage made European thinkers more receptive to Hobbes’s heretical ideas about religious psychology and the political implications he drew from them; and over time those political ideas were liberalized. Even then, it was only after the Second World War that the principles of modern liberal democracy became fully rooted in continental Europe.

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

It’s a miracle we’re maintaining by the skin of our teeth, of course, and several items Lilla lists above are far from settled. But I want to digress one more time, to a wonderful blog series written by John McGowan and posted on Michael Bérubé’s blog in June 2005. It’s called “The Republican Assault on Democracy,” and it’s in three parts — Part I, Part II, Part III. The following extract is taken from all three parts.

My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place—democracy in the people, liberalism in the law—and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the “general will,” liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values. Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity. …

… Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one’s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful—or that one’s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, “partial.” It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right. Impatience with the law is endemic—and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left. (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap. But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?)

I will continue on this line of thought in my next post. Here I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained. But the benefits of that miracle are multiple—and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes. …

… Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits. (A social benefit, as opposed to an individual benefit, is a good that can only be produced as the result of the aggregate of many individual actions, not by any individual acting on his or her own. And, ideally, social benefits would accrue to all of the individuals who contribute to its creation, although that is hardly always the case.)

Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative. Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do.

But liberalism also provides a positive response to pluralism. It guarantees—through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations—the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should, I believe, promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored public sphere (or, to use another term for it, civil society). In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues. And, in some but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved. …

… I think we have lost any sense of how our democracy functions—or that it may be much more fragile than we assume. … We are assuming an immunity from civil strife that is hardly guaranteed.

It’s interesting to me that Lilla and McGowan both call liberal democracy a “miracle.” Particularly in a country as large and diverse as ours, we ought to be a roiling mass of warring factions. Ironically, I believe one of the reasons we’ve managed to keep the great experiment going this long is our almost religious devotion to the Constitution.

McGowan wasn’t writing about religion specifically, but I wanted to get his points about liberalism in front of you before wading into the Stanley Fish essay. Fish begins by citing the crusading atheists, i.e. Richard Dawkins.

The authors of these tracts are characterized by professor Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.” He asks (rhetorically), “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth?”

In a similar vein, Tom Krattenmaker, who studies religion in public life, wonders why, given their celebration of open-mindedness and critical thinking, secularists “so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door” when it “comes to matters of religion?” Why are they closed-minded on this one subject?

An answer to these questions can be found, I think, in another publishing phenomenon: the growing number of books and articles dedicated to the rehabilitation of liberalism both as a political vision and as a self-identification of which one needn’t be ashamed.

I object to the equation of liberalism with atheism, intolerant or otherwise. A liberal may be religious, or not, but so may be a conservative. But let’s go on –

An answer to these questions can be found, I think, in another publishing phenomenon: the growing number of books and articles dedicated to the rehabilitation of liberalism both as a political vision and as a self-identification of which one needn’t be ashamed.

A recent example is Paul Starr’s “Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism” (2007). Starr, a professor of sociology at Princeton, claims that what unites liberals are political principles rather than agreement “on the ultimate grounds on which these principles rest.” This is the familiar (and suspect) claim that liberalism is not a substantive ideology but a political device that allows many ideologies to flourish and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Liberalism, says Starr, “is only a framework – that is, it provides a space for free development.” Where there are deep “divisions over the meaning of the good life,” he continues, the “neutrality” of the liberal state “furthers mutual forbearance.”

But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

Remember what McGowan said — “Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits.”

Fish is, in effect, arguing that democratic society must honor anti-democratic views, even if those views threaten civil peace and promote tyranny, because to do otherwise violates the principles of tolerance that liberalism claims to value. However, I argue that it is perfectly consistent for a liberal to be intolerant of intolerance and to stand against anything that threatens civil liberty.

And I’ve also argued in the past that being liberal doesn’t mean being a patsy.

Anyway, finally we get to the meat of Fish’s essay:

And neither are the other values Starr identifies as distinctively liberal – individualism, egalitarianism, self-realization, free expression, modernity, innovation. These values, as many have pointed out, are part and parcel of an ideology, one that rejects a form of government organized around a single compelling principle or faith and insists instead on a form of government that is, in legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s words, “independent of any particular conception of the good life.” Individual citizens are free to have their own conception of what the good life is, but the state, liberal orthodoxy insists, should neither endorse nor condemn any one of them (unless of course its adherents would seek to impose their vision on others).

It follows then that the liberal state can not espouse a particular religion or require its citizens to profess it. Instead, the liberal state is committed to tolerating all religions while allying itself with none. Indeed, Starr declares, “the logic of liberalism” is “exemplified” by religious toleration. For if the idea is to facilitate the flourishing of many points of view while forestalling “internecine… conflicts” between them, religion, the most volatile and divisive of issues, must be removed from the give and take of political debate and confined to the private realm of the spirit, where it can be tolerated because it has been quarantined.

Thus the toleration of religion goes hand in hand with – is the same thing as – the diminishing of its role in the society. It is a quid pro quo. What the state gets by “excluding religion from any binding social consensus” (Starr) is a religion made safe for democracy. What religion gets is the state’s protection. The result, Starr concludes approvingly, is “a political order that does not threaten to extinguish any of the various theological doctrines” it contains.

That’s right. The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces. A religion that accepts the partitioning of the secular and the sacred and puts at its center the private transaction between the individual and his God fits the liberal bill perfectly. John Locke and his followers, of whom Starr is one, would bar civic authorities from imposing religious beliefs and would also bar religious establishments from meddling in the civic sphere. Everyone stays in place; no one gets out of line.

What Fish doesn’t address is Lilla’s contention that the kind of democratic republic we have enjoyed since the Constitution took effect in 1789 is not possible without separation of church and state. Without strict limits on the power of sectarian religion, liberal democracy cannot survive. Either religious strife will pull it apart, or else a dominant religious faction will take over and render government more authoritarian and intolerant of diversity. And that includes religious diversity.

Fish continues,

But what of religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life? Liberalism’s answer is unequivocal. Such religions are the home of “extremists … fascists … enemies of the public good … authoritarian despots and so forth.”

Lilla’s essay makes a good argument that the name-callers are correct. And I would like to point out to Stanley Fish that, were the U.S. given over to “religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life,” those people inevitably will turn around and oppress religious minorities. Liberalism may be “intolerant” of some religion, but so is theocracy.

Closed-mindedness with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred is not a defect of liberalism; it is its very definition. …

… At first glance, this makes perfect sense. After all, why should we tolerate the unreasonable? But the sense it makes depends on “reasonable” having been defined as congruent with the liberal values of pluralism and moderation, and “unreasonable” having been defined as any viewpoint that refuses to respect and tolerate its competitors, but seeks to defeat them. In liberal thought, “reasonable” is a partisan, not a normative notion. It means “reasonable” from our perspective.

I’d say “reasonable” means “reasonably unlikely to destroy the fabric of society.” For a democratic republic, toleration of religious totalitarianism amounts to a suicide pact.

In saying this, I am not criticizing liberalism, just explaining what it is. It is a form of political organization that is militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion – the claim to be in possession of a truth all should acknowledge – as anything but an expression of unreasonableness and irrationality.

Yet many liberals are deeply religious. Fish lazily equates “liberal” and “secular” with “non-religious” and “atheist,” but these are not synonymous. “Religious” and “secular” are not necessarily opposites. I call myself a “religious secularist,” for example, because I believe a religion-neutral society is one that allows a free and healthy personal exploration of religion, without coercion, intimidation, or forced indoctrination. On the other hand, when religionists are given governmental power, generally the first thing they do is squelch other religion.

Berlinerblau and Krattenmaker hold out the hope that secularists and strong religionists might come to an accommodation if they would listen to each other rather than just condemn each other. That hope is illusory, for each is defined by what it sees as the other’s errors.

I’m glad Fish used the word religionist here. The plain truth is that religionism is incompatible with democracy and with civil society that does not permit religious majorities to oppress and discriminate against religious minorities. Complain all you want, but if you want to live in a true democracy, religious neutrality is a necessary condition. Allowing any religious faction to use government “to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life” would mean the end of religious freedom for the rest of us.

However, I’m troubled by Fish’s claim that “The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces.” What do we do about religions that simply don’t respect the liberal social compact? That consider it their duty to take over government and rule all of us according to their religious beliefs? What should be the liberal response?

For reasons I’ve ranted about in the past I am as offended as Stanley Fish by the Dawkin-Hitchens school of broad-gauge shotgun, “demonize ‘em all” criticism of religion. A big part of my argument with Stanley Fish is that he equates this school of criticism with “liberalism,” and I say it is just the opposite. Remember what John McGowan wrote –

I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles.

Can we say, liberalism appreciates the wisdom of doubt?

Right now great vistas of argument are opening up in front of me, so I’m going to stop here and save much of what’s rattling around in my head for future posts.

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37 Comments

  1. Sachem  •  Sep 7, 2007 @12:49 pm

    If Jesus Christ could see what is done in his name, I think even his doctrine of forgiveness would be tested, especially because they just won’t stop being sure they’re right.

  2. We Are The 801  •  Sep 7, 2007 @1:42 pm

    See, this is where I part company with many atheists like Fish, Dawkins, etc.

    For many reasons I am an atheist. I have positive reasons for this, not merely negative ones & a humble humanism is more important to me than metaphysical entities. But just because I am an atheist, that doesn’t mean everyone else needs to be also (a rather narcisstic position, I think). If I did think that way, then what difference is there between my insistance that everyone needs to be an atheist and a Christian fundie or a militant Muslim?

    Maha, you put it so succinctly: “Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible.”

    The basic Enlightenment idea of “life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness” means living in a way that is MEANINGFUL to YOU. No church or institution or whatever can dictate to you what that “meaningfulness” is– its up to each individual to seek that out, whether that “meaningfulness” is deep or shallow, metaphysical or materialistic, you name it.

    What gives one’s life some kind of “meaning” will differ from one person to the next. This is a GOOD thing. Now, how that meaningfulness informs one’s life, decisions & actions is another matter. But one can be a Christian (MLK, hello!) and “liberal.” And I can be an atheist & read Thomas Merton & appreciate someone like him.

    Believe me, I would love to see a LOT less religion in the public sphere of the US (damn I miss New Zealand!) but Fish doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

  3. maha  •  Sep 7, 2007 @1:47 pm

    801 — I don’t think Fish is an atheist, but in any event I think that given the raging religiosity in this country, were it not for separation of church and state we would have had nonstop religious civil wars for the past two centuries. We may yet have some in our future.

  4. E.D.  •  Sep 7, 2007 @1:50 pm

    I am religious and very liberal, especially when considering other members of my faith (LDS). To me, one of the most important parts of our system is the government non-sponsorship of religion (separation of church and state). I don’t want tax money going to faith-based initiatives, prayer in school, Ten Commandments on display in government buildings, etc. I also see the wisdom in legalized abortion and many other social policies that I would probably not use myself. If political candidates have religious views, that’s fine, but their job is to keep an open mind and to represent ALL of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them or donated money.

  5. HC  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:06 pm

    In our covert investigation conducted at Victory Christian Center (VCC) in Austin, TX, we collected mounting evidence of how the Republican political strategy is employed from the Bush/Rove White House on down to their base of conservative Evangelical churches.

    David Barton, Vice-chairman of the Texas GOP and founder of an organization called Wallbuilders, was invited to be the guest speaker at both of VCC’s Sunday morning worship services on August 20, 2006. According to Pastor Lee Boss’ introduction of David Barton to the congregation, he’s “been used by God to touch more elected officials in this nation over any other organization.” Armed with old-time bibles, a swanky PowerPoint presentation, and much jibber-jabber, Barton mobilizes the Evangelical Christians to the polls by replacing the word “voting” with “stewardship”. He concludes by telling us that Republican political candidates are the obvious choice in our stewardship if we are concerned with biblical issues.

    Karl Rove understands the conservative Evangelical voices are a powerful and very well organized tax exempt, money making machine for the Republican party. As long as these Evangelical church leaders have an insatiable appetite for power and influence, Rove will continue to use them to succeed on his mission of establishing a permanent Republican majority. Watch how all the Republican Presidential candidates are scrambling in a tizzy to court the Evangelical / Religious Right vote. It’s funny to see the conservatives salivating at the bit, waiting for the next self-righteous politician with the right outside package that they can rally behind. Ever notice how the GOP have to beat up on a minority group of people in order to rally their base? How Christian or Christ-like is that?

    FaithoftheAbomination.com

  6. FearItself  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:19 pm

    I am an atheist liberal. As an atheist, I enjoy reading the rants of Dawkins, et al., and find that I recogonize a lot of truth in their writings. As a liberal, I feel like they inevitably go overboard.

    The biggest mistake these atheist crusaders tend to make is to tar all religious sentiment with the same brush. Yes, some religious communities are totalitarian (or at least authoritarian) in their attitudes. Some religiouns may even be totalitatian or authoritarian in their pilosophy. But this is simply not true of all reilgions.

    One might argue that monotheistic religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have an inherent weakness for authoritarian impulses, while religions characterized by meditation and spiritual inquiry (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism) are much less so. Even monothestic religions, though, have very liberal sects, and adherants with all different levels of tolerance for spiritual difference.

    In short, liberal thinkers should neither praise nor blame “religion” as a whole. The devil is in the details.

  7. felicity  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:23 pm

    Clearly, at least to me, is the absolute necessity of maintaining the separation of church and state. Liberals, atheists, secularists, religious, conservatives…can write, think, proselytize, to their heart’s content and be no threat to the survival of a democracy that strictly adheres to keeping separate the role of the church and the role of the state.

    A religion when it becomes an institution needs followers, sort of a ‘gather in the sheep’ thing, to exist as an institution. That message of ‘join us’ somehow translates to don’t join them which somehow morphs into they’re wrong, we’re right, intolerance, tyranny. Because this threat is an on-going phenomenon, the state can never let down its guard.

  8. Michael  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:24 pm

    I’m not as confident about Fish, but I know that Dawkins’ shotgun stance regarding religion is that it fosters bad habits especially when it comes to critical thinking. People who are moderate and even liberal when it comes to religion are still enabling those who are hardcore conservative fundamentalists. If you allow yourself to be swayed that something is real even when there’s no way to prove it, you open the door to be swayed by more irrational thinking.

    In other words, it’s not that big a step from believing there’s an intangible higher being to believing that higher being wants you to kill infidels for their unbelief.

    Ecumenicism is a fairly recent concept in human history, and a majority of religions reject it. They’re too invested in having a lock on the truth, and cannot accept that there might be more. My mother is fond of quoting the verse that says, “the road to hell is wide, but the path to heaven is straight and narrow.” That is the kind of thinking that leads Fish to believe that religion — strict, uncompromising religious belief — is anathema to a healthy democracy.

    Maybe the surge of conservative religions today is a backlash against ecumenicism. Maybe ecumenicism represents an evolution in religious thought, one that is encroaching upon and threatening fundamental religious thinking. Perhaps the violence and nation-building being supported by religion is the last gasp of an archaic mindset before it finally gives way to a more liberal religious world. Dawkins doesn’t believe it, nor does Fish. Nor, frankly, do I. I’m just not that optimistic.

    Whether we like it or not, Dawkins is providing an extreme perspective, pointing out the dangers of religion that we desperately need to avoid. He’s challenging the notion that religious belief is sacrosanct and must never be questioned or criticized. When you look at politics, economics, science, philosophy, art and all other aspects of our culture, everything is fodder for debate EXCEPT the religion. We are, for some reason, not supposed to challenge people to justify their religious beliefs in spite of the fact that we’re free to challenge everything else. How is this healthy? How is this conducive to a democratic society?

    Not even Dawkins is suggesting that religion should be banned or legislated out of existence. We all know that simply wouldn’t work, even if we didn’t have the Soviet model to observe the result. What Dawkins and others are doing is broadening the conversation and bringing light to dark corners. He’s challenging everyone to really think about why they feel they have to believe in God, and what alternatives could there be to following religion.

    In the spirit of liberalism, I encourage that conversation at every opportunity.

  9. wmr  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:38 pm

    Fish seems to have forgotten a lot of history, most especially the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia.

    The source of liberalism was nothing more than a general exhaustion with religious wars and a widespread desire to get back to the business of living.

  10. Dan  •  Sep 7, 2007 @3:40 pm

    Let’s not forget that is doesn’t take a MAJORITY to oppress a minority – throughout history many minorities have oppressed the majority (which make the religionist right all that much more worrisome).

  11. maha  •  Sep 7, 2007 @4:02 pm

    I know that Dawkins’ shotgun stance regarding religion is that it fosters bad habits especially when it comes to critical thinking.

    Dawkins’s arguments are based on a grotesque misunderstanding of what “faith” and “belief” are in a religious context. This is something I touched on indirectly in the Wisdom of Doubt series, but I have found a couple of essays recently that speak to this directly. See John Cromwell, “The Importance of Doubt” (perhaps he read the series) and Madeleine Bunting, “The smallest signs of retreat.

    Believe me, Dawkins’s approach isn’t helping anyone’s cause. What he says is gratifying to many, I’m certain, but he’s not winning any converts.

  12. felicity  •  Sep 7, 2007 @4:34 pm

    For those who believe that God exists, no argument is necessary. For those who believe that God does not exist, no argument is possible.

    As a practicing Catholic, when it was revealed that Mother Teresa had her ‘doubts’ I began to entertain the notion that she just might end up being a saint. Until then, I had my doubts.

  13. Michael  •  Sep 7, 2007 @5:29 pm

    Thank you for the links. Sadly, I must disagree with them almost in their entirety.

    Cornwell writes, “His book, then, is a counsel of despair as well as an incitement to the very thing he deplores and seeks to remedy.” That’s because Cornwell doesn’t want to look and see what’s there to replace religion in our lives.

    Bunting comes a little closer to the truth. “What I find hard to forgive of Dawkins is that he’s led his huge army of admirers in the opposite direction, away from thoughtful engagement and towards a dangerous contemptuous arrogance.” Certainly, there’s arrogance displayed when people become convinced of the truth. Dawkins has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and science, to know what can be learned and reject what can’t be known. Dawkins’ approach is a slap in the face to everyone who is used to treating religious topics with kid gloves…unless you’re confronting a heretic who espouses the wrong beliefs.

    Just because we’re suggesting that religious belief is bad for you doesn’t mean there’s no way to replace it with something good. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll link you to the relevant texts. However, I’ll also paste in something I wrote in a forum the other day.

    “Oblivion. It’s a scary word. We don’t like to contemplate that all of our passions, energy and effort will simply disappear into the ether once we pass away. It’s a very emotional concept. We prefer to think that we have some sort of permanence, that our existence means something more than another opportunity to propagate our species.

    “And yet…we don’t have any evidence to support it. We have nothing to suggest that God exists, not even in the efficacy of prayers. We have mounting evidence to suggest that our bodies are simply part of a long chain of species survival, and nothing to support the notion that this chain was started by an intelligent being.

    “So what’s left? Philosophy. Art. Whatever meaning we can come up with ourselves to justify our existence beyond purely biological roles. To reject God and religion is to accept responsibility for yourself and your own search for meaning.

    “Does our consciousness survive the death of our bodies? We have no way of finding out. Even the near-death “tunnel of light” scenario has been demonstrated to be nothing more than a mere trick of physiology. The only way we’ll ever know what follows death is to experience it for ourselves.

    “Is fear enough justification to create a God or embrace a religious path? Or should it instead motivate us to find a way to leave the world a better place than we found it? That’s a question we can answer only for ourselves.”

  14. maha  •  Sep 7, 2007 @6:44 pm

    That’s because Cornwell doesn’t want to look and see what’s there to replace religion in our lives.

    That’s the sort of comment that drives religious people up a wall. I’m going to try to be polite, however.

    Religion is, ultimately, a way to live one’s inner life. I think the inner life of a religious person is incomprehensible to a non-religious person, and possibly vice versa. Please let me explain to you in simplest and clearest way that I can that the inner religious life for many of us is not what you imagine it is. The comment you pasted in is interesting, but reveals a limited and rigid understanding.

    Certainly fear of death drives a lot of religion, just as it drives a lot of human behavior generally. But that’s not the whole of religion. Nor is belief in God the whole of religion. Some of us are religious but nontheistic. Some of us understand “god” as a metaphor for something very different from popular notions of God.

    Note that I believe in neither heaven nor reincarnation. Nor do I have a soul or believe in God. Yet I am religious. If that doesn’t compute, then I suggest you just tripped over your own ignorance.

    I’ve been a student of Zen Buddhism for 20 years now, and in that time I’ve been opened to understanding of consciousness and “accepting responsibility for myself” in ways that would, I suspect, blow your mind. Your lecture is arrogant and elitist and insulting, and I feel a strong urge to tell you to go bleep yourself, but as a Buddhist I work at being forgiving. I’m not forgiving yet, but I will be in a bit. I don’t stay angry long, as a rule.

    If you aren’t interested in being religious that’s just grand with me. I respect your non-religion and have no interest in converting you. But son, don’t you dare presume to tell me how superior you are to me when you have no idea whatsoever what my inner religious life is.

    The problem with Dawkins is that he insists on a definition of religion that is childish and, well, stupid. Certainly a lot of religion is childish and stupid, but those of us who have moved beyond that are as put off by childish and stupid religion as Dawkins is. And, frankly, because he doesn’t understand religion his criticisms don’t hit even childish and stupid religion where it hurts. He’s swinging and missing. Pathetic.

    You can’t possibly counter religion effectively until you understand it. Dawkins doesn’t. You don’t. Don’t even try.

    And next time you feel a strong urge to tell a religious person how substandard he is, shut up. Thanks much.

  15. priscianus jr  •  Sep 7, 2007 @7:02 pm

    Maha,
    As usual, I am in wholehearted agreement with your position.
    For over 150 years in this country, separation of church and state worked fine for even the most conservative of religions. Freedom of religion was freedom FROM politics. If you, x religion, are against abortion, it is YOUR JOB to teach your parishioners not to have abortions and to provide the wherewithal for alternatives. Beyond that you have no right to go, whatever your beliefs. You’re out of your bailiwick.
    What happened? I think what happened is that liberalism went from being perceived as neutral, to being perceived as atheistic. That allowed the conservative religious forces to become militant. The key to the whole thing is the atheists themselves. They ought to be as tolerant towards religion in general (although they don’t believe in it themselves), as religious people are to each others’ religions (which they don’t believe in either). The positive side to the mutual tolerance of religious people is that they can (if they care to) see certain fundamental things in common among the religious traditions. The atheists need to see the same, and could do so at least in terms of ethical teachings. I think many do so. But certain atheists argued that they were offended, their “rights” were violated, at certain public displays of religion that had long been quietly tolerated by people of different and conflicting religions. Here they stepped over the line. It is this, I believe, that was seen as a useful political wedge by certain crafty republican operatives (many of whom were more politically than religiously motivated), This invited the militant response of the conservatives and the combined effect of militant atheists (of which Dawkins is one) vs militant religious has tbeen to throw the whole American tradition of liberalism and religious toleration out of whack.

  16. Michael  •  Sep 7, 2007 @7:11 pm

    I’m sorry that I’ve offended you, but I won’t apologize for what I’ve said. When you talk to someone who insists that they’ve just purchased the Brooklyn Bridge, what do you tell them? “I respect your beliefs and wish you well?”

    At no point am I telling anyone how substandard they are. What am is telling them that they’ve been conned. Everybody gets deceived sooner or later. Some people set themselves up for it.

    Please bear in mind that my attitude toward religion comes from my experience with Western religions. Ironically, Zen Buddhism earns the most respect from me because it makes the fewest unsubstantiated claims. This is not to say there haven’t been Warrior Buddhists filled with religious zeal, but on the whole I tend to think of Zen Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion. That is, in my mind, precisely how people SHOULD treat religion: as a school of philosophy.

    Your religion is extremely unique, and were you to confront Dawkins with it I’m sure he would be forced to make concessions about how it’s very different from what he talks about. But when it comes to Christianity, Islam, Wicca, Scientology and so many others, I can’t say the same. They all make fantastically wild claims that can’t even be investigated let alone verified, and many of them base their morality based on bronze age value systems that have no bearing on modern life. Similarly, most resist updating their belief systems accordingly.

    Religion is an emotional topic. People get upset when their beliefs are challenged, which is why criticism of religion has always been taboo. It simply is not healthy. People need to have their beliefs challenged on a regular basis, to test them and answer truthfully, “WHY do I believe this?” Too many people believe simply because they’ve been taught to do so. It’s much rarer and much more valuable when people believe something because they’ve thought it through. Those religions that discourage critical thought are the ones truly under attack, and that’s a pretty wide field. You can’t blame anyone, even Dawkins, for missing the few exceptions to the rule.

  17. Ian  •  Sep 7, 2007 @7:35 pm

    What Dawkins does is take a distorted, cartoon version of religion and proceeds to whale the tar out of that straw beast. It’s good exercise, I guess, and is entertaining to onlookers who have a similarly cartoonish view of religion, but doesn’t ultimately accomplish anything but turn off the majority of people who are not, in fact, cartoons to the entire concept of religious criticism.

    I am a religious person. I believe in God. I guarantee you, however, I have not been conned. I came to my current position wih much thought and self questioning, and very few of the criticisms you or Dawkins know how to level are even relevant to my belief system.

    That is the point.

    -me

  18. maha  •  Sep 7, 2007 @8:04 pm

    What am is telling them that they’ve been conned.

    What I am telling you is that religious beliefs usually are conceptualizations of something that can’t be conceptualized. The “con” is not in the belief, but in mistaking the concept for the reality. The hand pointing to the moon is not the moon.

    You have the same problem.

    Please bear in mind that my attitude toward religion comes from my experience with Western religions.

    Of course. I was raised Christian in the Bible Belt, and in the 1950s, no less. I have intimate acquaintance with the most rigid and fundamentalist aspects of Christianity. Yet I respect Christianity and defend it.

    I tend to think of Zen Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion.

    That’s crap. It’s a religion. As Karen Armstrong says, saying that Zen Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion is a chauvinistic western view.

    Your religion is extremely unique

    It is, and it isn’t. Zen is one of the most purely mystical religions on the planet, but all the great religions have mystical traditions, and generally mystics of all religions find they’ve been on pretty much the same path whenever they compare notes. The writings of many of the great Christian mystics of the Middle Ages reveal a very Zen-like understanding.

    When my original Zen teacher was ordained as abbot of his monastery, he offered incense to Jesus and to Saint Teresa of Avila as his spiritual ancestors.

    People need to have their beliefs challenged on a regular basis, to test them and answer truthfully, “WHY do I believe this?” Too many people believe simply because they’ve been taught to do so. It’s much rarer and much more valuable when people believe something because they’ve thought it through.

    “Thinking it through” means cognition, or conceptual thought, and it’s extremely limited to think that cognition is the only means to understanding.

    I wrote here that the crusading atheists generally talk past the religious because they don’t know what “faith” is in the religious sense. You don’t, I can tell. Please educate yourself before you presume to debate me further.

    I know you think you’re real enlightened and wise and all and understand religion more than those poor besotted religious people, but really, you are just being an ass. Trust me on this.

  19. k  •  Sep 7, 2007 @8:38 pm

    Bin Laden is using “just For Men” on his beard. Be afraid, very afraid…

    or maybe he’s just got another new young wife he has to spruce up for.

  20. D.R. Marvel  •  Sep 7, 2007 @11:02 pm

    “Bin Laden is using “just For Men” on his beard. Be afraid, very afraid…”

    I would’a figgered OBL fer more of a Grecian Formula 16 guy, my own self…

    Like Pete Rose…

  21. wmr  •  Sep 7, 2007 @11:12 pm

    Wish I’d remembered this sooner–here’s an article by another atheist evolutionist, one who prefers a different rhetorical strategy“Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion”

    Very interesting. Courtesy Arts & Letters Daily

  22. erinyes  •  Sep 7, 2007 @11:25 pm

    Good stuff Maha.
    I’m an atheist but respect the views of religious people as long as they are mainstream. At what point does religion mutate and become a cult ? It seems to me that there have been many mutations of Christian denominations over the past 20 or so years.
    9/11 rang the bell that brought the religious wack jobs out in droves.
    As an atheist and a liberal I don’t care if someone wants to worship mushrooms, gnomes, or flying cows. Just keep the wall between religion and state, and don’t force stuff on others.
    Religious groups have done some remarkable things after disasters like Katrina, which I certainly admire.
    I’ve been advised that September is “rapture season”, and that the “rapture” is likely to occur around September 17-19.
    If anyone plans on carpooling, taking a bus, plane, train, or bicycle built for two during that time,be advised to take the wheel or have a non-believer be at the helm. Yep, nekkid flyin’ true believers soon come…..or so I’ve been told………..

  23. erinyes  •  Sep 7, 2007 @11:38 pm

    I figured it was Kiwi black boot polish…..
    Or Photoshop……
    Or a migic marker……
    Or someone is playing a naughty trick on us again.
    When the President’s numbers are in the crapper OBL pops up like a demonic Jack-in-the-box. BOOsh!

  24. Charles  •  Sep 8, 2007 @10:50 am

    I would like to second the recommendation of the cite in comment 21. Not so much for the force of the argument – I certainly have at best a tenuous understanding, if any, of it – but for the fact that it seems to me to rebut the typical criticism of The GD that Dawkins’s argument is superficial, naive, hysterical, etc. Ask yourself – would anyone mount such an extensive, complex, thoughtful, and respectful argument in rebuttal if these were accurate assessments of the book’s overall tone?

    Ironically, it’s the critiques – including those posted here – that IMO tend to be more accurately labeled with those epithets. The cited critique may be right or wrong, but at least it is a reasoned argument by an intellectual and professional Dawkins peer who has apparently read the book. Based on the disconnect between many of the critiques and my multiple readings, I often wonder how many of the authors meet even the rather minimal third requirement for a credible reviewer.

    re. Zen as a religion. I’m reminded of the trick question “If we call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?”. Several people I know are adherents to the Zen worldview, and none would call it a religion. Which doesn’t make it not, but it suggests to me that the tirade against michael, whose opinions BTW I mostly endorse, was rather arrogant. Depending on context, the answer to the trick question might be either four or five, but until that context is determined, to proclaim the answer unequivocally is the kind of dogmatic extremism I assume the typical reader of this blog deplores.

    - Charles

  25. felicity  •  Sep 8, 2007 @11:19 am

    #22
    On a ‘lighter’ note, it’s out here and it’s ominous! Minnesota is the place. First, the bridge collapse – not an everyday event but certainly the Republican’s fault. Second, the bathroom caper at its airport – a Republican. Third, the designated site of the Republican convention in ’08.

    Just like 9/11 was linked to the misdeeds and moral laxity of ‘Democrats’ – according to Falwell etal, a major catastrophic event is due in Minnesota involving Republicans. Big on numbers as the rapture crowd is, three has got to be a magic one so under no circumstances should the Republicans hold their convention in MINNESOTA.

  26. maha  •  Sep 8, 2007 @11:30 am

    Charles — I’m not entirely certain what the “Zen worldview” might be, but I do know America is fairly infested with people who think they understand Zen Buddhism because they’ve read a couple of books about it, notably the Alan Watts books. (Unfortunately, Watts didn’t know Zen from chickens, although he wrote well.) The attitude that “it’s not a religion, it’s a philosophy” is popular among the Zen Lite crowd, but it doesn’t square with the reality of the thing.

    There are a great many things about Zen I do not understand, but I studied it formally in a monastery — a place with monks and altars and incense and flowers and chanting and the whole nine yards — with a teacher recognized by the Soto Zen organization of Japan as an authentic lineage holder.

    I never will forget the end of one week-long sesshin, or meditation retreat. The last service was over, and we students, still in our robes, went outside into the sunshine to talk for the first time in a week. So this guy who had just driven in to pick up his wife smiled at us amiably and said, well, of course Zen is not a religion, it’s a philosophy.

    He said this to a group of people who had been spending several hours a day, beginning at 4:30 in the morning, sitting absolutely still on little pillows in the Zendo, struggling to quiet our minds in order to be open to the realization of anuttara samyak sambodhi, or maybe kensho, or at least a little moment of samadhi. And when we weren’t sitting we were bowing to an altar or chanting about skandhas and prajnaparamita and whatnot. And this guy looks at us and says, what you’re doing isn’t religion.

    The only reason we didn’t jump on him and beat him up is that we were Buddhists. Or else just very tired.

    I think the insistence that “it isn’t religion” comes out of an extreme prejudice of religion. Zen is thought to be smart and cool — in reality, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t — so it can’t possibly be religion, which is ignorant and uncool.

    But Zen really is Buddhist, and Buddhism really is religion. It’s very different in many ways from the monotheistic religions common in the West, but it’s still religion. Deal with it.

    Dawkins speaks of religion out of extreme ignorance of religion. He sees some aspects of religion clearly, especially as religion is presented in popular culture, but his is a very shallow and even childish idea of what religion is. Most of his arguments are cartoonish. Listening to Dawkins is as maddening as listening to creationists go on about “it’s just a theory” nonsense.

    And yes, I’ve read his stuff.

  27. Dan S.  •  Sep 8, 2007 @11:58 am

    I like atheist-theist squabbling as much as the next fella, but I’m going to try to hold off on that for a bit, because the original topic is so very important. I spent a fair amount of time puzzling over Fish’s piece as well (it’s been liberated from behind the paywall and can be found online), not least because it seemed mostly correct but at first glance so trivial. As John Holbo wrote over at Crooked Timber,

    would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

    - and at the same time the tone was so odd: was it meant as dispassionate analysis, somber recognition of the plight of illiberal religious traditions, gleeful deconstruction of master narratives, plain stupidity? Wharever, doesn’t matter. The big point we can take from it is exactly the one you pull out: that secular liberalism – hence, ultimately, liberalism isn’t a given, a natural state of affairs, immediately revealed by exercise of reason. It’s a difficult and imperfect choice, a set of values, of balances, that has to be continuously chosen, maintained, reaffirmed, for our way of life – wildly imperfect in many ways, but look at the alternatives! – to continue.

    (And of course, look what liberalism does to religious traditions which make such strong claims! Certainly one can find groups all across the country – very noticeably now! – which are to some degree or other illiberal. Does our liberal society persecute them? Nah. Other groups who embrace liberal values call them names. Maybe write books (or blogs)).

    As it is, I think Fish’s non-irritating point is arguably correct: that the current crop of loud atheists is in part almost like an immune response or allergic reaction to the rise of threatening religious illiberalism. (Altemeyer (yes, the authoritarian-personality guy) and Hunsberger have supporting evidence in their study on Atheists).

    My concern is that it might end up more the kind of reaction that does more harm than help. The big conflict here is between those who support secularism and those who (to varying degrees) oppose it. – Which is not me saying to some of my fellow atheists to go hide in the closet and speak only in whispers, just to remember what ‘s actually going on! The (sigh) general ‘New Atheism’ critique often doesn’t really seem to have a good grasp of religion-in-day-to-day life, of fine-grained differences and distinctions, of the complexity of religious politics and culture, at all. Lacking a mastery of obscure high-theological details – a criticism leveled esp. at Dawkins – is one thing, and defendable. Lacking even a passing understanding of socio/cultural/political realities, on the other, can be a very serious problem (as we’ve seem lately). For example, the whole generic radical claim that the moderates are only helping/are just the same as the reactionaries (here, that moderate and liberal religious folks are just enablers) comes into play here – I suspect Harris or Dawkins doesn’t even know that there’s been a kind of slow-motion low-level war, basically, within and between certain denominations as well-funded right-wingers try to take over or drive out moderates.

  28. Dan S.  •  Sep 8, 2007 @12:20 pm

    Ok, lemme try again, this time with link
    (Altemeyer (yes, the authoritarian-personality guy) and Hunsberger have supporting evidence in their study on Atheists). [I think maybe a fair bit of it might also be in his free online book]

    The one problem with the ‘Dawkins et al’s idea of religion is just a bizarre caricature’ criticism is that in some cases, while still being wildly simplistic and just incurious, it’s a worryingly recognizable caricature. Yes, many many many people live and believe nothing like that, but . . .

  29. No More Mr. Nice Guy!  •  Sep 8, 2007 @1:35 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have thought someone who spent twenty years studying Zen would be a little less prickly, defensive and condescending towards people who didn’t share her views. Anyway, what you insist on overlooking is that for the vast majority of people, religion *IS* the silly and childish stuff that Dawkins and Hitchens attack. This silly and childish stuff needs to be attacked and shown as the naked emperor it is, because it is powerful and dangerous. By exploiting and pandering to it, the neocons have foisted on us a silly and childish leader who is taking the whole world down the drain.

    You may think Dawkins et al are not winning any converts, but there are many, many people who have doubts about the silly childish stuff but are afraid to express them. I remember reading that Dawkins or Hitchens – I don’t remember which – went on a speaking tour of the US, and at each stop, people would come, believing themselves to be the only doubters in town, and being surpised to find other people of similar views at the meeting. A great deal of the US is still in the dark ages and it’s enormously beneficial for people who are chafing against our domestic Taliban to realize they are not alone.

    Let’s face it, not everyone is on your advanced, ethereal plane, Maha. Deal with it.

  30. maha  •  Sep 8, 2007 @1:43 pm

    Dan, thank you very much for getting us back on topic, and thank you for the Crooked Timber link in particular.

    Oh, and I like the “allergic reaction” quip. Exactly. Given the extreme forms of authoritarian, fanatical religion threatening all of us, it is perfectly natural, even expected, to see an equal and opposite reaction coming from the non-religious.

    However, as my Zen teacher explained to me recently, reacting and responding are two different things. Dawkins et al. are reacting. I’m interested in responding.

    I’m trying to get people to let go of the religion versus secularism dichotomy. A great many religious people (like me) support secularism. I was a panelist on a religion panel at Yearly Kos in Chicago and got to meet a whole pack of religious people, mostly Christians, who are as opposed to theocracy and fundamentalism as anyone on the planet. I believe I speak for most when I say we would be happy to join with atheists in respectful cooperation to put down the threat.

    But respect goes both ways. I refuse to put up with being treated like an idiot child by anybody. And I have witnessed intelligent, open minded, liberal theologians become purple with apoplexy at the mere mention of Dawkins. He’s so not helping.

    The struggle is between those trying to establish theocracy and those who choose to live in an open, democratic, secular and religion-neutral society. Atheists and (I believe) a majority of religious people in America have common cause here.

    Lacking a mastery of obscure high-theological details – a criticism leveled esp. at Dawkins – is one thing, and defendable.

    It’s understandable and would be defensible if Dawkins himself were cognizant of it, but I don’t think he is. And the details aren’t that obscure. He’s oblivious to what were (even in my lifetime) central aspects of mainstream Christian theology. In America much of what was mainstream even forty years ago is now being shoved aside by the fundies, but that doesn’t make it compost.

    I’m just now reading Chris Hedges’s book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, and he speaks to this pretty directly. A great deal of what the Christian Right is pushing and what Dawkins is fighting– indeed, the way the Christian Right and Dawkins both define the word “faith” — are at huge odds with the mainstream Protestantism Hedges (and I) grew up with. These are not minor, ivory-tower type disputes here. This goes to the very heart of what religion is, Christian and otherwise.

    I am certain that if all the Christian theologians of the past 2000 years could be reconstituted and assembled someplace, a large majority would consider most of what today’s Christian Right is promoting to be blasphemy.

  31. maha  •  Sep 8, 2007 @1:49 pm

    would be a little less prickly, defensive and condescending towards people who didn’t share her views.

    If someone is going to be condescending to me, as Michael and Charles are, then I intend to shovel it right back at ‘em. I am not your monkey.

  32. Charles  •  Sep 8, 2007 @3:24 pm

    “someone is going to be condescending to me, as Michael and Charles are …”

    You are presuming the unstated. Neither I nor my friends, who – I hope – are representative of a more reflective subset of Zen tyros than those you correctly castigate, would ever say “Zen is a philosophy, not a religion”. We don’t know what Zen is and consider that part of the “Zen worldview” is considering any statement that starts “Zen is …” probably isn’t going to be very helpful. I used “worldview” precisely because I don’t know any better word and it seemed appropriately vague.

    Neither would any say “only an ignorant fool adheres to a religion, so that if you follow Zen and think it a religion you must be an ignorant fool” – that would indeed be condescending and worse. (Besides, one of them is a major maha fan!) However to suggest that your criticisms of Dawkins aren’t convincing and your comment responses sometimes appear arrogant and unnecessarily hostile wasn’t intended to be.

    - Charles

  33. maha  •  Sep 8, 2007 @4:10 pm

    We don’t know what Zen is

    I can help you with that. It’s a methodology, or a program, to enable an individual to realize [undefinable thing]. Bodhidharma said, “Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters.” As I recall, the poet Gary Snyder called it a way of working with your mind. Serious students work with a teacher, but the teacher is a teacher, not a guru, as in some other spiritual disciplines. The primary tool is a particular meditation discipline called zazen, plus some academic and liturgy study (sometimes you need words and letters), and it often incorporates some traditional art or body practice (e.g., flower arranging, ink painting, martial arts). And, of course, there’s the whole Buddhist Eightfold Path thing as well.

    I hope that clears it up.

    Sometimes people confuse Zen with the undefinable thing, but that is not accurate. Zen is just a path of practice. It has no copyright on truth or reality. It’s always possible that staring at a lava lamp for 30 years would get you to the same place, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever tried that.

    I used “worldview” precisely because I don’t know any better word and it seemed appropriately vague.

    The more you know of it, the less you can speak of it.

    The shame with Dawkins is that much of what is says is very true, but when he blows it, he blows it big. For that reason his criticisms of religion don’t hit religious people where they feel it. This is mostly because he doesn’t “get” religion or appreciate the nature of faith and belief as religious people understand faith and belief. Much of what he says is every bit as exasperating as the straw man nonsense the creationists come up with to criticize evolution.

    But, as exemplified in this thread, you CANNOT explain this to a Dawkins groupie. Their minds are sealed shut. Note that I’m not trying to convert anyone, just trying to explain that religion isn’t what they think it is. If they could grasp what Dawkins is getting wrong it would make their arguments against religion more focused and more effective. But since (in their minds) all religious people are ignorant, deluded twits, they don’t listen. And this makes me crazy.

  34. Longhairedweirdo  •  Sep 8, 2007 @4:13 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have thought someone who spent twenty years studying Zen would be a little less prickly, defensive and condescending towards people who didn’t share her views.

    Herm.

    Either you’ve studied Zen for 20 years, and know what it’s like, and are a bit prickly yourself, or you haven’t, and are speaking in ignorance.

  35. CTW  •  Sep 8, 2007 @4:41 pm

    Test.

  36. JoeBuddha  •  Sep 10, 2007 @8:49 am

    Liberalism may be “intolerant” of some religion, but so is theocracy.
    Correction: Theocracy tends to be intolerant of ALL religion; eventually, even its own. (Sorry; got in late!) I believe the religious hotbed the US has become (or always has been) is as a result of religious tolerance. This has allowed many fringe groups to develop into mainstream religions (think Mormons or Christian Science). When it’s part of the government, you’re more likely to be praying under the direction of beaurocrats, which would tend to put you off a bit. If we BECAME a theocracy, respect for any religion would probably diminish considerably.

    As to the religion vs. philosophy thing: My religion is Buddhism, but my philosophy is Atheism. As an atheist, I see belief in gods and such as somewhat silly; as a Buddhist, I see the enlightened nature in everyone. A religion is a practice (IMHO), whether you believe it requires a God or not. Belief is not the only prerequisite. Also, Buddhism can START as a practice only. Belief is a function of experience (in my flavor, anyway…). If all you’ve ever known is theistic religion, I can see how you’d be confused.

    One last thing: I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism for thirty-some years, and have been known to be prickly on occasion. As I recall, even the Buddhas have their moments! ;)

  37. maha  •  Sep 10, 2007 @9:46 am

    One last thing: I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism for thirty-some years, and have been known to be prickly on occasion.

    Thank you. My usual dodge is that I’m not a very good Buddhist.

    Buddhism can START as a practice only. Belief is a function of experience (in my flavor, anyway…). If all you’ve ever known is theistic religion, I can see how you’d be confused.

    That’s my experience also, although I might say “understanding” or even “postulation” instead of “belief.”

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