Thursday, March 10, 2016

Letter to an intelligent Christian

I don't think religious feelings are silly or wrong. I feel them myself, and find meaning in them.

But I think as humans and citizens of the world, we have a duty to use our capacities for belief carefully, to require evidence, to prod at the weakest parts of our beliefs.

We have a duty to examine our ways of belief--to ask ourselves if we believe in literal, earthbound things in the same way we believe religious things. Do our earthbound beliefs require evidence beyond just our feelings?

If God's existence has evidence, it sure sounds like God is keeping it hush-hush! I remind you that there has never been repeated documentation of phenomena that defy physics, that demonstrate the existence of disembodied souls, that show the power of prayer. If these things being inscrutable is God's plan, then the plan is for belief to require the absence of intelligent inquiry, not to require or even accommodate its presence! After all, God could convert me and many other intelligent skeptics quickly with a few of the miracles in the Bible.

I want to repeat that feelings of spiritual communion are not at all the issue, for me. I, too, feel a passion in prayer and worship. But it's silly to think my feelings mean there is a God--just like it's silly to think that the appealing simplicity of the gold standard means that makes good policy. Just like it's silly to think my disgust at someone else's sexual behavior is a reason to have them arrested.

But doesn't the sense of a loving relationship mean I believe God exists on the other end of it? Absolutely not. I love Buster Keaton. I love my younger self. I love the spirit of humanity. That doesn't mean those are anything more than ideas in my head.

Some religious folks I argue with insist that their beliefs reflect as much, or more, intelligent scrutiny as atheism does. This is an attempt to have it both ways. They will usually agree that atheism reflects more intelligent scrutiny, on average, than Scientology, teapot-god worship, sacrifices to Zeus or the elephant god Ganesh or the Pharaohs. It's clear to them that adherents of these faiths need to be at least a little dumb to not see those as absurd human inventions. The only place we disagree is if Judeo-Christian myths are also silly to believe.

A basic step in applying intelligent scrutiny to belief in the Christian God(s) is to examine scripture's most outlandish claims. Of course, plenty of people are happy to not muster intelligent scrutiny to examine the claims of scripture... plenty! But Christians who do wish to apply intelligent scrutiny will have to ask themselves some very tough questions, starting with, what's with all this weird possession stuff? Jesus exorcising demons from men and sending them into pigs that commit suicide?

They'll wonder, which is more likely: that these wacky episodes really happened... but for some reason don't happen in the cell phone age, when they could impress the world? Or that these things never happened at all, and are just added gossip, inventions of others, bullshit, marketing for a young and little-known 50 C.E. religion?

They'll ask, which is more likely: that almost all the religious fervor humans have ever felt was misguided, but mine is true? Or that my fervor is the same product of being a human animal that everyone else's is?

They'll ask, which is more likely to be true: that Christianity up until now has been an abusive, violent mess because it's all within God's plan? Or because it's just another arbitrary tribal faith that has a haphazard set of doctrines and traditions, as other faiths do?

They'll ask, is it more likely that God doesn't reveal overtly these days because of mysteries beyond our comprehension? Or because stuff like demon possession, virgin conception, pillars of fire, etc. has always just been tribal story?

They'll ask, is my sense of belief stronger the more I can verify things? Or am I giving a free ride to religious beliefs, as long as they trigger my human tendency to imagine a divine presence? (That is, the same tendency that misfires among the teapot worshippers and Scientologists, who lack enough intelligence to know better?)

Those are things they'll seriously consider, if they have enough intelligence to do so. If not, they'll deflect and avoid taking the topic head on. That is not to say they have less capacity for intelligence; they may be dazzlingly intelligent in many areas. But in their avoidance and compartmentalizing, they make an effort to keep from applying their intelligence where it might make them uncomfortable. They nurture and develop this absence of intelligence.

This same pattern applies to all faiths, religious or not. It can be seen in the refusal of the campus left these days to allow offensive ideas into the discourse, in the absence of ideological debate in the Soviet Union, and in cults of personality. It's not that these are fundamentally unintelligent causes or communities, but they make use of unintelligence by providing a seemingly meaningful reason to shut inquiry off. Intelligence among their ranks atrophies by malign neglect; insightful and troubling questions are spun as being insidious and invalid, unworthy of consideration; or they are simply ignored.

So no, not every atheist is more intelligent overall than every religious person. Far from it!

But more atheists have arrived at atheism through intelligent scrutiny than Christians have arrived at Christianity through it. More Christians who apply intelligent scrutiny to their beliefs move to atheism than atheists who do so move to Christianity.

I say all this as someone who has been deeply moved many times in group worship. I perceive it a human need.

Other human needs I feel in my core: gusto for food, lust, romantic love, parental love, passion for competition and victory.

Each of these has been said, by some religious tradition, to originate in the mystical realm: Dionysius, Horus, Shiva, etc. Or in modern form, consider the New Age beliefs that food carries mystical energy, your spouse is your Fated One, energy meridians intersect at key points along the earth where meaningful events happen, healing can be delivered by the energy echo of infinitely diluted compounds.

There's no reason not to apply the same sense to our religious drives as we do to our other drives.

Mental illness often reveals the narcissistic tendency of humans to perceive the mystical in the mundane: aliens are poisoning my food, my child is the next savior, my parent is the devil. This narcissism has been readily embraced and used as a tool in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, where so many have learned that their desires matter because they damage the spiritual realm and make God cry.

I hope we can agree that our food is nothing more than the product of physics and economics, just like a T-Rex's food or the nutrients that sustain algae. I hope we can agree that if we didn't have these particular spouses and friends and children, we'd probably have other we love just as much, if the dice came out differently. Some feel it is callous to point this out, which is true! it's just yet another example where intelligent scrutiny doesn't necessarily make us comfortable or happy, and we might feel better off without it.

Which is why I think it's doubly silly to insist on the compatibility of intelligence and religious belief. It's not just that they happen to be incompatible. It's that religious belief is useful and valuable to us in many ways because it encourages us to stop that troublesome thinking and to embrace the people and tribe, devoid of objective perspective and skepticism.

The baseball fan who skips his team's triumphant comeback game to do research proving the objective superiority of his team is completely missing the point. And so is the religious believer who insists that the religious are just as intelligent as atheists.

The truth is that we could find just as much of a sense of communion with a higher power in many other religions, as well as in many nonreligious callings. We're mammals that have evolved to form complex communities kept intact through deep group identity why not eat together, root for teams together, smile across the table, pray together. That's what we're here to do!

But if you want someone to believe the food was delivered by undocumentable magic, or that some entity hears the prayer and cares, you're not going to succeed unless they're at least a little stupid.

Imagine going back in time to the middle ages and living in a typical Christian community. Your pleas to stop the rape, mob violence, and ritual murder would be unheeded; you might be killed as a heretic yourself!

Why would so few entertain your ideas? Because they fully consider your worldview and conclude, on balance, that you're wrong? No. It would be because they'd have never developed the faculties to independently examine their own actions and motivations. It's not just that they would find your ideas wanting; they wouldn't have developed the discourse ability to add anything besides superstition to the debate.

Now imagine you find somebody who is willing to patiently examine your ideas and their own, to trace the origin of their beliefs, and to reconsider their cooperation with slavery and brutality. What would it require for that person to make such a change? To say, perhaps, "My goodness, I've swallowed whole the belief that adulterers are to be outcast, and even jeered at them... but I see that I was drawing on my own doubts about my value and belonging, and using group condemnation to assuage them and reassure myself of my place in the group! How cruel and foolish I've been!" Intelligence may not be sufficient to obtain such insight, but it is necessary.

Meanwhile most believers you would encounter might have aptitude--I don't think the potential human capacity for intelligence has changed--but their ability to examine beliefs would strike you as unintelligent.

That's what it's like now with those who believe in God. It's not as bad as back then, but still of a kind. There are plenty of thoughtful religious ethicists and technicians, some very good people, but no group of rational writers within religion to compare to the unflinching insights of Dawkins, Hitch, Harris, et al. Religion just doesn't survive that kind of thinking, because it's anti-rational.

Isn't my own belief that God doesn't exist a form of faith? No, because it grows from the observation and reflection that there is no evidence of God existing, whereas if God did exist, there probably would be. My belief that demon pig magicians like Jesus aren't real comes from my intelligent scrutiny of all I can perceive; your belief that demon pig magic is somehow real--if you have even brought yourself to face the absurdities of your belief system--comes not from your intelligent scrutiny but from your refusal, or inability, to bring enough of that scrutiny to bear. Seeing more and more mysterious phenomena exposed as tricks makes you and me both discount the odds that Zeus is behind lightning; but you don't apply that thinking when it comes to whatever nonsense is in the Bible (surprising amounts of which supposedly intelligent believers haven't even read), because the Bible isn't where you wear your thinking cap, anyway.

If you want to cap the quality of your inquiry and embrace faith-based belief, well... you're in good company. Or at least much company. It might even be an effective strategy for happiness.

But you're trading something off. That something is the intelligence and maturity of your ability to understand yourself and others. You may find the feelings you want, and never miss that intelligence. You might even be joined by people who tired of their intelligence and shut part of it off to become happier.

On the other hand, if you apply intelligent scrutiny and are no longer able to believe literally in your portion of myth, you might miss the certainty of faith.

But you'll be smarter for it.

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