I really enjoy the blog of P.Z. Meyers, Pharyngula. He bills himself as a “godless liberal” and much of his blog is presenting his atheist viewpoint. As a biologist, he is very pro Evolution and anti Creationism. I have to say that I enjoy reading his posts and agree with about 90% of what he says.
However, recently Meyers made a comment disparaging AA and the 12 step program because of its Christian foundation and the religious nature of some of its process. Herein lies, in my opinion, a major problem with the attitude that many atheists project. Notice that I said “attitude”, not “argument”. There is no doubt in my own mind that many elements of Christianity are harmful. I think anyone who regularly reads this blog will see that. It seems sometimes, however, that atheists take a certain pleasure in attacking theists, almost revelling in their “superiority” and throwing out any and all benefits that religions may provide for some people. People who need AA have enough problems already without having atheists attack what is for many a foundational belief system. These religious people are not going to change overnight, especially if they are already battling other personal demons, and especially not if the so called rationalists are belittling them. In this case, the conviction of their beliefs is more likely to provide them with positive inspiration than any of the drawbacks that the atheists gleefully point out.
Fundamentalist atheism wants to dismiss every last speck of religion, almost as if it were some kind of threat to them. This is especially true of those atheists who were once strong believers in God, as is the case with Meyers. Like an adolescent anarchist, rebelling against the parents and authority that they felt has betrayed them, their reaction is to trash everything, lumping it all together, painting it with the same brush and throwing any potential baby out with the bath water. These atheists tend to take aim at the most vulnerable targets. They reject all theism, and yet usually attack the fundamentalist Christians who believe in classic red (pre-rational) beliefs such as Creationism. I see them attack fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. But they never attack any of the higher tier spiritual beliefs. They don’t talk about Bhuddism or meditation. They don’t talk about esoteric Islamic beliefs such as the Sufi tradition. They don’t even consider any of the spiritual beliefs that are not rooted in pre-rational dogma. And by doing that they are accomplishing two very negative things. The fist is that they are depriving the pre-rational Christians of any form of spiritual evolution short of rejecting all of their own beliefs, -which is more likely to produce a more reactionary result than it is to produce any kind of evolution. The second thing, of course, is that they are cutting off their own evolutionary potiential, believing, just like the Christians, that theirs is the final answer. Many rationalists will claim that reason is the be all and the end all. If it cannot be explained through reason, it can’t be true. This, of course, is no better than all of the traditions that came before believing exactly the same thing about their own world view.
The other day I saw the documentary “Trouble The Water” which is the story of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the poverty stricken inhabitants of New Orleans. It is structured around the video recording of a poor black couple trapped by the hurricane because they didn’t have the resources to leave. Aside from being an excellent documentation of the FEMA fiasco and the degree to which the poor, black population was ignored in the crisis, the documentary also is an excellent window into the day to day life of these impoverished people. Two things struck me. The first was the life style of these people, with a younger brother in jail, talk about dealing drugs to make ends meet, living in very simple homes, having very simple prospects and outlooks. The world was the neighbourhood and concerns were very ego and group centric. I’m trying not to be negative, but the feeling was definitely like something out of a third world country. And, this isn’t a racial judgement, because I got the same feeling watching Winter’s Bone, a fantastic drama film situated in the backcountry of modern Appalachia with destitute Caucasian characters. A lot of America has that third world feeling in the poverty, lack of education and sociological milieu.
One of the other things that struck me in the documentary was the constant appeal to God and Jesus. As their home was being swept away by the flood of the hurricane they were praying to God and Jesus. When they came back to the shambles of their neighbourhood, they thanked God and Jesus.
These people, and there are a lot of them, are not going to become rationalists in this generation. If they maintain some sort of security and comfort in their religious beliefs, no matter how much I might disagree with them or find it unreasonable, I can’t begrudge them their solace. If their religious beliefs help to set limits on their immorality and guide them to more civilized behaviour, then that’s a good thing. Kant’s categorical imperative is not going to do it for them when they need a reason not to steal from their neighbours or beat their wives. The flawed morality of Christianity, though, is something that they can relate to and will help to guide them. Not only that, but it may actually assist in their evolution to the next level of reason, or perhaps assist their children. Let’s not forget that religion and Christianity in particular, was one of the catalysts for the jump from ego and family centric thinking to group centric thinking. This is essential if someone is to move on to the orange (rational) and green (world centric) views. Christianity may very well be the required value system that works for these people. The alternative may be no value system, and that would be a big step backwards in social evolution.
However, and this is important (-especially to the atheists who hopefully have read this far-), while these people are entitled to their beliefs and perhaps should even be encouraged in them to a degree, the nature of democracy does not say that their superstitions are equal to real scientific knowledge. Federally, they are in a minority. They should not have the right to dictate what is taught in schools. Even though we recognize that their beliefs are the most appropriate for them and that they benefit from them, we also recognize that certain things are reasonable and that reason trumps religious superstition in most cases. In general, they should not have the right to supersede what passes for common sense in a majority of the nation in any political arena or policy. That is one reason why the division of religion and state is so important.
Pre-rational thought tends to be a function of education. It was clear in watching Trouble the Water that lack of education plays a pivotal role in the world view of these people and their resulting religious beliefs. Those with more education have the responsibility to make good judgements and guide political decisions. As Asimov states in the quote below, democracy does not mean that belief is equivalent to knowledge. For example, evolution is a scientific fact, proven, at least in general, in a large number of ways, not the least of which is its application to real life scientific research. Creationists may believe what they will in the privacy of their homes, but rational people can not allow superstition to dictate the content school teaching. It would be easier, however, if Creationists were encouraged to see evolution as a form of creationism, instead of simply being told they’re stupid all the time. That would, at least, provide the opening that they need in order to evolve their belief system. That would be a responsible Integral approach.
This then produces a dilemma. Do you refrain from attacking the inanity of the Creationist view. I say that rationalists have a responsibility to maintain the scientific integrity of educational systems. Similarly, should trans-rationalists refrain from condemning gay bashing and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation? Again, no. That’s like asking if Liberals should have refrained from condemning racial discrimination. There is a responsibility of the more enlightened part of a society to put pressure on the other parts in order to promote change and development. I know that there is a whole elitist issue here that can be argued, and which needs to be argued as change for the sake of change is not necessarily good. Evolutionary development requires careful consideration, contemplation and negotiation. But standing still is not the answer.
Regardless, the evolutionary process is not served by bashing the institutions and belief system of groups of people. They have what they need to suit and benefit their own level of enlightenment. For them it works, and in many ways it serves the greater good of our society. We need to be careful before we take a sledge hammer to it.