Friday, May 25, 2007

Response to Peter

This is a discussion that was started on YouTube in the comments section of this video. It's about the appropriateness of attacking religion. The person with whom I am talking, Peter, is a rather nice fellow who has the position, roughly speaking, that you'll catch more flies with sugar than vinegar -- that aggression against theists doesn't do anything or is, worse, counterproductive. My position is, roughly, attack, attack and when in doubt, attack again. I'm responding here rather than in the YouTube comments section because you can only posts posts that are 500 characters or less, and by now everyone who reads my blog knows I can do that in a single sentence. ;)

So, Peter, hello! For some background, one of the reasons I am obsessing about religion is because I'm writing a deeply blasphemous novel called Simon Peter, which is written about Jesus from the point of view of the leader of the disciples, Simon Peter. My take on the story is that Jesus is not some legitimate religious figure or social reformer but an insane charlatan. If you want to read a short story that I've written in the style of Simon Peter, I have Immaculate Conception. You could probably read it in 20 minutes, and I'll put my usual caveat that it isn't for the weak of stomach -- it has a lot of violence in it. That said, here's the actual response to your posts. ;)

Thanks so much for this. I think I was aware of the diffs between Europe and the US, but your video reinforces my awareness of that. I totally understand your anger, given the context! Isn't one MAJOR reason for that the low general level of BASIC education in the US? (Of course I'm not talking about college-educated people).

There are places in the US where al-Qaida would be welcome, if they trimmed their beards and bleached their skin. The only think that stops some Christians from turning the US into some medieval hellhole is the separation of church and state, so, ramen for that.

I would suspect one of the reasons why religious people are ignorant of their own faith in the US is linked to the generally poor education, but I think there's more than that. I think the culprit that informs both religious ignorance and the dismal status of basic education in the US is a deep anti-intellectualism. (I think that anti-intellectualism has been created and nurtured by religions in America to quite consciously make it easier for them to bamboozle their constituencies.) These people can read, and could read the Bible. But so many Americans hold reading in contempt, the very idea of being educated unless it has a direct monetary connection (and, even then, not enough Americans hold even that limited view of the use of education, as we continue to important educated people to fill necessary jobs on all levels of our economy), and I think that's what holds them off from learning about Christianity. It'd take reading. And reading is icky.

It's must be IMMENSELY frustrating that in your country fundamentalist religion is so powerful. Anger is a natural response and can even be useful I think. But I think we also need to channel it into putting our rational arguments as calmly and forcefully as possible as there are reasonable theists, and even some doubters we can sway, even in the US! I'm convinced the tide will turn.

Yes, it is frustrating, but there's more to it than my personal frustration. Oh, so much more!

I am unsure at the power of cool, rational arguments to win debates. When I was in college, I did speech and debate tournaments for a year and I was pretty good at it. One of the things that I was told, time and again, to overcome was the urge merely to prove I was factually correct. While being factually correct was important, even more important was meaningfully engaging a person's emotions. I was told not to make them angry not because it would be unsuccessful in getting them to think about what I said, but because I would not win tournaments -- getting people angry, it seems, is a great way to get them to think about something. They can't get it out of their head. And this is comes from communications theory! This is a material scientific rationalist point of view.

In short, it is easy to dismiss a calm, rational argument. Not with logic, but with the emotional sleight-of-hand you've already noticed! Something that is not seen to be believed passionately is believed to be a trivial belief. A person charged up with the emotional hallucination of religious belief isn't anywhere near caring about carefully nuanced arguments, I think.

Additionally, I don't think we all need to do the same thing. I'm quite willing to play good cop, bad cop with theists. I suspect this multi-faceted approach would be more useful than us just calmly repeating ourselves over and over without any variation. I think that after I get in their face, having someone else come along and say, "Well, that was harsh, but there is some truth to that position" is useful.

Also, I think that it is useful to show theists the emotional consequences of their actions. To show them that what they do makes people, other real people, hurt and angry. Many theists, IMO, feel that they do nothing but good and simply do not understand the real consequences of their actions. I think it is fair to show them.

I am also somewhat critical of the "reasonable theist" argument. To me, and perhaps this is a distinctly American perspective, but it's really the only one I've got with any force, moderate religious people will defend the rights of the fundamentalists to be fundamentalist. Time and again I've talked to Christians about taking to task those people who call themselves Christian and who are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist warmongering bigots. I can, pretty easily, get them to agree that they should theoretically take them to task, but when I start to mention specific groups, the Pat Robertsons and Fred Phelps of the American religious scene, they start to defend them in a variety of ways, or find reasons not to take specific people and groups to task. So, I become increasingly forced to conclude that most Americans who call themselves moderate Christians are actually screening and defending the more radical and fundamentalist groups. And as far as I can tell, this is equally true with Islam and Hinduism.

I am also convinced the tide will turn. Even in America, the fastest growing religion is lack of religion. But I think that American Christians can do a lot of harm before this has run its course.

ps interesting you heard about that study published in "Le monde des religions". The study concerned the 51% of French people who define themselves as Catholics. On the existence of God, here's the precise breakdown: 26%: it's certain He exists; 26% likely; 10% unlikely; 7% doesn't exist(!); 30% no idea; 1% no opinion.

Just as interesting was the reasons people gave for being a Catholic: 55% "because born in Catholic family"; 21% "because have faith"; 14% "because attached to Catholic values"; 10% other/no reasons. This shows that belief is partly about identity, and that its intellectual base is often not questioned.

I have my sources! :)

Most of my online friends are European. Which might say something about me, but I don't know what. I am hoping my wife gets to do her post-doctoral work in France, though.

But, yes, I interpreted the information given as meaning that a fair number of people in France and culturally Catholic. Again, I must emphasize that in the US it isn't like that. There are more people who believe in god than are actively religious, here. We aren't culturally Christian, at least not yet, but are actively and often viciously Christian.

But I would bet that even less ANGLICANS believe in God!! Religion is often just a form of sociability, and also that we need to take this fact into account when challenging believers. We need to propose alternative forms of sociability and community.

This is very true. And I agree whole heartedly. Do you have any suggestions or examples of this?

Feel free to comment here! There are no character limits, Peter.

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