Friday, November 12, 2010

Faith through a prism

I suppose it's something deeply human to want clear distinctions between simple binaries. Black, White. Democrat, Republican. You either ARE, or you AREN'T. Gay, Straight. LIberal, Conservative.

We've talked before about being comfortable with ambiguity and nuance, and how it's a mark of maturity to recognize that there are really 256 shades of gray (or even 4096, if your resolution is 12-bit ;-). There are mixed race people and political independents. Sexuality, like politics, is a continuum. Bright lines of division are arbitrary external constructions.

Fundamentalist thinking is all about imposing bright lines, and firm boundaries. "The Bible says it, I believe it, that ends it." But as we know here in California, rigid buildings can be most at risk when the earthquake hits: it's the buildings that can move and adjust that survive. Rigid thinkers may have their whole world-view collapse when one thing shifts.

Most sensible Episcopalians cringe when the term "Christian" is used as a shorthand for the rigid thinking of conservative evangelicals. How often do you want to say, "Yes, but I"m not THAT kind of Christian" when faced with Fred Phelps or Jim Dobson? Well, I often want to say "Well, I'm not THAT kind of atheist!" when Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers come up. You know the type I mean: I've called them the anti-theists, the new atheists who have essentially made a religion out of their non-belief. They are a mirror-image of the hardcore Christian fundamentalists against whom they are reacting. They deliberately set up scientific inquiry in opposition to faith. So they make a religion of science and attack religion. They are not interested in plurality or tolerance, but demand that the world agree and live by their view. Some of their worst criticisms are directed at scientists with faith (as in their attack on Francis Collins at NIH).

Over at Pam's House Blend, a progressive group blog with a focus on LGBT issues, one of the diarists has "come out" as an atheist. But then he feels the need to be all combative over it. . He writes (my emphasis)
As an atheist, I want to dismantle the power that religion has, not reinforce it. I don’t want people to reconcile their homosexuality with their faith; I want them to see that homosexuality is a brilliant example for how flawed and unnecessary faith is. I hate the idea that religions or religious beliefs are something deserving of respect, and I have no intention of respecting them or catering to them in order to achieve legal equality as a gay man.
As I see this, in a fit of atheistic purity, he has decided to attack faith and religion. Tactically, he makes a bad choice, trying to fight the fact that religion-based arguments are the major stumbling block to LGBT equality by attacking religion generally. He puts the backs up of a lot of people who should be his natural allies by turning the battle for equality into a battle against faith. (Our friend Doxy went and argued back.) But if he doesn't respect others, why should they respect him?

Look, I GET that this writer doesn't have faith in a higher power. Neither do I. And I get that he's tired of being beaten over the head by a dominant Christian culture that wields its faith as a weapon against him. Me too. But it's not black and white between him and them. Other people dwell in the grey zone. Yet he's insisting that their experience is wrong. That's rude, that's arrogant and that's EXACTLY what the Christian right does.

This is how a rainbow looks with different forms of colorblindness.

The analogy I have frequently used for the absence of faith is colorblindness . Some people lack the ability to distinguish certain parts of the spectrum. (Red/green colorblindness is quite common in men, on the order of around 10%). Telling those people how they should experience color, based on my experience as a color-seeing person, is, well, wrong. To them, it doesn't matter how *I* see it, just because I'm in the majority. Their experience is as valid and real to them as mine is to me. They can't be fixed or forced to see color, they can't will that perception into being. I should be able to respect and accept that difference--and reasonably accommodate it.

Now, those of you with faith may nod sagely at this point and say, "Yeah, I get it, the atheists are unable to see colors." It makes sense that atheists just can't do it-- the non-believers are somehow deficient in seeing something that is so real to you. Maybe you even feel sorry for us.

But my analogy works just as well the other way around: that it is the people of faith who are "missing something," and faith is a construct that helps you accommodate a weakness. That's what the diarist at Pam's House Blend would say. And it's an equally valid analogy though it may make you feel slightly defensive!

The point I'm making is that it doesn't matter which way the analogy goes. The point is to recognize that we have individual experiences and world views that are full of nuance, not bright lines that divide us. I can find areas of sharing and mutual values with you, even if my experience is different. Heck, I can even enjoy incense and choral polyphony and the rhythm of the liturgy on Sundays when I go to church with my wife the Episcopalian, and be welcomed there...and cheerfully recruited into various projects as needed! I can respect your faith. In turn, in this community, I have generally found respect for my lack of faith. And here we are, all working together on common goals, even if the spectrum we see through the prism is somewhat different. We manage to make it work.

This lesson suggests to me that the diarist at PHB may find that a purity cult founded on anti-belief is no more justifiable than its opposite.


Ann said...

All purity cults are based on who is in and who is out according to "my" definition. Bad juju IMO --

Mark said...

A poor argument, my friend.Science deals with 'facts.' At least something that can be verified or not. Religion deals with hope.Not bad but to argue that evolution and the Trinity are equally 'real'is not true.

IT said...

Mark, I think you're missing the point. Of COURSE science deals with something different--that's not the issue at all. It's the New Atheists who are trying to make science and religion one and as an old atheist, I disagree.

My point is that saying that because I do not experience faith, means that anyone who does, is therefore foolish and deluded, is arrogant and wrong.

It has nothing to DO with whether God is somehow "measurable" by science. I don't see faith as entering into science's realm (except perhaps theroetical neuroscience).

You are not reading the argument.

Ann said...

It was clear to me IT -

Mark said...

IT, I understand the point you are trying to make.Despite your effort to make a distinction between atheist and "New Atheist", your post was an effort to knock atheism and slip religion in the back door.I hate to say this but your defense of faith by saying atheism is a religion is a very old 'saw.'

David |Dah • veed| said...

IT, you might as well stop. Mark obviously has to have the last word. So this is like banging your pretty head against a hard wall.

JCF said...

Red/green colorblindness is quite common in men, on the order of around 10%

My dad is among the 10%: back in WW2, he got bounced out of Navigator School because of it (and was instead sent to Anti-Aircraft: ironic, huh? If you can't join 'em, beat 'em!)

...which begs my question: I think it may turn out that "ideology" [everything from Liberal/Conservative economics, to Liberal/Fundamentalist (a)theism] may well turn out to be BIOLOGICAL in origin: literally, whether you're Red or Blue, Southern Baptist/PHB Atheist or Episcopalian, is in your genes (just like gayness!) (and/or epigenetics, to throw out more complexity to satisfy Our IT ;-p)

So, what do we do THEN?

Famously, in the Soviet Union, the Communists (sometimes) DEFINED their dissidents as "mentally ill". We all know bloody well, that no one's EVER going to define "conservatism" (or even "homophobia"!) as a mental illness . . . but what about liberalism? What if you could say "you're genetically programmed to be an Episcopalian: w/ the proper medication, however, we can get you fixed up to be a loyal-to-Rome Popoid!"

Today, colorblindness. Tomorrow...????

Counterlight said...

As far as I'm concerned, the decision to believe and the decision to not believe have one big thing in common. They are both ultimately arbitrary.

"Since analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

"And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender."

--WH Auden

Counterlight said...

Just to be clear, I agree with IT.

BP said...

And given that Counterlight is correct (I agree), why is it so all-fire important for some that others "sanctify" their belief or unbelief. While we celebrate faith in community, it's ultimately experienced individually... in as many ways as there are people.

it's margaret said...

IT --it seems so inappropriate to say AMEN! Or, Alleluia!!! Love what you have posted here.

okay, how's this --To Life!!!

Wormwood's Doxy said...

You saw that, did you?! ;-)

(I don't comment much over there, but I read Pam's site daily.)

I can totally get on board with fighting religion that attempts to impose its version of "truth" on those who don't subscribe to it. I can totally get on board with drawing a bright line between religion and politics. I would certainly vote for an atheist over a person of faith who wanted to impose hir beliefs on others through law.

I also cringe when I hear someone tell an atheist "Maybe you don't know God, but God knows you!" or other such patronizing clap-trap. As someone who hangs on to my faith by my fingernails (and is only able to do so because of some earth-shaking personal experiences), I understand quite well why some people cannot believe in God, or simply choose not to. Because of who/what I conceive God to be, I really don't think it much matters what you believe--it matters what you DO. And I don't believe in hell and could really care less if there is an afterlife. Wouldn't change a thing I do/believe if death is the end of it all.

So...having said all that...I get really annoyed at people like Zach who try to shoehorn me into the Fred Phelps model, or act as if I am brainless because I believe in something they can't see. (I can't see evolution or gravity either, but I believe in both of them too...)

I get particularly exercised when they say they would outlaw belief if they could, and accuse me of child abuse for taking my kids to church and teaching them what I believe. (Which is mostly that God expects us to treat each other with dignity and kindness--and to work for justice for everyone).

So...I'm a believer who doesn't need anyone else to believe, wants religion kept in private where it belongs--but uses my faith to try and make the world a better, fairer, more just place for everyone. And yet I'm the same as the James Dobson/Tony Perkins/Gary Bauer/Maggie Gallaghers of the world?

Thanks a lot, guys. Apparently "believers" aren't the only ones with cognition difficulties....

IT said...

Well, Doxy, I commend you for wading in. You'd be surprised how often I have to fight for the faithful over at the Big Orange (Daily Kos)--I've pretty much given up on commenting there at all as a result.

Then over at MadPriest he goes off regularly on his "atheist bashing".

So that's where this came from . I hope you appreciate that on this two way street, I've got your back. :-)

Ann said...

Between the fundy christians and the fundy atheists-- there is space where we can have a picnic. I will bring the baked beans

Tim Chesterton said...

I don't very often come here, IT, but saw your comment over at MP's and came over to read what you had to say. I think you're right - and I think the way MP constantly raises the temperature in arguments doesn't help anyone. A bit of genuine relationship building between believers and atheists can do nothing but good, in my opinion. Thanks for this.

(BTW, two members of our church are married to atheists, very fine people who often come out to our social events. I like the fact that they feel comfortable doing that).

Wormwood's Doxy said...

IT--And I've got yours, friend. :-)

Ann--I'll bring dessert!

Tim--Amen, brother.

dr.primrose said...

The British Columbia Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by four Anglican Network in Canada, holding that parishes that want to leave the Anglican Church in Canada may not take the property with them - Bentley v. Anglican Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster.

The Court's conclusion (Par. 76):


I prefer to rest my conclusion that the appeal must be dismissed, however, on the basis that the purpose of the trusts on which the parish corporations hold the church buildings and other assets is to further Anglican ministry in accordance with Anglican doctrine, and that in Canada, the General Synod has the final word on doctrinal matters. This is not to say that the plaintiffs are not in communion with the wider Anglican Church – that is a question on which I would not presume to opine. I do say, however, that members of the Anglican Church in Canada belong to an organization that has subscribed to “government by bishops.” The plaintiffs cannot in my respectful opinion remove themselves from their bishop’s oversight and the diocesan structure and retain the right to use properties that are held for purposes of Anglican ministry in Canada.

Paul (A.) said...

You might as well bring some reading material to that picnic.