I had a long phone conversation the other day with a friend who is a devout Christian. I remarked that it’s always difficult for me to strike a balance in my writing in terms of justifiably criticizing the Christian right while not sounding as though I am generally anti-Christian (which I’m not). I write a lot about some of the utter stupidity I see , in particular, from the more political forms of Christianity (the war on Christmas, creationism, claims about the founding fathers, reconstructionism). As a result, I tend to attract a lot of people who, in my view, take things entirely too far in this regard.
Some of them are on a crusade to show that any belief in any god at all is inherently irrational and to show that any religious person must be stupid or uneducated. In this regard, I think many of them are just taking their egos for a walk, flexing and strutting and, for all practical purposes, saying, “My rational dick is bigger than your rational dick.” I say that because, at a much younger age, I was one of those people (and I can hear my friend Andi, who probably remembers those days, laughing right now, as she did then).
I was absolutely convinced that anyone who believed in God must be an idiot, and that it was my job to tell them so. I spent quite some time as one of those annoying people who would go into Christian chatrooms just to tell them that they’re wrong and to prove that I knew more about it than they did. The problem was that I just kept running into religious people who were not idiots at all, and in fact were well educated, well-spoken, very bright people. And I ran into them in all brands, from Christianity to taoism to Islam to Wiccan. On top of that, I ran into my fair share of people who believed what I did but who were also ignorant, bigoted and not terribly bright.
Over the course of a few years, I met several people who, merely by virtue of knowing them (not because they ever tried to convince me of it), changed my views and helped me grow up and out of that stage in my life. Henry Neufeld, who comments here once in a while, was one of them. He was one of the first Christians I encountered who was not a fundamentalist (broadly defined, which I know is not entirely accurate). I remember we would have these conversations where I would pull out my handy dandy list of Biblical contradictions or falsehoods, pick one and throw it out there as a gauntlet. And Henry wouldn’t pick it up, he’d say something like, “Yep, you’re right. The guy who wrote that got it wrong.” And it would initially leave me a bit taken aback.
You see, I knew how this argument went. I’d had them before, and I had it all planned out in my head. You’re not supposed to say that, I’d think. You’re supposed to come up with some fanciful explanation to rationalize it away, and then I tell you how absurd that is and how you’re engaging in special pleading to insulate your faiith from rational argument, and then you’ll tell me that I need Jesus, and I’ll tell you that it’s ridiculous to believe in invisible leprauchans, and then you’ll tell me that you’re praying for me, and then finally I’ll tell you that you’re an idiot. And damn it, you’re deviating from the script in my head.
I simply had no idea that it was possible to be both a Christian and an intellectual. But I kept running into people like Henry, like Glenn Morton and Wes Elsberry and Burt Humburg and Howard Van Till and John Burgeson and Keith Miller and Chuck Austerberry and so many others. And eventually I figured out something that will undoubtedly come as a shock to some of my readers – I don’t know everything. Guess what? Neither do you. I have no answer to the question of ultimate origins (the origin of existence itself); neither do you. What we have are just our best guesses. Mine happens to be deism; stay tuned, it might change.
I think we spend entirely too much time and energy drawing the lines in the wrong place. Too many people are focused on dividing us up into all the wrong groups. Humans are tribal by nature, I think, but as the world has shrunk we’ve developed the ability to form intentional tribes rather than tribes of necessity (family, village, etc). But we still tend to distinguish Us versus Them based on the most superficial of characteristics. The lines shouldn’t be drawn between Christians and atheists, Jews and Muslims, and so forth; they should be drawn between the decent and intelligent and life-embracing people in every group and the bigoted, ignorant and reactionary people in every group.
They should be drawn between those who treat others as equal human beings and those who treat others as pawns to be manipulated, commodities to be bought and sold, or objects upon which to inflict their need to make themselves feel stronger. They should be drawn between those who respect the right of each individual to own themselves and control their own lives and those who seek to use their power, individually or collectively, to deprive others of that self-determination.
The fact that I do not accept Christianity does not mean that I must think that all Christians are deluding themselves. It also doesn’t mean that it’s my job to harangue them about our differences of opinion. When someone seeks to get their version of Christianity enshrined in the law, I will stand up and oppose them and I will use every means at my disposal to do so. When someone seeks to replace or water down science education in public schools by bringing in their religious views, they have made an enemy of me (in the political sense; I may well like them just fine personally). When someone uses their religious views as a weapon with which to assault the rights, and sometimes even the bodies, of my gay friends, they will find no more fierce an opponent than me.
But you know what? Here is the absolutely key point, so I’m going to put it in bold so no one misses it: In every one of those circumstances, standing by my side in those battles will also be a good many Christians. I work with them everyday in the battle to protect science education and, in many cases, I could only dream of contributing as much as they have in that regard. There will be Christians and Jews and probably people from every other religion standing shoulder to shoulder with me next to our gay brothers and sisters, marching for equality. And they will stand with me in opposing the imposition of authoritarian laws as well.
So that’s why I respond the way I do when I see people drawing the lines in the wrong place. That’s why I react the way I do when I see people on my side making enemies out of people who are also on our side. I really believe that people like PZ make enemies where none need to be made, with his attacks on Miller and, prior to that, on Francis Collins. There are disagreements between them, obviously, on the issue of theism and faith, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing those things, critiquing each other’s position, and so forth.
But when you flatly declare them to be creationists – the enemy, essentially, in this context – you are drawing the lines in the wrong place. I react to it because I’ve had it aimed at me as well. Despite everything I’ve done in the battle for science education, I’ve been told flat out that I’m an “adversary” (yes, by PZ himself, along with one or two others) because some of my political opinions don’t fall in line with what they think they should. Because I don’t think the Cato Institute is evil, I was branded a “primitive reactionary”. Because I urged caution rather than rhetorical bomb-throwing in the early stages of a situation where none of us really knew what was true or false, I was accused of being a mole for the other side, an idea that is astonishingly laughable. And my personal favorite, I was called (not by PZ but by Gary Hurd) a “libertarian, fundamentalist, Republican crypto-facist” (sic) and, worse yet, a supporter of James Watt, of all people.
This is the sort of glazed over, idiotic fanaticism that drives me up the wall. This whole groupthink dynamic of detecting any unorthodox opinion in the group and purging it for the sake of ideological purity is simply kneejerk stupidity uttered in little more than gutteral grunts and endless rants of the “enemy within”. It’s McCarthyism, only this time by the left instead of the right. And it’s something we would be much better off without. Stop drawing the lines in the wrong places. Embrace those who are on the side of science and rationality and decency even when they don’t agree with every single thing you say. Not only will your goals be more readily achieved with such a coalition, but you might even find out that it’s okay that you don’t know everything because no one else does either.