The Primate Diaries

It’s been an unusually busy week, so I apologize for the lack of original posts, but I just came upon Christopher Hitchens’ latest piece in Slate reflecting on the many debates he’s had with religious proponents in the last few years. His new film, Collision, looks fascinating and I look forward to reviewing it.

What struck me in Hitchens’ article, and what I’ve found when discussing religion with theists as well, is how few of them hold literally to the doctrine that they espouse. It is one of the curious aspects of religion today that people will join movements insisting that religion be taught in science classes, but won’t agree on which parts of that religion they even believe in.

As Hitchens writes:

Usually, when I ask some Calvinist whether he is really a Calvinist (in the sense, say, of believing that I will end up in hell), there is a slight reluctance to say yes, and a slight wince from his congregation. I have come to the conclusion that this has something to do with the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality: You can’t very easily invite somebody to your church and then to supper and inform him that he’s marked for perdition. More to the point, though, you soon discover that many of those attending are not so sure about all the doctrines, either, just as you very swiftly find out that a vast number of Catholics don’t truly believe more than about half of what their church instructs them to think. Every now and then I read reports of polls that tell me that more Americans believe in the virgin birth or the devil than believe in Darwinism: I’d be pretty sure that at least some of these are unwilling to confess their doubts to someone who calls them up on their kitchen phone. Meanwhile, by any measurement, the number of those who profess allegiance to no church (I am not claiming these as atheists, just skeptics) are the fastest-growing minority in America. And don’t tell me that warfare increases faith and that there are no unbelievers in foxholes: Only recently I was invited to a very spirited meeting of the freethinkers’ group at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where there has been a revolt against on-campus proselytizing by biblical-literalist instructors.

I can only see this as a good thing and think that if more skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists would discuss religion more openly with true believers that reason would ultimately win out. Perhaps that’s just “faith” on my part, but I don’t think people want to believe in erroneous ideas. They may just never have been asked to critically examine what they believe.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    October 30, 2009

    What struck me in Hitchens’ article, and what I’ve found when discussing religion with theists as well, is how few of them hold literally to the doctrine that they espouse. It is one of the curious aspects of religion today that people will join movements insisting that religion be taught in science classes, but won’t agree on which parts of that religion they even believe in.

    as an empirical matter i think this is because the specific ideological content is incidental to the primary reasons most people are religious. atheists have to focus on the ideological content because that to a great extent is what they are negating by being *atheists*. of course, the “problem” with the empirical description i’m making is that theists, in particular christians and muslims, will avow that the ideological content *is* central, even if one can see that that seems unlikely (e.g., majority of religionists are as you know fuzzy and contradictory in terms of the ideological commitments they’re even making).

    the issue isn’t just extant among religion, or religious systems. the human mind is slapdash and incoherent, and riddled with inconsistency. how liberals have read john rawls? how many conservatives have read oakeshott? rather, we get by with case-by-case heuristics and rules-of-thumb. the problem with religion is that religionists claim that their heuristics & rules-of-thumb aren’t that at all, rather, they have a “theology” which is a “science” and internally consistent and coherent.

    of course, much of the above is less relevant for religions which do not place too much important on orthodoxy or ideological content. e.g., shinto, variants of hinduism, ancient pagan religions, etc.

  2. #2 Dave Tibbets
    October 31, 2009

    Our spiritual understanding expands as we grow intellectually. This causes a rift with religion, which by its nature is not supposed to change. Since spirituality, unlike religion, is an individual and an internal experience, we each reach slightly different interim conclusions. There is, after all, an ultimate spiritual truth, but it is beyond any of our current enlightenments to grasp. It is my belief that we are each lead down paths that open our individual spiritual understanding, and thus we argue and disagree on how we package our religions.
    We are on the verge of a much broader revelation of spirituality. One that will focus on our love for our commonalities rather that our hatred for our apparent differences. People today, especially the young, are not satisfied with the ridge religious partitioning that divides us. More is being demanded in place of belief systems. More will be given to give substance to our individual internal faith, and we will all emerge the better for it.

  3. #3 Jeroen
    November 2, 2009

    “They may just never have been asked to critically examine what they believe.”
    I’m afraid some (many?) have been asked to not examine critically what they believe.

  4. #4 Melinda
    November 2, 2009

    “It is one of the curious aspects of religion today that people will join movements insisting that religion be taught in science classes, but won’t agree on which parts of that religion they even believe in.”

    You’re assuming these two groups overlap where they probably don’t. The groups pushing hardest for religion in schools are generally fundamentalists, who are biblical literalists and most likely to believe their church’s doctrines.

    Also, I think it’s a bit insulting to assume people have never questioned simply because they come to a conclusion with which you disagree. Obviously, the fact that some people reject some parts of church doctrine implies that they have questioned it. Not to mention that 40% of American adults are practicing a religion other than the one in which they were raised.

  5. #5 John Gathly
    November 2, 2009

    @Melinda

    I’m sorry that you were insulted, but I’ve never understood how you can question only parts of a holy book. I disagree most with fundamentalists, but at least they’re consistent.

  6. #6 Melinda
    November 3, 2009

    You assume that the “holy book” must be interpreted literally word for word as the unerring, eternal, perfect word of a deity unlimited by considerations of time, space or culture. That is not the way “holy books” are viewed by most people of faith, hence millenia of debate in various religious traditions. Anthropological studies have shown that literalism is actually a more recent incarnation of religion (a product of both the evolution of written texts from oral traditions and the piety pissing contest between different schools of thought), whereas metaphorical interpretations are the norm in many religions throughout the world and throughout history.

  7. #7 Tracy Michels
    November 4, 2009

    I’ve never understood how you can question only parts of a holy book.
    – John Gathly

    Simple: because, upon reading the “parts” of the Bible, they stop making sense when they contradict one another, leading the critical reader to wonder what else is simply incorrect.

    There are hundreds of examples.

  8. #8 Martin R
    November 7, 2009

    I often have the feeling that nobody takes the basic teachings of the various world religions as seriously as us atheists do.

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