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!