Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Honest Conversation

When is the last time you had a truly honest conversation about religion, in which no topic was off limits and the existence of God was not regarded as axiomatic? For most Americans, the only truthful answer that can be given is "never". Politics and religion are the two things we are not to discuss in polite company, and we are much more likely to relax that "rule" with politics than with religion. Our discourse on religion tends to range from nonexistent to highly stunted, and for this we are paying an unacceptable price. We have unwittingly given rise to the conditions under which fundamentalism thrives, and a healthy dose of consciousness raising is in order.

For the most part, the adverse effects of religion, which I touched on in my Introduction, are the result of fundamentalism. Most moderate (and liberal) believers would agree that fundamentalism is a bad thing, but by failing to discus religion in an open and honest way, moderates shelter fundamentalists from any serious intellectual challenge and give them relatively free reign. This is not surprising, as moderate believers have already acquiesced to the foundational pillars of fundamentalism -- in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, that there is a singular God, the Bible is his word, and faith in God is a virtue1. Once those ideas are accepted, the only additional element that fundamentalism requires is the belief that the Bible means what it says. Moderate Christianity is an intellectually bankrupt position that cannot survive contact with the first few pages of the Bible2. This gives rise to deep (though probably subconscious) insecurities; thus moderates don't want to talk about their beliefs, lest their insecurities be exposed. Moreover, moderates hold a weak hand with which to challenge any religious claim to which they do not subscribe, as those who live in glass houses ought not throw stones. Their way out is to discourage skeptical inquiry, promulgate the idea that it is uncivil to challenge religious beliefs, and console themselves with wishful thinking about fundamentalism being rare and impotent3.

I understand that honest conversations about religion are difficult. In many circles, to broach the subject is to break a taboo. Thus I suggest starting by having the conversation with yourself. If you are a believer, raise your consciousness to the real reasons why your identify with your particular religion. If you are an agnostic, raise your consciousness to the reasons why you continue to hedge your bets. Chances are, they have little to do with truth.

I have already touched on two reasons why we believe, profess to believe, or at least fail to fully disbelieve. First, most of us are taught, from as soon as we are old enough to understand the concept, that God is a fact, and many of us never closely examine that alleged fact. Second, we fear the possible adverse consequences of rejecting our religion. We may fear the loss or weakening of family ties and friendships, social ostracization, loss of self-esteem, and a crisis of identity. We may be reluctant to give up the comforting feeling that a higher power is looking out for us. We may not want to face the fact that a deceased loved one is really gone forever, nor want to come to terms with our own mortality. We may fear that without religion, society would collapse into chaos. It should go without saying that whether or not these fears are well-founded, they do not give the slightest reason to believe that any religion is true.

1Similarly, agnostics contribute to the problem by dignifying those positions as reasonable, even if they do not personally hold them.

2Here, I am assuming a moderate who believes in the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and segueing into evolutionary biology) but believes that God was ultimately behind it all. I am aware that apologists have put forth various attempts to square the circle with the highly discrepant account given in the Book of Genesis. They amount to nothing more than pathetic rationalizations, as I explore in The Senseless Center.

3Polls tend to show that about half of American Christians are fundamentalists, or about 40% of the overall population. For example, a 2001 Barna Research Group poll reported that "41% of adults strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches", which meets my definition of fundamentalism. See http://www.religioustolerance.org/inerran4.htm.

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