Saturday, March 01, 2008

Oh no. He's talking about religion again: The H-Bomb

Cake. Sheep go to heaven. Goats go to hell.

So, I read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins last week. It was really interesting, and I'm working on an essay series titled, "Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins" that will appear on the blog in several parts. If god talk is too much for you, I'll try to intersperse it with normal blogoseyo stuff, so it doesn't get too heavy.

Dawkins gave me a lot of food for thought, and stirred up a bunch of stuff I've had on my mind before, too.

Here's one interesting point. This wasn't in Dawkins, it was triggered by something I read here (point 10), which has been turning around in my head for a while.

I used to say "nobody flew airplanes into buildings to prove The Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones."

It was my way of saying "Religion is important. God is important. Don't dismiss it too lightly." Yeah, heart-poisoning hate, and a bunch of geopolitical yuk played its role, but in the box "reason for killing innocents" on their application for heaven, Osama's hijackers wrote, "Defending our Religion from the Infidel". So why is it, I thought, that when religion is on the table, the stakes get frighteningly, murderously high.

The answer is complex, but the theological part of it is simple.

Heaven and hell, grasshopper. Just so simple, polarized so quick. No middle ground can ever exist between two people who each honestly believe the other is going to hell.

See, if I say "I like avocado salad" and Robby-Bill-O, that charming hyuk from the boonies, says, "I like roast squirrel," we can go on our merry ways, cheerfully thinking, "To each his own."

But if I say "I like avocado salad, and you can go to hell if you don't!" and Robby-Bill-O, that ignint backwoods redneck says, "If you don't like roast squirrel, you can go straight to hell for all I care," it gets a little harder to let our differences slide without contesting the point. Especially when he's an uneducated redneck just parroting what his momma taught him, who never learned to think for himself the way I did in college. He can't even spell intransigent!

However, with religious talk, that's EXACTLY what happens. If my friend Ahmed says "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," and I say, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever shall believe may not perish, but shall have eternal life," the implication/assumption, "I'm going to heaven because I believe this" is there, not far from the surface. A little deeper underneath, "and if you don't, you aren't," is often tied on like a free sandpaper sample with my moisturizing lotion set. Those undertones have been known to complicate interfaith dialogue, yo.

My man Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) says "You can't bargain with the truth" in his song, "In the end."

It's a beautiful, light pop song, catchy and hummable, but the posture he strikes: "you can't bargain with the truth" is pretty inflexible; the song's actual message, packaged in this sound is like a brick in a fluffy pillowcase.

Two points come up because of this:

1. When neither side can supply compelling, empirical evidence, opposing truth claims kind of cancel each other out: all we can really, finally finish on is "well, you'll see after you die!" -- decision deferred. Seeing as nobody's come back from the dead and said, "Yeah, hey everyone, the Hindus had it right all along, and you're all coming back as rhino buttworms for fighting so much", we're back where we started, with my word against yours. Each tradition has a case for their truth claims, many followers, HUGE repositories of teachings, arguments, and anecdotes to support them, and all we finally finish with is several camps shouting what amounts to, "Is so!" "Is not!" "Oh yeah? You'll see!" "No, YOU'LL see!" in a see-saw with makes both sides look a bit small, when there are, you know, hungry mouths to feed and prisoners to visit and aid organizations to support and people being oppressed in all kinds of ways around the world.

2. The promise of heaven and the threat of hell, in the absence of the aforementioned empirical evidence, will not convince a rational thinker who does not already believe what I am telling them. Bringing heaven and hell into a conversation with a non-religious person pulls very little weight.

As this guy (same one I linked to earlier) pointed out, in rational discourse, one does not answer a question with a threat.
"Why should I agree with your doctrine of atonement?"
"Because you'll go to hell if you don't."

Because I can't prove that I'm right until we both die, that statement reads as a non sequitur, and makes further discussion impossible, just as much as
"Why should I vote socialist instead of conservative?"
"Because I'll punch you in the throat if you don't."

By the same token, the offer of heaven is unsupportable, except through reading from a book that my bud isn't convinced yet is true, and maybe anecdotes that he wasn't there to witness.

"Why should I come to church with you?"
"So you can come to heaven!"

is tantamount to
"Why should I sign this petition?"
"Because I'll give you a cookie." (admittedly, with much higher stakes, though)

Where the truth of an assertion is unprovable, incentives and disincentives to agreeing do not change the unprovability of said assertion.

Religions need to find a new way to legitimize their claims, and also to contradict their critics: if nothing else, this heaven and hell talk is a rhetorical dead-end. It also leaves religious proselytizers/apologists vulnerable as an inverted hedgehog to the old trap, where my non-religious friend asks me, "So do you think I'm going to hell, then?"
I have to either answer, "Yes." and piss off my bud, "No," and make it sound like I waffle on the very thing I want her to believe, or dodge, leaving myself open to the "You don't know. You CAN'T know" objection.

All I can really say is, "Here's the information, here's what I think, and like my man Yusuf Islam says, we'll all find out in the end". . . and then keep humble, because it might be ME who's wrong! It might be better to let God decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, and as tiny finite humans, respectfully step away. These days, when somebody asks me about heaven/hell topics, I answer, "Not mine to decide." Yeah, it's nice when somebody says, "I agree with your positions on X issue. You seem like a good Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/fillintheblank" -- but as far as I know, God doesn't ask for reference letters when separating the sheep from the goats.

So, as I hope I've demonstrated, playing the heaven and hell card is unfruitful at best, when dealing with someone who doesn't believe, and won't be convinced without evidence, and incendiary at worst, when dealing with someone who DOES believe in them, but passionately disagrees on how to get there.

Now don't get me wrong: I don't think there's anything wrong with believing in Heaven or Hell. Go ahead and believe in it, and even go ahead and play the heaven/hell card in a religious discussion, but recognize that it's taking you out of the realm of rational discourse and into the muddy waters of unsupportable faith-based belief. If you're comfortable starting sentences with "I believe that..." instead of "We can see that...", delve away. . . but don't expect to convince Richard Dawkins.

In fact, for the sake of good manners and mutual benefit in interfaith and faith/non-faith dialogues, we might be better served not to play the heaven and hell cards at all, unless we're honest enough to admit that the only support we have is our interpretation of the book our conversation partners haven't necessarily accepted as the absolute truth (and which they may interpret differently anyway), and using it is essentially a rhetorical molotov cocktail that boils down to "I'm right because I said I'm right, OK?", and turning the whole conversation from a discussion to an argument.

But religion IS important, right? I mean, remember what you said about the airplanes back in the beginning? Sure, it's important, but the airplanes bring us back to another important point. Flying airplanes into buildings didn't automatically make Osama's truth-claims right OR wrong. It's time to admit that the actions of a faith's adherents, though sincere, do not prove the TRUTH of their convictions, only the depth and type. Cutting off my finger because I believe the world is flat doesn't make me right; it only makes me a fanatic. Recognizing this distinction is another step toward an actual, fruitful interfaith dialogue. A million pilgrims walking the Camino trail in Spain does no more to prove Christianity's truth than a million Muslims doing the hajj in Saudi Arabia; it is a touching demonstration of devotion, but it doesn't actually change the facts under discussion.

Just because the worship of Isis and Amon-ra led to the building of the pyramids and the sphinx does not mean they deserve a continued following, if their beliefs and practices are shown to be superstitious, irrational, or harmful. This "what have you done for me lately/how do you like me NOW?" crucible swiftly removes history from relevance in discussion of the clash of cultures. It is not relevant that Muslims in the 8th to 12th centuries led a blossoming of study that influenced pretty much every field we know, any more than it is relevant that Michaelangelo's greatest works were all on religious themes. The question is, today, right now, is a religion's practice producing and encouraging the long-term sustainability of humanity, reconciliation and the kinship of all humans, or is it fostering divisiveness and scorn and tribalism, RIGHT NOW? Wiping the slate clean and looking at things as they are instead of as they were might be a breath of fresh air on this whole stagnant debate/culture clash. Having wiped the slate clean, things look rough: this is how the religious look to some outsiders, and they're publishing books, and getting on TV, and spreading their ideas, which shows that they're finding others who agree with them, too.

That's a serious wake-up call, dear readers, and dear believers.

When you boil away all the historical baggage, the crusades and Constantine's christendom and the inquisition and the demonization of the west as "the great Satan", when you close the holy books with mutually exclusive truth-claims, when we stop being afraid to say stuff that might offend someone, and simply judge the tree by its fruit, well, then we're at least ready to discuss the current relevance of organized religion, and whether it is a help or a hindrance to a more enlightened world, rather than running aground on the kind of intractability and dogmatism that hinders discussion when heaven, hell, holy texts and absolute truth-claims come into play.

On those terms, right now, according to Richard Dawkins, it isn't, and the fact he can say that and support it doesn't necessarily make him completely right (I'll get to that), but the fact he says it at all, and can support it at all, and especially the fact that he's found a LOT of support, and has sold a buttload of books, should be a bucket of icewater in the face of religious leaders around the world, who were so busy fighting their culture-wars that they never noticed, in the zeitgeist of the times, it seems that people are starting to get sick of their barking about the same old things, and refusing to listen to dissenting opinions.

And as we go, let's not forget, too, that if somebody DID fly an airplane into a building to prove the Stones were better than the Beatles, it would not automatically win the argument, it would not elevate the topic to any degree of reverence (or should not). How does it help the discussion, OR change rock history, if Beatlemaniacs become afraid to declare their loyalty, and nervous to whistle "Love Me Do" in public, for fear of offending those militant Jaggerites and Richardsonians, who want "Satisfaction" played instead of the national anthem at sports games? To cease further discussion of beatles vs. stones because of such a demonstration, or for fear of reprisals, is a kind of anti-intellectualism that shrivels under scrutiny, but robs credibility from everyone involved in the dialogue before it goes. To declare a topic off limits because of a threat amounts to intellectual terrorism -- surpression of discourse fits better in a Stalinist regime than a modern democracy. So yeah, let's be ready to talk about this. Let's be ready to disagree, even, but let's not send people to hell for disagreeing, let's listen to each other, and let's actually be willing to have our minds changed.

(PS: Yeah, sure, I do believe in heaven, and wouldn't want anyone to stop on account of me, and I'm sure Mom's up there now, having a grand old time, but I'm not ready to stick my neck out anymore and tell anybody that THEIR way of getting there is wrong, because I'm not God, and such talk will never help religious culture get along peaceably and positively with those in society who respectfully disagree. -- if they respectfully disagree, and we disrespectfully disagree (by telling them they're going to hell), who has the moral high ground?)

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
Go to the table of contents. Go to the next essay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob,
Just discovered your blog somehow or another...

If you haven't already, check out Total Truth by Nancy Pearcy. She offers a wonderfully holistic Christian worldview and shows how Christianity been practically enacted (for better and for worse) throughout Church history to bring us where we are today.

It's not nearly as dry as it sounds and I found it extremely helpful in conceptualizing an apologetic beyond, "Believe or go to hell" rhetoric. The book shows how the Christian story intertwines perfectly with the reality of human experience and the fulfillment of man's deepest needs. (It's also available on tape!)