Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yesterday's post about an atheist advertising campaign . . .

. . . attracted some interest and responses. I won't respond to the responders here: but Labrat, one of the (two) Atomic Nerds, made a very interesting comment. She linked to the Web site of Professor Steve Dutch at the University of Green Bay, WI, more specifically to an article he's written entitled "What Religion Can And Cannot Do".

I found the article excellent reading: also the appended article on "God's Grandchildren" (partly quoted in the first article, with more at the link provided). A few samples from both:

There's a Difference Between Religion and Magic

Most of the actions just described can be labeled magic, the notion that some intrinsically meaningless action on our part can motivate God or the universe to act on our behalf, or avert misfortune. Isn't it absurd to believe that the ruler of the universe cares beans about someone sitting through an hour or so of church each week, or dropping a quarter in the collection plate, or getting married in a church when neither party has the slightest intention of fulfilling their vows? Isn't it preposterous to believe the ruler of the universe will suspend cause and effect to intervene on someone's behalf just because that person performs some ritual? Atheists think so.

And here's the surprise. So do all theologians. You will not find any significant theologian of any religion stating that going to church, saying rote prayers, making contributions, getting married in church, having a religious funeral, or publicly identifying yourself with a religion are of the slightest value in and of themselves. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are unanimous in agreeing that personal commitment to God is paramount, and without that commitment, observances alone are of no value. The observances are of value in so far as they reinforce and deepen the commitment, motivate others to commitment, and act out the commitment by doing good in the society. Believing they have any power in and of themselves is simple superstition.

We can summarize the difference between religion and magic like this:

  • Religion asks "How can I conform to the will of God and the Universe?"
  • Magic asks "How can I get God and the Universe to conform to my will?"

. . .

The Billy Joel song "Only the Good Die Young" is a celebration of the notion that religious belief deadens and inhibits people. We Interrupt This Web Page For An Important Public Service Message. Religion is not responsible for your lousy sex life. There are a lot more people that want to date 10's than there are 10's to go around. It's that simple. Whatever attractive personal qualities you may have, you can be sure there's someone smarter, richer, and sexier out there who has those same qualities. Studies have also shown that while women tend to assess their attractiveness fairly accurately, men consistently overrate themselves. The middle-aged comb-over is testimony to how bad it can get. Check your personal hygiene and social skills before complaining that religion makes society so puritanical.

. . .

In an open society with full freedom of belief, people are largely free to select whichever creed they find most satisfying. Since people are complex and reality is chock full of tensions that are hard to resolve, it's inevitable that people who approach religion with the utmost rationality may still end up all over the religious map, depending on what issues they perceive as most pressing. To a great extent, this kind of diversity is essential to a healthy and well-balanced society. People who stress the need for individual responsibility and strict morality on the one hand, and people who stress the need for compassion and social responsibility on the other, keep each other in balance and provide reality checks on each others' views. If there are many valid and beneficial forms of art or music that appeal to different people, it's just as reasonable to suppose there are many valid and beneficial forms of religious experience as well, and the society and the religion are healthier for that diversity.

But it's also inevitable that a lot of people will gravitate toward religions precisely because those religions agree with what they already want to believe. Narrow minded and judgmental people tend to gravitate toward narrow minded and judgmental religions. Emotional people tend to gravitate toward emotional religions. White suburbanites have a distinctly upper middle class God, very different from the Black Baptist God.

. . .

Does Religion Corrupt People, or Do People Corrupt Religion?

Given the endless ways religions can be subverted and co-opted, the wonder is less that religions commit evils than that they do any good at all. And given the way Marxism was transformed into an unchallengeable dogma in the 20th century, the simple-minded prescription of John Lennon's Imagine:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

doesn't seem to offer much prospect of a solution. After all, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Stalinist Russia and Enver Hoxha's officially atheistic Albania didn't exactly shine as beacons in the darkness. One could readily see, in a world where Lennon's ideals somehow gained supremacy, that a few generations later people who atavistically clung to national identities or religious beliefs would be ostracized and persecuted. Solely because of the threat they posed to peace, harmony, and all-round good vibes, mind you.

In fact, blaming religion for the ills of the world is a wonderful way to avoid taking a hard look at human nature. It's a variation on the "noble savage" myth and suffers from the inevitable failure of believers in the myth to ask how innately benign people could ever be attracted to repression in the first place, and how we can guarantee that eliminating all forms of repression in the present will prevent its returning in the future.

"Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way" indeed, and "few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). As psychologist Bion discovered half a century ago, even when someone knows the path, people avidly seek opportunities to wander away and take the group with them. And even when the path is brightly lit and well marked, people move the path markers, shoot out the lights, put up alternate path markers, and denounce the original markers as illegitimate.

Excellent stuff! I'm very grateful to Labrat for recommending these articles.

I note that Prof. Dutch approaches religion from an inquiring, academic standpoint. I don't know whether or not he has any personal religious belief. I applaud his practical, open-minded approach: indeed, I wish more believers would read this sort of thing, and be prepared to give equally open-minded, honest answers about why they believe, and how this affects their lives. It's no good for us, as believers, to tell others that "God told me to do it this way" when our audience doesn't believe in God, or believes in a God radically different to our understanding of the Deity!

(I'm reminded of the graffito found on a University campus a couple of decades ago: "GOD IS BLACK!". Someone soon added underneath: "YES, SHE IS!")

As the Bible commands those of us who are Christians:

Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16, RSV).

Kudos to Prof. Dutch for an excellent, informative and thought-provoking look at the subject. I encourage all my readers to click over to his Web site and read the full articles. They're worth the time and effort. When you've read them, think about how you'll answer those who question your faith (or the lack thereof): and start preparing a defense of the way you've chosen to live, and the light that guides your way. You'll find it an interesting exercise!



Anonymous said...

I've been reading his essays- infrequent, but valuable enough to me to keep returning every month or so to look, though I don't always agree with him- since before I moved to New Mexico.

He is, in fact, religious- he never states what religion, but given his body of knowledge on the subject, I'm pretty sure Christian- but he not only didn't say so in any of his writings until, I think, this year, but I honestly couldn't tell for sure either way until then.

I think that speaks well of his skill.

Assrot said...

Thanks for some interesting commentary and references on religion. I have always been a believer in a supreme being (God if you prefer the name).

I have also explored many of the worlds religion during my life and have even been a member of and believer in various religions during my younger years.

I find now that I am in what I would call the final quarter of my life that I believe organized religion of any kind has very little to offer and has in fact been the root of (if not the cause of) most of humankind's suffering.

Although I still believe that there is possibly a supreme, omnipotent being greater than myself and all living things, I would have to call myself agnostic.

I don't believe I've lost my faith. I don't think I ever really had any. I did try to develop a faith of sorts by my meticulous wandering and study of so many of the major, yet different religions.

I guess it is possible that since I have always been a man of science and an engineer that it is not possible for me to develop a true faith in anything I am not able to quantify or find hard facts proving its existence.

I have seen things in my life and actually experienced things that I can not explain and I am sure science can not explain them either.

Who knows? Maybe I'm just full of shit and don't realize it. At any rate, thanks for a stimulating post and some very interesting and stimulating references.

Good, thought provoking material is very hard to find in the "solid waste facility" of blogdom. Your blog is one of the few I can actually read without falling asleep or moving on before I have finished reading one of your posts.