Thursday, April 21, 2011

Making Peace with Religion (gasp!)

I spent a lot of time in the atheist blogosphere this week and really enjoyed the diversity of voices within our movement, the exposure to new ideas and approaches, and the passion of those (particularly the young people) who are out there doing things and writing about it. But I also grew tired of reading about how much we have to hate religion if we want to be good at atheism. I struggle with the way Sam Harris-nicks advocate that we speak out against all religion, period.

It is not specifically religion I oppose as an atheist. I oppose fanaticism—and the way certain kinds of religious tenets seem to make people more vulnerable to it. I oppose spreading the idea that knowledge is gained by authority or revelation to the exclusion of the scientific method. I oppose the dehumanizing in-group versus out-group dynamic many religious communities create. But if a progressive religion (Unitarian Universalism or Ethical Culture, for example) does not entail that kind of thinking, then I fail to see how its existence perpetuates the kind of harm fundamentalism does. In fact, such progressive religions are in a unique position to criticize the harmful aspects of wrongheaded religious thought. This is a vitally important role.

Further, many religions are moving toward more critical, reason-based thinking in general, and I support that. United Methodists, for example, emphasize a fairly balanced approach to belief that involves weighing experience, scripture, tradition and reason, and are doing a better job of being engaged in the world in an ethical way as they continually re-evaluate their conclusions using this method. This is not so different from the way I approach my beliefs about the world—particularly in ethical decision making. I often begin with having an emotional experience that tells me something feels wrong about the world. I’ll read more about it—not from religious scripture, but from writings I find authoritative (such as particular philosophers, scientists, or humanitarians whose credibility is evident in their work). I look at history and how progressive people in the past have responded to various ethical challenges (these progressives constitute my tradition) and then I make, as best I can, a reason-based assessment. If more people adopted this kind of well-rounded analysis, it would benefit our world. And I do not think it would matter whether those undertaking such analysis were religious or otherwise. As atheists, we should be clear about what we oppose within religion, and not seek to oppose all religion simply because a community of people chooses to use the word.

I am particularly concerned about the baby-out-with-the-bathwater tack because we are clearly damaging our ability to effect change when we refuse to work with progressive faith communities. We need to stop being antagonistic to all people of faith and to all values that motivate people of faith—and in fact, where those values align with our own (and they often do; we are all people, after all) we should find ways to work toward living out those values together. Obviously, where religious people advocate for ways of thinking that cause detriment to the well-being of our human family or our planet, we need to boldly speak out. If someone is doing something good and is motivated to do so by religious values that themselves cause harm, we cannot ignore that harm. For example, while the Catholic Church does some of the most amazing, compassionate and effective charity work on the face of the planet, the Church also teaches ways of thinking and ways of viewing oneself as a human being that cause serious pain and damage. And when evangelicals do compassionate charity work but at the same time lobby to keep real science education out of schools, thereby undermining the ability of the future generation to cope with the major challenges they will face (climate change, overpopulation, poverty)—challenges that cannot be solved without creative scientific thinkers—we cannot allow the religious perspective that empowers the erosion of science to go unchallenged.

But when we are willing to work with people of faith, we gain a credibility with them that allows us to speak out against the harmful aspects of religion—and religious people are willing to dialogue with us in ways they would not if we wrote them off entirely. When we become utterly dogmatic in our anti-religious stance, we are undermining our own values of reason and compassion. And we are undermining our ability to see religious human beings as human; the dehumanizing “us” versus “them” mentality causes too much harm to the human family for us to entertain it. We can do better—but we have to be willing to think clearly and compassionately and perhaps even take some risks in trusting that religious people, if we give them the opportunity, can do better, too.


The Mother said...

I will stop being antagonistic toward the religious when they stop being antagonistic toward ME--before I even open my mouth.

AND when they stop controlling the politics of this country. And my bedroom.

Serah B. said...

@The Mother: I wholeheartedly agree that we need to be antagonist toward the religious values that inspire people to be hurtful toward those of us with different perspectives. And we need to be antagonist toward religious intrusion into secular, civil government. And we need to be antagonist toward the attempt to legislate into public law our private, sexual behavior. But I don't think that taking an active stand against the harms you mention (and I do as a lobbyist for Secular Coalition for Arizona) requires that we be antagonist toward ALL religions, ALL religious people, and ALL religious values--because there are plenty of religious people, for example, who support separation of church and state. Who support civil, productive dialogue between religious and non-religious people. And who want sexual freedom as much as the rest of us.

Laura Lee said...

Well put. More and more as I get older I find that the answers to everything are a matter of balance-- not simple answers like "religion is a force for good" or "religion is a force for bad." (A famous debate between notable Catholics and atheists posed this false choice.)

Aspects of religion have the potential to be a force for good and a force for bad in the same way that human beings have the potential for both good and bad. Atheists can sometimes be as extreme and fundamentalist in their non-religion as some religious folks can be.

As rational people, I think we are capable of rejecting the bad that religious institutions can do, and the requirement that individuals practice or profess certain religious observances, without simply proclaiming that all aspects of religious life are bad.

As a vehicle for cultural expression, community and tradition across generations, there is not a lot that compares to the church.

Kaleena said...

Love this! Yes. I was just talking to a friend of how lots of deconversion stories swing from yes, religion all the way to no, religion is always always bad, bad, bad. (And then some people swing back slightly to settle somewhere in the middle) Religion DOES have good qualities and just last week I submitted my application to become a member of the ethical society in St. Louis.

Jesse said...

(Cross-posted from NonProphetStatus entry)

Much of this is quite true, and well said. The details about the United Methodists was particularly interesting to me, as I hadn’t know it before. Also, the reminder of the danger of us-vs-them thinking is valid, and important.

However, I think it does need to be said that, for nearly all self-described religious believers, they have factual disagreements with freethinkers/humanists/secularists/atheists. These factual disagreements are irrelevant to numerous types of joint action, such as charitable work and maintaining the separation of church and state, but they do exist. Examples include many of the tenants of the Apostles Creed, the efficacy of prayer, and most obviously, the existence and claimed empirical effects of their divinity.

These are specific claims about our shared experience, subject to empirical testing like any other such claim. And (nearly all) religious believers hold beliefs about them that contradict those of atheists/freethinkers/secularists/humanists.

analyst said...

Thank you for posting this.

I believe it is important to keep oneself open toward the value that all other people bring to our experience of existence.

In my thoughts, I used to be so critical towards everyone in my life, and inwardly evaluated everyone as "with me" (non-theist) or "against me" (theist). I am thankful that I was able to learn that overly critical evaluation of everyone else's beliefs is caused only by one's own insecurity. How many times have you heard, "I will stop being this way, once the others have stopped?" :)

Since when did any one group have the sole correct interpretation of reality? To believe one does, is the very cold heart of extremism, and it is the nature of the us-them thought system, and what helps people use religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to separate us from each other.

I believe we should always allow others the right to feel emotions and to hold beliefs that are correct for them at this precious moment. Once we extend this to all others, we will at once find we work together and not in competition at solving our world's problems.

I want to commend you for being a humanistic light in a sometimes darkened world. I believe this darkness comes when we do not see our fellow human as our self.

Be well.