Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thor's Day: Why not just leave it at "you believe or you don't"?

"The tradition of the West is embodied in the 
Great Conversation that began in the dawn 
of history and that continues to the present day."
Robert Maynard Hutchins
Beliefs matter, and detrimental beliefs need to be challenged

By Morris Dean

A kind, diplomatically worded comment on last week's Thor's Day column, "Why God just has to exist: There 'sproof!" gave me pause to consider. The comment was from my niece, Dawn Burke, who lives in Springdale, Arkansas. My wife and I visited Dawn and her family in January, less than four months before her mother my sister Flo passed away in nearby Bentonville. Dawn commented:
It's as simple as this, you believe or you don't. It would be nice if people could leave it at that and not argue or kill over it. Don't you agree, Uncle Mo?
I was struck by the juxtaposition of arguing and killing, and by Dawn's uncharacteristic concluding question, "Don't you agree?" I took this as a prompt to think about what I'm doing when I write a column like the one last week. In thinking about that, I was led to reflect more widely on the Thor's Day column.

It would be nice – it would be revolutionary – if people would not kill over religion, which they very much do. For example, the Islamic State group released an audio message a few weeks ago "exorting all Muslims to take up arms and fight on behalf of the group's self-styled caliphate...'Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting' [said its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]."
    And though Christianity's arguably central tenet is have compassion, its orthodoxy was won over centuries of crusades, burnings at the stake, excommunications, and collusions with whatever secular powers seemed to further its vested interests (including even the Nazis). And devout Christians continue to try to kill the chances of certain people to be themselves, to marry, to flourish. And they quote scripture to justify themselves in the attempt.
    But the ways in which religion kills are mostly subtle and insidious: undermining its adherents' ability to act constructively by wrapping then in a cozy blanket of denial of science (the age of the earth, the fact of biological evolution and the descent of humans from earlier life forms, the evolution of morality, the causes of global warming...), leading them to spoil the natural curiosity of their children by indoctrinating them in faith-based superstitions.
    Attorney, author, and activist David Niose puts this case succinctly in a recent issue of Psychology Today, "Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America":

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance, and the evidence is all around us. Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter who used race as a basis for hate and mass murder, is just the latest horrific example. Many will correctly blame Roof's actions on America's culture of racism and gun violence, but it's time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation's culture of ignorance.
    In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.
    In considering the senseless loss of nine lives in Charleston, of course racism jumps out as the main issue. But isn’t ignorance at the root of racism? And it’s true that the bloodshed is a reflection of America's violent, gun-crazed culture, but it is only our aversion to reason as a society that has allowed violence to define the culture. Rational public policy, including policies that allow reasonable restraints on gun access, simply isn't possible without an informed, engaged, and rationally thinking public.
    ...International quality of life rankings place America barely in the top ten. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf most of the rest of the developed world, as does its incarceration rate), while its rates of education and scientific literacy are embarrassingly low. American schools, claiming to uphold “traditional values,” avoid fact-based sex education, and thus we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. And those rates are notably highest where so-called “biblical values” are prominent. Go outside the Bible belt, and the rates generally trend downward.
    Such considerations present compelling motivation in the form of a moral obligation to continue to criticize religion and religions.

But there are more personal reasons why I continue as well – and personal reasons why I occasionally doubt my ability to do so. In a reply comment to Dawn, I told her "I admit that I occasionally ask myself whether I might just retire the column." Dawn's complaint is not the first I've heard, and I'm aware that I offend people, including people I know and love. I don't like to do that. I even regret stepping on a frog.
    I intend to "hate the act [the belief] but love the person [the believer]." But I know that my rhetoric sometimes blurs the line, and my criticisms or parodies of ignorant beliefs can seem to be hateful towards believers themselves. In moments of keen awareness of this, I grow weary, I long for release....
    But invariably, in the next breath (or at least in the next 24 hours), I recant. I reconnect with the personal emotional energy that drives me to act on two fronts: to oppose wrong-headed, destructively bent ideology, and to try to champion values that would establish justice for all (including non-human animals), promote peaceful cooperation, and sustain life on earth. Admittedly it is easier to oppose than to champion, and I should probably pay more attention to the balance.

And Thor's Day is not my column. It has provided shelter for a number of other contributors, including poet Ralph Earle; Contributing Editors Bob Boldt and Ed Rogers; former Contributing Editors Paul Clark (aka motomynd), the late Tom Lowe, and Ken Marks; Columnists James T. Carney, Vic Midyett, Jim Rix, and Chuck Smythe; occasional contributors Mandy Al-Bjaly, Stone Arnold (a pseudonym), Dawn Burke(herself), Felicia Zapata Finnegan, Edward Jarvis, Craig Johnson, Joel Kleinberg, and Art Street (a pseudonym); and very frequent contributors Anonymous (often for his or her humor) and Dawn's cousin, Columnist Kyle Garza (a son of my nephew Ray Garza).
    Kyle is an articulate Christian apologist who means only good and truth by what he writes. Religion isn't – or need not be – only destructive, regressive, unenlightened. And Kyle champions and encourages me to participate in "The Great Conversation" between naturalists and supernaturalists. In fact, as a result of my column, "Value experience for its own sake," we started something we called a "Christian-atheist conversation." If it didn't go beyond two long installments, it wasn't Kyle's fault. I think he could have gone on for many more.
    Of course, what's a conversation for some is a debate for others – or an argument. But it isn't killing.

Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. Yes Morris it did mention me as well over half the people who or have written on this blog.(smile) Feel free to use the e-mail I sent you for more comment.

    1. Ed, when I dug back through the file, I was actually surprised at how many individuals had contributed to the column, and I'm glad that the list is long.
          Thanks for permission to use your email for more comment....
          One of your email comments was "Good job; it was interesting without being overly offensive."
          To which I replied, "Without being OVERLY offensive? <wink>"

  2. Failure of some individuals to humble themselves in the name of their beliefs is indeed a sad problem - namely lack of self-control. I recently listened to a Christian radio show in which the broadcaster was loudly touting the means in which Christians can win arguments against others (non-Christians, perhaps). How?? By throwing back unanswerable and ridiculous questions at those of which they are arguing with.

  3. Yes Bettina I agree there is a great lack of self control. I so wish it was different !

  4. It is lacking of self-control and recognizing that we all speak from different experiences and knowledge sets, of which we have no control and can't change. Had to deal with this issue earlier today. We all speak a different language of experience, even if the word definitions are understood.