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[religion] A bit more on theism

Yesterday’s post on theism [ | LiveJournal ] produced some nice, civil discussion in comments on both sides of my blog. I appreciated that. I did want to elevate a couple of remarks from comments to highlight just a little further.

Me, on losing my religion:

The initial crack in my unquestioning childhood theism was when I was 6(ish) and found myself in Sunday School wondering why we were celebrating Passover as a miracle, when thousands of little boys were being killed. Not that I phrased it that way at the time, of course, but that was the thought. That was not the deed of a loving God.

I realize that for someone who holds Christian faith, part of the challenge and mystery is reconciling the inherent contradictions in scripture and God’s message. Some people reconcile this through denialism, claiming Biblical inerrancy and asserting that it is a human failing, not God’s, when contradiction is perceived. Others reconcile this through acceptance. Others yet through lifetimes of fearsome logic chopping. All of that is fine with me. I quarrel with no one else’s faith, not at its roots. (Faith in politics is of course another matter entirely.) But it seems to me a lot like acquiring a taste for Scotch, which to me is like drinking paint thinner. Why would I want to go to all that trouble for something that doesn’t make sense to me in the first place? Personally, I cherish my rationalism.

[info]mmegaera, on the self-reinforcing logic of faith:

Well, as I was told growing up, he is what he is whether you believe in him or not.

Saying you don’t believe in God, I was told, is like saying you don’t believe that you yourself exist.

Scary, huh?

To which I responded:

Wow, does that fail the pink unicorn test hard. Nothing like self-reinforcing nonsense passing as logic.

The pink unicorn test is essentially an Internet version of Russell’s teapot. Put simplistically, it says faith claims aren’t provable, and therefore aren’t subject to external logic. My point to [info]mmegaera was that claim made to them as a child has no meaning outside its own hermetically sealed internal logic, and is therefore meaningless beyond whatever meaning the believer chooses to assign to it.

And I suppose as an atheist, that’s really where I land. Faith has whatever meaning the believer chooses to assign to it. The toxic swamp rises up when faith holders confuse their inner meaning with external reality. I will defend to the bitter end to your right to your faith. I will defend to the bitter end my right to live free of the strictures of your faith.

I don’t find those the least bit contradictory. Frankly, anyone who does is deeply confused in their thinking, or possibly has never heard of majoritarianism.

[religion] If I were a theist

If I were a theist, I would want to believe in a deity who was better than me.

A deity who showed me how to love what I want to hate.

A deity who showed me the good in others, rather than reflecting my own fears in the faces of others.

A deity who expected me to see the world around me rather than denying it.

A deity who was above my prejudices and dislikes, and lifted me above them as well.

A deity who trusted me rather than testing me.

If I were a theist.

[culture|religion] The modern persecution by the Christians

One of the more ridiculous things I hear from some of my Christian friends on a reasonably consistent basis is that they are being persecuted for their religion. I realize that persecution is an important Christian meme from the earliest days of the Church, and telling themselves this is comforting and self-valorizing. But let’s talk about persecution for a little while.

As a Christian, are you prevented from marrying the person you love by the rules of your country’s dominant religion? My gay and lesbian friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a Christian, are your efforts to seek political and legal equality stymied by rhetoric from houses of worship on every street corner, and millions of dollars in a political funds from tax-exempt entries? My gay and lesbian friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a woman seeking basic reproductive health services, are your choices limited and controlled and banned by government interference between you and your doctor, those bans and controls coming from your country’s dominant religion? My female friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority seeking to practice your own religion in peace, are you constantly subject to prayers, religious observances and public holidays as established by the rules of your country’s dominant religion? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends are. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority seeking to establish a house of worship consistent with real estate and zoning practices in a major American city, are you prevented from doing so by a massive public outcry led by practitioners of your country’s dominant religion? My Islamic and Sikh friends have repeatedly endured this. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority voting in state and national elections, are your choices almost always between two members of your country’s dominant religion? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends find that to be so. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a religious minority being sworn into a rarely-elected office, or to testify in court, are you required and expected to swear on the sacred text of your country’s dominant religion? If you try to use your own sacred text, are you subject to mockery and derision? My Jewish and Islamic and Sikh friends find that to be so. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As an atheist who polls as the leased trusted group in America, how would you feel about despised and distrusted? That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

As a student trying to learn to be competitive in the high tech future, are you subjected to counterfactual faith-based teachings in math and science class thanks to the meddling of your country’s dominant religion with its persistent, pernicious confusion of faith-based belief with objective reality? Students across America are every day. That’s persecution by Christians, not of Christians.

The next time you complain about a minor erosion in the absolute social dominance of Christianity as being a form of persecution, take a moment to think, really think, what it still means to be a non-Christian in America. Trading away a small bit of your power for the self-respect and social safety of others isn’t persecution, it’s loving compromise.

[religion|politics] The Biblical definition of marriage

I was amused in thinking about something recently. The apparently now-faded Chick-fil-A kerfuffle hinged on a remark by company president and COO Dan Cathy about support for the Biblical definition of marriage. (What he actually said was “Biblical definition of the family unit”, but this has generally been read by all sides as referring to marriage.) Everyone involved from any ideological perspective seems to understand Cathy’s words as encoding for “one man, one woman”.

The New Testament, and therefore the New Covenant has a lot of different things to say about marriage without being especially precise. including Jesus’ very clear statement in Luke 18:29-30 that any man who leaves his wife and children behind for the sake of the Church shall be rewarded all the more in heaven. Sounds a lot like abandonment or divorce to me. The traditional one man, one woman form is quite clearly assumed or explicated in the various texts, but not inviolably so.

But since Christianist opposition to gay marriage hinges substantially on Leviticus 18:22, which is in the Old Testament, it seems to me that any effort to understand the Biblical definition of marriage should rest on the same foundations. This is simple fairness and intellectual consistency, after all. (With respect to the New Testament, Romans 1 26:28 is often cited, but if you read the whole passage and apply a little bit of context, it’s a larger discussion of idolatry and turning away from God and a fairly long list of things which are disapproved of, including pride, boasting and backbiting. It’s certainly not the explicit legalistic prohibition against homosexuality found in Leviticus.)

And Biblical marriage in the Old Testament is a messy, complicated thing.

In Genesis 11 through 25, Abraham rocked it with Sarah and Hagar. Definitely not one man, one woman. For bonus points, Sarah was his half-sister. Admittedly, he wasn’t formally married to Hagar, but this three-way relationship was pretty clearly part of God’s plan.

In Genesis 25 through 50, we learn about Jacob. He rocked it a lot harder with his cousins Rachel and Leah, and various servant girls, all of whom the Bible clearly states were given over to him in marriage.

In the story of David recounted in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings, the foreskins of the Philistines are named as a bride price for his wife Mical. Later on, David arranges the death of one of his generals so he can marry Bathsheba, the man’s wife. Neither of these seems to an approved modern method of courtship. He ultimately winds up with eight wives.

In 1 Kings, Solomon is described as having seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Definitely not one man, one woman.

In the book of Ruth, Ruth’s relationship with Naomi is described using the same Hebrew words that describe Adam’s relationship with Eve. Even through millennia of selective editing, this seems highly suggestive of a same sex relationship.

This doesn’t even get into the issues around Lot’s daughters, for example.

All of which to say, Biblical marriage is not clear cut. Since my Christianist friends place so much weight on the Old Testament condemnation of same sex relationships in defending traditional marriage, I think it’s only fair that the place a similar weight on the Old Testament’s highly colorful and varied definitions of marriage. One man, one woman isn’t a simple ideal, and it certainly isn’t God’s law.

Doubtless there are detailed theological arguments that richly justify how one picks and chooses which Old Testament verses to defend to the death as inviolable holy writ, and which to blithely ignore. I’m just as certain that once you take even one step away from the moral absolutism of Biblical inerrancy, for example, by wearing mixed fabrics, you lose the right to call upon individual “clobber verses” as being the final arbiters of God’s will with respect to whatever particular argument you wish to make.

Me, even as an atheist I’m a lot more in favor of the New Testament’s messages of love and fairness and non-judgmental inclusion than I am in favor of carefully selected Old Testament prescriptivism. I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of the New Covenant. Which would seem to argue for a much broader Biblical definition of marriage than my Christianist friends insist upon. Or at the very least, a much kinder and more tolerant treatment of people of whom they do not approve.

[politics|religion] The soft bigotry of church doctrine

One meme I’ve seen lately in political discussions both in the wider Internets and even here on my blog and in related discussion threads on my Facebook page is the notion that some conservatives opposed to gay marriage and equal rights have that they’re not really bigots at all. They’re just following church doctrine. They’re nice people, they don’t really have anything against their gay and lesbian friends. They’re just being obedient to God’s words. What Slacktivist Fred Clark calls “reluctant bigotry“.

A corollary to these complaints is the bigot feeling unfairly treated for being called out on their bigotry. As R. Eric VanNewkirk says: if you don’t want to be called a bigot, stop acting like one. I’m not about to hold back just because you say it’s your religion. And nobody ought to.

The church doctrine defense is ridiculous on the face of it. Church doctrine is not immutable. It has in the past been profoundly immoral and bigoted. And it has changed. Whatever your opinion of God (and most readers here are probably all too familiar with my opinions on the topic), His word is demonstrably Protean, changing with the needs of each generation and culture. Otherwise, all His followers would look like Orthodox Jews and live like the Amish ETA: look and live like Samaritans. (Thanks to [info]fjm for the correction) If you eat shrimp or wear mixed fabrics or cut your hair or drive a motorized vehicle, you’ve already abandoned the literal and immutable Holy Writ in favor of the realities of modern life.

To put it somewhat more logically, if the precepts of the Bible were as immutable and unchanging as many modern American Christians claim to believe, there would only be one denomination of the Christian church, instead of tens of thousands.

We don’t have to look very hard into American history to see where church doctrine has failed miserably. The most blatant and grotesque example is the biblical justifications for slavery. They are too numerous to bother to link to here, but were woven into the American national conversation from long before the founding of the Republic right through the Civil War. Doctrinal disputes over slavery are why the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, exists at all.

Were defenses of slavery through church doctrine morally acceptable, even at the time? Do they appear morally acceptable even to the most conservative of religious Americans today?

If you think so, then we don’t have much to talk about now, because there’s something deeply wrong with you.

If you think not, then why can anyone use church doctrine today as a defense for discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans? It’s nothing more or less than the same bigotry that wrapped slavery in the Bible for centuries and more. Surely the Bible has verses condemning homosexuality. It also has verses condemning the eating of shrimp, and verses condoning many forms of slavery. We’ve proven time and again that the meaning of the Bible is reinterpreted to suit the tenor of the times. Someday fairly soon, we will look back on the current religious conservative position on homosexuality as every bit as wrong and immoral as the historical religious conservative position on slavery. Or interracial marriage. Or any number of other things church doctrine has been mistaken about over the years.

In other words, sometimes God is wrong. His word is reinterpreted in every generation, in every culture. Pretending now that church doctrine excuses the believer from doing the right thing is both disingenuous and dismissive of the history of belief.

To claim you oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians because it’s God’s will is a cop-out for your own moral decision making. There’s certainly no compelling (or even trivial) social interest in this discrimination, and plentiful compelling social interest in righting these historic wrongs. Insofar as I can tell by observing who opposes full civil rights for my gay and lesbian friends with their words and their money, such opposition is rooted almost entirely in a religious conservative mindset. Come on, people, at least have the courage to own your bigotry instead of hiding behind the Bible.

And in truth, would you rather be on the right side of church doctrine, or on the right side of history? Especially when church doctrine will inevitably change with the times? Just as it has over and over again throughout history.

[religion] Evangelical America, I feel sorry for you and your God

Slacktivist Fred Clark, a progressive evangelical, had an interesting post over the weekend entitled The evangelical mind must obey the moneyed enforcers of the tribe in which he talks about a frequent theme of his, that modern American evangelical Christianity has morphed into political tribalism rather than a theological movement. I was most struck by this comment:

[The younger scholar] asked his former professor, now colleague, why he was sent to graduate school with so many gaps in his learning. The answer: “Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.”

(This is Clark in turn quoting another source, Peter Enns.)

That in turn prompted me to revisit a thought I’ve had for a long time. Basically, it’s this: I feel sorry for evangelical Christians of a conservative bent whose faith compels them to deny reality and turn away from the richness of the world. Here’s why…

  • I feel sorry for you that your faith is so weak it can be challenged by open, honest education. If I were a faith holder, I’d like to think my faith would be strong enough to be reinforced by the mysterious, miraculous complexity of the world around me rather than undermined by exposure to reality.
  • I feel sorry for you that your God is so petty that He tempts you with false evidence such as dinosaur bones embedded in the rocks of the Earth. If I were a faith holder, I’d like to think my God would love me enough not to twist the world around me with cheap tricks in an attempt to lead me astray.
  • I feel sorry for you that your God created you with all the magnificent imagination and intelligence of the human mind, only to demand that you ignore and even falsify the fruits of reason and observation. If I were a faith holder, I’d like to think my God would rejoice in the fullest use of the gifts granted me by His creation.
  • I feel sorry for you that your faith is so petty and narrow-minded that you cannot encompass the glorious complexity of evolution, astronomy and Deep Time. If I were a faith holder, I’d like to think my faith would enhance my imagination rather than impoverish it, and bring the world to me rather than shut it out.
  • I feel sorry for you that your religion compels you to act in ways and believe in ideas that are so obviously stupid, mean and hateful when viewed by everyone outside your tribe. If I were a faith holder, I’d like to think my religion would make me an example and even a leader to everyone outside my tribe.

So I say to those people I feel sorry for in Evangelical America, wake up. We live in a better world than your faith allows you to see or believe. I feel sorry for both you and your impoverished, petty God that you cannot do so. If He is as you say you believe Him to be, your God is either a bully or a liar, or both.

I will welcome you joyfully when the scales of your blinkered faith fall from your eyes and you see the beauty of the world as it truly is.

[religion|food] Saving your pizza for marriage

There’s a meme in the Evangelical world that if you wait until you’re married to have pizza, your pizza will be awesome.

I understand that in some people’s belief systems, pizza can only be consumed within the sanctity of marriage. The right of every individual of consenting age to choose when and how they begin eating pizza is entirely up to them. That right clearly and unreservedly includes the choice of not eating pizza until they have entered a state of church-endorsed marital bliss.

For a lot of those folks, they’re not even allowed to look at pictures of pizza, or smell pizza, or go into pizza parlors, or attend parties at homes where pizza might be served. To my personal view, this seems like it might be taking the whole no-pizza-before-marriage thing a bit too far, but everyone is entitled to their worldview. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, and I for one would go to the barricades to vigorously defend the rights of my fellow Americans not to eat pizza out of wedlock.

But I really have to question the practical wisdom of this perspective, and especially the assumption of that married pizza will be even more awesome if you’ve never indulged in pre-marital pizza.

How would you know? With no pizza experience, you wouldn’t have any idea if your marital pizza was awesome or not. You’d have no standards of comparison, and you would never have gotten an opportunity to develop your tastes.

We all know pizza preferences vary widely from individual to individual. Some folks are inveterate sausage hounds. Others prefer the classic simplicity of plain cheese pizza with all its warm, milky goodness. Some people like their crust thick and chewy. Others love it crisp and thin, going down fast and hard.

Beyond that, what about vegan pizza? Or gluten-free pizza? Or junky kitchen sink pizzas? Let alone the more esoteric forms of pizza, such as stuffed crust pizza, pesto pizza, pepperoni rolls, stromboli, and calzones. Even the sink of moral depravity that is meatball sandwiches can be argued to be a form of pizza.

And the ways and means of eating pizza… Many people do it missionary style most of the time, grasping the crust firmly and munching on the warm triangle before them. But some folks like to come in from the other end. That thick, ridge of fully risen and freshly baked dough can go down a treat before the explosion of salty goodness that follows. Some people use a fork. Some people even use a knife. Others stick to their hands, just as God intended.

Of course there are risks to eating pizza. You don’t want to cut a slice out of some skanky old box that you don’t know where it’s been. Pizza shared with trusted friends and partners is probably a better idea than picking up any random pizza on a street corner down by the docks. But that’s all human behavior. Smart, sensible pizza consumers can enjoy a wide variety without risking themselves overmuch. Prophylactics such as antacids can cut down on the health risks of pizza. Frankly, for most of us, life without pizza is a worse fate than navigating the risks of procuring and consuming pizza.

My point is, there are as many preferences in pizza as there are people who enjoy pizza. There are even people who don’t enjoy pizza at all for purely personal or physical reasons. I fully support their right to live their life untrammeled by the emotional and social complications that pizza always seems to bring.

So, if you follow the Evangelical way, and you never look at pizza, or smell it, or taste it, or sneak a pepperoni roll on your way to the altar, how will you ever know if your married pizza is so very awesome as you’re being promised? What will happen if you’re a deep dish eater at heart who marries a back-to-front New York style vegan? You might never find out what kind of pizza pleases you most, what sort really makes your life worth living. You’ll never know until it’s way too late.

How will you know?

Because of the broad public interest in this topic — who among us does not think about pizza on daily basis? — I invite you to share your personal pizza testimony in comments. When was the first time you had pizza? What was the best pizza you ever had? Do you have an especially favorite pizza? Any recommendations on where someone just branching out and testing the pizza waters might find good advice and the appropriate support for their pizza-curious interest?

[religion] Who’s persecuting whom?

Yesterday in the course of an only tangentially related discussion on a mailing list I participate in, one of the other writers (who is a friend of mine) made an offhand comment that of course Christians were under attack right now, and that it had become socially acceptable to attack religion. They said this as if were a patently obvious truth, a self-evident problem in our culture.

Um… no.

All my adult life, I’ve been hearing variations on the theme of “the modern persecution of the Christians.” (That exact phrase cropped up on AM talk radio in Austin, Texas back in the mid 1980s.) Anyone who actually believes this is displaying both a staggering ignorance of early Christian history and a staggering ignorance of current American cultural dynamics. I suppose it’s a very comforting, self-valorizing narrative for some people, but that doesn’t make it true.

Christianity is still overwhelmingly privileged in this country. Despite explicit Constitutional declarations to the contrary, our government is overwhelmingly Christian. 89.3% of the members of Congress are Christian. (8.4% are Jewish, the rest are other or undeclared, with only one openly declared atheist.) Although I can’t readily find similar statistics for Federal judges, I strongly suspect they’re quite similar. Likewise most state and local governments. We celebrate major Christian holidays as secular holidays — when was the last time you got Hannukah or Ramadan off at work? We see a constant privileging of Christian ideals in education, in law making, in local, state and federal government. (If you want to talk about being under attack, atheists, by contrast, often poll as the most despised group in this country.)

So far as I can tell, what some Christians interpret as attacks on religion are a combination of two things.

One is the constant drumbeat from conservative politicians and media alleging such attacks. Fox’s “War on Christmas” is an example of this effect. Those declarations are almost always severely divorced from reality, but in conformance with the principles of the Big Lie, they are repeated so often and so loudly that many people come to believe their truth. (Especially people who have a significant psychological investment in seeing themselves as persecuted heroes.)

The other is the gradual lessening of the absolute grip of Christian privilege on our society. Christianity is merely overwhelming these days, as opposed to utterly dominant. Moves to restrict school prayer and government display of nativity scenes may feel like attacks to Christians, but what they are in fact is some daylight for people of other faiths and no faith at all.

Confidential to Christians in America, and especially Christianists: Not getting things your way all the time doesn’t count as persecution. It’s a rebalancing that acknowledges other strands of the culture.

Speaking from the outside of a Christian framework, that Christians see themselves as under attack is laughable. In many major debates in our culture, self-identified and high profile Christians are the aggressors, for the most part without any worthwhile moral basis. Everything from reproductive rights to teaching good science in the schools to marriage equality finds large groups of vocal Christians and their prominent political and spiritual leadership arguing vociferously for regressive repression and standing firmly on the wrong side of history. Just as many Christians stood on the wrong side of history with Bible-based beliefs on slavery and Civil Rights movement, a historical irony that seems utterly lost on Christianists arguing today against everything from gay rights to access to contraception under the rubric of “religious freedom”.

My friend’s unconscious assumption that their faith is under siege is very telling about how deeply that meme of persecution has sunk into the minds of the very same people who are daily working to limit the rights and freedoms of so many of my fellow citizens, and stunt the education of all our children. To my Christian friends: if you want to be taken seriously by people outside your own faith narrative, open your eyes and look at what people are doing in the name of you and your God.

(And no, I did not engage this question at all on the mailing list. It was off topic, and it would have been deeply rude of me. I address it here with anonymity out of respect for the source, and because I think the question is important.)

[personal|religion] So this atheist walks into a church…

Yesterday, [info]the_child, [info]mlerules and I drove down to Springfield, OR to hear [info]daveraines preach. Dave is the pastor at the St. Paul Center United Methodist Church there. I’ve known Dave for a number of years, always liked and admired him, and finally made the time to drive 100 miles to hear him at his pulpit.

It was interesting going back to church. My Granddaddy Lake was ordained in the Disciples of Christ, and I was certainly heavily churched at points in my early youth under his influence. The Protestant order of service is quite familiar to me. Admittedly, the Methodists come out of a different provenance than the Disciples, but the basic patterns are very similar. The group experience, the singing, the shared interests — as always, I can easily see the secular side of what draws people together. (Though I did have to explain to [info]the_child that balloon animals were not an ordinary part of church.) Dave gave a good sermon on the Holy Spirit, the centerpiece of a lovely service.

Quite a few years ago I made the explicitly self-conscious choice to be an atheist, not an agnostic, for reasons that continue to seem eminently sensible to me. At the same time, I would be the last person to deny the role of spirituality and mythos in the human experience. As a result, I sometimes describe myself as a “low church atheist” — meaning I’m not out to deconvert anybody. I have an absolute respect for the right of everyone to worship (or not) as they please. My quarrels with religion have more to do with the way some believers confuse their private spiritual experience with good public policy, and try to insert their magical thinking into law. Most Christians wouldn’t accept Jews attempting to legislate against the eating of bacon, why should the rest of us accept Christianists attempting to legislate their personal religious beliefs into law?

It’s also the case that I don’t want to impose my personal views of the universe on [info]the_child. After all, if I rail at religious conservatives for confining their children in narrow mental boxes, how big a hypocrite would I be to deny my daughter the same choices I decry them for denying theirs? If she feels a spiritual call, I’ll do my best to help her seek out whatever voice it is that speaks to her from within. She had a lot of questions for [info]daveraines at lunch after the service, where we met up with various members of the Wordos.

I don’t yet know what this all meant to my daughter. To me, visiting Dave’s church was a little trip into my own past, and a much-needed reminder to me, who so often views religion through a contentious political lens, that there are happy, sane religious people all over the place out there.

[religion] Back to pink unicorns, part 2 of 2

More on religion, politics and me, following this recent post and its rather robust comment thread, as well as part 1 of this post. This is where I want to discuss some of my own errors of thought, and try to establish how I want to redirect both my thinking and my rhetoric accordingly. Absolutely a work-in-progress, not a manifesto or a position statement, and as such subject to all the usual scrutiny, challenge and cross-questioning that goes on around here when I raise these subjects.

It’s been difficult for me to approach this, because in a very real sense, I have too much to say. Even trying to focus it down to a re-analysis of my views has been pretty challenging. I’ve had continued discussions online or in real life with some of the usual suspects, with and being especially wise and tolerant of me. and I have touched on this several times this week, with her Jewish perspective leaning in yet a different direction.

For reference, though I am a very strong atheist today, I was both heavily churched and Christian-educated (missionary schools in Asia and Africa) in my youth. My own church background is Disciples of Christ, with a strong leavening of Southern Baptist, and some small amount of later Episcopalianism sprinkled on for variety. This means my understanding of religion from the inside, such as it is, stems from a rather specific Evangelical Protestant perspective. Combine that with almost two decades of living in Texas as a nonreligious adult. The state is in some senses is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention (at least so far as Blue Laws, alcoholic beverage rules, political expressions of faith and media coverage go). You can readily perceive my exposures, and my flinch points from that history.

Now, on to a rather lengthy exegesis of my reflections.

My first error of thought: Pink Unicornism, and arguing with the wrong people

, a much stauncher and more militant secularist than I’ll ever be on my toughest-minded day, pointed out I was overstretching the pink unicorn argument. She was observing this on ontological grounds, primarily, referring me to Russell’s teapot as a more general and sophisticated version of the argument.

In a related vein, suggested rather gently in conversation that simply by using the term “pink unicorn”, I was essentially and profoundly trivializing the faith of the people with whom I was trying to engage. I believe this same point was made by , and several other folks.

My initial response to her was that from an atheist point of view, pink unicorns are no more or less trivial than God, pretty much by definition. That is the whole point of the argument, after all. I asked her how she felt about Zeus as a deity. She responded that while Zeus might be logically equivalent to a pink unicorn, he was also part of an important culture that spanned millennia and spawned much of what has become our modern world.

In other words, no matter what I think of Zeus, either as an article of faith or a nominal entity in his own right, he is an important figure, if nothing else, for purely historical reasons. This cannot be said of pink unicorns.

I make this same error when I engage with , or , in talking about pink unicorns. It doesn’t matter whether I’m right, I’m trivializing their viewpoint before the discussion can begin. It’s the religious equivalent of an ad hominem attack, undermining the possibility of a useful dialog with a person of faith.

I’m picking a fight I don’t actually mean to pick. For this, I apologize.

I do not apologize for my opinions. I don’t even guarantee not to use the term “pink unicorn” in the future. But I do need to be much more careful and deliberate in how I employ it, because the term loads the conversational dice before they can even be cast. If I want to do that for rhetorical effect, that’s one thing. But it is not productive or kind of me to trivialize the faith of others as a foundational protocol of discussion.

This leads to arguing with the wrong people, which is to say, arguing with people of faith who are willing to engage with me, to illuminate my perspective, and allowing me to attempt to illuminate theirs. Again, for this I apologize. I will attempt to remap this rhetoric in a way which engages appropriately, rather than diverting by incidental pettiness.

My second error of thought: Stepping inside the black box

A term which has been tossed around in these threads, I think originating with either or . Within this context, “black box” is used at least in part as a substitution for “pink unicorn”. Referring, as I understand it, to the mental, emotional and spiritual processes of faith.

I have often been critical of specific aspects of faith. The internals, if you will, of the black box. While those arguments can certainly be conducted, and often are among persons of faith, as someone who stands outside the black box of faith, they’re not my arguments to make. Or if they are, they need to be within a specific context.

I make this confusion in part because the publicly-branded elements of Christianity as presented in the media and our political sphere actually do map pretty closely to my personal experiences of religion. The same politically conservative, Southern-inflected Evangelical Protestantism that haunted my childhood is what drives Brand Christian in our national discourse. So my responses to things occur both on the political level — where I explicitly mean to respond — and on the level of my own discarded black box of faith and personal experiences, where I don’t usually mean to respond.

Another reason I make this confusion is simply sloppy thinking on my own part. As I said a while back:

I stand outside the black box of religion by deliberate self selection. [Your faith] is a private matter that has no effect on me, and is of interest to me only insofar as we are friends. What happens behind the door of your home, church, synagogue, mosque, temple or forest grove is between you, your temporal lobes and your vision of your spirituality.

I meant that very sincerely. I don’t always live up to it, especially when I respond somewhat reflexively to what I read and hear in the media.

Once again, I do not apologize for my opinions. And certes, as soon as articles of faith or doctrine enter the public square, for example as rationalization for a political stance, they do become fair game for comment. But faith in its own right is a separate topic, and one that if I’m going to criticize from inside the black box I need to do so by following the appropriate rules.

My third error of thought: Confusing the unified Brand Christian as a political and social entity with the wide diversity of Christian thought, faith and action

Some of the usual suspects have made some very cogent remarks on this exact topic. Especially , who as a UMC pastor has perhaps the most direct and painful experience with this issue among the group of folks who’ve been willing to hang in here and spar with me a bit.

Again, this is sloppy thinking on my part, because I really do know the difference between Christianity as an American political and media institution, and Christianity the religion. Except for the limited basis as noted above, I won’t pretend to know Christianity from the inside, but I’m quite reasonably aware of Church history and the modern diversity of sects. I know what the Reformation was about, I know who John Calvin was, I know who John Wesley was, hell, I know who Menno Simons was. And that’s me being heavily Western-centric. There’s the whole constellation of Orthodox Christianity, not to mention the Irish Church, the Coptic Church, Maronites, and surely dozens of threads I’m unaware of. Christianity is about as monolithic as a box of random glass beads, and no less colorful and varied.

But the American political and media institution of Christianity, the public face of Brand Christian, is inextricable tied to that same politically conservative, Southern-inflected Evangelical Protestantism that in part birthed me. This is the Christianity of Billy Graham, the Moral Majority, Operation Rescue, Pat Robertson, televangelism, and the Republican Party. And because the people involved in this are smart operators, they always refer to themselves as Christians, and speak with the confidence that they represent the entire American community of faith. They’re treated as if they do in the news media, in politics, and most specifically within the Republican Party.

This is a huge branding problem for Christians who may be apolitical, socially moderate or liberal-progressive. It’s a branding problem that many of us outside the community of faith tend to reject. Why should we bother to make the distinction about a house you guys can’t keep in order in the first place, after all?

I make this mistake a lot. It’s unfair of me, assuming I want to engage people of faith. And given that I seek reasonable political solutions within a democratic framework, I have to be willing to engage people of faith. Otherwise I’m just another militant atheist shouting into the wind. Bluntly, my guys will never have the votes, so at a minimum, out of naked self-interest I must coalition with my moderate and progressive Christian friends.

In order to do that, I need to be able to make the distinction.

Per a comment by asking how that distinction might be effected, for now I am experimenting with using the adjective “Christianist” to refer to the political Brand Christian. Dipping into the black box a moment, I don’t see much of the Gospel, or agape, or Christian virtue, in many of the political questions that get hammered by the Christianists. I don’t want to give them the credibility of the Christian tradition when I refer to them. The term “Christianist” implies (at least to me) the trappings of piety without the substance, which is pretty much exactly what Brand Christian looks and smells like. So I’m shifting my vocabulary for now. We’ll see how it goes.

And in the mean time, maybe I’ll also succeed in being less confusing, and not condemning with blanket labels. I didn’t create this branding problem, but in my own small way, I might help solve it.

(Note: To be fair, I recognize that atheism suffers from a similar branding issue. One I am just as powerless to alter. A topic for another time, but a real factor in many discussions.)

My fourth error of thought: Not believing faith is real

This is one I am not proud of, but it’s significant. I’ll probably never shed it. That means I’ll need to work harder to compensate.

Basically, since I left my early churching, I’ve never really been able to believe, at a gut check level, that faith is real to anyone. I’m such a thoroughgoing secularist that the professions of faith seem too improbable to me to be taken seriously by any intelligent person. At the back of my mind, I default to an assumption that any person of faith is either credulous fool or in on the carnie scam. There’s not much about Christianism, especially televangelism, to dissuade me from this view, frankly, so it’s easy for me to reinforce this thinking in myself on a regular basis through confirmation bias.

The point is, per my comment about the black box above, I cannot know the sincerity of anyone’s faith. If I want to engage in dialog with persons of faith, if I want to effect political changes by negotiation with people who have a faith-based position, I simply cannot allow myself to think of them as fools, even in the sly spaces of my secret heart.

Let me be clear. I don’t hold faith. I truly, at a basic level, don’t understand how anyone else can hold faith. But if I believe what I said above, that your faith is your business, then this is not my judgment to make. And if I believe that I want and need to engage with persons of faith, then this is not a judgment I have any right to make. And if I believe in the value of logos and mythos harnessed together, as I explain below, then I’m simply wrong to make this judgment.

When I make this particular error of thought, I violate my own principles, and I commit the same sort of judgment that drives me so crazy when I see it emanating from Christianists.

And this one’s wired deep in me. It’s not a cherished conviction or a strong opinion, it’s a low-level gut check. I’m an adult, intelligent human being, I can choose not to listen to that gut check. But what I need to do is maintain more mindfulness to that tendency of mine, and eschew it consciously.

That’s as far as I’ve come on the errors of thought. Surely there’s more to say, but I’ve already burned far too much wordage on this.

I’d also like to spend a little time on (hopefully) positive statements about faith, religion and public life, stemming from these same recent assessments of my beliefs and writings.

My first assertion: That faith is real, valuable and important

Without stepping back inside the black box, I want to spell out that I think faith is real, valuable and important. That is to say, while remaining silent on the question of the existence of God, or the objective validity of any other faith, I recognize the power faith has in society and the individual, and the value it can bring to those who hold it.

We are not rational animals. People have to be taught very carefully to reason, and it took most of human history to invent the logic chain. We do not perceive the world through an inherently rational lens, and our own emotional and mental processes are not driven by rationality, again with the exception of careful training.

In that context, I don’t think it’s reasonable or prudent to expect people to view life on a purely rational basis. Speaking explicitly from outside the black box, to me the apparent value of faith is that it can give people a framework to process those perceptions, emotions and intuitions with which we are all flooded. When its working properly, with that framework of faith one usually acquires a moral code, some ethics, and a social framework — things generally viewed as good by society.

Even more to the point, as a writer, I would be the last to deny the power of the hidden truth, the altered perception, the secrets that the wind whispers to the night-bound trees. What for me are wellsprings of inspiration are just as likely the wellsprings of faith for another.

All of which is to say, I want to say that even though I don’t understand, and overdoubt its sincerity, I have to believe that faith is real, valuable and important. The alternative is conclude that the majority of my fellow citizens and the plurality of my friends and co-workers are to a woman and man of poor intellectual rigor who have been taken in by a giant series of carnie scams. And though I sometimes speak as if I think that, I’m not willing to sign up to the proposition.

My second assertion: The critical importance of balancing logos and mythos

Logos is the empirical world, the logical truths, that which can be measured, distilled, analyzed. Mythos is the dreamtime, the realm of the spirit and the subconscious, that which is alogical, even atemporal. One way to think about logos and mythos in in terms of the Apollonian-Dyonisian dialectic. Mr. Spock is the apotheosis of Apollonian culture in American popular media, and he is paired with the Dyonisian avatar that is James T. Kirk. (See here for a bit more. I don’t entirely agree with the analysis, but it covers the bases.) Modern, Western culture has emphasized mythos to the significant expense of logos in many of our core social, economic and political institutions; and to some degree for good reasons. Mythos can’t file a flight plan or develop new antibiotics, for example, nor can it solve for the value of pi. On the other hand, the human mind cannot live by logos alone.

As I’ve been thinking through this topic of late, I increasingly have come to conclude that this issue lies at the heart of the argument I’m actually trying to conduct in my public discourse. I myself have often lost track of it along the way, in the process of indulging in the various errors of thought outlined above.

In a nutshell, we have a problem in modern, colloquial English. The word “truth” is used indiscriminately to refer to demonstrable assertions and objective facts on the one hand, and articles of faith on the other hand. A critical distinction between empirical reality and the longings of the spirit, logos and mythos, has been swept away for many, especially Christianists among whom the search for moral certitude stereotypically trumps any tolerance for ambiguity.

This confusion is the root of my statement, “Just because you believe it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Except my statement misleads, because I myself am collapsing logos and mythos when I do this.

The reality is that world is ambiguous. Not at a metrics layer, where an angstrom is an angstrom and a UTC second is a UTC second, but within the realm of human experience. Our minds are complex, requiring both logos and mythos to feed our inner lives. I am a raging atheist, but I find my mythos in writing and reading. (I once told that most of my fiction was an argument with the God I don’t believe in.) I suspect that even the strong atheists like Dawkins and Myers get their mythos fix somewhere.

We as a culture need to maintain the distinction, while also honoring a balance between these two forces. I as a person need to do this. A collective understanding of how matters of mythos inflect logos, and how matters of logos inflect mythos would render irrelevant much of what drives me to distraction about religion in politics. The entire societal argument about the teaching of evolution, for example, is nothing but a confusion of logos and mythos.

Fitting it all together

I can’t even begin to say how I’ll fit all this together going forward. I’m trying to adapt my thinking to my real goals — better decision making in the public square and the political sphere, and specifically decision making that’s rooted in rational analysis and policy discussion rather than Christianists myths and false certitude.

I continue see the world the way I do — via a profoundly empirical view — but I’m not out to deconvert anyone from their faith. I am out to urge people of all faiths and perspectives to see the world as it is, understand and acknowledge the consequences of their own beliefs, and work together to mutual improvement instead of the mutual detriment that Christianism (not to mention the worst excesses of other faiths) drives us toward like Garadene swine running screaming into the sea.

It’s not like I’ve got much else on my plate.

[religion] Back to pink unicorns, part 1 of 2

More on religion, politics and me, following this recent post and its rather robust comment thread.

Context for the current post: expressed some dismay that I recently raised the “pink unicorn” argument, which he characterized as trivial. Likewise, made a lengthy, thoughtful comment about how she struggles with that, and from her view how the “pink unicorn” argument undermines the discourse.

As is usually the case, this sparked a lot of thought in me, but for now, I want to confine myself to the pink unicorn question. I am reluctantly concluding that I do not find it trivial, and in fact it might be critical. I am also concluding that leads to some errors of thought on my part, or at least, a failure of imagination on my part.

First, why I think the “pink unicorn” argument is nontrivial. Let me attempt this with a parable of sorts, so as to minimize the poking of sticks in eyes.

Let’s say I’m a Flat Earther. For the sake of discussion, assume this is a sincerely held spiritual conviction of mine, backed by many years of study of Flat Earth scripture, examination of the millennia old traditions of Flat Earthism, regular participation in Friday night Flat Earth Society Meetings, careful consideration of my premises and actions, observation of the natural world, and my own instincts about my body and soul.

As a Flat Earther, I’m very concerned with how international air travel is routed. Surely it cannot be safe for people to fly from California to Japan. They may fall off the edge of the world. Pilots are clever, and fly around the corners, but this is still dangerous. I fear for their bodies, and as a committed Flat Earther, I fear for their souls should the air crews and passengers perish on the journey.

Because I have tens of millions of fellow Americans who (roughly) share my beliefs, and the strong support of a major political party, I decide to seek a seat on the board of the Federal Aviation Administration. This is a critical issue. Flat Earth denialism risks not only the lives and safety of the people who don’t understand the issue, but all the innocents who are taken in by them. I want to make sure that air traffic safety standards, navigation practices and pilot training reflect this truth in which I sincerely believe.

Can you imagine giving a Flat Earther a role in setting international air travel standards and practices? The “pink unicorn” of Flat Earthism is rooted in a counterfactual so blatant that it’s dangerous.

Fair enough. We’ll keep the Flat Earthers off the FAA board. As says, we live in a democracy, and everybody’s voice counts. But this Flat Earther that I am will also have opinions about trade policy. If I don’t believe ships can sail from Shanghai to Long Beach, what am I going to say about balance of trade with China? If I believe the Earth is flat and bounded, what am I going to say about teaching plate tectonics in 9th grade Introduction to Physical Science classes?

My “pink unicorn” provides a foundational assumption that flaws all my thinking. How do you, as a rational member of the same democracy, negotiate with me about anything, or convince me of anything different from what I already believe based on my sincerely held, traditionally rich faith?

Now take the “pink unicorn” one step closer to reality and away from ridicule. Say I belong to a recently-founded religion that sincerely believes ancient alien souls infest our bloodstream. I believe that all of our mental issues and most of our physical issues are a result of these aliens, and proper detection and elimination of these alien remnants is the key to health, happiness and power. Do you want me sitting on the grants boards of the National Institutes of Health, ensuring that medical funding goes to those projects most likely to deal with the threat of these alien presences? Do you want my sincere religious beliefs driving your medical standards of care and legally permissible medical procedures?

“Pink unicorns” inflect thinking from first premises upwards. They’re critical to the discussion of religion in politics. They’re privileged, in a way that, for example, my personal errors of thought (which are certainly legion) are not privileged. When I’m wrong about something, I don’t have the passion of faith, the support of a congregation, the endorsement of society, the threat of moral error or even mortal damnation to reinforce my wrong thinking. It’s between me, my conscience, and my logic.

And when one stands outside the black box of any given faith structure — Flat Earthism, Scientology, Christianity — they’re all equally pink unicorns. From the point of view of trying to work out social and cultural issues in an objective, secular context, all pink unicorns distort dialog in ways which are privileged, unassailable, and wrong.

Later I’ll come back to why this argument creates errors of thought and failures of imagination on my part. For now, I am out of time and energy.

[religion] Coming back to an old thread, my politics and your religion

Lengthy discussions with , and in comments a while back, largely on the Atheism, cancer and me post. in particular raised some issue challenging my views on religion to which I have meant to respond, but it was who made a point that caused me to stop and carefully consider my approach.

She said:

you view religion through an intensely political lens. This only makes sense, because you are a person interested in politics. However, I also think it can color your perceptions to the negative, because you are seeing what comes up on your politically selective radar, and because most authentic religious practice is *actively orthogonal* to religion or contains philosophies which are at opposite ends of the artificial blue-red spectrum that is created in the old sausage factory (like social justice <--> respect for life). You are a very experienced and wise person, but because your life experience has not included a strong faith in god, that whole experience is somewhat of a black box. Your ideas about what is inside that black box are sometimes quite dismissive, such as an assertion that people hold faith for reasons of comfort, and that their choice is not challenging or difficult

To which my answer is ultimately, well yes. But it’s a very important yes.

In some aspects, I have clearly not expressed myself well enough yet. I don’t mean to be dismissive when I say people hold face for reasons of comfort. That’s demonstrable on the face of it. The evangelical message, at least in my lifetime, has ranged from “Know Jesus, know peace; no Jesus, no peace” to “Pray for a red Mercedes.” If such messages, along with the Prosperity Gospel and the Rapture mythos, aren’t comfort seeking, then and I have very different definitions of “comfort”. The primary source talks about comforting the afflicted, albeit in a somewhat different sense of comfort.

Likewise, has challenged a number of my assertions about the provability of God, and whether it is intellectually honest to even consider the question. I take the pink unicorn argument myself — absent some material evidence it is no more incumbent upon me to consider the existence of God to be a provable assertion that it is incumbent upon me to consider the existence of pink unicorns to be a provable assertion. The difference is God has a posse. The existence of faith, and more particular Faith as a political and cultural artefact, is demonstrable and powerful.

And this is where hit it on the head when she said that I “view religion through an intensely political lens”. Of course I do. I stand outside the black box of religion by deliberate self selection. Her faith, or yours, is a private matter that has no effect on me, and is of interest to me only insofar as we are friends. What happens behind the door of your home, church, synagogue, mosque, temple or forest grove is between you, your temporal lobes and your vision of your spirituality. My faith was heavily inculcated into me with early and severe churching which I rejected over time in my grade school years and teens, and have never looked back on with longing.

To argue that because I stand outside the black box of religion means I’m misinterpreting is beside the points I keep trying to make. To be clear, the fault here is my own, not ‘s or anyone else’s. I have been unclear in much of my rhetoric. I have no grounds or reason to criticize religion or faith from within the box. An it harm none, believe what you will. Not my concern.

But because I am an intensely political person, and religion is an intensely privileged, political force in contemporary American society, I do have strong opinions about the impact of religion on my life and yours. They are political, not faith-based.

When your faith matters to me is when it spills out of the sacred space and influences the secular sphere. When children are allowed to die because a faith refuses medical intervention, for instance. That’s murder, pure and simple. That’s a cheap example, because it’s easy to set up and difficult to defend.

But how different is that from the distorting effect of the Christian Right on medical research? Over the past decade we’ve ceded dominance in stem cell medicine to England, South Korea and other countries, simply because of a minority religious view. That directly undermines our medical and scientific systems.

Or in my own personal case, back in the mid-1990s, when Mother of the Child had a miscarriage wherein the pregnancy would not spontaneously abort. She carried a necrotic fetus for four weeks. The required procedure was a DNC DNX, which due to pressure from the Christian Right is no longer taught to most new doctors because it’s primarily an abortion procedure. Neither the public nor the Catholic hospitals in town would allow it to be performed, even under our circumstances, due to religious pressure. We had one option, and in a smaller city than Austin, we would have had none. if you’ve ever prayed aganst abortion or given a dollar to Operation Rescue, your religious beliefs could have killed my wife. And there was no child’s life at stake. That is a distorting effect of religion on the secular sphere that has left me angry to this day, more than fifteen years later.

I could go on with these examples, as I so often do — the decline in science education and awareness; the proud know-nothingism of Palinite conservatives backed by Biblical rectitude; the effect of End Times theology on Bush foreign policy. My point is, religion is intensely political. It affects everything we do as a society. It Christianity is intensely privileged in the political process — an assertion my Christian friends sometimes seem to find boggling, but how many avowed atheists serve in elective office? How many avowed churchgoers? 97.3% of the members of Congress avow a faith, 88.9% some form of Christianity.

We’re still arguing about evolution in American society, with a rate of denialism matched only by the country of Turkey. That’s a question that shouldn’t even be asked in a rational culture. Religion distorts political, educational and legal processes every day in America.

So of course I view religion through a political lens. Your beliefs are your own, and I back them to the hilt as part of my own view of civil liberties and Constitutional rights. But the consequences of your beliefs write themselves large on my political life every time Texas rejects a textbook, or a child is taught Intelligent Design, or two people I love cannot marry because your God who hates shrimp also hates fags, or the life of someone I love is endangered because medical decisions have been taken away from doctors and patients in the name of one nonsecular view of the inception of life.

Keep your black box with my blessings. But for the love of God, just because you believe it doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t write it into our country’s laws, our curricula, our healthcare guidelines and our court rulings. I’ll try to keep my rantings out of your black box in return.

Really, we’re not that different. I only believe in one less god than you do. Or perhaps one less pink unicorn.