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April 30, 2004
That religion thing

I've tackled this a dozen times and deleted the posts unpublished because I couldn't find a way to rationally explain my aversion to professions of religious belief. I hope I've done better this time.

Not, you understand, in private life. I care as much about religion in private life as I do any other facet of someone's personality. Astrology, Wiccan, Christianity, homosexuality, vegetarianism, conservatism, whatever. It's variety that makes people fascinating.

But, because I post intemperate rants about organized religion and belief and make frequent rude remarks about 'believers' I've been thinking I should try to provide some explanation.

There's a great deal that I admire in the content of the belief systems of various organized religion. There's a great deal that's admirable. Assuming the followers of each system actually implemented the precepts of their particular faiths, many people today might be a great deal better of than they are.

Religion is like dieting, though. It's easier to talk about losing weight than to actually refuse a chocolate donut. Most people use the "think system" of dieting, religion, smoking cessation, regular exercise, whatever their goal is. Me, I used the "think system" of dieting for ten years. All I got was pudgy and ten years older. When I stopped talking about it and took action was when I lost weight. (Alas…age cannot so easily be erased.)

Topic. Topic. Stick with the topic.

I read a very interesting blog entry on "Flaunting one's faith and the presumption of secularism" in which the poster said that consulting his religious beliefs in the course of his work, using his religion as a filter through which to interpret his studies, was considered wrong by some of his (for lack of a better word) co-workers.

I think his co-workers may be wrong. I think people should, in fact, consult their private systems of morality and ethics in their everyday life. I have may have questions about how a historian would use the "lens" of his "faith and church" to interpret what he reads in his research, but I've asked in the comments section of his blog and maybe he'll be able to explain it in a way I can understand.

What I object to in what Hugo Schwyzer calls "the flaunting of faith" is the refusal to entertain logical argument or to provide a rational foundation for an opinion. (By his own words, he doesn't indulge in superstitious sentimentalism as a substitute for actual thought, which means his words might have inspired this post, but it is in no way "directed" at him.)

It's when someone tries to use their belief in their particular superstition as a rationale to restrict my freedom to "pursue happiness" on my own that I get annoyed.

I've been in discussions with theists before, on a variety of topics from genetic manipulation of food plants to abortion to environmentalism to civil rights.

And you know what I've decided? I've decided that, "the bible tells me so" is not a rational argument. (My response, "Maybe it was a typo" is never well-received.)

The (Christian denomination) theist says, "God says love one another so we have to." (Well, as I understand it, "God" didn't say that, Jesus did. God said smite 'em good and hard or something to that effect. But let's not quibble.)

I say, "Love one another because in the end, each other is all we have."

We have the same goal. Implicit in "love one another" is, to my mind, the injunction to understand and empathize with one another. A 'peace, love, and understanding' sort of thing.

But then the theist says, "God says homosexuals are evil so don't love them." "God says non-believers are evil." "God says contraception is evil." "God says women should be subordinate to men." "God says...."

"God" says a lot of things in the bible, and theists forget that it's just a handful of essays written by various men over a period of years, then translated again and again by other men, all of whom had their own perspective on what they were reading and their own prejudices, many of which are, by contemporary standards, in opposition to the ideal of freedom this country stands for.

Anyhow, I say, "Love one another because in the end, each other is all we have" but that doesn't match what the bible says and when the bible-quoter is sitting with his finger on the nuclear button, that doesn't sit well with me.

(Let me be clear. If there is some kind of anthropomorphic "god" I doubt it's been in the habit of giving precise dictation. If you think it created you, then you have to accept that it gave you a brain and at least consider the possibility that it mean you to use that brain. And don't get me started on that whole reverence thing. The conjunction of omnipotence and omniscience with an egotistical need to be worshipped has always made my brain hurt.)

What I object to in the "flaunting of religion" is the presumption that theists can roll their eyes up and cite some ineffable "higher power" as the authority for their actions. It's the abdication of personal responsibility.

If the theist says, "I do this because I believe it's right" then I can accept that. It gives the illusion (at least) that the theist has rationally considered their action and has what seems to them to be a rational foundation for it. I care little about the belief structure that led them to the conclusion. If they used a ouija board or tarot cards or a bible, it makes little difference to me. Those are simply tools that have evolved to help people clarify their own thoughts.

If the theist says, "I do this because "God" said to" then I cannot accept that. Not even if I agree with what they're doing. It's about personal responsibility.

I don't mean sinking to your knees and thinking about what you want to do and taking the lack of a targeted lightning strike as an endorsement, either. I mean, laying aside the question of pleasing some intangible, unknowable alien force and considering what's right for a human being to do in your circumstances.

I'm not saying that theists don't think. I'm saying that I've just heard it too often...the cop-out of, "the bible told me so." "God said to" gives the impression that they've thought no more deeply about issues than to scan the pages of a book for instructions. It gives me no reason to believe they're giving considered, rational thought to their course of action. (I am not reassured by the idea that you refrain from robbery, rape, or murder for no more sensible reason than someone wrote down you shouldn't do those things. What do you think?)

If theists would stop falling back on the bible and start explaining whatever rational thought they have for their behavior, then maybe they'd find communication with those who don't share their spiritual beliefs a lot easier.

If non-theists would stop dismissing every opinion a theist has merely because it has, in part, a spiritual basis, they might find that they're in a agreement, at least in principle, with a lot of those opinions.

Knock it off and we all might find that it matters less where we're coming from that than we share goals and aspirations.

Posted by AnneZook at 08:54 AM


Nicely done. I'll have to forward this link.....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 30, 2004 06:44 PM

Indeed, nicely done. I will try and respond more fully over time.

Thanks for the thoughtfulness.

Posted by: Hugo at May 1, 2004 05:00 PM

I am reassured by your comments. Dr. Schwyzer's very interesting post and the comments it provoked finally help me start crystalizing my own thoughts and I appreciate the kind words about what I know was an inadequately articulated protest.

Posted by: Anne at May 2, 2004 11:59 AM


Great essay, Anne!

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at May 4, 2004 12:22 PM