Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Can we talk?

sermon_on_the_mountThis post is more exploratory than explanatory, since I haven’t really come up with a conclusion or a plan or anything like that. But I think it’s worth exploring just how much we can openly discuss our religious views, and our views on religion, within a framework of politeness.

NYT “Ethicist” Randy Cohen addresses the question in a recent column, not so much about social situations as media reports and other related discourse. Cohen argues that our innate taboos about discussing religion shouldn’t inhibit us from calling a spade a spade, and labeling reprehensible behavior as reprehensible (whether it’s an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent refusing to shake hands with a gentile client, or the Roman Catholic Church making a patent appeal to the more homophobic or sexist Anglicans).

Parenting Beyond Belief also recently addressed the issue in more of a personal way, albeit in the context of a text exchange (on Facebook) rather than oral conversation. But I think they both (especially PBB) hit on an important point — it’s possible to disrespect individual acts and attitudes without disrespecting that individual’s religion (even if it’s the religion that’s causing the  bad behavior, or at least being used to justify it).

PBB is especially good at suggesting “defusers” to make one’s observations go down more easily, and produce a response that’s thoughtful rather than hostile. And this bit hits rather close to home for me, with my tendency to take a non-confrontational stance that borders on passive-aggressive:

“Making nice” is ever so much easier. … You just switch off your cortex and say, “Hey, to each his own. Whatever floats your boat. Live and let live. We’re all pursuing our own truths.” That’s vacuous bullshit. I’m not just looking for “co-existence.” I want engaged co-existence.”

My own view is that while engaged co-existence may be ideal, we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes the best possible solution is disengaged co-existence, as opposed to engaged hostility. Can that attitude be abused and twisted into an excuse for disengagement? Yeah, probably. It’s something to watch out for.

(cartoon via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal)

Sunday Sermon: Stupid is as stupid is

ignorant_religionLots of people enjoyed the Mormon episode of “South Park” (you can watch it here), and its (highly accurate) recounting of Joseph Smith’s story about divinely engraved golden plates that only he could read. And lots of the same people enjoy ridiculing Scientology, with its tales of an alien species who colonized earth in spaceships shaped like DC-8 airplanes.

But if you really think about any religion, whether it’s the more mystical Asian versions (Hinduism, Buddhism) or the monothestic Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the story doesn’t really make any more sense.

Hinduism says the physical world is all a “Matrix”-like illusion, only without the evil aliens keeping people in pods. But if that’s the case, how come you sometimes get surprised going down stairs in the dark when the last step is one earlier or later than you thought it would be? If it’s all in your mind, how could that happen?

The Abrahamic religions take their name from Abraham, who was so devout that he was willing to slaughter his son with a knife on a dare from God (good thing they didn’t have airplanes and boxcutters back then).

Sunday Sermon: Worth a thousand words


(via Godless Blogger)

Science Is Real

science_is_realThis is awesomely awesome: My favorite-ever band, They Might Be Giants, has a new kids’ album out, “Here Comes Science.” And in the song “Science Is Real,” they lay it all out:  “I like those stories about angels, unicorns and elves … but when I’m seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract, the facts are with science.” And they make it clear that you can’t just pick and choose: “Science is real, from the Big  Bang to DNA/Science is real, from evolution to the Milky Way.”

So, is this polite? Is it a breach of etiquette? Well, maybe. It’s perhaps a bit rude to suggest to religious folks that angels (which are mentioned in the Bible, not just in populist pablum spouted by feel-good New Age-y types) are in the same category as unicorns or elves.

But is it rude to say that if you’re seeking knowledge, you should look to science rather than religion? I don’t think so. Unless, of course, you want to argue that it’s rude to say that if you’re seeking divine/godly/spiritual/religious guidance, you should look to religion rather than science. I’m guessing most religious types don’t think it’s rude to make such a suggestion, or to say that science can’t tell us about God since science deals with the natural while religion deals with the supernatural.

So, sauce for the goose, etc. If you want people to respect what religion has to tell us about spiritual matters, then have some respect for what science has to tell us about material matters. It’s a two-way street.

Sure, Richard Dawkins says his scientific perspective tells him that there aren’t any deities (a position not advocated by most atheists), but it’s not like he’s trying to get the government to force religious preachers to stop preaching religion, or to preach scientific concepts as if they’re religion. Whereas there are plenty of folks trying to get the government to force science teachers to stop teaching science, or to teach religious concepts as if they’re science.

Wright is wrong

religion_evolutionRobert Wright’s NYT commentary on science vs. religion makes some good points, but glosses over the arguments militant atheists use against God, and the arguments theists use against evolution.

Wright says militant atheists “might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.” How does that makes sense?

If a purely natural process has intrinsic creative power, how does that argue for the existence (or increased possibility of existence) of an intrinsic creative power outside of nature? That’s like arguing that the ability of a television broadcast to create the appearance of little people inside the TV screen adds at least an iota of plausibility to the notion that there are actually little people in the TV, and your 3-year-old has been correct all along.

Wright also suggests that religious folks are within shouting distance of getting the concept: “The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).” Yeah, right, Wright.

The problem isn’t that there are a lot of people who think evolution needed a bit of divine nudging here and there once it started, the problem is that there’s a disturbing number of people who don’t accept evolution at all — who insist that God created everything in 6 days, a few thousand years ago, just like a literalist interpretation of the Bible declares. And those people have a ridiculous amount of influence in our society. Nudging the moderate folks a bit more toward science isn’t going to do anything about the (pardon the lapse in etiquette) yahoos who are still driving the religious discourse in America.

But Wright has some good points as well, like this one: “Of course, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on awe and inspiration. The story that science tells, the story of nature, is awesome, and some people get plenty of inspiration from it, without needing the religious kind.” As the late Douglas Adams said, “I’d take the awe of inspiration over the awe of ignorance any day.”

(cartoon via Palmyria)