Thursday, December 25, 2008

The True Meanings of Christmas, Part II


So, if we are Christians, but then come to see that there is just no more reason to believe the claims at the heart of Christianity than the claims at the heart of Hinduism or Sufism, what about Christmas? What about Christianity in general?

There seems to be three main options. I'll call them Strategic Commitment (SC), Anti-Christian Animus (ACA), and Skeptical Stoicism (SkS).

In the Strategic Commitment option, you recognize at least that there is something fundamentally awry at the heart of Christianity, something outlandish which cannot and should not be taken as literally true...but you decide not to let it bother you, because all sorts of other valuable things are built on, or emanate out of, continuing commitment to it. So, as one of my evangelical Christian friends said when I pressed him on a few of these things, "In the end, it doesn't really matter to me if it's true or not. My family is happy, I feel happy when I go to church with them, my kids have lots of nice friends in our church, so it just doesn't matter". My friend - who attends church every Sunday - told me he never reads the Bible for just that reason.

I am a huge fan of Dostoyevsky, though I can't say I'm any sort of expert; but my own reading of him makes me think he falls into this category. In books like "The Brothers Karamazov", "Crime and Punishment", and "The Devils", he argues obsessively (though not always explicitly) that Western civilization is doomed to anarchic fracture - to a horror-ridden, nihilist dystopia in which anything and everything will be permitted - unless it remains thoroughly within the Christian tradition. A similar argument ran through my friend Mark Steyn's recent book, "America Alone". But it is still entirely unclear to me whether Dostoyevsky (or Steyn, for that matter) themselves really believe the story at the heart of Christianity - the one with divinely-required murder and symbolic cannibalism, with Galilean Josh Josephson as the disguised creator of the entire universe or the product of non-sexual "miraculous" conception, etc. If I had to guess, I would say no, they don't actually believe it. They just see a huge value in everyone at least committing to it.

Anyway, I guess the bottom line is that Strategic Committers would pretty much celebrate Christmas with as much fervour and joy as any sincerely believing Christian. They would just, at their core, be indifferent to whether Christianity was the product of human invention.

The Anti-Christian Animus option goes like this. You begin by seeing Christianity as the product of human invention, but you don't stop there: you end up subscribing to the notion that Christianity, or maybe "organized religion" - is the cause of almost all wars, all oppression, all poverty, all racism, etc. Make Christianity go away, or "organized religion", and most of the world's problems would go away. Thus, in your own little way, you declare war on Christmas, and on Christianity altogether. It is your service to humanity.

This is, by far, the dumbest option. Consider that what it's all about is the transformation of an initial skepticism into a gullibility about as extreme as that required to believe in talking snakes, stationary suns, and staffs which turn into serpents. I am saying you have to be totally gullible to believe that human evil requires an organized (theist) religion, or Christianity, for its existence. You also have to be extremely ignorant, or extremely bigoted, to believe it; there are, in fact, innumerable instances of people committing all manner of evil not on any sectarian ground at all, and they are all around us. Each one of us, ourselves, knows that we have done plenty of things we shouldn't have done, but that they were not motivated by any particularly religious belief at all. Our motives in many instances, were - need I say it? - purely selfish.

Neither Sam Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, or Dennett have ever satisfactorily answered the tens of millions of objections - in the form of human corpses - which our past century gives us against their claim that the world would be a much better place without any religion (as if that's even possible). Atheist responses to these objections range from utterly incoherent to pathetically inadequate; and they can offer no explanation as to how a crime committed in the name of communism is not, by inevitable extension, as much a crime committed in the name of atheism, as is a crime committed in the name of Catholicism a crime committed in the name of Christianity, or "organized religion". Nor, in saying things as ludicrously bigoted as "religion poisons everything" (as does Hitchens), can they account for the many good things which religious belief can and does bring to the lives of its adherents.

Atheists like those mentioned above, and for all I know, some of those reading this, always pride themselves on their critical thinking skills. But any type of thinking which metasticizes into an historically and evidentially unsupported Utopianism is not, by definition, critical thinking. It is delusional. It is no different than the type of "thinking" which accepts that God will torture us forever unless we torture him.

In any case, there is not even any reason to believe that religion can be eradicated without eradicating all of humanity, since all indications are that it is endemic to the human mind. And certainly there is no reason to believe that the world would be a better place - war-free, poverty-free, etc. - if everyone were an atheist.

Skeptical stoicism, as far as I can figure, makes the most sense, though I cannot say it would most satisfy emotional needs. I think, for example, that there must be something extremely satisfying emotionally in adopting the Anti-Christian Animus option. Its popularity suggests as much. That position, after all, allows its adherents to think they know something very important about the world (that religion is the main source of evil); it allows them to think that their anti-religion activism is a form of humanitarian service - that they are "making the world a better place for our children";, etc. It allows them to share camaraderie with other religious bigots (just like hating Jews does for Klansmen, who evidently love their group picnics). In a way, I sort of envy them, just like I do the religious believers they think they're so much different than: the sheer power of belief within a community of believers can facilitate the satisfaction of a lot of human needs.

Skeptical stoicism feels quite lonely, speaking from personal experience. It regards the atheism of Harris, Dawkins, and to a lesser extent Hitchens, as unspeakably crude and about as delusional as the religions those guys think are so - well, delusional. It also regards religious beliefs like, say, that the communion wafer actually "transubstantiates" into the flesh of Jesus or that Mohammed flew to Mecca as delusional. And...there just isn't really a community for that, that I know of. I pick up "Skeptic" and "Skeptical Inquirer" magazines every once in a while, but they too seem quite in thrall to the Utopian atheism of Dawkins. Every issue there's some new barrage of attacks on religion as evil, and how it must be eradicated for the good of the world. But this just nonsense...So what I'm saying is that "Skeptic" and "Skeptical Inquirer" are not skeptical enough.

So....what I'm saying is, there is absolutely NO reason to believe that religion is anything other than a permanent facet of the human experience, and second, that there is NO reason to believe that "the world would be better without (theist) religion". In fact, this past century suggests the contrary. AND, if we take Darwinism seriously, it becomes quite impossible to fathom how theism could have been selected for over atheism, if it is inherently as rotten, dangerous, and crazy-making as the Dawkins's fanatics say it is. Dawkins himself can't even answer this objection, judging from "The God Delusion".

Putting it another way, true skepticism sees the demonization of theism by atheists as no less delusional than the demonization of atheism by theists. The purpose of these delusions seems to be to blind us to the disturbing conclusion that good and evil are an ineradicable part of human existence; that is, to the conclusion that neither atheism nor theism in the end can offer a means of saving us from ourselves.

The stoicism comes in when contemplating what to do about this. It allows for attempts to improve things, but it cautions against expecting too much from the efforts; and it tries to find peace with the world nevertheless.

I can't say I am a great skeptical stoic; it is hard at times for me to feel wholly at peace with the world. And that there don't seem to be a lot of others out there makes me kind of long to be some other way sometimes.

But then...I don't seem to have any choice. I can't make myself believe what I see as atheist or theist delusions, and there's nowhere else, for me anyway, to go.

Oh yes, I forgot: Christmas!

Next time.

10 comments:

The Homely Animal said...

This is actually a better post and your grade has improved, like maybe even an.... A- (*gasp). This is supported from both sides and seems like a truer version of a critical analysis. Here's my question, have you ever seen a vaccine blaming mother of an autistic child arguing with an member of the American Pediatric Assoc. It's pretty much futile. Both conivinced or their correctness, one armed with "scientific" fact one armed with intuition, both with supporters on their side. Both with valid conclusions, evidence, and experience but no 'correct' answer and no way to prove or convince the other? And so the cycle begins. This pretty much seems to be the religious debate cycle. While opinions are nice and challenging them is 'healthy', a 'chicken or the egg' things can make a blog feel monotonous.

bryn said...

"It is better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle a question without debating it"
-Joseph Joubert

"Emotional reasoning" is what came to my mind after reading through your last two posts and through the many comments that followed.
I'm commenting kind of off the cuff here, so forgive my rambling (you are very articulate, and a formidible debater!).
I believe in logic, however I am also a sensitive and emotional person. I don't believe that one negates the other. I have the ability to think critically, but that doesn't mean that my judgement isn't at times clouded by my emotional reactions. We are complex characters.
What I read in the comments from some readers seemed to me to be emotional reactions to logical thinking. I don't recall you defaming God or religion... I recall you writing about horrible rituals created by people. Religion itself is not to blame for atrocities, people are. Religion has become the scapegoat. Why be accountable, when we can just blanket blame religion! Is one side of the argument, and on the other side- 'God forbid' that you question 'religious beliefs'. To not question, to not seek and be open to different points of view, to not debate is, in my opinion, pure ignorance. This ignorance is a root to fear, and fear to anger.
If we can combine our emotional selves (compassion, passion) with our critical thinking that's when we (humanity) might be able to come to some kind of an agreement, even if that agreement is to peacefully disagree.

That aside, thank you for the history lesson! I'm enjoying it. My Dad always says: "it's a sad day when you don't learn something new".

lewis said...

Tal, you are one messed up dude. And I mean that in the best sense. Thank you for taking us on this journey of yours. I can't wait to see where it ends.

And thanks for making me think.

rachael said...

You really are an awesome writer, like the other posters, I send thanks.



In the Original post it says:

"good and evil are an ineradicable part of human existence"

As I read those words (and the ones leading up to it), the image of Yin and Yang came to mind.

And again when I read Bryn's description of herself as being both logical and emotional, or the post above hers which relayed the story of the mother and pediatrician.

It reminded me that this particular image (yin/yang) comes to my mind, when I know I have to look at something differently or accept a difficult situation. It forces me to contemplate the unique and perfect harmony of the image, to see it as a visibly tangible reminder to accept that without the black, we would not be able appreciate the white, the picture would not be the same.



My step-mother and sisters study the Bahai faith. Which is a pretty cool sounding religion as far as religions go because it seems
to be inclusive of all the other religions. However, as openminded as the Bahai faith appears to be, it still has not peaked my interest enough to encourage me to want to explore it further than discussions with my sister over coffee. For no bad reasons either, I just don't feel like I need that kind of structure to feel connected to other humans, or to (what is for me)
an undefineable yet undenyable source of energy or spirt.



If not believing in the story of the Bible makes me an atheist then I guess that is what I must be, but I have never really labelled myself as such because of statements like the one I found below, from an Atheist website, describing why they are Atheists:

"Because religion is stupid, offensive and actively erodes man's quality of life."



Wow, thats where I firmly KNOW I am not like them. I wouldn't be proud to be associated with that arrogant message. I wouldn't say religion is stupid, but I would agree with your earlier note that
blindly follwing it would be stupid. Hurting or killing someone for it is stupid, dying for it is stupid, I agree that some people can be extreme to the point
of crazy. These Athiests say that religion is offensive. Is religion really offensive? Not to me, my experience is that most churches are places where people gather to connect with one another, and do good things for the community. How is that offensive?

Its only offensive to me, if I am expected to believe the same thing as you and/or if you insist that I go uncomfortably out of my way to support you in your beliefs.
If we all just let each other practise our own beleifs in peace, then no one's quality of life should ever need to be eroded.

I guess basically I am indifferent. Is there a label for that? Oh yeah and Spritual, does that fit in anywhere?


So what about Christmas, I guess I am answering from the "shallow" end of the spectrum of answers. Christmas for me is a holiday. It is an annual winter event that breaks up the dark, blustery, cold days with song, presents, and sparkly lights. Its where I take time to stop what I am doing, and connect with family.

Somewhere out there, I know that people are seriously celebreating the birth of Jesus, and good for them, I will in fact enjoy the season and celebrate with them if they choose to include me. I will happily sing along to Silent Night and Away in a Manger, but I will also be singing Jingle Bell Rock and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause.

I don't have a lot of remorseful feelings about admitting that the story of baby Jesus's birth, to me, is just a story to anchor a holiday on.

rachael said...

Sorry I didn't realize that post was so long. :)

Tyson said...

The argument against an ACA appears to be a straw man. I just don't see the new atheists justifying atrocities in the name of atheism, nor do I see them condoning the actions of megalomaniacs. You make the argument that the ACA view religion as man made, but then say they elevate religion into the cross hairs. Shouldn't the basis of the worst in religion be judged at the same level as the worst in atheism? Both are products of man, either the delusional actions of the atheist, or the religious leader. However I think you would find the ACA would take exception to the notion that the atrocities of the past were performed in the name of atheism, whereas you find plenty of examples of wrongdoing in the name of theism. I know personally how the LDS hierarchy convinced my friends, family and neighbors to hypocritically discriminate in the last election. Which brings me to the challenge from Hitchens...

"Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.
The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?

The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply."

Tal said...

Response to Tyson:

>>The argument against an ACA appears to be a straw man. I just don't see the new atheists justifying atrocities in the name of atheism, nor do I see them condoning the actions of megalomaniacs.

---My point is that they do not even admit that any atrocities have been committed in the name of atheism, when in fact they have.

>>>You make the argument that the ACA view religion as man made, but then say they elevate religion into the cross hairs. Shouldn't the basis of the worst in religion be judged at the same level as the worst in atheism? Both are products of man, either the delusional actions of the atheist, or the religious leader.

---I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say here.

>>>However I think you would find the ACA would take exception to the notion that the atrocities of the past were performed in the name of atheism

---Of course they would; they're as deluded in this respect as the religious fanatics they think they're more enlightened than. But denial just doesn't change reality, and the fact is that atrocities have been performed in the name of atheist ideologies, theist ideologies, and also, in the name of nothing at all - just done for the sheer hell of it.

>>>Whereas you find plenty of examples of wrongdoing in the name of theism.

---I think if anything, this post is harder on atheists. Again, not sure what you're talking about really.

>>>Which brings me to the challenge from Hitchens...

"Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever".

---This is totally ridiculous, totally irrelevant. Did Hitchens actually say that?

>>>The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply."

---Yes, this is easy, but the first is not "difficult" - it is irrelevant.

Guy L. Monty said...

Although I am not affiliated with any group, movement, or cadre, I am an atheist. From what I have witnessed and learned in 44 years here on planet Earth, I have to agree that religion is stupid, offensive and that it does actively erode man's quality of life. Why? Because it requires one to accept things for which there is no evidence, as if there is. As soon as one sets foot on that path, the mind is left open to all kinds of nonsense. This can manifest itself in a fairly benign form of delusion (crystal and faerie worshipers for instance), but it is delusion nonetheless. Any creature which chooses to allow fantasy to take the decision making reigns, is a creature which will eventually get itself into trouble. With social animals such as humans, this inevitably leads to getting ones fellows into trouble as well. The moment when your argument against atheism fails, is when you assume that atheism is some form of dogma, theology, or even an ideology. It's not. It simply means that one does not believe in a deity. Although it would be offensively wrong to argue that no atheist ever committed a crime (I've yet to hear that from anyone who professes to be an theist), I cannot agree that the presence of an atheist within a morally bankrupt political ideology amounts to "crimes committed in the name of atheism". In the case of the atrocities committed by Bolsheviks, the heinous crimes against humanity were committed in large part to consolidate the power of madmen, not in the name of "atheism". When a political entity attacks a specific religion because they are trying to gain sole political power, I can hardly see where this constitutes an atheist Jihad. So would the world be better if without religion? I think it would. I don't feel the need to toss anyone into a lake of fire for all eternity if they don't agree though.

Tyson said...

Response to Tal,

---I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say here.

To further illustrate my point. Let's use the low hanging fruit in religion - Islam. When you take religion away from the suicidal bomber (more specifically the religious Islamic leader who knows he's using some unknowing fanatic to commit the deed), you are left with the same person as the so called atheist who commits atrocities, the so called atheist may just do it in the name of nationalism, or communism etc.... I think your post on Hitler and Nazism illustrates this well.

---This is totally ridiculous, totally irrelevant. Did Hitchens actually say that?

Yes, he's used it in every debate I've seen him in (youtube his debate with Al Sharpton for a good laugh), and I think the point he is making is that theism can be used as a reason to get people to do immoral things they wouldn't do otherwise (e.g. polygamy and prop 8 just a century apart), and hence the desire to reduce or eliminate religion from the process of determining what is and is not moral. That is entirely relevant when we look at what historical religion has to say about women's rights and suffrage, slavery, racial discrimination, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.

Draper Phil said...

"It is your service to humanity." - LOL