One of these things is not like the others…

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 9.18.25 PMI’ve had multiple conversations in the last year about whether atheism is a religion. I don’t self-identify as atheist for both political and ideological reasons, but most of the critiques I see of atheism—which are usually critiques of atheists, and usually about how mean they are—only shallowly engage the ideas they critique and beg the very questions atheists are asking.

A way to get behind the question is to ask what function atheism-as-religion has for the parties who make that claim. It’s easier to deal first with those who self-identify as atheist. The closest thing I know to religious atheism is the Sunday Assembly, whose recent split seems to have been over just how much to explicitly cater to atheists as opposed to a more general humanism. (As a side note, it doesn’t seem the best tactic to argue that a “split” is evidence that atheism is a religion). They meet together, sing songs, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company. If you want to call atheism a religion in a colloquial sense based on groups like these, so be it.

I’ve found, however, that those who claim atheism is a religion are usually members of a “rival” religious tradition. The argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Christianity is defined by a belief in God (Jesus).
  2. Atheism is defined by a belief that there is no God.
  3. These are both beliefs.
  4. Therefore, an atheist critique of Christianity is invalid because the two are both belief systems.

There are many problems with this argument. Beginning with the end, if it were the case that all belief systems are structurally the same and they therefore have no ground to critique each other, this would undercut any criticism of another institution. This might be helpful if we judged systems solely on the basis of structure or organization without any evaluation of content, but we don’t, and that leads to the next point.

There is a gap between points three and four implying that all beliefs are qualitatively the same. This is a disingenuous argument because it separates belief as a thing out in the world separate from believers, those who create belief through acting in the world. Sure, a belief is a belief, just as a law is a law, but we wouldn’t likely argue that all laws are qualitatively the same. They pertain to different aspects of existence and we judge some of them effective and others not-as-effective.

What the argument is saying is that the act of believing is equivalent in both cases. Again, this is technically true, but it is disingenuous because it negates the content of the belief. It partakes in the sociological idea of rational choice, which suggests that we pick our way of being in the world as if picking a value meal at McDonalds. In truth, we are already enveloped in a world that disposes us to prefer some ways of being over others. Sincere adherents to a tradition prefer their traditions. They think their tradition is better for them than others for a variety of reasons. It may be because of potential theological consequences; it may be because of social preference. One is deceiving one’s self, however, if one both claims to be a member of a tradition and claims that his or her tradition is no better that any others. (Of course, one other option is to being to realize you don’t prefer a tradition as much as you thought you did, that realization becoming a catalyst for change. Such was my experience.)

If we look at the specific beliefs (assuming that the defining belief here is the presence or absence of God), no better case can be made. A monotheist affirms that there exists a supernatural being of higher order that interacts with humanity in some way. Those who are not monotheists do not necessarily believe that there is no God (although they may); they simply lack a belief that monotheists have. These are not the same thing. The first implies the existence of a divine being and suggests that one’s decision is whether to affirm its existence. The second denotes the presence of belief in one case, and an absence in the next.

The reason the argument is not usually made this way is, in part, because the presumption of divine beings has been prevalent in Western society for all of written history. (We may be even genetically predisposed to affirm a higher power, anthropomorphizing what we cannot explain.) The existence of God has been normalized to such an extent that is the starting point for all discussions about religion. Thus the absence of belief is characterized as a belief in itself, which from a normative stance is also seen as an attack on existing belief. This is not to say that atheists do not attack “believers.” It is to say that “believing differently” is a poor way of conceptualizing an absence of belief.

So what is a better way of conceptualizing those who, from the perspective of religious traditions, do not believe? A better way might be to look at what they affirm. Far be it from me to speak for atheism; rather I want to suggest that all ways of viewing the world are not belief systems. Or, more precisely, all are not faith systems. In discussions such as these, there is slippage between the two ideas. It is possible to justify belief, but it is not possible to justify faith. Faith is belief in the absence of—or because of the absence of—justification. Its primary criteria is not being subject to falsification. Other epistemologies are defined by their being subject to refinement, criticism, and inquiry. The substance of faith cannot be changed, and this is why it cannot be considered as an equivalent form of knowledge to any other that is subject to such falsification. One might even try to argue that faith is better than other forms of belief, but it cannot be the same.

We come full circle here. The faithful can argue, “Well I can’t prove that God exists, but you can’t prove that he doesn’t!” That is indeed the case. I can neither prove that unicorns exist. Luckily I don’t need to because very few if any think they do. The point is that when other epistemologies come to the fringes of their systemic ability, they may speculate, but they do not assume or create other forms of knowledge to compensate. This certainly does not mean a lack of desire to know the unknown. It entails a humility about our systems and abilities of perception that is in keeping with the history of humanity.

I’d be interested to hear if I am missing possibilities. Is it possible to both identify with a particular tradition and yet not think that it is qualitatively better for them to be in that tradition than others? Is it possible to view faith as an epistemology like any other?


The “Genius” of Cultural Relativism

Why is it that refusing to judge is often seen as a form of virtue? I’ve been leading discussion groups in a class that explores the nature of genius this semester. This week we explored the idea of “evil genius,” which is a significant cultural trope in our society, often in other guises such as the mad scientist or the super villain. We asked the students if it was possible for genius to be evil. While most lined up on one side or the other of the debate, a few vocal students protested, and one defended his protest with a classic “Who am I to judge?” line: “What some might call evil, others might call good.”

Now as an abstract statement this might be defensible. There are certainly cases, particularly involving violence, where one person’s (or one country’s) evil is another’s greater good. However, what this student (and many others like him) was doing was to use the fact of a multiplicity of perspectives to conclude that we cannot and should not make distinctions between perspectives. “That’s just their culture” is disingenuous, but it is seen as a modern, savvy, and politically correct response. After all, its better than “They’re just inferior” or “They’re just savages,” right?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that cultural imperialism is not—at least overtly—the norm in higher education. The problem is that many students conclude that the best response to lessons about pluralism and diversity is to adopt a position of cultural relativism, and many teachers either don’t know how to correct the trend or think the same way their students do.

Of course, none of us are really cultural relativists. We are cultural relativists in so far as we are personally unaffected by, distanced from, the cultures we are reluctant to judge. We are cultural relativists in so far as we reside in a culture that allows us the privilege to treat other cultures as thought experiments. Yet insofar as we are privileged, we should instead use that privilege to question thoroughly both other cultures and our own in order to make judgements for positive change.

So a historical shift has taken place from explicit cultural imperialism to an implicit cultural imperialism under the guise of appreciating and valuing cultural diversity. Religion plays a significant role in maintaining this separation. Echoing my own past religious experience, students who profess a strong Christianity usually fail to see a connection between their ideological ethics and their practical ethics, their way of operating in the world. Given, this is true to a certain extent with all students due in part to the infiltration of Christian values into American life, but it is more easily visible in the religious. These students are quick to defend Christianity from perceived attacks and extremist misrepresentation, but fail to see the ethical implications in their practical lives for the Jesus Christianity they profess.

I don’t think this is all their fault. The training to connect an ideological Christian ethic with reality is remarkably sparse from within the religious community. Christianity is personal salvation, after all, and it is rarely in the institutional interest to advance anti-institutional claims such as equal treatment for the LBGTQ community or universal health care. If anything, religious students are implicitly told to not make their religion a big deal in public for fear of being one of those extremists on the quad who screams at scantily-clad women that they’re going to hell. Higher education maintains a tacit agreement with religion to allow students to keep their faith unquestioningly, and even use it to make their decisions, as long as they don’t make it overly obvious.

This strongly contributes to the “Who am I to judge?” scenario above. It stems from an inability to engage complex issues because of a faulty and undeveloped means of reasoning. It may be that refusing to make any sort of judgement is better than trumpeting an overtly culturally biased one, but I’m not sure that it makes a lasting difference if the underlying mechanism of unjustified belief remains in place. If it was a success in the 20th century, it is no longer enough.

There has been much talk of the dim future of the humanities lately, and if pluralism and cultural diversity are the best things they have to offer, the analysis may be correct. Cultural diversity should absolutely be taught, but not in a way that allows students to keep their ideologies as sacred. We should at least not pretend that this makes for a productive and successful citizenry. What it makes is a body of people that profess love, care, and community support while they maintain bias and bigotry against others. Education is not about what not to say or what to think, but as David Foster Wallace claimed, “how to think.”


What do we owe our parents? A values question…

I like the latest values question from Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism. Between she and Daniel Fincke at Camels with Hammers, there have already been questions on civic responsibility, teaching children about sexuality, and the obligation to punish for moral failure. For this question, she refers to a recent article in Slate that documents the difficulties and complexities of attempting reconciliation with difficult parents, parents who may have been abusive or neglectful. In those cases, the question of what is owed may seem misplaced. I think it is a good question, though, because it addresses the attempt to qualify or quantify a felt connection between parents and children, a connection that is present in its presence or its absence. Why is it that, good relationship or bad, we feel obliged to “deal” with the relationship with our parents? Is it an unspoken social mandate to have a good relationship? Is there a biological connection that we must nurture?

In my personal experience, I feel particularly indebted to my parents, in the way of a wholly positive gratitude. In comparison to the stories in the Slate article and my perception of the family relationships of those around me, I have felt very lucky indeed. In the past, I would have attributed their good job to a Christian influence; now I think they deserve more of the credit. As I’ve mentioned in analogous situations, it does them more credit to isolate the unique variables of their parenting, their care and concern for my upbringing and general well-being, encouragement of my strengths and support of my weaknesses, rather than the degree to which they followed Christian principles. Others have tried to follow a religious model and come up short, at least in the eyes of their offspring. I know that my parents likely sought to ground their parenting in a Christian model, just as I did when my son was younger. Yet I know from my own parenting experience that I feel a sense of obligation to him as well, often in spite of his actions. I want him to value our relationship not by the extent to which I adhered to a universal set of rules, but the way that I attempted to seek the best for him, in spite of not knowing exactly what that is.

I owe my parents a debt that will not be able to repay. There are several reasons for this. One is that to attempt to quantify it would cheapen it. More than that, though, and despite my particularly fortunate circumstances, the sense of obligation to parents is a microcosm of our response to being in the world. This sense of obligation is one we are uncomfortable with; modeling our existential lives after our economic ones, we would prefer to have our debts paid. Obligations to others are treated the same way. We are uncomfortable with debt and often see remaining obligated as a weakness. Yet simply our being born into the world entails a whole set of debts that we have incurred before we have the ability to choose otherwise. Of course, those are not unique debts, in the sense that they are common to humanity. This does not lessen the significance of the debt taking its unique form in the individual.

That debt takes its first and most concrete form in the parent, the one charged biologically and socially with enabling a child to survive, and hopefully, to thrive. Most of us can claim the first, though not all the second. What I am saying, though, is that we ought to face our sense of indebtedness in spite of its particular contours in our own lives. We deny this fundamental relationship to the world, obligation, at our own peril. I imagine that many feel that they owe their parents nothing for the poor treatment they themselves received. In terms of financial, emotional, or physical support, that might be accurate. However, I would argue it does not work to discharge a debt simply on those terms. In fact, frustration over a failed relationship with one’s parents is perhaps a greater lesson that obligation is not part of a transaction, but a part of our being. We are thrust into circumstances and situations in which we can neither control the manifold variables or the outcome. We bear the consequences of the decisions of others, just as others bear the consequences of ours. The point is not to neutralize our own position in the game, to pay all our debts and not make anyone indebted to us, but to enter into relationships with a full awareness of the responsibility that just being alive implies, a responsibility that, if avoided, manifests in a repetition of the same patterns we regret in others.

So how should the obligation we have to our parents be manifest? It depends. If the relationship is healthy and desirable, it can manifest in the same interactions as any other loving relationship. If unhealthy, there may not be a relationship at all, and it may be better that way. In any case, though, the idea of obligation requires a willingness to face the fact that none of us are independent. Americans enjoy the image of the self-made man or woman, and particularly in cases when individuals seem to have triumphed over difficult odds, which may have included poor familial relationships. Even these folks didn’t make it without help, and no one wins a prize for shunning relationships the most. We cannot escape the complex web of our interconnection with our environment and those within it. Rather than trying to just discharge or ignore it, we would do well to embrace our indebtedness and move forward because of or in spite of it.


You Can’t Buy Flowers if You Don’t Get Right with Jesus

The owner of a flower shop in Washington state recently denied service to a gay couple who asked to use her services for their wedding ceremony. She told the customer that she couldn’t help in the wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. According to the news story, the florist had served the customers for years, even as the couple had sent flowers to each other, but declined to participate in the wedding because she believes in exclusively heterosexual marriage. The customer was shocked, and the story gained popularity when he told about his experience on Facebook.

The situation has  legal, commercial, and ideological aspects, and much of the controversy in these situations is not “discriminating” between them. The clearest evidence of this is in the term ‘discrimination,’ evoked in this and nearly all other cases like it. At least one lawyer says that this is a violation of Washington’s law against discrimination, while the store owner claims she does not discriminate. She is of course responding to the issue in legal terms, because she is clearly discriminating, in that she decided not to provide service based on a given set of criteria; namely, a normative understanding of marriage. Of course, neither of them knows whether the case involves legal discrimination, since the law has no power until its judgment, and a case hasn’t been made formally yet. This is an interesting point in itself, that according to the report the couple is not certain whether they will pursue a case, but there are certainly those who want to use cases like these to advance a principle. There’s no problem with this necessarily, but it would take determination for the couple to decide not to take action. In any case, discrimination is something we all use in our daily decision making, and is necessarily the case in terms of religious belief.

In terms of the commercial aspects of the case, one could make an argument either that the florist should not be in business if she is not going to provide equal service, or that the couple should go somewhere else if they have a problem with her treatment. In a purely capitalistic sense, it makes little sense that either the store owner should refuse the transaction or that the customers should force the issue when they could receive better service elsewhere. My guess is that the story will not end well for the florist, because those customers who are offended will stop giving her business, and those who give her moral support will not likely actually support her business. But in terms of the woman’s religious convictions or the legality of the issue, the commercial aspects are irrelevant.

In terms of the moral or religious justification, there is more logic in the florist’s actions than she is given credit for. For the vast majority of Christians, their beliefs do not require them to hate gay people, though it’s clear that a vocal minority seem to. Most are told and attempt to make a distinction between “sinner” and “sin,” a distinction that is not fully appreciated by outsiders, to whom the florist’s actions seem erratic or contradictory. She feels free to employ and befriend gay people (in theory—chances are she doesn’t have an extensive list of gay friends), but participating in their wedding is different. Why? Well, typically the florist’s level of involvement at a wedding goes beyond preparing the arrangements in the shop and handing them to the customer. Often it means being onsite and helping in preparation for the ceremony. Whether that is the case or not, it becomes an issue because she (like the couple) views the ceremony as sacred, as involving powers higher than herself. (I have no idea whether the couple is religious or not. They may simply want the civil benefits that marriage offers, but it likely has more significance. Either way, they have entrusted the state with giving their relationship a significance that it would not otherwise have.) Marriage is a relationship with important religious significance in Christianity, as well as other traditions.

Those who would claim that the woman has been deceived by her preacher into discriminating against gays miss the bigger picture. It is not a misinterpretation of Christianity to be against gay marriage. A normative understanding of heterosexual marriage has been the dominant interpretation for the tradition’s entire history. It certainly behooves the religious hierarchy to reinforce beliefs that keep their congregants reliant upon their services (e.g., that marriage is sacred and that marriages should be religious in nature), but this issue extends throughout history. Is it possible that Christianity could be interpreted in a way that makes it more favorable to gay couples? Yes, but it hasn’t been. The situation is not solved by taking a liberal stance that asks, “What’s the big deal?”

The point is that someone loses in this situation. Either the couple loses their ability to engage in transactions without being discriminated against, or the florist is forced to provide a service that violates her religious belief. For what little it’s worth, I wish that the situation were such that the florist just performed the services for her customers and everyone was happy. If I were a florist at right this moment, that’s what I think I would do. But I don’t have the conviction of a tightly defined understanding of marriage. I would bank on the idea that the world is not going to fall apart if more gay couples get married, but many think that gay marriage is a symptom of societal decline. The fact that the belief is sincere does not automatically make it legitimate, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be belittled as unimportant, or the response of heartless bigotry. A way forward might involve a more sincere public discourse about the importance of the positions of both sides, a discourse that exposes the malleability both of religious and legal interpretation behind the rigid exteriors that both sides put forward.

Do you see a win-win situation here? Should there be one? If not, why not?


Where have all the good atheists gone?

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on his blog. He writes that many atheists argue that religion is responsible for “almost every atrocity in history,” and that they think ethical systems formed without a divine backing are “by definition more humane.” If, then, atheist ethics are as good or better than religious ones, he asks, “why is it that we see no atheist Mother Teresa’s, Gandhi’s, or the like?”

It’s an interesting question, and for those who self-identify as atheists, it is likely to get a defensive response. The question is framed so that the easiest response would be to make a list of great atheists. (See the comments on his post for an example.) As I’ve mentioned, I’m not comfortable with atheism as any sort of system to set alongside other religious institutions, and I don’t identify as an atheist, but there are a few points to consider in the question nonetheless. Though it seems to invite such a response, I don’t think the best way to respond is by creating a tally of religious and atheist “good people” and seeing who comes out on top.

I have heard the arguments that religion is responsible for all or most of the atrocities in the world. These arguments, just like the ones that atheists are all immoral antichrists, are used largely for rhetorical effect. (What bothers me about both sides in that debate is that if such vacuous maxims get repeated enough, they begin to be believed.) I have made the claim in the past that Christianity is responsible for as much bad as good in the world, and I do think that the quantity of the “good” should prompt the question of whether it is worth the “bad.” I think of the idea of responsibility differently, though. Religion is not responsible for atrocity in the sense that it sets out intended for bad things to happen to good people. “Religion” itself doesn’t intend to exploit, though it is certainly used to. In that sense, religion is not responsible, but it’s not responsible like the bystander who watches a woman get assaulted by someone else and does nothing to stop it. It then approaches the woman and offers to pray with her that such a thing never happens again. There are certainly many cases in which religion is directly responsible for exploitation, violence, and death, but it is just as often a passive observer that exposes its guilt in not acting from the convictions it promotes. It, or more precisely those who live it, are irresponsible.

I also understand, and sympathize with, the line of argument that suggests that any ethical system said to be predicated on the commands of a divine god whom one obeys out of fear of punishment is immoral because of the lack of value it places on humanity. This argument is not for insiders, though, who already believe “that’s the way it is.” And indeed, if the Christian system is correct, then our accusation of God’s capriciousness is moot.

The assumption in the question of why there aren’t as many famous atheists is that those well-known  folks were people who helped an extremely large number of others because of their religion. Had they not been religious, this understanding seems to suggest, they would not have cared so much. At this explicit level, though, the argument falls apart. The much greater testimony is that for the vast majority of people, religion inspires them to change very little about their everyday lives. In other words, the argument shows me that the greatness of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, and others was not due just to their religion, but due to them. Why would we suggest that religion is the dominant factor when it has no such effect on the vast majority of the population? The overwhelming effect of contemporary religion is to produce an internal change, invisible and unverifiable, despite all external circumstance. It is more often a removal from the world rather than a commitment to it.

This is not to say that religion has no effect, because one could turn the argument around and say that religion doesn’t make people bad, either. In fact, that is the typical Christian and/or liberal response to religious violations. “Well, they’re not practicing correctly. That’s not my religion, my God.” That’s where my assessment of religious responsibility comes in. The reason that religion is problematic is not primarily because it creates bad people. There is a nexus of environment and choice such that it is not possible to lay blame cleanly. A bigger problem is in the passivity it allows for many religious folk to take in the face of “atrocity” that directly contradicts their purported identity and understanding of the world.

I didn’t discuss the practical responses to the question, such as if atheism is an absence of religious belief, it would make little sense to trumpet such an absence as the reason for the good one does in the world. Thus a good many great people were such without explicit reliance on any institutional ethical system. We tend to self-identify positively, and it is only recently that the epithet atheism has taken on the role of a positive entity. In addition, the Western past is one filtered through a Christian lens, and thus it would be difficult to overestimate the effect this has had on historical interpretation and social development. The question I would ask in response: Why, if religion provides a superior ethical system, has it not delivered on any verifiable scale a change in the way we live, act and treat one another? My preliminary answer would be because requires more than religion, than religious ethics, than belief, to make change.