Any god will do

>> Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Earlier this week, Janeice Murphy wrote a nice piece on Pat Buchanan's new book, the one where he apparently reveals his utter cluelessness about the history of World War II. (Mr. Buchanan apparently argues that the Second World War wasn't really any of our business, that it was more of a European affair. In all fairness, I do have to offer this defense of his thesis: it's true that after a first-turn attack on Hawaii, the Japanese usually turn their offense on British and Russian holdings in Asia, which theoretically allows America to simply turtle for a few rounds--a risky strategy if either the British collapse during the second or third turn due to bad dice or the Japanese attempt a ballsy invasion of Britain's unprotected Canadian holdings... what was that? I'm thinking about Axis And Allies, like Buchanan. Huh? He was talking about the actual war? Are you sure? Damn. You're right, he is a retard.)

That's not what this post is about, though. Sorry, didn't mean to bait and switch you. (You should go read Janeice's post, though, her blog's quite good.) No, I was thinking about it because of one of the comments I made to her post, where I happened to mention that Buchanan probably doesn't sound as crazy or moronic if you don't know what he's talking about: that is, if you don't know history or geography then Buchanan probably sounds knowlegable and articulate to the exact same degree he sounds ignorant and nutty if you do know anything about what he's talking about. And unfortunately, we Americans have this appalling tendency to be ignorant about history.

We readily forget all sorts of things about ourselves in lieu of the elaborate myths we've drawn up for ourselves. The French are ungrateful cowards we saved from the Germans in WWII, not the people who paid for the American Revolution and were instrumental in winning it. The British are our oldest friends, not the people who burned down the White House in 1814. The Civil War was a noble crusade waged by heroic generals, not a vicious bloodbath in which poor people (many of them draftees) were slaughtered by idiot generals trying to fight the last war with the bleeding-edge of (then) modern weapons (essentially the same recipe that shredded men in WWI). Our nation is a godly one (despite no mention of a deity in the Constitution) founded on principles of equality (as long as you were a white male; others need not apply). Etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum; I could keep going, but you perhaps know this or have already been offended. And anyway, that's not what this post is about, either. Not exactly. (Fooled you! That's twice!)

No, the big inspiration for this post is actually this news about this new survey that's been done about religion, the one where Americans are devoutly religious but optimistically pluarlistic, believeing in God and identifying themselves with various sects but most of them don't feel their religion is an exclusive path to the afterlife or whatever it is they nebulously believe in.

On the one hand, I suppose this is good news. The American Experiment showing one of its successes, you might think: on the subject of religion, we have this mostly-tolerant society that isn't subject to the religious wars that plagued Europe for centuries or the factionalism that has plagued Ireland in the recent past (ongoing, but it seems to have simmered down a bit) or countries like Denmark and France in the present (with religious riots being a frequent bit of news as Christians and Muslims struggle to adapt to each other).

On the other hand, I can't help taking it as not-good news even if I wouldn't call it bad news. Because I don't think it's so much about tolerance as it is about ignorance (and now we tie it all together, eh?). I can't help thinking that what's really reflected in this survey is the fact that we're simply not a deep and thoughtful people, we undervalue education, we don't spend much time thinking about the things we think about nor do we bother informing ourselves before we leap to conclusions. How else do you explain the pollsters' claim that "21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with 8 percent 'absolutely certain' of it"? Wait--whaaaat? Do those respondents actually have the faintest idea what that word even means? I suppose "atheist" certainly doesn't mean you can't believe in some kind of mumbo jumbo--The Force, maybe, or that glowing lifejuice from Final Fantasy VII--though common usage implies you don't, but I'm fairly sure that any parsing of the word means you're sans deity, that is what you get when you put the neutralizing "a" in front of the Greek theos. Clearly, twenty-one percent of self-identifying atheists are clueless semiliterate jacktards (and if the pollsters read the questions over the phone, I guess I can no longer presume semiliteracy on the part of the jacktards).

Similarly, what exactly is the point of being a Christian if acceptance of Christ is sort of unessential to the whole business of life, the universe, and everything after? And among Christians, why bother being a Protestant if the Catholics aren't wrong? And among Protestants?

The idea that there are many roads to the truth--I suppose that should be big-t "Truth"--is convenient, and I'm happy that people hold to it if it keeps them from killing each other. So I suppose it's a bit ungenerous of me to scratch my head and complain that it's a bit ridiculous. (Change my mind about Iraq and I'll end up sounding like Christopher Hitchens, and then my Dad will come over and wring my neck; unpleasantness ensues.) Perhaps I should be lauding the fact my countrymen are so lazy, thoughtless and ignorant that they don't especially care that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been killing each other for centuries over the very fate of the human race and perhaps the universe (all three have claimed to be a chosen people and that God will eradicate the infidels--the Old Testament even alledgedly provides documentation of the Big Cheese doing just that at various times, e.g. the Deluge, and the New Testament offers a preview of it happening again in Revelations; should, say, the Real Chosen People--whoever the Hell they are--ever vanish from the Earth, it's safe to assume all the rest of us are capital-f-Fucked, no?). (In America, we like to kill each other over melanin content and not the Will Of God--like that makes a whole lot of sense.)

The problem, I suppose, and the reason I find it so teeth-grittingly frustrating, is that we do this shit all the time. Deciding that the universe is big and confusing but it would all be not-too-bad if there was a benign God out there and maybe a shiny afterlife, and it doesn't matter if you call Him God or Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu or maybe nothing because you're a Buddhist and that's alright, too--none of that is noticeably harmful whether you thought about it or not, especially if you mostly keep it to yourself. But when you make all of your decisions with the same casual disregard for knowing what you've decided, that's a problem.

I wrote "the problem," when I should have written "a problem." Because here's another: Professor Lindsay of Rice University is quoted as saying, "There's a growing pluralistic impulse toward tolerance and that is having theological consequences"; he's right, of course. A Christian who believes there's a back door for Jews (and perhaps Muslims) to get into Heaven is making a clear theological statement whether he bothered to think about it or not. Furthermore, said statement is itself logically exclusive: that is, a belief that Jews will go to Heaven is incompatible with the belief they will not, just as a belief that there are many ways to the truth is incompatible with a believing acceptance of Jesus is the only way.

So long as everyone shares similarly ambiguous views, it's not hard for everyone to get along. The tolerant Catholic who goes to mass because his parents did can live next to the habitual Muslim and cultural Jew and the Christmas-and-Easter Protestant and the grumpy atheist and it's all copacetic.

The problem is that not everyone shares those views. Some people don't just follow the traditions of the religions they claim for themselves, but they heed the teachings, and at that point things frequently get ugly, as in things actually start literally (not metaphorically) blowing up with the assistance of high-grade fertilizers and jet fuel.

It's at this point that I wonder what the point is. Hey Eric, you're an atheist, why do you even care what other people believe? (I suppose it affects me when they act on their beliefs. I guess I wish my people would think through their beliefs before they acted on them.) Speaking of which, Eric, you do realize you've been horribly unfair to some educated and well-intentioned people who have given a great deal of thought to their beliefs and have taken the broadly ecumenical view even when it's inconsistent with how they self-identify (including some of your own relatives, you douche)? (Yes, I guess I have been. And I hate to say that how they self-identify isn't too consistent with what they actually identify with, though they may be thoughtful, and they may mean well.)

Call it a rant, then. Call it a wish. Call it the puzzlement of a tired and confused man. Call it a yearning for those hoary old Enlightenment ideals that always keep failing us, that fall from the tree and never ripen. Call it one more asshole with a blog.


Nathan Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 4:37:00 PM EDT  

I hope it won't disappoint you if I say I've got to think about this some before I comment.


vince Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 5:02:00 PM EDT  


Now that was a post!

First, I'll agree with your statement that "...we're simply not a deep and thoughtful people, we undervalue education, we don't spend much time thinking about the things we think about nor do we bother informing ourselves before we leap to conclusions." To quote Robert Heinlein, "Most people can't think, most of the remainder won't think, the small fraction who do think mostly can't do it very well."

And I agree with you that if you say you're something, be it atheist, Christian, Muslim, whatever, know what it means to be that, and make sure that what it means is what you believe.

There is a core of beliefs that define someone who is truly a Christian. One of them is that only through Jesus Christ can you get to heaven. If you don't believe that, you are NOT a Christian! The same with atheism. The core belief of atheism is that there is no God. If you don't believe that, you are NOT an atheist! A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the only way it's a duck is if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

I would like to point out, however, that tolerance is not synonymous with ambiguity. There is no ambiguity in my mind about the core beliefs that I believe as a Christian. But I AM tolerant, in that I can live next to and be friends with someone who doesn't believe as I believe. I have no desire to start killing off all the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, other Christians, etc. just because I believe that they are wrong and I am right.

Further, I came to my beliefs after a lot of study, having read literally hundreds of books, including a lot that argued against there being a God. I can read Hebrew and Greek (although not real well any more - I'm out of practice.) I have a good grounding in philosophy and critical thinking.

So, if you came to your beliefs, whatever they are, after much study and examination, and can make a defense of them with evidence and logic, I can respect that. I can discuss it with you.

Unfortunately, the majority of people believe what they believe without having given it a whole lot of thought, and thus are quite capable of saying they believe things or acting in ways that are mutually exclusive with what they purport to believe.

I, too, wish people would think through their beliefs before they acted on them.

But people, being people, probably aren't going to change a lot.

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 5:38:00 PM EDT  

You're making me blush, you pimp-daddy, you.

And I think the issue boils down (as it usually does) to mistrust and persecution of those who are (capital D) Different. Religion, melanin, whatever. They're not Like Me.

And my platonic Vince-Crush is picking up steam.

Nathan Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 6:04:00 PM EDT  

Vince really does make the most appropriate point here. If you are a Christian...most any variety including Catholic, it's pretty much your duty to believe that I, as Jew am going to hell. Either I've accepted Christ as my Savior or not. My understanding is that that's the most basic criteria.

Now, granted, you may believe I'm going to Hell, but how you act on that belief is what matters to me.
-Harangue me about it relentlessly and we're gonna have a problem.
-Try to convert me (even with the best of intentions), and sooner or later, we're gonna have a problem.
-Look at me sadly every now and then thinking it's a shame, and we'll probably get along just fine.

There's a number of different brands of Judaism, but most don't claim to know whether or not there's a Heaven, Hell or anything in between. You behave a certain way because God told you to. If there is a Heaven, you should be a shoe-in. Oh, and all those folks in the other religions...the folks who behaved right will probably be there too. And if you're not going to Heaven? Most Jews would say, "What's that to me? Nobody ever said I'm supposed to get anybody else to believe like I do."

I do think that a religion without a set of core beliefs is a pretty useless thing. I may disagree with you on what you believe, but at least have the balls to actually believe what you say you do.

Eric Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 6:25:00 PM EDT  

Thank you for your comments. Vince, I think you've expressed the kind of Christianity I respect, as opposed to what appears to be reflected in the survey: thoughtful, reasoned, and what might be called an "active" sort of tolerance that I wish was more common--i.e. notwithstanding some of what I said in the post about religious exclusivity (that some beliefs are incompatible with others), just because someone privately thinks other people are going to Hell doesn't mean they can't peaceably live next to them and be friends.

'Tho that raises the whole question/spectre of evangelism. If you believe others are going to Hell, and if you believe your religion requires you to go forth and try to help them, where's the line between the moral obligation to proselytize and the civic obligation to be respectful of your neighbors? Is there a conflicting duty and how do you resolve it? (This is a question I imagine everyone has to answer for themselves; even an atheist might consider a certain amount of activism to have some degree of moral imperative--just as you might consider it a moral duty to help a neighbor fix his roof or point out that he'd left his keys in the door again. This is where I can sort of agree with what someone like Dawkins does even when I'm finding him a little pushy or hyper.)

Part of the problem is that this line of reasoning can lead to other socially problematic behavior. You'd be concerned if your neighbor was beating his kids and might reasonably consider it your duty to call the police or social services; but what if he's consigning their souls to Hell or their minds to a life full of ignorance and superstition (trying to be evenhanded, not sure if I'm succeeding)? And what of your own children? It's well and good to say you trust your own skills as a parent, but if your neighbor was filming hardcore porn on his front porch, that wouldn't cut it--is there an analogy, then, to your neighbor's public displays/nondisplays of faith/skepticism in whatever?

I don't know if there's an answer to any of this.

Still, it sounds like we agree you should use your brain while you're trying to muck through it, and know what you believe....

vince Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 9:48:00 PM EDT  

'Tho that raises the whole question/spectre of evangelism.

It does at that. From my point of view, you're more likely to get someone to consider what you believe if your actions match what you say you believe. The problem with so many Christians is that their actions at best make them look like hypocrites, and chases people away from Christianity.

Yelling at people, trying to scare them into believing, telling them they're horrible shit that's going to burn in hell forever, disrespecting them - none of that is going to change anyone's mind.

Yes, especially for people I care about that aren't Christians, I am truly concerned about them. But haranguing them day after day isn't going to do anything but damage our friendship. I can't force someone to believe anything.

It's kinda like dealing with a friend who is an alcoholic (this is an analogy - I'm NOT saying people who aren't Christians are like alcoholics!). You can't force them not to be an alcoholic. No matter how much you yell at them, force them into treatment, etc., you're not going to change them. They have to choose to accept they have a problem and choose to help themselves and let others help them.

So for me, I let people know that I'm a Christian, I try and be vocal when I see others use Christianity to support untenable beliefs and actions, I try to live my faith as best as possible (for me, that's the "when I was hungry did you feed me, when I was thirsty, did you give me to drink, etc.", the Good Samaritan parable, Paul's description of love), and I'll discuss my faith and why I believe if someone asks about it.

I think that's the best anyone who wants to convince someone else that their position on God, or politics, or anything else, can do.

By the way, the existence or nonexistence of God is a subject that sometimes makes me do a Monty Python "my brain 'urts!" I would be lying if I said I didn't sometimes have doubts, and that the most difficult part of my faith is the whole hell thing. Sometimes I'll get hung-up on doing a lot of research on just that topic, and then I feel like a defense lawyer boning up for a huge trial. I LIKE my friends, I care about them, and if they aren't Christians, I want there to be a way for them to get to heaven anyway.

Call me mushy. Or Ishmael.

Still, it sounds like we agree you should use your brain while you're trying to muck through it, and know what you believe....

That we do my friend. That we do.

Eric Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 10:11:00 AM EDT  

My recollection is that Hell was one of the biggest deal-breakers for Charles Darwin: I can't remember the exact quote, but he basically wrote (in a letter to a friend) that he couldn't stomach a faith that required him to believe that so many people he loved and admired would suffer eternally.

(That was classic Darwin, really--a profoundly sensitive man when it came to others' suffering or even discomfort.)

The actual point being: FWIW, Vince, whether the Hell issue makes you a softy or not, it's an issue that great thinkers, religious and non-religious, have struggled with for centuries, including one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century; in other words, you're in very good company, if that's worth anything.

wellsian,  Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 3:27:00 PM EDT  

I highly recommend John Donne's "Satire III" for anyone interested in considering such matters. A key passage (which the format of the comments will screw up hopelessly):

"doubt wisely; in strange way
to stand inquiring right is not to stray;
to sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill,
cragged and steep, Truth stands and he that will
reach her, about must and about must go,
and what the hill's suddenness resists, win so."

The poem rewards diligent study.

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