Talking Religion

This weekend I had an interesting conversation about religion with some friends.   It wasn’t a sample of opinion reflecting the US public.   There were Muslims, a Unitarian Christian, an atheist, and myself.   We had this discussion over wine and even some shots of vodka, so clearly there was a liberal attitude towards religion.   Here are the main opinions:

Person A:  Religion is good, people get motivated to do good things, and it’s wrong to denigrate religion just because of what a few people do.   Also, given the importance of Biblical references in literature and culture, it’s probably good to have kids go to Sunday school and learn about the Bible stories, and maybe even believe in Christianity.

Person B:  Religion is bad, it’s used to control and manipulate people.   Yes, since people are mostly good, a lot of people will use religion for good in their personal lives.   But even good people get seduced into bigotry against gays, intolerance of other religions, and are made to give up their money to the religious organization.  It’s brainwashing and manipulation, people can do good without it.

Person C:  Unitarianism is the best approach, you can teach the children the stories, teach them about other religions as well, and let them choose.   It is a non-dogmatic way to have the values of religion and a spiritual approach to life without the politics and manipulation found in organized religion.   Most religions were formed in centuries we would not want to live in, and too many organized religions still hold vestiges from those past dark days, causing homophobia, sexism, and other evils to continue to be embraced in the 21st century when we should be above those things.   (This was the view I was closest too, by the way).

Person D: Religion is odd.   This person was raised an atheist, and said that it was odd to think that one needed religion to have solid values.   You treat others with respect, you look at your responsibility to fellow humans, and live a good life.  You can do that and learn that without fancy stories or organized rituals.   This person really doesn’t understand how someone could believe a story, especially when there are different stories in different parts of the world, and it would be arrogance to think that the story in the part of the world where someone lives happens to be the one true story that everyone must believe in.

My view was close to person C, though I emphasize spirituality more, bringing up Plotinus, and making the argument I made in this blog in the past: that current religions are remnants of an age where societies were exclusive and had little direct contact between the masses.   Religion served a purpose of not only teaching moral values, but helping create social cohesion.  In an age of globalization that actually works against stability by risking conflict over whose God-Story is right and also creates tension between tradition (religion relied to preserving tradition) and the pace of change brought by the enlightenment and especially capitalism.

What interests me standing back is the dynamics of the conversation.   The most devout Muslim didn’t talk much, but listened respectfully, and there were no devout Christians there.  I think of how different the conversation would have been with a different mix of people, and wonder how much our views are shaped by the kinds of conversations one has.   It was also interesting to me that we did have one point of near consensus (the atheist remains skeptical): the importance of spirituality to life.    Most of us did not want to embrace a purely materialist world view, and we agreed that religion got its power by touching something real.   I also made the point that I think it’s helpful to see religion in its context: Jesus in the context of Roman occupied Palestine and Judaism in crisis, and Muhammad as a social reformer trying to improve the lot of women and the poor, and overall bring the Arab world out of “darkness and ignorance.”

We also agreed that the Bible does contribute a lot to our culture and literature, and children should learn about what it contains, even if it’s from a standpoint of “the Bible as literature.”   One person said she was going over Greek mythology with her kids from a similar stand point, I noted how I wanted to teach my children to respect all religions and learn about them, even as I’ll tell him, “some people need these stories in order to really believe in the power of love, but we don’t.”

What I conclude from a conversation like this is that the caricature of the “religiously skeptical” as being anti-religion and hostile to Christians (or Muslims) is usually false.   One person was close to that, but even the atheist seemed more puzzled by how people could believe than opposed.   Those of us skeptical of organized religion generally respect religious faith, and holy books.   We also had a strong sense that human liberation was important; religion can be a force for liberation (Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.) and for human oppression and bigotry against those who are different.  The latter we all opposed, the former deserved respect.

So nothing is decided.  But it was an interesting weekend conversation.

  1. #1 by Striker on March 9, 2010 - 04:58

    Very interesting conversations.

    I think I agree with you that all of the religions you talked about get their power from something real.

    I am in the middle of a book called, “Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth”. The title says it all, Gandhi’s life I think was devoted to seeking and experimenting with truth. He seemed to be looking for truth everywhere and you can obviously see that Gandhi did some GREAT things through the power of truth.

    I even understand the atheist, that you were talking to, thinking that religion is often used as a brainwashing tool. I think Christianity is responsible for more brainwashing then any other religion that I know of.

    I hope I am a Christian that is devoted to seeking out Truth, even if it takes me away from some of the traditions of the Christian religion.

    • #2 by Steve on March 11, 2010 - 21:47

      Gandhi also did some bad things. During his time in South Africa, he supported segregation and wrote some very racist things. He supported the British to fight the Zulus, encouraging them to recruit Indians.

      I don’t have the book with me, but this article cites some of his remarks on Gandhi (though the author takes great offense).

      • #3 by Scott Erb on March 12, 2010 - 18:11

        I think people inevitably reflect some of the bigotries and biases of their eras. I tend not to take those things too seriously. Also, people change over time, and no one is perfect.

  2. #4 by Jay Burns on March 10, 2010 - 03:43

    Hmmm. If I might throw in my two cents. I belive humans are inherently evil. Religion is good. While people may do good things without religion it is ultimatly self serving. (If I treat you with respect, hopefully you won’t cut off my legs and eat me.) If people are at their core evil it should not be surprising that when they attempt to live up to perfect ideals they will fail on occasion.

    I would say too, Absolute truth exists. There is a God or there isn’t. All faiths are mutually exclusive. (Unless you believe there is error in their texts.) I do not.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 10, 2010 - 03:51

      By the way, it sure would have been great to have you in the conversation. I like a variety of perspectives!

    • #6 by Steve on March 11, 2010 - 22:56

      Why do you believe humans are inherently evil? Define “evil”, to start with.

      Religion is not good. Most religious people, in times of peace and harmony, are probably mostly decent. A few people are inspired by religion to do good things. But mostly, religion is used as a justification for ignorance and hatred. It retards intellectual growth, suppresses critical thinking and honesty, and “inspires” people to fritter away large portions of their one and only lives on nothings.

      If you need a scary ghost in the sky who might hit you with a lightning bolt, or who will burn you forever after you die, to dissuade you from cutting off your neighbor’s leg, then I don’t want to be your neighbor. The person who treats others with respect because he recognizes their value as fellow rational beings, without any fear of magical consequences, is far more trustworthy.

      On the other hand, suppose you are a non-theist, but have an urge to go leg chopping. If you’re afraid because I have a weapon with which to defend myself, you’re less of a danger to me than the guy on the other side who believes his holy prophet wants him to chop off my leg, because he fears the imaginary punishments of the afterlife more than he fears my weapon.

      Anything you do is self-serving–as the Russian Radical explained half a century ago–and, so long as you don’t hurt others, there’s nothing wrong with that. She was wrong in many of her conclusions. Like, she would object to me giving relief money to victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. But she would still recognize that I do so for my own values, because it moves me to see how much just a little bit of help can make such a drastic difference to people in dire situations.

      The thing is, religion not only increases how self-serving people are (give your money to the church or blow yourself up for Allah … and then you will be rewarded in the afterlife), but it tricks them into squandering real values for imaginary ones, causing them to do irrational, wasteful, and sometimes horrible things.

      • #7 by Scott Erb on March 12, 2010 - 18:14

        A lot of what you write could be true for modern advertising (as in Benjamin Barber’s book “Consumed: How Markets Infantilize Adults, Corrupt Children, and Swallow Citizens Whole”). That includes political advertising/propaganda from talk radio on the right to the slick marketing campaign that got Obama into the White House. Our values are acquired, I think, not innate. They are acquired via experience, and suggestions, almost like a form of hypnosis. Religion does this, so does advertising, so do secular approaches to life. The danger is those with power will use this to manipulate people – and that’s been a danger of both religion and more secular politics.

  3. #8 by Scott Erb on March 10, 2010 - 03:50

    I don’t know…I think humans are self-interested and have flaws, but inherently evil? Humans do far more good than evil, I guess I can’t buy that stark a judgment. I think we do have our subconscious drives (the Freudian ‘id’) which can come out in very negative ways. But is that evil?

    It is possible that there is a God, but that the concept of “God” is beyond human comprehension, and that this concept has been revealed or understood in different cultures in different ways. That could mean that the human interpretation of the message might create a false sense of mutual exclusivity. The texts are created by humans, translated by human, and what to include chosen by humans (chosing what to put in the Bible was, for instance, a very political process!) So I think human fallibility makes it possible — possible, not certain — that the religions are misguided in some ways. If humans are evil, that possibility increases,humans will be tempted to see their “story” or view of the world as the right one.

  4. #9 by Jay Burns on March 10, 2010 - 04:16

    Scott, I too love conversations such as the one you describe. While I consider myself a devout Christian, I do love to here intellectual arguments for or against any religion, including my own.

    Perhaps evil is too strong a word choice, but certainly bad, or at least self serving which usually has a negative effect on others.

    If there is a God, and if for some reason he wants our worship, wouldn’t it make sense that it would be revealed to us in a coherent way.

    It is also possible there is a God, and he doesn’t care what we do. Although that is a depressing proposition.

  5. #10 by Jim Sullivan on March 10, 2010 - 12:22

    I think I would have enjoyed that conversation. I fight with religion, internally, constantly. Its such a big question, to me, that I find myself incredibly indecisive. Faith? Atheism? I envy both sides their certainty. How can they know, one way or the other? No one has given me a good answer yet.

    I love going to church. I’ve always enjoyed it, especially Catholic church, the one I was raised in (there’s just something comforting about the ceremony and the ritual). But I haven’t been to a church service, of any religion, that I haven’t taken something from. I realize that there are some crack pots out there (ex. “God hates fags!) but I’ve never met one of those. Only people with a bit of wisdom or two to impart, very welcoming, decent people. People that will give anything to a person in need. It’s at these times, even when I’m sliding toward the atheist end of the spectrum, that I’m reassured; Religion can’t be all bad.

    I think many atheists are the way they are, not because they’ve followed their argument to its logical end (a position I have great respect for) but because they’ve recoiled in disgust from the human foibles and mistakes of people preaching morality to others. It’s hard not feel that way to sometimes. See what I mean about indecisive?

    Anyway, it would have been a good talk, though I would have avoided the shots.

  6. #11 by Jay Burns on March 10, 2010 - 17:10

    I think there are two separate groups of people when it comes to religion. Those who make the decision based on logic and intellectual arguments, and those who make a decision based on emotion.

    If you ever have time I would recommend a book by Lee Strobel called “The Case for Faith”. It is from a Christian perspective, but examines through logic the existence of a God. I enjoyed reading it because he writes from the perspective of an atheist. He is intellectually honest about real objections to faith.

    • #12 by Jay Burns on March 10, 2010 - 17:12

      Better put, it is a Christin book written from an athiest perspective. Sorry, I should have been more clear.

  7. #13 by Steve on March 11, 2010 - 21:18

    My parents were raised in a fundamentalist Christian church. My father reacted negatively to the closed-mindedness, bigotry, and glaring contradictions he saw. For example, he found the idea that billions of people who never got the secret handshake were going to roast forever in fire to be an absurd, monstrous notion.

    Luckily, his moderate skepticism meant he didn’t subject my siblings and I to church. He and Mom did talk about religion at home, though. We’d pray at Thanksgiving and identified as Christians, but we didn’t go to church until we were old enough to decide for ourselves.

    I went to a Baptist church for awhile with a friend as a teenager, But when I did become a member of a church as an adult, it was a non-fundamentalist one. I studied the Bible, payed attention to sermons, and earnestly tried to find truth in it all. But the more time I spent becoming a scientist and engineer, the more I learned how to think critically, and the more I realized there just was no truth to be found in religion, beyond the obvious and mundane. The universe is far more intriguing and spectacular than the imaginings of goat herders telling tales of burning bushes, giving away daughters to rape mobs, and other such rot.

    How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

    Some people might feel inspired by religion to be decent and charitable, but a simple understanding of human psychology and evolution leads me to the conclusion that without such imaginary mumbo-jumbo, most would probably be nice anyway. On the flip side, how many millions suffer the negatives of religion–guilt, irrationality, hatred, and murder, to name just a few?

    While I might have a couple points of disagreement with Christopher Hitchens, his book god is NOT Great: How Religion Poisons Everything does a masterful job of burying the mushy-headed notion that religion is a net positive for humanity. It isn’t.

    I don’t teach my kids to respect religious beliefs, as though putting on fancy robes or having special buildings means they aren’t allowed to question irrational ideas and practices within a given sphere. Rather, I teach them to respect people, most of whom are religious. I want them to have manners, but not to give others a special pass to excuse ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. Yes, they all roll their eyes at the Archie Bunker type uncle who rants about gays.

    I was proud of my son when he told me how he treated customers when he had a retail job as a teenager. When a Muslim couple would go to the checkout, he would speak directly to the wives just like he did any other women, showing them the respect as individuals that they didn’t get from their husbands (who were always with them in public and probably insisted they cover their heads). Sadly, I couldn’t say the same, because I would refrain from speaking to women in the slave garb, out of “respect”. I realized that I was just feeding the power of misogynistic practices with such “respect”.

    • #14 by Steve on March 11, 2010 - 23:19

      Just to clarify, I agree with Christopher Hitchens’ arguments about religion, with a few exceptions (I think he’s over-reaching at times in blaming religion for some things). But I’m in broad disagreement with him politically, whether his early days as a Trotskyite or his post 9/11 shift to side with neo-cons on invading Iraq or his later endorsement of Obama. (I didn’t support McCain, either. The only candidate anywhere near my values was Ron Paul. He was anti-war. Unfortunately, he was also anti-immigration, a Republican, and a Baptist…all deal-breakers for me.)

    • #15 by Scott Erb on March 12, 2010 - 18:20

      I think religion was probably created when cultures got large enough that those who deviated from “being nice” would either be punished or forced to go along with cultural norms. I want my kids to learn about all religions to understand how it is that people believe (and to realize that with so many different stories, it’s unlikely anyone has it right). But I agree they should respect people.

      Ironically for all his dislike of religion, Hitchens seems whether in his Trotskyite days or neo-con transformation to be of a “true believer” mentality — someone who has to believe in some clear theory or ideology in order to find meaning in life.

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