Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pagans and Heretics IV

Part III in the series

Summer is over, and this might be the end of the Pagans and Heretics series too.

Hopefully I have made the case that any belief system includes an element of cruelty. In this part of the series, I will address that more directly. I covered this previously in The Cost with a specific example and will cover it more generally here.

The cruelty that I am referring to shows up in a couple ways. In a discussion of a belief system, at some point, the believer will have to rely on a statement of faith. The more obvious ones don’t need to be covered. The more subtle ones sound something like, “we can’t understand the mystery” or “the truth is being revealed to us over time” or “anything is possible”.

Perhaps anything is possible, but how then do we decide how to live our lives? If we accept that anything is possible, say for instance that setting a goal somehow alters the forces of the universe and brings that goal closer, how are we different from someone that claims their prayers can cure cancer? If you claim that a negative thought about someone actually hurts them, how is that different from Jerry Falwell claiming pagans caused the 9/11 attacks? Once you open the door to “anything is possible”, how do you then put a limit on any claim of cause and effect?

Before describing the effect of this type of thinking, I need to separate this built-in cruelty from an individual’s cruel personality. Regardless of belief, anyone can be bad at arguing, that is, they can use unfair tactics when arguing or worse, be completely dismissive of the other persons’ ideas, perhaps even calling them names. Some people try to equate this behavior to extreme religious behavior and label it “fundamentalist atheism”. I don’t see much point in that.

For the non-believer, cruelty is still possible. Someone can claim to be a better person based on the quality or number of their scholastic degrees. Recommending that someone read a book before they can discuss a topic intelligently can be done in a positive and encouraging way, or cruelly. But these are qualities of the individual, not necessarily of the educational system that taught them or the books they read.

A belief system, by its very nature, has that arrogance built in to it. People are of course free to believe whatever they want, but it usually does not end with someone simply choosing to believe a particular thing. Any claim of truth that is made solely by a leap of faith is a statement that the believer has something, knows something that the non-believer does not. The believer may be the most peaceful person and have the most helpful of intentions but their bottom line is that you just can’t understand.

We can look back on more ignorant times and see this clearly. Kings claimed to have divine knowledge and used it to enslave everyone else. As ruling structures became more complex, there were still only a few who could read and they interpreted the rules to benefit them. Fortunately there have been those who have fought against this. As more people have gained the ability to determine philosophies for themselves, more concessions have had to be made and how they compete in the marketplace of ideas has had to become more sophisticated.

This has led to a very confusing morass of philosophies that require more than a few quick searches with Google to sort out. If you are easily convinced, you might happen on this website and consider your work done. You might know someone with a story of a miraculous healing and consider that a valid source. If you are skeptical, you are left with the problem of how long do you need to look before you can say that there are no proven cases of limbs regenerating or prayers curing cancer? Maybe you have heard of the Miracle of Fatima, with thousands of witnesses and consider that ample evidence on which to base some sort of belief. As knowledge has become more easily accessible, it has become less acceptable to take such cases on faith.

Because most people still consider doing this research too much trouble, because the waters are so muddied, most of mainstream religion, including the spiritual but not religious, completely ignore this market. There are some classics in the genre, going back to ancient Greece, and more recent 18th and 19th century works. The mid twentieth century produced some foundational material such as Friedman and Campbell. Since 9/11 the market has expanded as more people felt the need to understand the role of religion in politics. For the believers, there are thousands of gods to choose from throughout history. As historians have attempted to explain their roots, believers in those gods have responded with claims of how archaeology and science proves that their god was right all along.

For most people, there is no need to look in to any of this. If you aren’t asking questions, there is no need to look into long technical explanations. If you have made the faith decision, you don’t need additional confirmation. The market of material on religion, miracles, faith and magic is aimed somewhat at those who are questioning their faith or considering a faith decision, but mostly it is there as a prop. Bookstore shelves are filled with works by the atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, Hitchens, Price and Ehrman, something has to be said in response. That it has no substance doesn’t seem to matter.

To illustrate, let’s examine a couple examples of recent big sellers.

A huge success for Christianity has been The Purpose Driven Life.This is supposedly a new way of studying Christianity. I have never seen anything about it that convinces me that it is anything more than the standard line of; read the Bible, follow the rules, and share the gospel.

In another recent work that received high praises, Paul Copan tried to defend some of the worst parts of the Old Testament in a book titled Is God a Moral Monster. It is endorsed by some of the biggest names in apologetics. If you think it would be hard to explain away the murder, rape, slavery and genocide in the Old Testament, you would be right. This book fails on every level, including just being able to accurately provide chapter and verse. However, since most people won’t read it, it doesn’t matter. It is simply claimed that the work has been done and this book accomplishes what it says it does. Most people won’t know that a Christian who has some integrity has published an extensive refutation of it.

The authors I mentioned in part 3 have many books that sell considerably fewer copies but are equal in that they provide little in the way of support for reasons to believe. These books don’t look at the more difficult passages, such as Moses ordering 3,000 to be killed or Jesus throwing the chaff into the fire. They just ignore them. I have found some really good interpretations in these books, and I enjoy them and share them often. The people of Canaan really did accomplish something 4,000 years ago and the story of a god coming to earth as a servant is pretty unique. But ignoring most of the Bible and claiming that the few stories you like exemplify Christianity really helps no one.

Further along the spectrum, you can find books that mix the familiar characters of religion with other history and other traditions and fill in the gaps however they please. These can be interesting stories and can portray insights into the human condition, but when they attempt to create new beliefs or prop up old ones their value diminishes. I give credit to Dan Brown for at least making a statement in the foreword to The DaVinci Code that it is fiction. Many authors skip this, or claim they have uncovered something that no one else has.

At the far end of the spectrum, beyond claims of specific gods or miracles are books like The Secret. These take bits and pieces from ancient texts and claim to weave a common thread of wisdom that only the authors of these books have figured out. Here’s the secret, set goals and stick to them, build a support network, nourish your body and your mind, acknowledge those who have helped you along the way.