in case you didn’t listen

The BBC podcast on atheism brought home several points for me that I suppose I should have already realized.
Atheists can be as obnoxiously fundamentalist and militant as any religious zealots. I think that in my 20s, 30s and 40s, I was borderline obnoxious and confrontational about my lack of “faith.” While I’ve become even more convinced that my atheist position is appropriately valid, I have become more tolerant of those who don’t agree with me. See, maybe wisdom does come with age.
My contributions to the BBC discussion ended about a third of the way through the program, but I was rather pleased to hear other, later, participants refer to things that I said.
Some of the more militant atheists insist that the world would be a better place without religions, since so much of the historical intolerance, genocide, hate, war, and persecution were (and are) done in the name of one religion or another.
In general, I don’t disagree with that position, but I also recognize that there is a need in many people for the solace and purpose that religion can offer, a way to feel more secure in what otherwise can seem a random and chaotic universe. So, I doubt if there’s any chance of ridding this world of its various religions.
What would help considerably, however, is if religion became something personal instead of institutional; if each individual understood about the range of belief and (non-belief) systems on this planet that provide a “moral compass;” if each individual could choose the ethical/moral system of beliefs that work for her or him and not have one imposed by culture or family.
One discussion participant taught in a Jewish elementary school, and when asked if it would be possible to enable children to learn about other religions as part of the school curriculum, the teacher responded in the negative.
The purpose of Catholic schools and Jewish schools etc., is to indoctrinate children with the dogma of the religious sect while they are also being taught the academic subjects. I should know. I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. We had a required course in “Apologetics” so that we could defend our religious positions to non-believers.
I think we can assume that each family has the right to teach its children the values, beliefs, and culture that the family holds dear. No government should interfere with that right of every parent.
And it is in the schools that children should learn about other religions, other mythologies, other cultures. They should be encouraged to question and think critically and come to conclusions that take into account their own personal hunger for spiritual nourishment, their appetites for awe, and their need to feel connected to something greater than themselves.
Personally, as an atheist, all of those yearnings, for me, are satisfied by the awesomeness of the natural world, the complexities of human creativity, and the drama and mysteries that science continuous to reveal. This world, this life, is enough. I long ago discovered that notions of god get in the way of living and loving authentically and honestly.
One of the atheists in the discussion offered a challenge something like this (and I’m paraphrasing):
Can you name an ethical statement or moral action done by a believer that any non-believer couldn’t make as well. He maintains that you can’t.
Can you name a wicked action or wicked statement undertaken by a believer that any unbeliever could make. He maintains that you can’t.
Think about it.
I remain, godless on this awesome mountain.

5 thoughts on “in case you didn’t listen

  1. Fortunately for me when I came aboard my first ship after joining the Navy at 18, I was taken under the wing of a couple of elders. These elders were about 20 at the time and in the midst of a little intellectual awakening of their own. Sensing and easy mark without solid philosophical underpinnings, they asked me a bunch of questions about myself which wound up at their apex with this one: “What’s your religion?” When I said, “Catholic.” They both got a little gleam in their eye and said something like, “Oh, we’ll take care of that.”

    They did. By the time I left the Navy 3 years later I was far from Catholic, but clung somehow to the idea of a a big guy in the sky. But that idea just doesn’t square with a lifetime in a world that seems irrational at best (at worse, it can be as close to horrific for some as any mythical hell …far worse for its reality). If god created this world I wouldn’t trust him or her any farther than I could heave him –or her. Such a god would definitely be too fickle for me.

    As for the recent spate of books by aetheists, I’m relieved. If something doesn’t soon counter the institutional irrationalism seeping into our political and academic systems, we’ll soon have madrasas to rival those of Islam. And the middle ages will seem like the realm of effete mad punks.

    Thanks, Elaine, for your recent posts on this.


  2. I “get” the first but I am not sure I understand the second challenge? He asserts that a believer can make a wicked action or statement but a nonbeliever cannot? There are so many examples that contradict this…what about murder? Rape? Cheating? Nonbelievers are not capable of such things?

    I am so far from obnoxious and confrontational on any subject that I almost hesitate to respond to this. But it is never my intention to attempt to convert someone to my faith or to condemn anyone for their belief system (although, naturally there are limits to tolerance in terms of hate groups that endorse violence and social policies such as female infanticide). As I mentioned yesterday, I am a strong advocate for tolerance, and I believe that statements such as “the world would be a better place without religion” borders on being an intolerant position. I suppose if tolerance is not a virtue (see Marcuse, Wolff, Moore, Jackman) then that isn’t a big deal. But I’m not sure how a democratic, diverse society can exist without tolerance.

    In terms of not having religion imposed by family or culture, it is my observation that people rarely (although not never) come to be religious as adults unless they were taught a religious tradition as a child. And to me, one reason my religious identity has meaning is because of culture – it connects me to my Irish-American grandmother (whom I adored) and to my Italian grandparents (whom I never had the privilege to know).

    Finally, about religion in schools. My students who have attended public K-12 school have little knowledge, or exposure, to religion. Certain aspects of religion can be taught (the role it played in abolitionism, the temperance movement, and the Civil Rights movement for instance) but generally material on the tenets of the major religions is not taught to students because districts don’t know where to draw the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and are afraid of challenges, even when the material is not sermonizing but is just history. Students who attened religious schools (primarily Catholic) have taken at least one course on religious history, and usually more than that. I don’t know what it was like in the past when you were in school (my sense is that it was much different), and I don’t know what the schools that are sponsored by other religions offer in terms of curricula, but my niece is a senior at a Catholic high school (she is not Catholic, but is going there for academic reasons since she slipped through the cracks in public school) and she takes a religion course that covers the history and basic elements of the major religious traditions, not just Catholicism or Christianity.

  3. Gina
    I think he means that there are some wickednesses that believers do (because they are believers) that non-believers would never do (because they don’t have that religious motivation). Stoning adulteresses is just one example. Then there are the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of “witches,” etc.

    I imagine that, in some cases, religious schools (those noted for high academic standards and individual student attention) offer courses in comparative religion. I believe that all schools should offer that. When I taught in Castleton, we had a unit on various mythologies, including creation myths. My eighth graders had no idea that other religions had myths about how everything began. They started asking questions about the veracity of any of them. They asked me if I believed in god. I told them it was none of their business what I believed and that they should go and ask their pastors or ministers whatever question they have about the tenets of their faiths. I tried to have discussions with them of why people believed the creation stories of their faiths, how they differ, how they are the same. But the kids couldn’t get past the notion that I probably didn’t believe in god.

    I’ll be it would be a better world if comparative religions was taught in every high school and kids were supported in their questioning and analyzing. Maybe there would be more tolerance, which, of course, is crucial to a civilized and peaceful society.

  4. Elaine,

    Haven’t written on the recent deluge of books (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins,Sam Harris), but have written bits and pieces about them here and there over the last 6 months or so.

    I love Sam Harris’observation that the only place in our culture you can be comepletely irrational and not be thought of as wacky is in the area of religion.

    A religious person can claim any impossible thing to be true and demand respect for his belief, but if a non-sectarian tried the same thing he be told to see a counselor.



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