Dispatches from the Creation Wars

GG of Shiny Ideas has written a reply to my post on atheism and churchgoing. Unfortunately, I think he seriously misunderstands my position and thinks I’m making a much stronger argument than I am. He writes:

This goes back to my previous post about the numinous feelings induced by drug use. If you are, like myself, a materialist, agnostic, (weak) atheist, can you (should you?) in good conscience describe such experiences in spiritual terms? If you are, like Ed Brayton, a deist who denies the existence of revelation, is it proper to be endorsing religious institutions?

But I don’t think I’ve endorsed religious institutions at all. All I’ve done is recognized that religion, like any institution, has positive aspects and negative aspects, and often at the same time and in the same manner. Churches can provide a sense of community and support; they can also reinforce a sense of tribalism and groupthink. They can provide a simple set of ethical precepts for people to live by; they can also impede ethical reasoning by oversimplifying how such precepts are developed and justified. All at the same time.

I’ve also argued that, for the thoughtful person (a small percentage in any society), the benefits of religion can not only be found in other things but often improved upon. I would certainly argue that one can find a sense of community that is far more conducive to self-examination among a group of people who will challenge you to think than among a group of people who are passive recipients of received knowledge. But I also recognize that most people simply aren’t going to think about such things even if challenged and that passive reception is likely the only mode of thought they’re really capable of.

If you’re ok with a pragmatic approach that’s fine, but you better be ready to follow it to its logical conclusion. What I really find objectionable in Ed and Mr. Olson’s approach is that is has a “bread and circuses” feel to it. They’re essentially advocating organized religion as a mechanism for ensuring social stability. But why stop there? Let’s posit any idea or institution is good if it

* Increases social stability and happiness by some measure
* Doesn’t violate anyone’s fundamental rights

There’s all sorts of things that fall into this category. Escapist entertainment? Yup. Government subsidized recreational drugs? You bet. I’ll confess that I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but I can’t help but feel that in the end you end up with a society straight out of Brave New World.

I would say this is more than a little hyperbolic, and certainly not an accurate representation of my position. No one is suggesting that anyone be forced to do anything, least of all me. I’m not even advocating that people be encouraged to do anything, as Olson is. I am simply recognizing that religion, like any long-lasting institution, serves a function, in this case many functions, and that it may serve those functions well for one person and horribly for another.

For the relatively unthinking churchgoer (and I doubt the percentage of unthinking people is much higher in church than out of church), if religion serves them well, provides them with a sense of community or security or a connection to tradition, I have no problem with that and have no desire to talk them out of it even if I could. For that same churchgoer, if he attends a church that skews toward the negative side of things and that sense of community and security is accompanied by a dangerous tribalism that teaches them bigotry, hatred or pride in ignorance (and there are plenty of those, to be sure), then I’m certainly going to be opposed to that. I’m simply arguing that religion, like any broad social institution, is a mixed bag and we need not denigrate every single thing that falls under the title.

Additionally, Ed talks about the value of tradition and ritual. To which I would offer this rejoinder: Why are the centuries-old bottles of balsamic important?

I can only assume that GG has never tasted really good aged balsamic vinegar. But the fact is that you don’t have to consider those things important; I merely said that I do. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Neither age nor generational continuity should automatically imbue an object or idea with special merit.

Of course not, and I would never make such an argument. As easily as I can point to traditions that I think are valuable and worthy, I can also point to traditions that are vile and deserve to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

I can’t help but see the craving for tradition as a reaction to the constant change which is the norm for contemporary culture.

I can’t help it either, and I said so quite clearly in my post. I absolutely agree that my craving for a connection to something more permanent and timeless than last year’s one hit wonder and this week’s fashion trends is a function of living not merely in contemporary culture, but specifically in American culture (which is primarily popular culture and thus far more transient and temporary). I also have no doubt that if I was raised in a culture that was more homogenous and continuous than this one, say Spain or Italy, I would feel imprisoned by it and be drawn to the dynamism and ever-changing nature of this culture.

Just as no thinking person could ever be content with their government, no thinking person could ever be entirely satisfied with their cultural surroundings either. The grass will always seem greener in the distance; we only fantasize about what we do not have. But to borrow an explicitly religious idea from the Taoists, the key to the whole thing is balance, yin and yang. Every beneficial habit or action or idea carries the potential for harm as well, depending on the circumstances.

Eating is necessary to sustain life, but eating too much or eating the wrong things can hasten death. Fire can cook our food or it can burn down our house. Such is the nature of virtually everything, including religion. It can motivate acts of extraordinary kindness and acts of hideous barbarism. It can inspire the building of the underground railroad and it can justify lynchings and murder. It can fund soup kitchens and it can bomb abortion clinics. And we no more grasp reality when one praises it as a universal good than when another condemns it as a curse on mankind.

But that’s just it, its a reaction, not a considered choice. Ed’s choice of the word “craving” indicates that there’s a non-volitional component. In the end it seems like nothing more than pandering to the id/reptile brain. You can find value in tradition, but tradition is not inherently valuable.

True enough, but of course I never argued that it was in the first place. As for pandering to the reptilian brain…well, we do that in a thousand different ways every day, some of them both necessary and pleasurable. I think the dichotomy of “reaction” vs “considered choice” is a false one. Sexual desire, for example, is a reaction and tied just as surely to our most primitive, if not primal, instincts. However, we can also make considered choices about how or when or with whom we allow that desire to manifest itself. And I hope I’ve established that my thinking on this matter, even if you happen to disagree with it, is well considered.

Let me also say that I can also satisfy that craving for a connection to something of permanence without the aid of religion in any form. Perhaps oddly, I find that same sense of connection when I look at the Grand Canyon or consider the implications of deep time. While some may find only insignificance in the notion that we are merely members of a single species on a single planet around one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies, and that on the grand scale of time we will only exist for a cosmic nano-second, I find the opposite. It makes that bottle of balsamic vinegar or fine wine both more important and less important at the same time. It matters not to the universe, which has no knowledge of us and will continue on its merry way long after we are gone both individually and collectively, but it matters more to us because it adds to the experience that our short lives afford us, it pleases our senses and it stands as a testament to craftsmanship and learning. Our existence may be nasty, brutish and short, but it is improved immeasurably by a good steak and a fine wine, especially if both are well aged.


  1. #1 Caliban
    April 8, 2006

    I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, i see how much my mother enjoys visiting elderly people, an acitivity facilitated by her catholic church, and i think how great it is that institutions like hers are around that encourage compassion and positive action.

    Yet, on the other hand, i’m utterly paranoid about the designs of the religous right, of which i once(breifly)was apart. I know what kinds of things are preached in evangelical and foundamental churches and it frightens me. It frightens me as someone who loves democracy, reason, science, liberty, etc. For much of what they espouse runs contrary to most of my cherished beliefs. And they aggresively seek power.

    So, i can’t help but wonder if, like Sam Harris espouses, we’d be better off without even the moderates who, apparently, rate my moral worth someplace near to child-molesters.

    Atheism (or diesm) isn’t going to provide for any of the services that many churches currently do, but is it unthinkable that there may be other secular approaches that could?

    In America, we are so accustomed to religon’s presence here, yet many countries in europe seem to get by with far fewer churches than we do. I guess i feel like there is no reason why america can’t become more like our european counterparts. Despite the services moderate religons provides today, i can’t help but think that those services would still get addressed in someway if all the churches slowly disappeared.

  2. #2 shargash
    April 8, 2006

    Your mileage may vary

    And one size does not fit all.

    I believe each person is individually responsible for his own intellectual/spiritual development. It really is none of my business what people believe, unless they try to impose their beliefs on me or otherwise attempt to embody their beliefs in a destructive way. Other than the fact that I have to pay to have the mess cleaned up, it really is none of my business that a bunch of people think suicide will carry them up to a comet, and then act on that belief.

    Religions are useful because they provide a pre-packaged set of beliefs for people who are not otherwise capable of coming up with a cogent set of beliefs on their own. So long as religions follow the strictures I set out in the previous paragraph, I think they are useful institutions.

    Absent a religion, people tend to adopt “secular religions,” like National Socialism or Communism, and those “religions” are dangerous. Likewise, even established religions can get out of line (usually when they become “fundamentalis”) and become dangerous, like the religious right in the US.

    But if a religion knows its place in society, and people go there on Sunday, and learn that if they don’t behave in socially acceptable ways, they will get punished, hey!, I’m all for that.

  3. #3 swivel-chair
    April 8, 2006

    Despite the services moderate religons provides today, i can’t help but think that those services would still get addressed in someway if all the churches slowly disappeared.

    Or if they suddenly disappeared. (As a liberal atheist, the Rapture can’t come soon enough for me.)

    I think that many people, even among churchgoers, don’t consider personally doing things like visiting the sick & imprisoned because it seems like the religious institutions have got it covered, or should. There’s no national sense of social responsibility partly because of the vague assumption that churches are always there for people to turn to. If we knew that the churches weren’t going to be there, I think a lot of new ideas and motivated people would sprout & flourish that are currently somewhat pre-empted by the overgrown religious canopy. Without the churches, it would be much clearer that care for the poor etc must be a deliberate, society-wide effort, and if you don’t do it, it won’t be done.

  4. #4 plunge
    April 8, 2006

    I think I chalk this whole controversy up to yet another example of people unable to see past theism. Yes, atheism, non-theism, non-believers, whatever you want to group them as, don’t offer any particular method or institution to fulfill basic human needs like community and so forth. But then, neither does the vaunted sport of “non-marathon running” provide any exercise. Does that mean that if you don’t run marathons you can’t get any exercise? No.

    But somehow when it comes to theism, people forget this pretty hand-slappingly obvious logic entirely, and somehow manage to see non-believers as both a distinct group and yet also recognize that they have nothing in common with each other aside from NOT having ONE thing in particular in common with each other. From the way theists seem to think about it, you’d think that non-believers spend all their time sitting around in a circle “non-believing” as hard as they can.

    A more reasonable picture is: non-believers are just people, that run around doing people stuff. Sometimes they live in healthy ways, sometimes not. Sometimes they have enough community, sometimes not. But whether they do or not, it has, like everything in their life, all to do with their individual personhood, not their lack of belief (which isn’t a thing itself, but a distinction).

  5. #5 Treban
    April 8, 2006

    In the end it seems like nothing more than pandering to the id/reptile brain.

    Providing care and sustenance to the “ego” is not pandering, it is critical. Whether through religion, art, nature or unadalturated introspection, feeding self and keeping it alive is what keeps one from becoming a sociopath. Call it a soul,(as I do) call it the inner psychy,(as I also do) call it the sub- or un-conscious – it is not pandering to build it up and support it.