Thursday, April 20, 2006

Go with him twain*

I can't tell you how sick I am of reading posts like this one at The Dilbert Blog and this one at Pharyngula. I'm actually really appreciative of many of the posts on the latter blog, but the blanket anti-religiosity combined with name-calling really, really gets to me. "Dumbassery"? Dumbassery? Give me a break.

When did name-calling become appropriate among educated and supposedly progressive adults?

What follows is not meant, of course, to chastise those of you who already believe in the fundamental humanity of all people, regardless of credo. Rather, it's a gentle reminder and warning not to become too fond of The High Horses of Intellectualism and Righteousness.

For my progressive readers: All evangelicals and fundamentalists are not stupid. Their leaders may try to push through some political reforms that you and I see as idiotic or dangerous, but that doesn't mean that as individuals they're morons.

For anyone stopping by who happens to be against religion in any form: Religion is not merely a form of superstition that a small group of people are trying to foist on your children in their science classes.

I know some very, very bright people who are fundamentalist Christians. In general, I don't understand their ways of seeing the world, but I don't dismiss them as individual human beings because I disagree with them. (That's an honor I reserve for individuals with real power who keep fucking things up or who take advantage of low-income believers: Hello, Mr. President! Greetings, Pat Robertson, TBN televangelists, and Benny Hinn!)

For my more conservative Christian readers: I'm trying to understand where you come from. I wasn't raised the way you were and thus I subscribe, I think, to a different way of processing the world. That said, chances are we share many core beliefs. In my life's journey, I've come to know fairly well a number of evangelicals, and I appreciate your earnestness, your desire to truly help people. However, when you talk about bringing people to Jesus as the highest form of assistance and service, I sense you trying to sell me on the political package that tends to come with your set of beliefs.

To clarify, here's what I believe about the religious figure whose followers I find most challenging to my worldview: Jesus, be he an actual historical figure or a character in the Bible, is admirable because he was (and pardon my flippancy here, but I mean it with a good deal of affection) the first hippie--wandering around in gown and sandals, encouraging people to drop out of the system and hang with him, spreading words of peace and love and generally challenging The Man. Yay for that Jesus. I don't believe that today's most popular American forms of evangelical and fundamental Christianity are in keeping with that Jesus's core teachings. (And please don't cite that "Love the sinner, hate the sin" line. By calling me a sinner, you're already judging me, deviating from that whole gospel of love and acceptance.) In short, I believe Jesus was a good man, but I don't think he was the literal son of God and a virgin Mary.

In addition, I distrust anyone who asks me not to think critically. I'm a lifelong student and an educator of many years, and I'm unlikely to subscribe to any faith system whose studies of its holy book sound more like lessons in diagramming a sentence than in a real engagement with issues that, for reasons having to do with our human nature, were problems for ancient desert nomads and remain problems for a post-industrial nation of 300 million people. (I speak from my experience of attending a Baptist Bible study on Capitol Hill. It was at once illuminating and frightening, how much emphasis the pastor placed on defining nouns and verbs, on making the assembled believers repeat prepositional phrases. And how blind everyone there appeared to be to the fact that they were still performing an interpretation of the text, rather than absorbing some fundamental truth. But I digress.)

I'm not being very articulate, but here's what I think, in a nutshell: We would all benefit from less criticism of others and more critical reconsideration of our own positions. Even more importantly, we would all benefit from a genuine engagement with others' faith traditions. Find the one denomination that most challenges your own beliefs and seek out its followers on their own turf. If you believe you hold a hardness in your heart against a particular group, you owe it to them to listen to them before making any further judgements based on what your own pastor, favorite media outlet, or peer group says. (And for the love of all that is holy, go with an open mind; shed your defensiveness and your tendency to try to refute everything that's said as it's spoken. Hold off on proselytizing if you're from an evangelical denomination.)

For example, as a feminist who believes strongly in the gay civil rights movement and as one raised in the tradition of a "welcoming" United Church of Christ, I found myself completely lost as to how Baptists could believe as they do, so I sought out that Baptist Bible study. I still disagree with much of what I heard, but now I can use their vocabulary in an attempt to find some common ground; by demonstrating that I have taken care to listen, my Baptist friends are more likely to listen to me. As a progressive of an atheistic/humanistic bent, I agree with (Friends General Conference) Quakers' stance on so many political, civil rights, and humanitarian issues, but their belief in God puzzled me. So I attended three months' worth of meetings--not much, I know, but at least it was something. (And I hope, once my life settles down a bit more, to return to those meetings to learn more.)

Here's a quick and incredibly incomplete list of sometimes polarizing or widely misunderstood faiths (and, in the last case, an anti-faith group) you might check out, either on a series of weekly holy days or through their own study groups. If you're in the U.S., many of the links below will allow you to search for a church, meeting house, temple, mosque, synagogue, etc. in your area.

Southern Baptists.
Society of Friends (Quakers)
Conservative Jews
Atheist groups

Please, talk with one another instead of hurling around terms like "infidel," "heathen," "damned," and "dumbass" or by implying that those who think differently from you lack intelligence. Then, and only then, can we begin to reach some common ground and resolve issues that concern us all.

*"And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." (Matthew 5:41)


Queen of West Procrastination said...

Thank you so much, Trillwing. I don't hear nearly enough people talking like this, these days. The polarisation and the fighting based in stereotypes all drive me crazy, and it seems to be happening more and more, even in my country.

Fang Bastardson said...

Great post. I've thought some of the same things myself.

I think it reflects poorly on your readers, though, that so few want to join in the conversation you're trying to start. You scratch the surface of the subject of religion in this country and you'll see what Intellectual Elitism really looks like.

Well-educated atheists always hold their noses like you're waving a big, stinky turd in their faces.

Come on, folks! The fun is in the argument, not the foregone conclusion. I say, "loosen up and play nice."

Your pal, Fang

Jeff Mather said...

It's kind of funny that the excellent Mr. Fang should chastise us for not grabbing on with both hands to a polarizing topic for which we have just been roundly taken to task. But of course, he’s right that we should be engaging in dialogue.

From my point of view, it's precisely this lack of engagement that encourages the inflammatory statements on both sides. Believers and nonbelievers don't mix very much, and true ecumenism is rare — bravo! to you Ms. Trillwing for mixing it up with the various faiths. Race and especially class play an enormous part in faith segregation and separate the secular and the spiritual. (From my point of view, class is probably the most powerful divisor among Americans, though we don't appreciate the mechanism at work.) Tack onto that the perceived connections between religion and modernity — whether in Arabia or Appalachia or Afghanistan — and you have a very potent and naturally divisive force in the absence of interchange.

We in American society are not well-equipped to handle the dissonance between what belongs to God and Caesar. In many cases, young people grow up with religious instruction, find inconsistencies in it at a tender age, and are just told to accept the mystery of religion at exactly the same age that they are being taught (correctly) to move from magical thinking to a more modern paradigm. In the absence of better social training, how does this not lead to the belief that religious folks are intellectually dishonest or unintelligent? (I personally don’t believe that.) And, in my opinion, the separation of church and state has become something of a partition or firewall, which isn’t helpful either.

So finally an anecdote. On Good Friday, I went to a restaurant with a number of coworkers and the mother of one of them, who had visited a friend for Maundy Thursday. After a bit of chitchat, the food showed up and the mother said, “Let’s say grace,” and held up her hands to make a prayer circle. Panic! The Hindu next to me and I were the only two missing links, but we were outnumbered. The prayer was a small affair, but so was the restaurant. Now, I was born into a Baptist family, dabbled in Catholicism, attended Friday prayers with the Muslims, and visited a few Hindu temples; but I had never felt so awkward as having everybody in a Korean restaurant in downtown Natick, Mass., watch me "pray."

Jeff Mather said...

Oh! And I want a positive word for someone who doesn't believe in divinity. Nonbeliever, agnostic, atheist — all based on a sense of otherness. "Bright" just leaves me cold.

Anything better?

ArticulateDad said...

Nicely said. As I've written before: "I hold equal disdain for true believers of any stripe, whether they worship a god, or money, or beauty, or the scientific method, or evolution. By true believers I mean anyone who thinks all questions have already been answered, who refer to whatever it is they believe in as the fount of all knowledge. There is nothing wrong with belief. In itself, belief is neutral. What we do with that belief is what makes it beneficial or dangerous."

Somehow embracing our own ignorance has not been valued. Yet, what we don't know will always outnumber what we do. Knowledge and belief are different things. As I believe you will agree, both sides of this debate need to remember that.