Sunday, December 21, 2008

Billboards And Bus Signs And Histrionics, Oh My!

I don’t really care if “theists and atheists are guilty of histrionics.” So what?

From Both theists and atheists are guilty of histrionics by Steve Goble:

On the one hand, I fully support the rights of everyone -- on both sides -- to express their views. I'm deeply grateful to live in a country where people can debate these things openly. It's good that the sign battle has people talking about these matters. As long as people are talking, there's a chance at understanding. Not much of a chance, considering the deep divide, but a chance nonetheless.

It's also refreshing to note that people who feel differently from the majority no longer seem intimidated, and are no longer content to keep quiet. We all live here, and we all have a right to be who we are.
So far, so good.
OK, I have some serious problems with the billboard battles as well, and not so much stemming from the signs themselves as from the reactions they spark. It is appalling that so many people are howling "those people shouldn't be allowed to say that!" Or, "They should get out of America if they don't believe in our God!"

C'mon. It's a free country, remember? If you disagree with one side or the other, that's fine, but don't toss the Bill of Rights into a trash bin. If you dislike the other guy's sign, get your own sign.

It also bugs me that so many people these days instantly see any opposing viewpoint -- on just about any topic, but especially regarding religion -- as a "vicious attack." Say you don't believe in God, or that you want the government out of the religion business, and you are lambasted as an "atheist" who "hates Christians" and wants to "wage war" on "all that is good." If you tell someone you believe in God, you get labeled as an "anti-intellectual theocrat" who wants to "cram religion down everybody's throat."

Sorry. It's not a vicious attack on atheists if someone else believes in God and says so out loud. It's not a vicious attack on Christianity if someone believes in something else, and says so.

I think the histrionics on both sides hinder discussion and understanding. Consider the Bible-believer who says, "This is a Christian nation and if those God-haters don't like it, they can leave!" That person leaves the false impression that Bible-believers are all narrow-minded fools, which is not true. Some Christians believe that, but not the majority.

Consider the atheist who says, "Christians are all morons who want to set up a theocracy and burn the witches!" That person reinforces the false idea that all atheists hate Christians -- again, not true. Some atheists believe that way, but not the majority.

Hysterical, unreasoned comments from both camps prompt sensible people in the middle to keep their heads down and stay out of the discussion -- thereby assuring that nobody is actually listening to anybody.

In a debate like that, who wins?
It all depends on who the moderator of the debate is. If he is biased to one side or the other, then that is who will win. Otherwise this is a debate that no one will really win. The atheists claim their side has already won, the religious believe that their side has already won. Is that the best we can do? Agree to disagree?

I think that the “histrionics” (Steve Goble’s word, not mine) are an important part of the debate. Eliminate the fringe and you have censorship. Who gets to decide which voices are “histrionic” and which are not? The fringe are the most intolerant. Eliminate the fringe from the debate and you eliminate the debate itself.

I think that we are talking about more than one debate here. The debate that concerns me the most is actually the one in which “histrionics” plays the biggest part. The “agree to disagree” world would be one that I could be content with. Unfortunately it is not our reality. The reason many atheists are speaking out more frequently and more loudly as of late is because religion has become increasingly more political. It’s bad enough that religion has always been political, but we did have the Enlightenment and the U.S. Constitution, which led to a period of a little bit of separation of church and state. Now, we are taking steps backward. It seems to me that Roe v Wade was too much for many religious people to take, and that 9/11 and George W. Bush (along with his fundie following) were too much for non-believers to take. Sam Harris acknowledges that 9/11 was a catalyst that caused him to write The End of Faith. This debate is not really about whether God exists or not. It is about whether believing in God has made us more intolerant of one another. It is about whether believing in God can cause one person to kill another person, in the name of God. Let me take a moment here to point out that most atheists would believe in God if they were given irrefutable proof of his/her/its existence. Most atheists simply want to live a life of reason, and would prefer that reason dictate the choices made by others that have an effect on said atheists. In other words, it pisses me off that George W. Bush hears the voice of something akin to the tooth fairy as support for his invasion of Iraq. And I agree with what Sam Harris (who believes that religion played a large part in the 9/11 attacks) writes on page 31 in The End of Faith:
As I have said, people of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill, and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.
How willing are the religious to have this discussion? This is a simple debate about life and death, about pain and suffering caused because of religious beliefs. (It is curious, as well as despicable, that for those who chant the mantra of “Choose life” that life seems to not be a state of existence that pertains to adults and children.)

If the debate is simply about the existence of God, it seems that this should be an easy debate to have. And it actually is. There is no proof for the existence of God. Believe if you must, but there simply is no proof. Yes, the universe is a wonderful place. Yes, it exists. The fact that the universe exists is not proof that God exists. There is no reason to think that someone had to create the universe in order for the universe to exist. (In spite of the big bang theory, I tend to think that the universe had no beginning, and will have no end. No one had to create anything.)

Let’s get back to Steve Goble. He should read The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Sam Harris has plenty to say about religious moderates and religious extremists. In fact, Harris’ viewpoint is completely the opposite of Goble’s.

From page 20 of The End of Faith:
While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance - and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question - i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us - religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out the the wilderness.
How can we come together when we play by three very different sets of rules? The atheist plays by the rules of reason, the religious moderate plays by the rules of faith and reason, and the religious extremist plays by the rules of faith.

I feel that I must point out to Steve Goble that from the atheists point of view there is no such thing as a reasoned point of view from either the religious moderate or the religious extremist. Therefore, atheists do not see the religious moderate and the religious extremist as “sensible people.”

Steve Goble says “It's not a vicious attack on atheists if someone else believes in God and says so out loud.” I agree. I also know of no atheists making this claim, so I’m not sure what his point is. What is disturbing to many atheists is when the belief in God is taken outside of the realm of the church and into the secular world. I have already mentioned violence and killing. Add to that the issues of abortion, stem-cell research, and the creationism/evolution “debate.” These are vicious attacks on reason and logic, and they are too much to take lying down. These are also “debates” that simply have no place in the secular world, because belief is not proof.

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