New Atheists, Enlightened Religionists, and Fundamentalism
A friend of mine picked up for me a book entitled “The Reason for God”, a tome authored by a religious man, to answer the popularity of books by so-called “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and the movie Religulous and other commentary by Bill Maher.
This led me to some Googling on other writers critiquing the “New Atheism”, including this post, entitled “Why Bill Maher Gets a ‘C’ in My Introduction to Religion Class”.
What Maher and filmmaking cohorts don’t appear to understand is that a person can be a Jew, have an enjoyable evening around the Sabbath table, and not believe that God actually created the world in seven days; that a Christian can stand up with her community, recite the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed, not believe a word of it, but still be moved by the experience of collective recitation; that a Muslim can make the pilgrimage to Mecca, touch the Kaaba, and still realize that at its base it is, indeed, a meteorite and not a holy rock from God. Maher even goes so far as to claim that “Christians believe” they are drinking the blood of a man who lived 2000 years ago. But he never asks anyone if they believe that. It’s a straw man argument. Even if this theological idea of “transubstantiation” has been written into Catholic dogma for centuries, I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who believes what Maher claims they believe (though I’m sure he could find a couple if he just kept throwing money at the film).
He’s got a point, and it is why I formed by oxymoronically-titled religion-of-one “A Positive Christian Atheism”. I was born into a Christian family in a Christian-dominated town in Idaho, so there are traditions and beliefs indelibly stamped onto my psyche. For example, when someone offers a “moment of silence”, I take off my hat, bow my head, and close my eyes. When someone says grace at a dinner table, I hold hands, bow my head, and close my eyes. I believe strongly in Christian concepts like “Do unto others” and “That which you do to the least of these”.
And yet, while I’m bowing my head, I’m fully cognizant that no supernatural power is reading my thoughts and preparing to act on them because I’m thinking them in concert with others*. I am acting in accordance with the traditions of my tribe, nothing more. I believe in the Christian concepts because I believe them to be universal truths in the closed system of humanity where we are all interconnected by six of less degrees of Kevin Bacon. Doesn’t matter if someone attributes them to Christ or to the homeless guy in the park, they are true.
So far, these enlightened religious folks’ criticism of Religulous is that Maher was setting up strawmen and like the excerpt above states, real religious folks don’t actually believe Jonah lived in a big fish, the universe was created in six days, or a snake spoke to the first woman.
And therein lies my issue with the enlightened religious folks’ critique – they think other religious people are as enlightened as they are. The enlightened religious person can look at the Biblical creation story as a metaphor and understand that geology and other sciences have proven beyond a doubt that Earth is billions of years old and the universe billions older, and that Genesis’s creation story (either one) is a fairly common creation myth in human history… but that person is the exception in the pew.
Religious people attempting to subvert science curriculum with “intelligent design” don’t see metaphors; they really do believe in a 6,000-year-old earth because “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, to quote the popular bumper sticker in my home state of Idaho. Religious people legislating second-class citizenship for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people don’t relegate Leviticus’ condemnation of homosexual behavior to the same rubbish bin as prohibitions on wearing mixed-fiber cloth and eating crustaceans; they really do believe the Creator of black holes and quasars has a serious anger issue with boys touching each other’s pee-pees. Religious people circumventing the First Amendment by supporting “In God We Trust” on our money and placing the Decalogue on public property don’t do so out of the Supreme Court’s rationalization of “ceremonial” deism; they really do believe not placing (their) God’s “to not do” list in a courthouse portends the end of civilization.
One response I’ve read to this point of mine is that I’m focusing on fundamentalists (yes!) and that fundamentalism of any stripe – even atheist – is a flawed ideology. I can agree with that somewhat – even I hedge my atheism bet a little by postulating that if the Creator of galactic superclusters and nebulae does exist, It is such a magnificently profound entity that our relationship to It is a bit less chummy than Da Vinci’s relationship to a molecule of pigment in a brush stroke on the Mona Lisa**.
The megachurches I see near freeway interchanges*** aren’t building themselves on the donations of enlightened religious people who understand that the Bible was a set of Iron Age shepherds’ oral traditions passed down, misspoken and mistranslated by generations, selected among many contradictory accounts of the time period by political forces in a time when church was state, and kept secret from the illiterate masses by a literate priest caste for centuries. No, those collection plates are filled by the people who really do believe in talking snakes. (Or seriously doubt it, but are too afraid of being the black sheep to mention it, lest they be accused of lacking “faith”.)
And this is where I have a problem with the enlightened religious. They don’t ever seem to be trying to bring the “speaking in tongues” crowd to their level of enlightenment. Not once have I heard or read a mainstream religious leader say, “Now, we all know mankind evolved from lower forms of life, but the story of Adam and Eve provides us a useful metaphor for yada yada yada…” or “these ‘abominations’ written in Leviticus show us a less enlightened time before Jesus taught us to love one another without reservation, and we should understand that means extending the civil bonds of marriage to all people.” Fundamentalist’s beliefs are never addressed by the enlightened religious as the ravings of someone on par with proclaiming you have magic beans that will sprout a beanstalk to the giant’s cloud home, which is what I believe Maher and others are trying to do.
Even though the enlightened religious may only believe the Bible metaphorically and state:
Religion is a network, a system, and its currency is symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts. It takes place within communities that act, and interact, and is set within specific cultures. These are brief definitions wrenched from larger contexts and intended to be used for further investigation, but they begin to suggest that Maher somehow escaped from (or slept through) his religious studies courses in college.
… they still will call it “the Holy book” or “the Word of God” and thereby provide support and cover for those who take “the Gospel” literally. (Why would they raise the bar for the fundamentalists? God’s not making those mortgage payments on the megachurches.)
I believe the religion definition excerpted above is a purposefully vague attempt by the enlightened religious to distinguish themselves from the cover they provide to the talking snake set. A “a system [with] symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts”? What human network does that not describe? We salute a cloth symbol in a ritual that perpetuates the myth of this country being founded on the concept of “all men are created equal”, even as we all know slaves built our capitol, the stars on that cloth represent the genocide of indigenous peoples, and women had little or no say in any of the matter. How, then, is the Pledge of Allegiance different from religion?
The difference, of course, is that religion is about God (unlike the Pledge until 1952). Religion is indeed, like many other human networks, “a system [with] symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts”, but specifically symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts about God, which inevitably become symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts about The One True God, which inevitably become discrimination within the tribe against those who question The One True God and wars between two tribes that worship different One True Gods.****
The “New Atheism” the author addresses is just thinking people like me who openly reject fairy tales and sky wizards and the symbols, rituals, myths, and concepts that support them. We’ve come to realize that our human networks can hold the same truths to be self-evident without relying on preachers, holy books, and megachurches full of people giving lip service to obvious myths. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” works just as well when it is said by a tortured Iron Age Jew as it would being said by The Virgin-Born Son of God Who Was Crucified To Forgive Every Bad Act Every Human Hence Shall Commit.*****
Maher mocks people for their antiquated beliefs though he never moves beyond an antiquated definition of religion himself. He borrows the same viewpoints of religion that all the way-out interviewees have. He is indignant that people actually believe in an existing Adam and Eve and the attendant talking snake, or in a man (Jonah) swallowed by a whale (or, really a “big fish”). These are the problems he keeps seeing: conservative religious people actually believe the myths of their traditions. But then Religulous splices in images of explosions, violent street demonstrations, and other aggressive activities. So, what’s the relationship between people who actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and suicide bombings? The film doesn’t really make those connections, nor could it, because they don’t connect.
It’s a simple connection, really. The horny teenager who never sees women because they’re covered up in religion-mandated beekeeper costumes can be convinced to blow himself up on the promise of 72 nubile virgins for eternity thanks to the gratitude of the Creator of dark matter and space-time Who hates “Baywatch”. The Wichita housewife who really believes God created Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve, can be motivated to hold a “Thank God for AIDS” sign at a soldier’s funeral, and she can easily forgive her son should he punch a few Adams and Steves now and then. The elderly grandmother with service-age grandkids who believes the only way she survives death is through telepathic subservience to a 2,000-year-dead reanimated flying zombie is easily convinced to cut a check to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign to continue the “crusade” against the “evildoers”.
My ultimate point****** is that this writer’s enlightened religious person’s point of view, which claims Maher and other “New Atheists” demean only a fundamentalist subset of religion (a system that the writer himself backs away from), is just obfuscation of the point Maher and others like me are actually making: all religion, by definition, no matter how “enlightened” or sophisticated, must adhere to something that can only be taken on faith (i.e., without evidence), and that is an irrational way to run humanity. The writer may mock those who believe literally in the Nicene Creed, but if we are to believe he is Christian, he must believe that the only way his consciousness survives death is through that telepathic subservience to the 2,000-year-dead reanimated flying zombie, or else we’ve re-defined “Christian” to the point were it is no longer a meaningful term.
You are either rational or you are irrational. You either base your values on personal experience and evidence or you base them on tribal tradition and faith. You cannot be an “enlightened religionist”; it is an oxymoron.
* Or, presuming such a supernatural God exists, I’m betting It has better things to do regarding black holes or quasars. Like George Carlin once said, if God has a plan, what are we doing praying? Are we trying to fuck up God’s plan?
** This is where one of my enlightened religious friends reminds me that infinite is infinite. If you’re an infinite being, you have infinite time and infinite resources. You have just as much time to build a quasar as you do to hear the prayer of a child. My response is that defining God as infinite thereby defines God as everything, and if God is everything, why do you need a separate concept from “everything”, and in fact, nothing that is “everything” can be something that is separate from everything else, so in essence, praying to God is praying to yourself. (I recommend two full bong hits of a quality sativa and a re-read of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” before trying to grok that one.)
*** There’s one on I-5 between Portland and Eugene that has leased out the top of its megacross to various cell phone companies for their receivers/repeaters. I call it “The Hotline to God”. Because Jesus was all about helping the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy get better coverage crossing the Willamette Valley.
**** This is where the Khmer Rouge / Communism / Nazism rebuttal comes from the religionist, pointing out that atheist Pol Pot / Stalin or Mao / Hitler (who actually used Christian symbolism a lot) started wars and killed people. Yes – over resources, land, and political ideology, not because the other side believed the wrong fairy tales. I don’t claim atheism would save humanity from war; I just claim it would remove the silliest reason for slaughtering humans from the menu.
***** I think it is even more impressive coming from the tortured Iron Age Jew. If you’re a regular dude saying revolutionary shit that may earn you a torture execution, that’s some serious balls. But if you’re God’s Kid, knowing what’s coming up in advance, but realizing after 72 hours of suffering, you get to be #2 in paradise for eternity, guaranteed, no faith required, then what’s the big act of courage in speaking out?
****** Hooray! We made it! Finally!