Friday, August 29, 2014

The Cult of Reason: A Cautionary Tale

"From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step." - Denis Diderot

Last week, decent people around the world were horrified by the videotaped beheading of the American journalist James Foley, at the hands of the fanatical and barbaric organization known as ISIS, or the Islamic State. Though most religious people were just as shocked as anyone else, at times like this many secular types are tempted to dismiss all religion as irretrievably superstitious and violent. For example, it was the September 11 terrorist attacks that led to the rise of the outspoken anti-religious movement known as New Atheism. As one of the movement's apostles, Richard Dawkins, said:
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.”
I'm not an atheist, and I know its unfair to paint all religion with the same brush this way, but I admit I can understand the sentiment. There are few things more infuriating to me than seeing violence done in the name of unproven religious dogmas, and Islam is not the only guilty party. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless pogroms against Jews were perpetrated by Christians, while Judaism has committed its own atrocities, beginning with the ones matter-of-factly chronicled in the Old Testament. Hinduism spawned the murderous Thuggee cult, and it was a Hindu extremist who killed Gandhi. Even Buddhists--usually given a pass by western atheists--have had their violent movements.

So, there's no doubt that religion can drive atrocities--history is replete with examples. But secularists like me should be careful about generalizing from those examples, and concluding that all religion is bad, or even that all ISIS-style horrors are religiously-motivated. That's because a closer look at history shows that some really awful deeds have been done in the name of reason. 

Consider the French Revolution. Like the American Revolution a few years earlier, the French Revolution began as an attempt to create a new kind of society based on Enlightenment principles like liberty, reason, and government by the people. But in France, things spiraled out of control, and those Enlightenment principles turned into murderous caricatures of themselves. Before it was all over, the leaders of the revolution there had pretty much flipped their powdered wigs.

The revolutionaries saw--correctly--that the Church and the nobility were both corrupt and oppressive; partners in maintaining the old social order. The Church was also incredibly rich, and the revolutionaries soon began annexing its lands and money. As revolutionary fervor increasingly turned against all things considered anti-revolutionary, a campaign of "de-Christianization" was launched across France. Crosses and other religious icons were removed from churches and cemeteries. Towns and streets named for saints were renamed. Priests were required to swear an oath to the principles of the revolution, and many of those who refused were executed. Other priests were defrocked, and even forced to marry. The Christian calendar was replaced, as part of the same reforms that introduced the metric system. Months were given new names, and weeks were ten days long. Sunday was abolished. 

Revolutionary-era inscription on a church in France (click for credits)
On November 10, 1793 (20 Brumaire, Year II, according to the French Revolutionary Calendar) a great Festival of Reason was held across France. Churches across the country were re-christened (or rather, de-christened) as Temples of Reason. At Notre Dame cathedral, the altar was demolished, and an alter to Liberty--represented as a "Goddess of Reason" was put in its place.

The Festival of Reason wasn't an official observance by the revolutionary government, which was by then under the firm control of the increasingly paranoid and murderous Robespierre. It was part of an even more radical atheist movement, led by people who had overseen massacres of priests, nuns, and other "enemies of the revolution". Robespierre himself was more of a Deist, and a rather puritanical one. He didn't approve of the atheists, and before long he had them sent to the guillotine--the National Razor, it was called. But Robespierre liked the idea of a revolutionary religion, so he dreamed up his own, which he called The Cult of the Supreme Being. Its principles included a belief in a supreme deity, the immortality of the soul, and the cultivation of a fanatical sort of "civic virtue", enforced if necessary by terror and the National Razor. 

On 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794), Robespierre oversaw the Festival of the Supreme Being, a grand affair meant to inaugurate his new national religion. When he appeared at the top of an artificial mountain created for the occasion and began leading new religious ceremonies as a sort of self-proclaimed prophet of the gods of reason, that's when many of his followers realized he had gone full-on bonkers. A few weeks later, he too lost his head to the National Razor, and the Reign of Terror he had presided over was done. Less radical forces came to power, while a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise.

The French Revolution showed that religion has no monopoly on the kind of atrocities that can arise from fanaticism. Atheists declaring their allegiance to reason and liberty can commit them too. In the twentieth century, of course, radical Marxist atheists like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot would preside over some of the worst horrors the world has ever seen. Anyone proclaiming atheism as a cure for ideological violence needs to pick up some history books.

Of course, one could argue that the Cult of Reason and Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being (as well as the fanatical and dogmatic Marxism of Stalin and Mao) actually were religions, even if they didn't see themselves that way. That may be, but it's probably beside the point. What matters is that it's not religion per se that causes atrocities so much as fanaticism and unquestioning devotion to an ideology. Some movements that fit that description are unquestionably religious, but others are atheistic and may even proclaim themselves anti-religious. We could debate whether or not they are religious, but it's clear that they are fanatical and dogmatic.

It's amazing to me that the leaders of the so-called Cult of Reason couldn't see the irony--the sheer absurdity--of the name of their movement. You can't have a cult of reason. If its a cult, it's not reasonable, and if it's reasonable, it's not a cult. Of course, the word "cult" didn't have the same sinister connotations in French as it does in English, but the point is that reason isn't something you can turn into a dogma, because as soon as you do, you can know longer honestly call it reason. True reason is an open-minded search for the truth. If you already knew the truth, you wouldn't need to reason. The whole point of reasoning is to arrive at truths you didn't know when you started. . 

Real reason entails a degree of intellectual humility, and that's why it's antithetical to fanaticism and dogma. The fanatics of the French Revolution liked to talk about reason and liberty, but it was just talk--it wasn't real reason, or real liberty. Just as you can't promote liberty by forcing people to think a certain way, you can't promote reason by being dogmatic. A real commitment to Enlightenment principles like liberty and reason requires a degree of tolerance for other lifestyles and points of view, because it may be that our own will turn out not to be that reasonable. 

That's what members of every fanatical ideology seem to miss. Again and again, they justify their actions by saying it's for the greater good; that the brave new world they are bringing into being will make all the bloodshed worthwhile. As Stephen Pinker puts it:
with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.
Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.
It also shows that the ideologues are entirely too sure of themselves. What makes them so certain they are right, and things will turn out the way they think? In order to be reasonable, you have to remember that you might be wrong. To kill in the name of ideology is to show a level of confidence in human understanding that no human should have. Whether our cause is religious or secular, none of us are smart enough to be that sure of ourselves. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

What the Apes are Thinking

Sometimes I go to the zoo, and look at the orangutans and gorillas. And they look back at me and all the other humans. 

Somebody's always saying, "Look at that big ass monkey!" A kid will be hooting and making faces, while his dad says, "They say we came from those things? No way."

But the apes take it all in stride. They just gaze back at us and look thoughtful. 

Or maybe wistful, or bemused.  

Contemplative. That's the word.

I've always wondered what they were thinking. What questions are they pondering? 

Lately, though, I've been reading the news, and thinking about history, and hearing about Kardashians and Limbaughs and such. And now, when the apes look at me and my kind, I think I know what they're thinking:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


THEY are really the problem, aren't THEY? People around the world agree on that. They just don't agree about who THEY are. Some point to the police and say, "THEY are all a bunch of racist thugs on a powertrip." Others point to the poor, and say "THEY just want to lay around and take handouts." Right now there are people looking at Ferguson, Missouri, pointing to African-Americans who live there, and saying, "THEY just need to settle down and stop tearing up their own community." Over in the Middle East, there are Jews looking at Arabs and saying, "THEY are a bunch of terrorists who want to wipe Israel off the map." And there are Arabs looking at Jews and saying, "THEY are Zionist extremists who won't stop until the Palestinians are dead or driven away." Whoever THEY are, THEY are to blame for most of the society's ills. WE certainly aren't.

The problem is, THEY is just a word, and an inadequate one--even a deceiving one. "THEY" takes a whole group of individuals, each one different, and tries to fit them all under an umbrella that can never cover fully cover them. When people rant about THEY, they seem to see THEM as a sort of faceless, homogeneous mass. But that's a cartoon view of reality, and an ugly one at that. THEY aren't like that. Some of THEM, are, sure. Some cops, for example, are racist thugs on a powertrip. And many of them aren't. Some of them are good, brave people doing their best in a hard job. I've known both kinds.

Same goes for all the other THEYS. Take the African-American community in Ferguson. To hear some people tell it, you would think THEY could do no wrong. To hear others tell it, THEY have only themselves to blame. Both views are ridiculous, because there is no THEY. There are just many different individuals, with many different points of view, acting many different ways. Some of them, obviously, are looters and rioters (though many of those are from outside the area). But some--I would say most--are horrified and embarrassed by the looters and violence. I would think most of them are angry and feel like they have every right to protest (and I think they're probably right) but they're horrified and embarrassed by the violence and looting. Many of them are calling for calm and peace, and some of them have even taken to guarding stores from looters. As in any group of people in a volatile situation, there are all kinds of reactions. Cooler heads are trying to keep the peace, but there are always a few hotheads (usually young men after a few drinks) who they may not be able to control. It's always been like this, in every community under pressure and composed of...well... human beings. And the rest of the community sees the violence break out and thinks, "People are going to blame us all for that. They're going to think we're all that way."

And they're right. People will do just that, saying, "See, just look at how THEY act." Whether THEY are poor, or rich, or black or white, or Arab or Jew or Christian or atheist, or liberal or conservative, or police or protesters; people will look at the worst elements and say, "Yep, that's how THEY are." And people need to stop doing that, because it's just stupid. It's a simplistic and jaundiced way of looking at other people, and it's done untold harm in the world--maybe as much harm as those few hotheads and thugs that cause most of the violence. After all, they're are thinking that way too. And if the hotheads are the spark, the widespread THEY attitude is the fuel. And that fuel is inside all of us, if WE let ourselves slip into lazy, cartoonish, cynical habits of thought, and start thinking THEY are all alike.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Tolerance and Other Paradoxes

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - Karl Popper
Reading the news the last few weeks has me thinking about tolerance. In a previous post, I wrote about how I had come to see the wisdom in my dad's contention that before people try to "love they neighbor" they should try to master "tolerate thy neighbor". It's simply a more attainable goal, and a glance at the news on any random day will tell you we haven't even gotten there yet. Walk before you run, and all that.

Of course, "first tolerate, then try to work your way up to love", isn't as simple and self-contained as it sounds. It can only go so far, because not everything should be tolerated. Some religions say we should feel compassion and even love for thieves, liars, and murderers, but they don't generally argue that we should tolerate what they do, and for good reason. You can't have a workable society which looks at a murderer and says, "Oh, that's just Joe. Sure, he stabs somebody every now and then, but that's just his personality, you know?"

So, if tolerance is going to be more than just a bumper sticker, we need to really think about its limits. Like most good things, it's only good in moderation. In fact, tolerance has the strange feature of being self-destructive when taken to an extreme. Take religious tolerance--many religious groups are intolerant of people who don't share their religion. Just yesterday, the Sunni extremist group ISIS killed dozens of people of the Yazidi faith after they refused to convert to Islam. Should ISIS' intolerance be tolerated? Surely not. If you tolerate active, violent intolerance, aren't you just promoting intolerance with your tolerance?

Tolerance, like the related concept of ethical/cultural relativism, self-destructs when taken too far. There may be a few college freshmen clinging to relativism hard enough to say we can't judge ISIS because what they're doing is right in the context of their culture. But what about the Yazidi culture, or the culture of the Chaldean Christians who are also in danger? Relativism and tolerance both have limits, and for similar reasons.

Tolerance, it seems, is a bit like oxygen. You have to have it, but only at appropriate levels. Raise the concentration too high, and things start to explode.

So how do you figure out what the appropriate level is? That's the hard part. Some people think the appropriate level is close to zero. This was the view in the Christian world for hundreds of years. Heretics were seen as endangering not just their own soul, but the souls of others, so killing and torturing them was considered the lesser evil. Tolerating them would have seemed like madness. After the Protestant revolution, people slowly began to realize that the religious diversity was here to stay, and started trying to figure out ways to live with it. People like Locke argued that it was useless to try to force belief on people anyway, because you can't. All you can do is make them say they believe a certain way. You've forced them to lie, and put yourself in a position of not knowing what they're thinking. This is a lesson the extreme PC crowd could still stand to learn: all you do when you suppress ideas is drive them underground, where you can't see what they're up to. This sets the stage for some nasty surprises in the future.

Later thinkers, notably John Stuart Mill, tried to find the appropriate line between freedom and tolerance on the one hand, and restriction and suppression on the other., with the Harm Principle. Mill, in an uncharacteristic burst of brevity, summed up this principle nicely: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Put in the language of tolerance, this means society should tolerate individual actions up to the point where they interfere with the freedom of others. We can't tolerate active intolerance. If someone wants to say, "Eggplants have souls and it's wrong to eat them!", that should be tolerated. If he starts yanking people's eggplant parmesan off their tables, that should not be tolerated. As the old saying goes, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

The harm principle is wonderfully simple, and I find it pretty appealing. But it's not without problems, because the line between fists and noses can be surprisingly fuzzy. If a man develops a gambling problem, and his kids suffer because of it, his actions aren't just affecting him. If I decide to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, I can't honestly say that only affects me. I'm raising my chances of dying in an accident, and if that happened, it would affect my friends and family as well. Mill would probably say, "Yes, but that doesn't mean the law should get involved." Maybe that's true, but what if I wrecked and had massive head injuries, and couldn't pay the medical bills? Should society help me pay them? Some libertarians would say, "No way. You made your decision (as was your right), and you don't deserve to be helped."

But others don't want to live in a society where those who make stupid decisions are simply allowed to die. Who hasn't made a stupid decision, at least as a teenager? They would argue that it would be better to just require people to wear helmets and get medical insurance, because their decisions don't just effect them. So, the harm principle doesn't simplify everything as much as it first seems to. Even the phrase about your fist and my nose originated among temperance advocates arguing that alcohol should be regulated or outlawed, because drunkenness doesn't usually affect only the drunk. They thought alcohol was hitting too many innocent bystanders in the nose.

Still, I think the harm principle is a useful rule of thumb, and I tend to think we should err on the side of freedom, at least when it comes to individual actions. But I also want to suggest another rule of thumb. Let's call it the evidence principle. If I want to force another person to speak or act in a certain way (you can't really force people to think a certain way) then I should be able to provide real, empirical evidence to show that their actions are harmful to others. And appealing to tradition or scripture isn't good enough. Maybe the tradition or scripture is a good one, but if so, it should be possible to show why that's true. No intolerance without evidence, that's my slogan.

One of the places this principle could be best applied today is on the question of gay marriage. If you ask people why they oppose gay marriage, oftentimes they simply point to tradition or the Bible, as if that settles it. But it doesn't, because it may be that both are wrong. Slavery once had hundreds of years of tradition behind it (and you better believe people used that to argue in its favor) but that didn't make it right. Similarly, the Bible can be wrong. People may argue otherwise, but they don't really believe it. How many people are really going to say the following passage is something we should follow?
"If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." - Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Nobody in their right mind, that's who. Both tradition and the Bible can be wrong, and that's why those who want to be intolerant to the point of forcing others to comply with their beliefs should be able to make a very good case--with real evidence--that the practice they're against is harmful to others. If people want to speak intolerantly, I think that's their prerogative (just as its the prerogative of others to denounce them for it). But if they want to practice active intolerance--forcing their views on others--then the burden of proof should be on them. Tradition and scripture won't cut it. As a judge in Virginia recently put it, "tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage." Of course, this "evidence principle" doesn't just apply to gay marriage. It applies any time someone is so sure of their beliefs that they're willing to impose them on others, or even--as in the case of ISIS and the Inquisition--kill those who follow their own conscience.

One of the best arguments for tolerance of other cultures and views is that it's so easy to be wrong. The world is full of different lifestyles, ethical beliefs, and traditions--should we really be so convinced ours are the right ones? What if the other guys are right? Some of the world's traditions are mutually exclusive, which means they can't all be true. That means some ancient traditions and scriptures are dead wrong. As far as I'm concerned, that's the main reason we should err on the side of freedom and tolerance, and put a heavy burden of proof on those who want to be intolerant. There are some things that can be shown not to be tolerable, and I think one of those things is unfounded intolerance.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blasphemy, Certainty, and Wild Conjectures

I've been reading a book called God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter, by Stephen Prothero. In the chapter on Judaism, I came upon this passage that I liked a lot:
“Almost all religions provide opportunities for human beings to convince themselves of their own righteousness, to speak in the name of God, and even to go to war on God's behalf. This 'blasphemy of certainty' is also rife among secularists who in their case have not God but science or the proletariat on their side.”
I liked the whole idea here, but I especially liked the phrase "blasphemy of certainty". When I started looking to see where it came from I ended up in one of those intellectual pinball games I sometimes find myself in on the internet. Turns out it's a quote from an essay called The God of the Desert, by Richard Rodriguez. Which I intend to read, but so far I haven't. Anyway, the passage it comes from is this:
“The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. We are right because we believe in god. We must defend God against the godless.”
Seems true to me. But I also found a similar passage while Googling, from an excellent article by Andrew Sullivan:
The 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne lived in a world of religious war, just as we do. And he understood, as we must, that complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy.
These passages linking certainty, war, and blasphemy resonate with me, even though I'm not sure blasphemy isn't, as they say, a victimless crime. If God does exist, and She is in fact omniscient and beyond any human understanding, then surely being certain that we know Her thoughts is hubristic and disrespectful. I don't know if I would call it blasphemy. That word makes me nervous, because it's been the charge brought against far too many people who ended up being executed for it.

But what if that such killings, based on the lesser crime of certainty, is the real blasphemy? I don't believe humans were created in God's image, but for people who do, you would think killing Her special creations would be blasphemy if ANYTHING is blasphemy. Misplaced and prideful certainty is one thing, but killing in the name of that certainty--and doing so in the name of God-- is surely quite another. Both Montaigne and the current Pope have similar points. Montaigne noted that:
"It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account."
While Pope Francis, in a radio address last year, said:
"this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
Hear, hear, gentleman.

As for certainty, even if we could have absolute certainty about everything, would it really be such a gift? Elsewhere in Andrew Sullivan's essay (I'm really bouncing around here, huh? There's a reason this blog's called Ramblebrain) I find a quote from the German playwright Lessing, who said:
"If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this--the pure Truth is for You alone."
That one bowled me over. It started me thinking in a different direction (ramble, ramble), not about blasphemy, but about truth and certainty. I realized I would make the same choice Lessing did. Sure, I might be tempted by the offer of the full truth, but what would I do with it once I had it? Where would I go from there? If you know all truth, there would be no surprises; nothing to look forward to. Sometimes I lament the fact that my lifespan won't be 1/10th long enough to get any real foothold on Truth with a capital T. Maybe not 1/1000th. But is that really such a tragedy? Maybe it would be a bigger tragedy to actually have the full truth.

I wouldn't know, but I would think it would be mortally boring to be omniscient. To ever find anything interesting, you would have to make yourself forget things. Some people think of God as existing in some kind of state of ultimate sublime wholeness, but would that in fact be a sublime existence? I can't imagine what this hypothetical state even means, or if it exists, but it certainly doesn't sound very interesting to me. You would want to have new things to learn, wouldn't things to create, or see created? You would crave some excitement, and you wouldn't want the spoilers omniscience would give you. It would be like knowing the outcome of every story that will ever be told. It would be the universal spoiler.

What if (and now I'm getting into the wildest kind of speculation) there is or was an omniscient God in possession of omniscience and the full truth, and She found Her existence boring and lonely? And so She decided to forget what She knew, and to allow Her wholeness to fragment--in order to really feel alive? What if that's how this fragmented universe of broken symmetries and diversity came about? What if it's even why it came about? Maybe it was more interesting to create--or even become--a contingent universe that eventually came to include billions of sentient beings with billions of points of view? None of them would have the full truth, but that's the point: they wouldn't know the outcome of the play before the curtain lifted.

Is there a theology similar to this? I imagine there is, but if so I don't know what it's called. It reminds me of the Hindu idea of lila, which I've heard expressed as something like, "The universe is what happens when God wants to play." It's probably not how it happened at all of course, and I don't have a clue if there's a God at all, much less whether She would find her omniscience boring. These are wild conjectures, and I don't put much stock in them--certainly not enough to roast anybody alive. I don't have that much certainty in anything. I don't know the full truth, and I probably never will. And I'm realizing that's a very good thing.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Drawing the Line: Notes on Persecution and Tolerance

Jean-Léon Gérôme / The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
I've been thinking about tolerance a lot recently (see last post), and I'm planning to do a post that really grapples with the idea of the limits of tolerance. We all agree that some things, like murder and theft, shouldn't be tolerated, so how can we find the line between what should be tolerated and what shouldn't? But doing that topic justice is going to take some serious background reading and head-scratching, so today I'm going to write about something easier.

I'm guessing that if many conservative Christians read my last post, which celebrated tolerance, some of them will be thinking something like, "Yeah, well, you certainly spend a lot of time attacking conservative Christian ideas like creationism and support for traditional marriage. Just how tolerant are you, buster?"

It's a reasonable question, and one that deserves an answer. It seems to me that one of the biggest drivers of this country's current political divisiveness is misunderstanding. People don't understand what those on the other side really think. They see their opponents as more extreme, and less well-meaning, than they actually are. Some conservatives seem to think liberal democrats are really Leninists, and some liberals seem think conservatives are really fascists. I'm pretty sure they're both wrong. So, I think it would help if people on each side took the time to explain what they actually DO think. Maybe it would ease the other side's mind?

This is especially true when it comes to religion. Religious conservatives and secular liberals like me have a terrible time understanding each other, because we really do have strikingly different views of...well...reality. Why are we here; where did the universe come from and how old is it, why do good and bad things happen, what happens after we die, what are the foundations of morality--we don't just have different answers to these questions; we may even have entirely different ways of conceptualizing them.

I think this misunderstanding is part of the reason some Christians think secular liberals are out to get them.You often hear Christian conservatives in this country claim they're being persecuted. People like me, admittedly, find this laughable. After all, Christian conservatives are still one of the most powerful groups in this country. Self-proclaimed evangelical, born-again Christians regularly become governors, senators, and presidents. Self-proclaimed atheists and secular humanists do not. If you want to see real persecution of Christians, look at what ISIS is doing right now to Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. That's the real deal, and it's horrifying. Telling Christian teachers they can't lead their public school classrooms in prayer is not in the same ballpark. It's not even persecution at all.

Still, the secular side occasionally goes too far. A while back, a college professor caused a furor by telling students to write Jesus' name on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. If that's what really happened (and accounts differ) then yes, that professor would have been totally out of line. Recently, the CEO of Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox, resigned after it came out that he was against gay marriage. I haven't looked into exactly what happened, but he does seem to have been the victim of a bit of a witchhunt. After all, it's still perfectly legal to be against gay marriage in this country, and I hope it always will be--even though I'm a vocal supporter of gay marriage.

Despite these lapses in tolerance from the liberal side, it's clear that some Christians have an exaggerated view of how far liberals would (or could) go in opposing them. For example, a movie just came out called--you guessed it--Persecuted. It played here, and I thought about going just to see how the other side thinks, but I couldn't quite force myself to give them my ten bucks. The premise is that Congress tries to pass a law called the Faith and Fairness act, which forces religious broadcasters to give other religious views equal time. A minister refuses to support it, and the next thing you know, he's been framed for murder and is on the run. Former presidential candidate Fred Thompson is in the movie, as is Fox news anchor Greta Van Susteren, so this is not a fringe effort. Apparently many conservative Christians really think such a bill could pass in this country.

This tells me they think secular liberals like me are a touch more militant, and a whole lot more powerful, than we really are. That's why I think we should explain what we really do think and want, because we're apparently not making our intentions clear. I can't speak for others, but I can say explain my own views.

So here goes. First, I would never support a measure forcing religious people to support religions besides their own. I wouldn't support a law requiring ministers who object to gay marriage to marry gay people. But I do support laws that prevent businesses from discriminating against gays, for the same reason I support laws preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, etc. Yes, I know there are difficult lines to be drawn between not forcing clergy to marry gay couples and disallowing discrimination in businesses, but that's where I think the line should go.

The point is, I do think there's a line, and we shouldn't go past it. What most people in this country don't realize about their opponents in the culture wars is that they do have lines beyond which they won't go. At least, I hope they do. That's one of my lines, and I would love to hear my conservative Christian friends tell me where their lines lie over on the other side.

As for things like public prayer, I think school kids should be allowed to pray if they want to as long as it's not disruptive. That's what they law says they can do. People who say kids aren't allowed to pray in schools are misinformed at best and lying at worst. I think teachers should be allowed to pray on their own time, but not lead students in prayer. Public schools shouldn't support any religion in any official capacity. There should be no prayers at graduation or football games, because you can't assume all the kids in that school are Christians, or even religious at all. Government entities like public schools should be officially neutral when it comes to religion, because it's everybody's government--not just the Christians'.

Finally, I don't think telling public school employees they can't promote religion while they are at school or acting in an official capacity amounts to persecution. If we started telling them they couldn't promote religion on their own time, or attend a certain church, or write editorials supporting conservative values, then THAT would be persecution.

Some of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have declared that parents who tell children they were born sinners, deserve to go to hell, and will in fact go there if they don't believe certain things, are basically engaging in psychological abuse. They've even questioned whether society should allow it. While I dislike the idea that parents tell their kids these things, I would never support laws telling them they can't. That would be going much too far, and besides, people would rise up with guns blazing if the law ever passed. It's not going to happen, and it shouldn't happen. I still stand by my right to question parents telling their young children their Jewish or Hindu friends are going to hell. But I'll also (force myself to) stand by their right to do so. As the saying commonly attributed to Voltaire (but really said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) goes: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I could go on, but this post is long enough, and it's not like my personal views are important, anyway. It's just that, once again, I think the misunderstandings in this country would be alleviated a little if people would explain what they really do think. That's all I'm trying to do here. To return to the question at the beginning of this post, am I intolerant of conservative Christianity and fundamentalism in other religions? It depends on what you mean by "intolerant." If speaking out against things like young earth creationism and official school prayer is intolerance, then I guess I'm intolerant. But that's an acceptable level of intolerance in a free and pluralistic society, just as it's acceptable for Christians to speak out against my beliefs.

It's also an acceptable level of intolerance to tell teachers they can't proselytize in the classroom. But here's the thing: this doesn't just go for Christian teachers. Atheist teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote atheism, and Muslim teachers shouldn't be allowed to promote Islam. Not in the classroom. If they want to do it on their own time, that's their business.

It's really all about fairness, and deciding where we should draw the line between what should and shouldn't be tolerated. My point here is that most people on both sides of this country's cultural/political divide do think there should be lines. I don't ever want to tell Christians, or members of any other religion, that they can't think, act, and worship according to their conscience (as long as they're not imposing on the rights of others). I hope most conservative Christians don't ever want to tell me I can't think and act according to my own conscience, or tell me that, as a secular agnostic, I'm not as much an American citizen as they are. I think they have lines of their own. Despite my fears when I hear people like Rick Santorum and James Dobson speak, I don't think most conservative Christians really want to turn this country into a Christian theocracy.

Well, I hope they don't. But it would ease my mind if they came out and said so, just as I hope some of the things I've said ease their minds. So how about it, friends on the other side: where are do you draw your lines?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aiming for the Low Slopes: Thoughts On Tolerance and Love

I'm breaking my vows. I told myself I wouldn't write about religion for two months. So far, I've made it three weeks. And yet, here I am again. You just can't read the news the last few weeks and not think about religion. And what I think about, I can't help writing about.

But I'm still going to try to take a more charitable approach to religion; focusing more on its positive than negative side. In this post, I'm going to talk about what might be the most positive aspect of religion: the ideal of compassionate love. The Greeks and Greek-speaking early Christians called this kind of love agape, as distinct from eros (erotic or romantic love), philia (brotherly love), and storge (familial affection). Buddhists called it metta in the first Buddhist texts. Ancient Hebrews called it chesed or ahab. Whatever you call it, it's a central thread in many of the world's religions. Compassionate love is very highly regarded...if a bit more in word than it deed.

Some religions (at least in some scriptures and interpretations) extend love even to foreigners and people of other religions. But you wouldn't know it from watching the news lately. The last few weeks haven't been a great showcase for universal love, especially among the big three monotheistic religions. In the United States, desperate refugee children on the border have been met with compassion by some Christians, but with callousness and xenophobia by others. In the Middle East, Jews and Muslims are once again at war in Gaza, while the Sunni extremists of ISIS are rampaging across Iraq and Syria, killing other Muslims, as well as Christians and other religious minorities, while destroying ancient holy sites.

The failures of love I'm seeing in the news, and my resolution to see religion in a more charitable light, had me reading about love in the different religions. I was thinking I might blog about how love has been seen in various religions, but then I saw that ISIS had destroyed the ancient Tomb of Jonah, a site holy to Jews, Christians, and most Muslims. The tomb was part of the ruins of the ancient city of Ninevah, capital of the Assyrian Empire, which once scattered the 10 lost tribes of Israel. It was around 2800 years old. What's striking to me (beyond the sheer, senseless tragedy of the act) is that Jonah's Tomb was in an area that had been under Islamic control since the 600's AD. This shows just how extreme ISIS is in Islamic history. After all, the tomb lasted over 1300 years under the control of Muslims, most of whom saw it as a holy place and wouldn't have dreamed of harming it.

And now it's gone. And not primarily because of a failure of love, though it certainly was that. This was a failure of something far less lofty: simple tolerance for points of view besides your own. This kind of extreme intolerance is something rather new in Islam. For its first few hundred years, Islam was a fairly tolerant religion---at least for Christians and Jews, who were far better off in Muslim lands than Jews and Muslims were in Christendom. But things have changed, and now some (by no means all) Muslim sects are as intolerant as anyone in history. It's very scary.

All this made me think, "Why focus on something as lofty as love of strangers, when humans haven't even mastered basic tolerance yet? Isn't that like trying to sprint before you can walk?" And then I realized I had arrived at a point of view my Dad has stressed for years. He even wrote about it in a comment on another post in this blog, so I'll let him explain:
Much is made of “love” in religious writings. You know, “Love thy neighbor” and the like. I believe that such passages, if they really came from a deity, were surely misinterpreted. How could an all-knowing creator expect us sorry humans to simply “will” ourselves to love? Love is something that comes to us--overcomes us. 
I suspect the correct translation is more like "tolerance". Tolerance, unlike love, is a choice--something we can force ourselves to employ. With effort we can muster up the self-discipline to tolerate people and ideas which we find objectionable. Once tolerance is achieved; empathy, familiarity, and even acceptance can take hold. These transformations may not always lead to love rushing in. But if we humans could just get to empathy what a wonderful world it would be.
Does that make sense to you? It makes sense to me. In fact, I never quite realized how much sense it makes until this past week. Yes, loving our neighbors is a worthy goal--perhaps even the worthiest goal--but maybe we should start by aiming our sights a little lower. Maybe we should focus more on tolerating those who don't see the world the way we do? Maybe we need to master something basic--like not hating and killing those who aren't in our in-group--before we even think about trying to love them? Baby steps, you know? 

This in-group/out-group thing is the big issue, I think. I don't actually think the scriptures about love in various religions are mistranslations. They generally do translate as love, in the sense of feeling a kind of selfless compassion for other people. It's not that they aren't about love--it's the size of the group they're aimed at.  All too often, they're only talking about loving others in your own group. For example, when Jesus admonished his followers to "love your neighbor as yourself" he was echoing Leviticus 19:18, which says: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself" (italics added). When Leviticus was written, "loving your neighbor" didn't mean just any neighbor. It only applied to your fellow Jews. Jesus took a more universal approach, and even spoke of loving one's enemies, but even he once referred to Gentiles as "dogs" (Mark 7 24-30), so it's debatable how universal his message really was. Some people think Paul was the real universalist, and I think they may be right. In any case, the point is that many religious verses on love may only be talking about loving a select group of people--a much more realistic goal than universal love, certainly, but not one that's very good at promoting peace on large scales.

Still, many religions should get credit for having scriptures that promote love, sometimes even universal love. The problem is that they may also have scriptures that celebrate exclusivity and the killing of outsiders. Similarly, most religions have scriptures promoting tolerance, but many also have scriptures promoting its opposite. So, the big question is not, "What do the scriptures really say?" They really say many different and often contradictory things. The big question is: which verses do you choose to follow? Most of the world's religions can be incredibly loving and tolerant, or incredibly hateful and intolerant. It just depends on what their adherents choose to focus on.

So what should people focus on? Obviously, I think they should focus on love and tolerance instead of their opposites. But I also suspect they should try focusing on tolerance more than love, for the same reason babies should focus more on crawling than running. Universal tolerance is just so much more achievable than universal love. And we haven't even achieved that yet. Not by a long shot.

Edward Compton  Matterhorn
I've started thinking of universal love as being like the Matterhorn. Yes, people get to the top of it, but it's really, really hard, and not for beginners. Luckily, there are lower, more accessible slopes; things like tolerance, forgiveness, following the Golden Rule, and so on. It doesn't make sense to tell people to aim for the peak when so many of them haven't even made it out of the swamps of hate and violence yet. Maybe it would be more fruitful to focus on getting them up to those lower slopes of tolerance?

Maybe. But I know some people will be skeptical about the whole idea of tolerance. I've written all this as though it were universally accepted that tolerance is good, and obviously, that's not accepted at all. Nobody is absolutely tolerant, and that's a good thing, because things, like murder, rape, and theft shouldn't be tolerated. Tolerance has a strangely paradoxical way of undermining itself when taken to its extreme. Should we be so tolerant as to say, "Yes, ISIS tore down that ancient, historic tomb, and is killing people as we speak, but that is seen as appropriate in the context of their particular culture, and who are we to say they're wrong?" What good is that much tolerance, if it lets the intolerant run wild? Philosophers call this the Paradox of Tolerance, and it truly is a paradox. At some point, true tolerance requires an intolerance of intolerance. Strange but true.

So, even if tolerance is an easier goal than love, there are still some big questions remaining. I'll grapple with those in another post. But for now, I'll go back to my Dad's thoughts on tolerance and its limits, because he (and Ogden Nash) said it better than I can.
Of course there are aspects of the human condition which deserve no tolerance. Discernment is the key, and that's the challenge to us all. 
Ogden Nash exposed my own self-doubts in that regard:
“Sometimes with secret pride I sigh. To think how tolerant I am; Then wonder which is really mine: tolerance or a rubber spine?”

Friday, August 1, 2014

Liberal Arrogance, Conservative Arrogance

A while back I got into a discussion that got a little more heated than I meant for it to. We've all been there, right? But this time I had a realization that might help me keep future discussions from getting quite so hot. I was looking back over my friend's comments, and realized: Wait a minute...she thinks I'm totally arrogant! Which was weird, because her point of view (in this particular case) seemed arrogant to me. What if neither one of us was trying to be arrogant? Maybe this was yet another way communication breaks down between people with very different worldviews?

In this case, the discussion was about religion, but let me hasten to say I don't think this kind of miscommunication is limited to religion. (That's why I'm writing this post--I'm taking a break from writing about religion, but this post is intended as a meditation on miscommunication, not religion.) I'm thinking this can happen any time you have a conservative traditionalist, like my friend, talking to a liberal non-traditionalist like me. In fact, as I realized when I went to Google Images and typed "arrogance", liberals and conservatives in general tend to see each other as insufferably arrogant. It's certainly true for me. I always thought George W. Bush was so smug--so absolutely sure his worldview was right--I could barely look at him (though I didn't feel that way about his dad). But what's funny is, I've realized conservatives see Obama the way I saw Bush. That's amazing to me because, while I don't always agree with Obama, but he's never struck me as smug. I don't look at his face and see a smirk. Did conservatives not see a perpetual smirk on Bush's face? As hard as it is for me to believe, no, they probably didn't.

Anyway, for the purpose of this post, I'm going to focus on one aspect of the conservative/liberal divide: traditionalism vs non-traditionalism. In particular, I want to focus on how each side sees arrogance when the conservative is defending a traditional value or belief, and the non-traditionalist is questioning it.

Here's my guess about what the traditionalist is thinking: she's thinking it's arrogant to set aside hundreds or thousands of years of tradition and go off in a new, untested direction. She's thinking, "Who are you to question values that have been foundations of our society for generations? They've been tried and tested for ages, and believed by many people smarter than you. If we ditch them, who knows what the consequences might be? How arrogant of you to think you know better."

As I said, that's a guess, and I may be wrong. As for what the non-traditionalist thinks, I don't have to guess, because I AM one. I'm thinking: "Sure, that's the traditional view in this part of the world, but what makes you so sure it's right? This society is just one of thousands that have ever existed on Earth, and if you grew up as a traditionalist in one of the other ones, you would probably think their way of doing things was right. Just because people grow up thinking something is true doesn't mean it is. Millions of people once grew up thinking the Sun went around the Earth, and that didn't make them right. Out of all possible beliefs, how arrogant of you to think yours, however widespread and traditional in this part of the world, are the right ones."

Obviously, I have more sympathy for my point of view (otherwise I would have switched to a different one). However, if you think about it, both sides have a point. And here's the thing: neither side is necessarily trying to be arrogant. They're just looking at things from utterly different points of view. You might say the traditionalist is taking a deep view, while the non-traditionalist is taking a broad view. Both ways of thinking can have merit.

So how can they find common ground? I'm thinking a few things need to happen. First, each side should probably realize they're going to seem arrogant to the other side. This may come as a surprise--I was surprised to realize how arrogant I seemed to my friend. Second, they should both try to sound as polite and un-smug as possible, because once somebody decides you're smug or arrogant, they're going to stop listening to you.* What's the point of having a discussion if neither side is listening? Third, they both need to cut the other side some slack, and realize they're probably not as arrogant as they sound...or at least, they aren't being arrogant on purpose.** They just have a totally different perspective about what's arrogant.


* Here's something that may just apply to the non-traditionalists--we need to realize how much traditionalists have emotionally invested in their values and believes--especially if they're religious. When I hear someone make a claim about something deeply traditional and emotionally-charged, such as religion, I just think of it as one hypothesis among many others, to be questioned and--if found wanting--rejected. I don't feel the emotions associated with it, as they do. I forget that debating such questions isn't like debating things involving less emotional investment, like whether Star Wars is a better series than Star Trek (actually, some people get pretty worked up about that, too.) I've sometimes found myself surprised when I question one of these beliefs, and people react as though I were cursing, or insulting their mother, or otherwise being rude, when I had thought I was being pretty polite. What I forget is that the very act of questioning some beliefs seems rude, and perhaps even blasphemous, to people who passionately believe them, no matter how politely you phrase it.

** Unless they are, in fact, an arrogant SOB who can't imagine being wrong about anything. That can happen, of course, in which case...why talk to them at all?