Friday, March 07, 2008

Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins: Part three: The Straw Man We Gave Him

Soundtrack: just hit play and start reading.
REM: Losing My Religion

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.

I strongly recommend you read my summary/explanation Dawkins' his attack on Christian morality, here. I did not include it in the essay, for the sake of length and aesthetics, but it is important/worthwhile to read, and know what I'm talking about, and my basis for the assertions I make here.

I read Dawkins' book carefully: I sure wasn't going to let him get away with anything, when he's taking aim, among other things, at the first twenty-two years of my life, and the better part of the following six, most of my moral fiber, as well as my Dad's livelihood. I was looking, and expecting, to find the straw man argument -- a logical error where someone misrepresents an opponent's position.

And oh, I had my radar set on ultra-sensitive! I would sniff out the first hint of straw like a bloodhound with hayfever! And. . . Dawkins looked ready to offer a straw man. In Chapter Nine, he describes a Jewish child being kidnapped (rescued) by the Catholic Church, taken from his home to be raised by good Catholics instead of by hellbound Jesus-killers (according to them). Now, the problem is, this happened in the late 1800s, and after the ground-rules he himself established in Chapter Seven (about the moral zeitgeist, and the necessity to refrain from judging other eras according to modern values), Dawkins' offering an example of religious fervour gone haywire from bygone times is a red herring. "Yes!" I thought, "Next he's going to start referencing the Inquisition and the Crusades, and then we'll have him: all we have to do is answer, 'Well times have changed, you know; we don't do that kind of stuff anymore.' " Every bickering couple knows that bringing up the past just makes things ugly, and only hurts your case. Never give up the high ground!

I had my "the scientist doth protest too much" defense at the ready, tucked in my sleeve and ready to lay on the table decisively and gleefully!

But then Dawkins did something. . . not entirely unexpected, but much more problematic for the defense. He didn't name-drop the Crusades or the Inquisition, except to mention that he wouldn't unfairly dredge up times when religion was a mere excuse for manipulative, power-mad or hateful people to puke their black souls all over whatever institution had given them power and leeway. Darn! He saw me coming, and refused to pull the cheap trick that would have given me the rhetorical high ground! Instead. . . (Mayday! Mayday!). . . he started drawing examples from mainstream religion in the last seven years!

Forget corrupt Medieval Popes and Bloody Mary and all the Reformation wars -- that stuff's easy to dismiss. Our man Dawkins planned to use relevant examples!

So instead of this:

he was using this:

(Ann Coulter is the most abrasive person I've ever seen.)

and this:

(Pat Robertson calling for Hugo Chavez to be assassinated.)

This would be harder than I thought. In fact, it shaped up as the worst-case scenario: he had a leg to stand on! His one example of the Church's immoral behaviour from times past (when the moral zeitgeist hadn't developed as far as it has now), got my hopes up, but the following pages and chapters chronicled examples of religious intolerance, clannishness, and extreme fundamentalism from our very own day and age. So many, and so sharp, it is shocking and dismaying.

From, a few articles I spotted that kind of get at some of the problems:
October 23, 2007: "How Bush Wrecked Conservatism" -

"The Coulterization of The American Right"

"In Bush We Trust" -- GWB has attempted to set in place a theocracy

Soundtrack: Hit play and read.
Jim White: If Jesus Drove a Motorhome

Pastor Poposeyo called on Wednesday night, and we brushed on some of this, and then I veered away, saying, "Yeah, I'm gonna talk about that in my next post."

Here's the problem, dear readers.

Of all the spiritual and faithful people I know, I don't think any of them believe America, or any government, should be(come) a theocracy. Most of them bluster when they hear somebody lobbying to put creation into the science curriculum. They rankle when somebody says that the only proper place for a Christian woman is in the home, submitting humbly to her husband and head. Most of the Christian women I know don't wear floral prints, and none of them own any precious moments paraphernalia. They can't listen to Christian Talk Radio without squirming.

To a person, they agree that faith works best when tempered by sensitivity, humility, tact, and reason, and that it behooves each person of faith to build a workable framework by which they can be spiritual and intelligent, guided by faith and common sense, living integrated and edifying lives. Most of them try, in different ways, to develop their social consciousness and make the world better in practical ways. They volunteer, and sponsor acres of rain-forest and children in Afghanistan.

Problem is, these aren't the people jumping in front of TV cameras, representing the various faiths. Somehow, the media digs up the dumbest, most knee-jerk conservatives for their pundits and random interviewees, and make it look like Christian folk are all either gun totin' tabacca chewin', gay-hatin' furraner fearin' right-wing nuts, or Ann Coulter. Ditto for the other faiths. The Christian lobby's agenda is so different from the goals of the spiritual people I know personally, that it's a little startling to see them both described as Christian. The way the religious are portrayed in movies is even worse (case in point: I watched "There Will Be Blood" today;) but whose fault is it that screenwriters only have Pat Robertson to watch on TV as an example of "What Christians are like"?

Unfortunately, it is our fault. You see, we let those wingnuts speak for us. The moderate faithful, rather than kicking up a duststorm of our own, asserting our existence and saying "Hey! Not every Christian agrees with Jerry Falwell!" and getting behind the spokespeople who do, we quietly distance ourselves from the fundamentalist wingnuts, and the politicized, fundamentalist Christian Lobby. Oh, so quietly, we distance ourselves. We do not denounce them publicly so that it damages their credibility (and boosts ours) but quietly, so that nobody notices, and our silence is mistaken for tacit approval, or even assent.

As a result, instead of the Christan community marginalizing the crazies in-house, thus marking our turf and claiming a workable place in enlightened society, we have allowed them to bark and squeal, never complaining that they do not actually represent us. Because, in our complacency, we did not marginalize them, we have now been grouped with them, and marginalized by ever-growing tracts of the educated, democratic world.

In conclusion, the problem is not that Richard Dawkins uses a straw-man argument to discredit organized religion, dear readers; the problem is, we have given him the straw man, and it is not surprising, now that we have allowed the media and the intelligentsia to lump us all together, that we find ourselves under attack.

Dear, faithful readers, the moderates have dropped the ball, and now we are reaping what we allowed others to sow, as if on our behalf: we are losing our credibility, and our voice.

From the outside, this is how we look:

"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Ann Coulter, on 9/12/2001

I could go on, but even Dawkins is kind enough not to cite more of that kind of dreck in his book -- though he does tell you where you can find it.

All of us are being made to look smug, tribal, belligerent, interested (that is, angling for our own interests, rather than fighting for things like social justice), willfully ignorant, and (thanks, gay-bashers) hateful. Soon to be irrelevant, too if we keep on in this direction.

If Christians at large represented themselves, and supported moderate, sensible spokespeople, and leaned on the media for going with the unfair, cheap stereotypes instead of actual representatives, and meanwhile became the kind of wellspring of grace and love and acceptance, the powerful force fighting for justice and defending the helpless that religion has (at its best, during certain periods) been, then people would read Dawkins' attack and say, "Who is this clown, and where is he digging up his examples? I don't think he's ever met an actual Christian in his life!" instead of nodding their heads and thinking, "Yeah, I've seen/heard/read/met someone exactly like that." It is our fault that people do not. The dire truth, faithful readers, is that at this point, Dawkins IS right, far too often, and we need to get back to proving him wrong. Stay tuned for part 4: How.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.


melissa v. said...

Awesome! Problem: when moderates TRY to interact with the media, the editing room makes them look like the crazies. What to do?

Roboseyo said...

Well, if the moderates got the kind of support the wingnuts get (national columns, tv shows, radio programs with wide audiences, widely circulated magazines and newsletters), they'd have a platform to A. call out the media when the media misrepresents us, and B. put forward ideas that are actually workable, while C. holding the wingnuts accountable when they shoot off their mouths.

Roboseyo said...

(and meanwhile the moderates also need to get really really active volunteering, helping, giving, and proving their worth with actions instead of with words, to the point that their contribution to their communities can't be ignored)