Monday, December 1, 2008

How About A Little Grace?

There is a lot of talk these days about whether the world would be better or worse without religion.

I reject the premise.

There are many fine & passionate people on both sides of this argument. Many people find a strictly empirical view suits their needs just fine. Others look towards the numinous & inexplicable to explain their lives. All is well, right?

Maybe not. The discussion has begun, but there seem to be alot of hurt feelings floating around. Surely not all atheists have come to their rejection of religion by strictly empirical means, and surely all believers do not believe because the truth was revealed to them from on high. There is insecurity about the state of religion in the world on all sides, and it will be expressed in different ways. Some people will sulk. Some will use humor, the arts, or biting sarcasm. Some will engage in healthy debate. All forms of expression are okay, as long as things don't get violent and people's rights don't get infringed upon. There is something else beneath our current attitudes towards religion, and it is coming out in a big & public way. The world is going into group therapy. We've got daddy issues.

I am an agnostic. For many years I was a nominal (yet studious) Christian, but then the bottom fell out of my religion. I had to leave it there on the beach, like a pretty rock that was appealing, but just a little too heavy to accompany me on the rest of my journey.

It’s true that sometimes I still long for that connection that I felt when I was a dogmatic believer, although I can’t tell if the longing is that of a scorned lover watching a happy couple in the park, or if it’s more akin to an alcoholic watching beer commercials on T.V. Either way the feeling is there, and I understand why those who have it might feel the compunction to defend it. Religion is comforting. It gives us a pre-packaged world view and boundaries within which to think about all that is around us. It clearly marks the safe zones and the danger zones, and promises rewards for the good, and punishment for the bad. It also grants us a creator that loves us, understands us, and will ultimately vindicate us, if only we stand by him. I get that.

I also can understand the intent behind the onslaught of the neo-atheists. There can be some debilitating effects of religion, to be sure (this includes secular religions). Neurosis about natural sexual impulses. The willingness to commit violence against ‘infidels’ . Opening the mind up to softened, uncritical thinking, and making a person vulnerable to the scams & advances of hucksters. Religion can also put irrational fears into the minds of children by creating a bogeyman out of Satan, and plaguing them with the threat of damnation if they deviate on even an intellectual level: If you stop believing in Santa, he just won’t bring you presents anymore. If you stop believing in God, he’ll send your ass to hell.

But truly there is a middle ground, and I think that middle ground is called grace.

I know this is a religious term, but I can’t think of anything more applicable. Typically it means 'the favor of God', but here I am going to employ it as a mix of graciousness and humility when talking about God, with just a smidge of that 'attractiveness in presentation' aspect. We can handle the humor, but leave your misanthropy at the door.

To the religious:

We cannot know anything about God. We can suspect things, we can posit things, we can hope for things, but we cannot know them. Our religious texts are unreliable. As Sam Harris is fond of pointing out, there is nothing written in any one of them that could not have been written by a person of that era. He’s right, and the only acceptable response to the truth of this assertion is to acknowledge it, and to have the humility to not claim the statements in our religious books as absolute truths. This does not mean that they can’t be hoped to be true, or treated as if their underlying messages were true. It just means that we would have to switch the way in which we derive our values from them. We would be more free to throw out things that are no longer applicable, and to reinterpret certain other codes and rules and parables for more modern times.

To acknowledge that the source of our dogmas is not infallible is to acknowledge that any view of God that we arrive at is either a mirror or a blank slate: Something that we can either look into to exalt ourselves, or to draw our most fanciful dreams and hopes on. Upon neither of these versions of God is it practical to build a religion, but it is possible to create a colorful patchwork to derive personal meaning from.

To The Atheist:

Point taken. You have successfully begun a healthy discussion that we all can benefit from. But be careful not to condescend to those who find comfort or meaning in religion. Richard Dawkins’s suggestion that atheists refer to themselves as ‘brights’ is not going to open any minds. A belief in God doesn’t make a person stupid. We are pattern finding machines. We have evolved to cooperate (and it is possible that we’ve been designed to do so), and to empathize and help out one another, even occasionally in a way that is to the detriment of our own well-being. Let’s honor that adaptable trait and have some understanding for those who do not think exactly as we do. Being open to outside answers and challenges is the bedrock of the scientific method. Don’t rush ahead of yourself to declare that there is no God. As with everything, morality has evolved, and religion has been (and will continue to be for the unforeseeable future) an important step in that process. It may not be the last step, but it is a part of the stairwell that we are still on. It’s never benefited man to think of themselves as the pinnacle of evolutionary accomplishment. The age of humans is but a speck on the heap of time. That we’ve come as far as we’ve come is incredible. Consider: mankind has had to try to create a better world without any confirmable instruction from above. It's akin dropping a crate of paper, a pair of scissors, and some tape in front of a three year old and saying, ‘construct a perfect model of a bacterial flagellum’ The kid has to be like, 'what the hell is a bacterial flagellum?'

So, even with a few bronze age conceptual holdovers, we’re doing a pretty good job. The discussion can (and should) continue, but respect has to be given to the process by which we’ve gotten to where we are.

In psychology, we employ a term called the Group Attribution Error. The definition of this term--basically-- is that we attribute agency, intellect, and diversity to members of our tribe, and employ a uniform (usually negative) definition of behavior to those who are not of our tribe, characterizing their apparent defects as the results of some kind of internal factor, while attributing our own to outside sources, if we attribute our own at all. This is what I see in a lot of cultural conflicts. ‘We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.’ This is illustrated especially well by the current lack of goodwill floating back and forth between certain hardcore proponents of the theists v. nontheists war in our culture.

Personally--although I myself cannot always accomplish this--I find it a better route to take the people that I meet in the course of my life as individuals, and see through their affiliations and groupthink. It does not mean that we don’t have substantive conversations about important issues, it just means that we don’t harden our minds and hearts to individuals who happen to subscribe to certain ways of thinking different than our own. We can try to persuade each other out of our backwards ways all day long, but underneath, we have to see the humanity of the person we are dealing with, and be willing to accept that they too are searching for answers in earnest. I think this would be best in this new environment we are entering too, where every conversational topic is fair game, no matter how sacred. I also think it would be beneficial to admit to each other--and to ourselves--what we do not know, and to be okay with not knowing.

Because it is okay to not know. It’s okay to not get it right all of the time. Being a human is a hard job, and it’s all on-the-job training. We've got to be graceful in our inter-dealings.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps since religion has failed you, maybe you should try having faith. It's that neat little concept where you listen to the voice you know is correct, and don't look to man's perversion of God's simple truth. People generally are better Christians, Jews, or whatever when they have faith in God and not the alter of man.

Spencer Troxell said...


Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate your input.

I am only an agnostic in the technical sense. I would probably be more accurately described as an agnostic theist, which is what it sounds like: A person who believes there is a God but does not believe we can know anything about that God.

I agree with you that it's better to follow what Norman Mailer refers to as 'the authority of the senses' when it comes to exploring religion. My belief that there is a God requires a leap of faith, as do the things that I tentatively believe about that God. What this post is saying--and what that little voice tells me--is that if we cannot assert something to be absolute, we have to talk about it with humility and care. I fully admit that my suspicion that there is a God may just be a personal quirk. I also admit that the good things I associate with God may just be wishful thinking on my part. But I still suspect God, and I still associate certain attributes with God, but because these beliefs are founded on virtually nothing, I tread lightly with them;with fear and trembling.

Anonymous said...

My problem stems from the "atheist" (sp)and agnostic who feel justified or worse entitled to protect the world from faith in a higher power, more directly, protect the rest of the world from Christianity. In my estimation, a true atheist or agnostic would be at best amused that someone would go see the same book read from every Sunday, at worse, annoyed they are inconvenienced by a "church" crowd tying up a restaurant or worse yet coming to thier door in hopes of giving them a chance at salvation. If I seem sensitive to the issue, it is because it bears my true feeling that the most devoted atheists are in fact angry with some aspect or thier entire existence and direct that anger towards people who may have little more than faith and are happy for it. So when they come to your door to share this wonderful gift, they are treated as diseased intruders. Reality is most of these people intentions are pure, while the atheist who wants to ban public display of a cross because they fear some child or person may actually recieve some comfort, solice or God forbid, peace. There are churches that have the bottom line in mind, and it doesn't take long to figure out which these are. These churches are similar to the vocal atheists, because word and deed do not match. A church that sells John the Baptist Shot Glasses is not one that has the best interest of the congregation at heart, and in fact may be more atheist than the vocal atheist. What better way to riches than to take advantage of someone's faith. I know someday, God will show himself to you, it may be in smile of child, a moment of quiet at the base of a tree or in a crowd at a baseball game. My only question to you is, will you be so self involved that you miss him?

Spencer Troxell said...

You're a passionate person anonymous. I can't understand why you wouldn't want to post your name with your thoughts.

At any rate, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You promised that God will show himself to me one day. I look forward to that. Hopefully I won't overlook the encounter because I'm too worried about my dry cleaning.

Anonymous said...

That's my hope as well, you're in my prayers

Sic Semper Tyrranus said...

There is much in life that can be overlooked. Not seeing the forrest bacause of the trees is acurate to most people. Atheists tend to be so busy looking at details to prove they are right, that when they look up and witness a symbol of faith, they become angry. Usually the beauty of life comes from seeing the whole picture, not how the nail holds it to the wall.

John Brown said...

Dr. Tyrranus,

I absolutely agree that it is important to take a step back from time to time and take a deep gulp of Everything That Is The Case frome a distance.

I think a lot of science minded atheists may find spiritual nourishment in the minutia of life. They may not all be able to subscribe to our christian religion, but they can see something deeper (and more meaningful for themselves) by looking at the intricate details at work in mechanics. Richard Feynmann has a pretty awesome description of the meaning he sees in a flower petal out there in cyber space, and it is well worth googling.

Sic Semper Tyrranus said...

Dr. Brown,

Let me be clear on one important matter, I DO NOT GOOGLE ANYONE OR ANYTHING. I have to much respect for people and other inhabitants of this little blue marble in space. The minutia while interesting and at times entertaining, are only important if some goal of value is achieved. Other wise we are looking at only a mechanical monkey with cymbals and miss the rest of the Rube Goldberg Machine.

John Brown said...

You're right. A decent man should never google anyone but his wife.

I think that's in the bible.