Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Taking Up Steve's Challenge: Part 1

Steve's post on the role of religious discourse in public life is an interesting one. As a "nonbeliever" myself, I'm going to offer up some advice to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In Part 1, I'll address believers. In Part 2, I'll address nonbelievers.

And yes, as you'd expect, I apportion blame to both sides.

So, without ado, my advice to believers:

1) Stop being so sanctimonious. Many of the most intolerable religious advocates are, frankly, snobs. They carry themselves as though they have done no wrong, and are God's agents upon earth -- here to pass judgment on others, comment on the most intimate aspects of their lives, and to enforce the will of the almighty. Here's the reality -- you're human just like everyone else, the "holy book" you thump has lots of admonitions against you as well, and supernatural beings don't need the "help" of mere mortals to enforce their "laws."

2) Nonbelievers often know your holy book as well, or better, than you do. Most nontheists are raised in religious environments -- I certainly was. I can quote the Bible (and Talmud) chapter and verse if need be. That's why many of us find constant "biblical quotes" tossed out like a cheap rhetorical point to be so tedious. We know that you've revised and shortened the quote. We know the following three verses that invalidate its application in the particular circumstance you're seeking to apply it in. And many of us, religious AND non-religious, view those verses as a product of the times in which they were written. Stop presuming that you're the only one who knows the content.

3) Stop lying. My favorite lie: "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." The Bible contradicts itself, and let's be honest -- you don't believe in all of it. You quote Leviticus to call for the punishment and death of gay folks, but you don't banish your menstruating wife to a ritual tent in the backyard to stay clean. You enjoy lobster, crabcakes and cheeseburgers. You have been divorced, despite Jesus's observation that divorce is banned and all divorcees who remarry are hell-bound adulterers. You don't stone your disobedient children. You don't own slaves, nor do you support submission of individuals who are enslaved. You don't support genocidal wars against nonbelievers (well, most of you don't). All that stuff is in the Bible, it says it, and you DON'T believe it.

4) Consider others' points of view. I have heard much outrage about the recent demonstrations by gays and others outside of Mormon temples and churches. A recent story about a small atheist sign contradicting religion generated terrabytes of outraged commentary, video and blog posts. Yet both of these infrequent and low-key events pale in comparison to what many religious people subject others to -- including fellow believers.

Jewish people are happy being Jewish. Stop trying to convert or "save" their young children. Imagine if Jews became evangelicals and got YOUR six-year-old to renounce Jesus. You'd be apoplectic. Jews and others respond similarly.

Gay people often have religious beliefs of their own, and are happy living the way they wish. They don't need or want your "I'm a Christian and want to save you from your evil ways" rhetoric, any more than you'd welcome commentary on your wardrobe, decorating skills, or sexual techniques from them.

Too often, those with religious zeal are unwilling to live and let live, and describe all backlash to their most obnoxious activities as "persecution," which leads me to...

5) Drop the persecution syndrome. In these politically correct times, I understand that victimhood status has its attraction. But for a white, middle class married Baptist pillar of his community to describe himself as "persecuted" is truly surreal and absurd. It's the driver of many folks' need to make fun of you.

6) If you have to brag about it, it's not charity. A large number of religious organizations do important charitable work, and I applaud that. However, they often point to it as justification for their political activities targeting other groups of people in society. Worse still, they advertise their work -- often through mass media.

Some, like the Salvation Army, have transformed charity into a weapon against those who they don't like... making news by denying aid to people they don't like in disaster areas, etc.

News for you: if you boast about charity, it isn't charity -- it's marketing. If you set religious, personal or other conditions on charity, it isn't charity -- it's coercion.

Tomorrow, I'll tackle those things that nonbelievers do that help muddy the waters. Comments are, of course, always welcome.


Tyler Nixon said...


The Mudslinger said...

Miche says:

Brian Miller said...

Miche's article is brilliant and oh-so-true!

Delaware Watch said...

"That's why many of us find constant "biblical quotes" tossed out like a cheap rhetorical point to be so tedious."

Yes, you are right on about this. Have you heard of the biblical justification for suicide that comes from quoting text w/o regard to context?

"Judas went out and hung himself."
"Go thou and doest likewise"
"What thou doest doest quickly"

Quoting Bible verses is mostly a way to end the discussion and begs the question about the Bible's authority and infallibility.

Steven H. Newton said...

I'll grant you a lot of this, except for the equally deceptive tactic often practiced by non-believers, which is to argue with televangelists mouthing fundamentalist Biblically inerrant nonsense and then pretend you've rebutted or countered major theological claims.

What Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Jeremiah Wright, or Ken Hagee actually know about mainstream Catholic or Protestant Christianity--either practice or doctrine--can usually be placed on the head of a pin.

I have read dozens of books by atheists "debunking" Christianity, and not one of them--not Dawkins, not Dennett, and not Harris--has ever engaged real Christian scholars, real Biblical research, or individuals capable of discussing science and history as real academics.

Such people do exist, and they write books. But because it's easier (and more fun) to take shots at Jerry Falwell wannabes than to take them on, non-believers rarely if ever do it.

a most peculiar nature said...

Brian, well done. What you have written rings true with me in a very personal way. I am not interested in the nuances of the discussion; it is just not that important to me. But let me relate a story that was never in the news, but demonstrates some of your points in a real-human-being kind of way.

Over 20 years ago, my nephew Rodney died at the age of 13 while waiting for a heart transplant. My sister had married a Southern Baptist of the West Virginia kind, and when Rodney died there was a funeral in a little town called True. My sister lived on a mountain and did her grocery shopping once a month, that’s how out of the way they were.

I was beside myself with grief. Just a week earlier, my husband and I had driven to the hospital in Charlottesville to see Rodney. He was into Hulk Hogan and the WWF. The last movie he watched was “The Lost Boys”. When he died we made the trek to West Virginia. I was numb and could not stop sobbing with heaving gulps of disbelief.

At the funeral, there appeared to be professional “mourners”. I was in somewhat of a daze, but I remember these old women dressed in black practically fainting alongside the open coffin. I don’t think they were actually related to anybody there; I think that’s just what they did.

Then the preacher got to preaching. I don’t remember all that he said, but it was full of fire and brimstone and I was halfway listening in between sobs when he said this:

“If you don’t come up here right now and give your life to Jesus Christ, you will never see Rodney again.”


Some people, people that I did not know, went up and “testified” and the preacher laid his hand on them and others clapped and hollered and the preacher repeated:

“If you don’t come up here right now and give your life to Jesus Christ, you will never see Rodney again.”

I remember thinking: HOW DARE HE SAY THAT ! HOW DARE HE ! This was some kind of perverse blackmail of the most insidious kind. I remember being so mad, so damn mad at this preacher that he would try to hold my soul hostage … to pounce with his evangelical glee on people whose souls were in need for sure, but not certainly not of this kind. We needed comfort, not religious jingoism.

I will remember those moments until the end of my days.

Brian Miller said...

the equally deceptive tactic often practiced by non-believers, which is to argue with televangelists mouthing fundamentalist Biblically inerrant nonsense and then pretend you've rebutted or countered major theological claims

This is often obnoxious... however, a Richard Dawkins doesn't have the reach of a Joel Osteen or Rick Warren.

One of the things I encourage conscientious believers to do is to emulate your practice and publicly challenge folks of those sorts. A great deal of the hostility towards all religion you find in the nonbelieving community is due to personal experience with the loud and proud bigots -- and how alone they feel when most "people of faith" support the nonbeliever only in private.

Quakers and others are quiet by nature, but they need to get louder if they want to reduce the rancor many feel towards religious belief. Since the fundamentalist rhetoric is the dominant religious discourse in this country, it's going to remain that which is primarily "debunked."

It's up to believers to change the context -- I've never seen an atheist leader take on a Quaker or a Unitarian, and if those beliefs became a dominant or even significant part of the religious discourse, the atheist backlash from loudmouths like Dawkins would likely recede significantly.

Dawkins only gets authority and power because of the large number of people who have been harmed by that which he claims to oppose. Take away the harm, see religious leaders embrace a "live and let live" philosophy, and persistently/loudly confront fundamentalism of the sort that Shirley (and most of us) have encountered, and Dawkins will become a forgotten entity.

Brian Miller said...

I will remember those moments until the end of my days.

I'm sure many of us have similar stories.

I grew up in a Jewish-Catholic household.

I couldn't find "solace" in Judiasm (though I did in the Jewish community).

I tried out the Catholic thing for many years as a teen. My abandonment of that practice -- and concomitant rejection of religious practice and belief -- came when the trusted and infallible agent of God in my local parish as a freshman encouraged me to kill myself when I came out to him, since in his words "a physical death is preferable to a spiritual one."

Ironically, this man was later arrested in the pedophilia scandal when it hit Massachusetts and charged with repeated violations of children.

The thing that really capped off that situation for me, personally, was when angry well-to-do Catholics in the parish condemned the "selfish" rape victims for "depriving the church of its much-needed funds." These people, often mere children, were desperate for help and received none... in fact it was Vatican policy to excommunicate them if they sought assistance from the police or psychiatry -- yet as adults, their own efforts to gain some recompense for the despicable violence against them by this massive religious corporation was described as "selfish."

The other thing that contributed a bit to my choice was the prevalent notion I encountered that I'd "always be a Jew, no matter what." The presumption of "original sin" is about as perverse and unlibtertarian a concept as I've ever encountered.