Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The God question

I saw an interesting book reading on MSNBC or some such on Sunday which got me thinking about the whole issue of religion and how it fits into society - or doesn't.
The person reading was Richard Dawkins (lefty British intellectual known for his dislike of religion). His reading was plenty interesting, of course - witty and clever in the way that British intellectuals are so very good at. That wasn't really what got me thinking, though. What got me thinking was the Q&A afterwards.
There were several people in the audience from Liberty University (ridiculous institution that it is). One of them asked Dawkins the usual smug religious person question - I'm paraphrasing here, but basically the gist was, if you abandon God how can you hope to have any kind of morality?
Smug religious types always ask this question in one form or another. It's kind of funny really - they seem to honestly believe that this question is the way to bring all discussion of atheism to a halt, that it conclusively proves the rightness of their position.
What a bunch of bullshit. Some of the most deeply ethical people throughout history have been nonbelievers. Would you call Siddharta/Buddha an unethical person? The real question is, if a person thinks that nobody would have any sense of right and wrong without a book to tell them what to do (which is after all what the question implies), what does that say about the person asking the question? Nothing good, in my opinion. Does anyone really need the Bible/Torah/Koran to tell them that murder, rape and child abuse are Very Bad Things? Doesn't their own conscience tell them that?
See, I think that at it's core morality is really a very simple thing. All you have to do is, in any given situation, ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to cause harm to anyone else. If the action is completely harmless, go ahead and do it. If it is clearly harmful in a way that could be avoided, don't do it. If you find yourself in a grey area, think about it some more and the answer will soon become clear.
I know I'm simplifying here, but the basic principle holds true. Any truly authentic morality is always going to be based on a desire to help rather than harm. It's honestly not that complicated, when you get right down to it.
Unless you're a fundamentalist. I don't really care which religion we're talking about because the Big 3 are basically all the same. Instead of a careful examination of one's conscience and decisions made based on the desire not to do harm they substitute a kind of slavish devotion to a heavenly rulebook. It's the morality of a 5 year old - don't do that or Mommy and Daddy will be mad! Adults are supposed to learn a more nuanced way of looking at things (check out Piaget's theory of child development if you don't believe me).
It's a strange thing, the way religion is evolving in America. It seems to be moving more and more rapidly in the direction of a kind of primitive, knee-jerk fundamentalism at exactly the same time that the rest of the First World is moving in precisely the opposite direction. It's peculiar - why is America going in so different a direction? If anyone asked Dawkins a question like that in Europe the rest of the audience would probably laugh at them. Why is it so different here? And what can we do to fix it?
The other interesting question that was asked at the Q&A was about the issue of comfort. Again I'm paraphrasing, but basically the question was, if people find comfort in their religion, who are you to take that away from them?
That's an interesting question. I personally don't understand why people find the belief in something that is manifestly not true to be comforting, but they do. To me, believing in god is rather like believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. It might have made sense when you were a child, but as a rational adult surely it's obvious that the very idea is ridiculous? The wierd thing is, I've had lots of believers ask me variations of this question, and whenever they do there's always something nervous and insecure about their tone. It's as if they desperately want me to agree with them, but already know that I won't. They expect to be laughed at. The guy who asked Dawkins the question expected to be laughed at - it was written all over him. Why then do they keep asking the question?
It's a thorny question for the largely non-religious left. Whether we as individuals identify as Marxists, feminists, Greens or whatever, one thing that most of us share is a lack of religiosity. Most of the population in this country does not agree with us. What are we supposed to do about that? Tell the truth about how we feel, or just keep quiet and let others assume that we're believers just like them.
It's clear that fundamentalists are the enemy, but what about the "Jesus is my blankie" people? How are we supposed to relate to them? We don't understand them, and they don't understand us. How do we handle that?

Just musing, but if anyone else has any ideas I'd love to hear them.

8 comments:

belledame222 said...

This is something I've been thinking about a lot.

To me, the key difference isn't religion or not--it's the black and white mentality--or not. the "True Believer" business. I know religious believers who are highly evolved, highly nuanced thinkers--and kind and humanistic and all the rest; and I know atheists or at least neutral on the subject of religion per se people who are, well, scary fundamentalists, yea, for all intents and purpose (*coughcertainradicalfeministscough*).

I think religion serves a number of functions; and the fact that some people do indeed seem to wield it like a security blanket or bludgeon doesn't really do justice to the other people who are far more conscious. It's a bit like judging all of feminism by people like Stan Goff and Sheila Jeffreys. maybe even Valerie Solanas. you know.

but one of these days soon i'm gonna post on this in more detail.

belledame222 said...

i meant to add: but unfortunately, when the lunatics and hateful assholes are the ones with the loudest voice, not to mention the most investment in "speaking for" everyone else, they do tend to be the first thing people think of when thinking of ___ .

and then too, of course, a lot of us have been raised in a particularly toxic religious environment; even those of us who weren't personally so get i think a certain amount of "ambient abuse" from the relentless hatefulness crammed down our throats, especially those of us who've been the targets of their concerted scapegoating. For people who grew up having to go to abusive churches and so on, in my experience, they're even more likely to develop a kind of allergic reaction to the whole concept of religion, period.

maybe in sort of the same way, you know, that certain people who've been sexually abused develop a sort of allergic reaction to this or that kind of sexuality...

and yes, "ambient" counts there, too.

I'm not trying to pathologize either position, mind you, just trying to trace the etiology of what i think is a pretty common theme among the loosely-defined left. Not universal by any means, Ann Coulter notwithstanding, but...yeah, it's there.

belledame222 said...

>I know I'm simplifying here, but the basic principle holds true. Any truly authentic morality is always going to be based on a desire to help rather than harm. >

"What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary."--Rabbi Hillel

also have been meaning to post on something i read back when i was taking developmental psych--someone's theory on the different stages of morality; sort of the evolution of empathy. people who see everything as "don't do such and so or you'll be punished" are stuck at a rather early stage.

Cassandra Says said...

I think you're probably talking about Piaget's theory of childhood moral development. If I remember correctly the fear-of-punishment stage should end at about 5 or 6.

Cassandra Says said...

I have a severe case of the allergic reaction since I grew up in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia - I've seen what fundamentalism can do to a society up close and personal, and it's not pretty.
There are some lovely, smart, reasonable religious people, of course, and it would be great if we could hear from them occasionally rather than the nutters who usually dominate the conversation.

FoolishOwl said...

The other interesting question that was asked at the Q&A was about the issue of comfort. Again I'm paraphrasing, but basically the question was, if people find comfort in their religion, who are you to take that away from them?

It's not like you can take it away from them, anyway. People don't change their beliefs because they hear a good argument. There's an argument for anything. People change their beliefs because their beliefs don't work for them anymore, and they go looking for new beliefs that do work for them.

belledame222 said...

Piaget, yes.

I agree with you wrt it'd be nice to hear more from the spiritual/progressive left or even just plain sane more. and actually there has been something of a resurgence of the spiritual/religious left in recent years, if you've been following. i actually have a bunch of links in my 'roll to that end.

but also i do think it's kind of up to...us? to be honest, i'm not totally sure where i fit in; i'm not "religious," am certainly humanist, but I'm not an atheist at this point, and feel alienated from certain anti-religion stances, which I encounter not infrequently (hell, pretty much grew up with).

...it's also good to reach out, is what I was going to say. And I don't mean in the ways of, let's equate "religious" with "mainstream, moderate, let's throw the most vulnerable populations and causes under the bus," which is what i think a lot of people think reaching out to the believers means; and they have some reason for it.

but it doesn't have to be that. and i don't limit it to religious believers either; but in my own little way i've been very much about going far afield and trying to build...well, not a coalition, just a sort of loose community...based primarily on, is this person 1) interesting 2) a human being.

but i mean, rootietoot's a self-ID'd Southern Methodist conservative housewife. she's on my site because i found her at Renegade Evolution's, a sex worker (don't know how she found her way there); she was curious and nonjudgmental. So I linked her. and even though she's said a number of things in other contexts that've really raised my hackles, and no doubt vice-versa (particularly knee-jerk Republican bashing and especially Christian-bashing), we connected; we're talking.

I think that if the main goal, or one of them, is to -not- be ruled by fundamentalist zealots, then it's really important for the rest of us to find ways in with to connect and find other shared values. What are we *for*, in other words. And in many ways I'm pretty certain that the details of the ideal society/political whatever will never ever be agreed upon by such a big tent. But at minimum, i think there must be some basic underlying principles that bond us together and distinguish us from the totalitarians. call it small-d democracy if you like; I guess Enlightenment values are a big part of it. ultimately though i think it boils down to, well,

"By their fruits [deeds] you will know them."

You know?

belledame222 said...

>It's not like you can take it away from them, anyway. People don't change their beliefs because they hear a good argument. There's an argument for anything. People change their beliefs because their beliefs don't work for them anymore, and they go looking for new beliefs that do work for them.>

Yup. Nine tenths (if not more) of political/philosophical "debate," online and off, is just so much wankery. People aren't actually in it to have dialogue; they're there to score points and "express themselves;" the Other is there mostly as a kind of handball court for them to bounce off.

which, don't get me wrong, can actually be a fun exercise if one is truly dealing with a blahblahblahGINGER troll;

but one might take care that one is not in fact being that person oneself, first.

and sooner or later even that gets -really- boring.

Go at it slantwise. Maybe -don't- attack or even confront people on what's close to their heart. If what you're really concerned about is their position on a particular issue, just talk about that. And you can dig out where each of you is coming from, sometimes, without attacking someone's core beliefs. Sometimes you do find that you already share enough assumptions to have the discussion. Other times, maybe not; so it goes.