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On Respect

January 27, 2012

Ugh, I got distracted while writing this post, failed to save, and you can guess what happened.

I’ve wanted to write about some of the points Susan brings up in the comments, so she’s provided me a good excuse.

It is of course a very high priority for me to teach my daughter what other people’s traditions and beliefs are and to teach her to have the respect that comes of understanding. As Susan says, it is not respect to agree with everyone’s opinions or to keep silent. Often the most repectful thing one can do is challenge someone’s ideas, demand to hear their reasoning, and question it. You may find that they have nothing to back up their ideas, or they have brilliant arguments which might even win you over. And best of all, you might have a great conversation. Even if an individual does not have sound reasons for their beliefs, it doesn’t mean those beliefs don’t have a valid history which is worth understanding. I can despise the blind following of a fundamentalist Christian and fear his desire to control my life, while still recognizing that his beliefs have a history which is vastly important to the history of humankind.

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ (which I should state outright now, so you’ll understand that if I go on about it a lot it’s not necessarily because I’m a huge fan, but because it’s in my thoughts right now.) While Dawkins says a lot with which I agree enthusiastically, he falls seriously short on the respect mark. Granting that I’m only a few chapters in and he may yet have redeeming things to day, so far he takes an attitude that suggests that all believers in supernatural beings who have ever lived were idiots. Any smart person who was a believer is excused as having had to go along with the tides of his time out of self preservation.

This is such obvious balderdash that it’s insulting to any intelligent reader, no matter how much of an atheist. There have been many, many brilliant people throughout history who have held a carefully considered belief in one god or another, and that needs to be taken seriously. You can’t simply brush them off and say that atheism is the only conclusion a thinking person could possibly reach. It is the only conclusion to which my thoughts and reasonings have ever brought me and I stand by it firmly, but I recognize that people far more brilliant than I have reached the opposite conclusion. And perhaps more importantly, for many believers, it is presicely the irrationality of faith that comprises its value, the very fact that it makes no sense at all and completely denies all scientific evidence. In one sense I find that craziness, and in other I think it gets at a crucial element of human psychology. I don’t claim to understand it, but it’s a question about which I’ve read a bit and find fascinating. It is foolish to cast it off as stupidity.

Perhaps there is even something particularly admirable about those who can face their own irrationality without flinching. It’s not as though any of us have more than a passing acquaintance with our motivations for what we do.


From → Tolerance

  1. Susan Humphreys permalink

    I read Dawkins book quite a while back so I got out my copy and looked at the places where I wrote comments in the margin, underlined sentences or paragraphs, dog eared corners of pages … I do that with books like this, it helps me clarify my thoughts as I read the book and gives me points to look back at later.

    It is a very “strident” anti-religion book. BUT he does make some very good points. BUT then he also ignores some good points, not all religious people are “bad” people, not all denominations are “bad”. There is as great a variety and range of beliefs within religious communities as there are in non-religious communities. To concentrate on the “bad”while ignoring the “good” is just as problematical as ignoring the “bad” and seeing ONLY the “good”. Neither benefits anyone. It just adds and reinforces the climate of disrespect/hate that divides this country (and the world), encourages bullies and abuse. Surely there are ways to have differences of oppinion without belittling, demeaning, demonizing our opponents.

    The book reminded me of a childrens poem about the Calico Cat and the Gingham dog…I quote just the beginning and the end here.

    “The Duel” by Eugene Field

    The gingham dog and the calico cat
    Side by side on the table sat;…..

    Next morning, where the two had sat
    They found no trace of dog or cat;
    And some folks think unto this day
    That burglars stole that pair away!

    But the truth about the cat and pup
    Is this: they ate each other up!

    I think it is time that someone figure out how religious and non-religious people can live together before they “eat each other up”! AND I might add destroy all of creation in the process.

    • Five chapters in, I’m not so sure that Dawkins really is concentrating on the ‘bad’ and ignoring the ‘good’, or saying that religious people are bad. I think he’s just trying to show, as clearly as possible, that belief in the supernatural is unfounded and that reasonable people should eschew it. Yes, he makes sure to hammer home (though without providing evidence) that religion is responsible for the majority of human slaughter throughout time, but I don’t think he’s trying to say that all believers are destructive, wicked people. Perhaps he is trying to warn all of us against the irrational beliefs we may hold, to ask us to hold them up to the light of skepticism and examine whether they have solid foundations. Without ever getting into questions of epistemology, he clearly has a deep love of what is ‘true’ and thinks that the world would be a better place if everyone did.

      But then there is that sticky question of what ‘truth’ means and what it means to ‘know’ anything. Dawkins’ has a children’s book out (which I joyfully bought for my daughter recently) called ‘The Magic of Reality: How We Really Know What’s True.” I’m enthusiastic about the idea behind the book, as instilling a sense of the ‘magic of reality’ is one of my primary goals for my daughter’s education, but the subtitle is highly questionable and epitomizes Dawkins’ arrogance. We have figured out a lot, and have created ever more useful models of the world in our theories which help us to manipulate it ever more effectively, but that does not mean that we have knowledge of truth. In some sense, our current explanation of, for example, thunder storms, that electrons in clouds are leaping around, is just as mythical as saying it is gods fighting each other. But it’s a myth that takes into account more observations and enables us to interact with the world more effectively. I would amend Dawkins’ thesis to something more along the lines of ‘Explanations of the world should take in all the observations that we have and models which run blatantly counter to some of the observations should be cast off.’ There may come a time when our current models will also be laughed at as quaint mythologies.

  2. Susan Humphreys permalink

    One problem with Dawkins book and with other anti-religious folks is that they seem confused about what “religion” is and often in their arguments they seem to switch from one definition to another.

    Religion is not just about beliefs in supranatural Gods or beings. That concept is very narrow minded, very old fashioned and shows a great deal of ignorance. Religion however is not easily defined, it does hold different meanings to different folks.

    The broadest definition and one Dawkins (and others such as Hitchens) seems to use most often is that religion is a set of beliefs. This definition would include any “ism”, all of the religious isms (theism, deism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, even atheism) but also such political isms as Communism, Socialism and Environmentalism. When this definition is used folks like Dawkins don’t seem able to separate out the “beliefs” from the “believer”. We know for example that Environmentalism isn’t a “bad” thing. But we also know that “bad” things have been done by individuals in its name, spiking trees that kill and maim loggers, setting fire to developments that also spread to woodlands causing even greater harm to the environment. We also know that the majority of environmentalists will never become “radicalized” or “fanatics”, that they would never been enticed into committing violent acts, and have no trouble separating the “ism” from the actions of a few. But folks like Dawkins can’t seem to do the same with religious “isms”.

    One backlash is that many religious fundamentalists now try to claim that they aren’t religious. Their reasoning is that they don’t belong to a main stream “church”. They are defining religion in a narrow sense that makes no sense at all! BUT at least here they are trying to distinguish between the actions of an organized/corporate body as being separate from their own actions. The institution is the problem, maybe some of the leaders of that institution, and maybe some individuals in that institution but not every individual that makes up that institution. In this sense almost any corporate body is endicted as being “evil”!

    In a new book I am currently reading “Religion in Human Evolution, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” by Robert Bellah he uses a definition by Clifford Gertz, “Religion is a system of symbols(they include beliefs as defined by doctrine/dogma/creed in this word, as well as rituals, pictures, icons, crosses, etc.) that, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivants that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.”

    Sheesh! For me, religion is a system of beliefs (as defined by doctrine, dogma and creed) and a set of ritual and practices (some very formal and some quite informal) that are designed to help people find purpose and meaning in their lives.

    This definition includes religions that are centered around God/s and/or deities (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) and those that aren’t (Buddhism). It does exclude secular groups such as youth clubs, for example Boy and Girl Scouts, they have creeds (promises and laws) and rituals and practices, their purpose however is to help youth become “good” citizens not to help the youth find “meaning” in their lives. Whatever “meaning” means! One comment about Boy Scouts, last I heard they still require that their members have a belief in God/s but that is because they believe that such a belief is necessary to being a “good” citizen.

    This definition would also exclude political doctrines, such as Communism and Socialism that don’t care if the individual finds “meaning” just whether they serve the polity. Which might be one reason why Communism has failed or is failing in many places.

    One text book “Introduction to Religion” by Bolich, Care, Kenney defines religion this way. “It is first and foremost an experience within the individual that moves the individual to seek meaning for his or her life, with particular reference to that extraordinary dimension existing beyond one’s own mortality.” This is what I would call the “spiritual” definition. This definition leaves out any concept of adherence or belief in doctrines/dogmas/creeds. Religion is a purely personal concept. It leaves out any organized corporate bodies. It leaves out popes and priests, ministers and mullahs.

    But it would include experiences that I and many others have as being religious even though they don’t include concepts or references to God or Gods. Which is why I just call it a spiritual experience, a “oneness” with the universe.

    For example when I was 20, friends and I went back packing in the Grand Canyon. Our trek into and out of the canyon didn’t take as long as we had expected so we had one day to spend on top just hanging out. Late in the afternoon we went to a lookout point to watch the sun set and sitting on the warm rocks, watching ravens ride the thermals and feeling the warmth and absolute quiet, no man made noises, I had such an experience. It is best described in a book I read much later about Edith Warner and her house, “The House at Otowi Bridge” by Peggy Pond Church.

    “This is a day when life and the world seem to be standing still—only time and the river flowing past the mesas. I cannot work. I go out into the sunshine to sit receptively for what there is in this stillness and calm. I am keenly aware that there is something. Just now it seemed to flow in a rhythm around me and then to enter me—something which comes in a hushed inflowing. All of me is still and yet alert, ready to become part of this wave that laps the shore on which I sit. Somehow I have no desire to name it or understand. It is enough that I should feel and be of it in moments such as this. And most of the hatred and ill will, the strained feeling is gone—I know not how.”

    A person who is raised to believe in God would probably have experienced this is a connection with God, they would probably have been sitting there praying rather than meditating or just sitting quietly/receptively as I was. Atheists like me see it as a connection with the universe, a feeling of oneness with all life, all things.

    Are experiences such as this “evil”, are they to be feared”, do they present problems for society, lead people to commit violent acts? NO. Would someone like Dawkins or even many Atheists ever be able to understand them? NO. AND people fear what they don’t understand.

    • Susan, you’re completely right that defining ‘religion’ is not an easy thing, requiring not just including all the different ways in which people hold beliefs or live their creeds now, but also how they have done so historically. But I’m not sure that Dawkins’ thesis stands or falls based on how he defines the word. He makes clear that he is specifically attacking supernatural religion, not ‘Einsteinian religion’ (as explicated in part by the quotation that begins on pg 15: “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.”) As I said in the response to your other comment just above, he is attacking belief in the supernatural (eg. gods, souls, etc), the scientifically impossible (eg. virgin birth), and the wildly unsupported (eg. a celestial teapot). According to him, one can be religious, such as in the Einsteinian sense, and not hold any such beliefs, and one can be non-religious and hold them (such as someone believing that stones can talk, or something of that sort).

      I’m not sure why you think that Dawkins would not understand the experience you had on the canyon. He seems to me to have a very great awe of the ‘magic of reality’ (else why call it magic?) and to be suffused with a wonder and excitement which are very compatible with having profound experiences of the wonders of the world. As a scientist he does want to understand and explain the phenomena he sees, but it would surprise me to learn that he does not have his moments of basking in the amazingness of the world’s harmonies of which we understand such a tiny fraction. To me, that’s part of what makes a philosopher-scientist. Those who do not have an appreciation of these things are simply scientists, toiling away at their research, presumably out of personal ambition for success in their field. They do not become philosophers.

  3. Susan Humphreys permalink

    You may be right I may be underestimating Dawkins abilities to understand other people’s positions on concepts such as “spirituality” and I am not thinking of “spirits” in a god or magic person sense!

    Religions first purpose was (I think) to help people make sense of the unsensible, to bring some sort of order out of chaos, to help folks find some sort of security in a very insecure world. Ideas that worked, made sense and met the needs for early humans seem non-sensical and superstituous to 21st Cent. humans (or at least to many of us). BUT I don’t think the idea of “God” is non-sensical for many folks, I think that “God” is very real and very important in many people’s lives, for better and worse.

    Eventhough it is an idea I have rejected, and I certainly don’t want to be belittled or demeaned for my position, I don’t like to see believers belittled or demeaned for their beliefs. IF I am pressed by a believer I will certainly let them know fully and completely why I have rejected their beliefs and what I have chosen to believe instead, and I know that doesn’t make them very happy.

    I am perfectly comfortable with the notion that different people are at different stages of their life (or lives if you believe in reincarnation!) journey. I am comfortable with the notion of higher levels and thus lower levels of spiritual attainment. Unfortunately most substitute superior and inferior for higher and lower and that is NOT a correct or fair substitution to make! I think that is an error many anti-religious folks make, including Dawkins. We have done the same with cultures, primitive peoples are often seen as inferior to us sofisticated folks! BUT I know I couldn’t survive where many primitive folks are living and I have full admiration for their skills and knowledge eventhough it doesn’t suit them well in our urban environments, my skills don’t work well in their environment. Am I superior to the Australian Bushmen or just different?

    I fully accept that there are many folks that have attained a higher level of spiritual attainment than I have (Dalai Lama, for example, Ghandi is another) and there are many that aren’t on the level I am currently on and I sure hope that I will rise even higher before my time on this earth is up.

    I also know that there are many folks that say they prefer reason, logic, and rationality to superstitious beliefs. YET, many of their arguments and diatribes are as unreasonable, illogical and irrational as the “superstitious” folks they belittle and demean. I guess that what is reasonalbe, logical, and rational are in the eyes of the beholder.

    Nevertheless, for all of this, it comes down to this question, “How can religious and non-religious folks learn to live together in some sort of harmony for the benefit of all? Or are they doomed to “eat each other up” like the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat?

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