May 14, 2008

Some Thoughts on "Religion and Politics in an Election Year"

Last night's Greater Worcester Humanists event, a discussion panel on Religion and Politics in an Election Year was interesting in one vein and not terribly interesting in another. I had to leave at 9:00 and so might have missed something of interest, but overall I didn't hear anything new or unexpected. By and large, it was a panel of very nice people who have slightly different points of view but generally agreed with one another that while people's faiths will influence their politics, it isn't appropriate for clergy to tell people what to think and how to vote on almost all issues and that religion or the lack thereof is a personal thing.

That's a very liberal, New England-influenced approach to religion. I say that as someone who not so long ago lived in a place where the opposite view was much more common. Religion and politics are frequently inseparable in great swathes of America, and certainly in North Florida they tend to be tightly linked. One need only look at the recent battles over teaching evolution and the role of the First Baptist Church therein for a pretty typical instance of this. On a personal level, then, the meeting was a reminder to me of how different things are here and how glad I am to be in a place once again where this is the case.

On the other hand, some basic assumptions made by the religious — as inclusive as they might be — wound up going unchallenged. For instance, there was an agreement on the panel that a proper role for the religious is to be the conscience of the country. Is that really true, though? Perhaps the argument could be made that religious people might be a useful conscience for other religious people, but I don't think it's necessary to have religion to have a moral conscience, whether on the personal, local or national level.

At one point in the discussion, Father Frank Scollen stated that whatever religion one looked at, one could see that religion gave meaning to people's lives. His assertion was essentially that religion creates meaning in this regard and so one sees this common thread through all faiths. This isn't an unusual argument, but I think its equally plausible that religions are created in the first place as a response to our finding meaning in the first place, and that meaning arises as a function of interaction with one's environment, particularly when this happens in a social context. Any particular religion bears the mark of the society in which it is created and practiced, and surely the specific meaning ascribed by a given religion to the life of the individual varies with culture. Scollen's statement is an arrogation of meaning; he seems to be saying that without religion there would be a paucity of meaning and so of valuing of individual human life. I don't see evidence for that being the case. All of us find meaning in things that are far removed from religious ideas unless we are so wrapped up in an ideology that our individuality loses its value in our own eyes, and this may be why cults work the way they do (e.g., Jim Jones and The People's Temple certainly overwhelmed their adherents with notions of meaning but as clearly diminished the importance of individual value). I don't think Scollen made the statement with any malicious intent whatsoever toward humanists or atheists or what have you; it's just the way that he, as a priest — someone for whom meaning is defined by religion — thinks about life.

At another point, Tahir Ali (of the Worcester Islamic Center and American Muslim Alliance) made a statement in passing that "not having faith is itself a faith." That's one that gets tossed around quite a lot, and when Mr. Ali recited it he did so in such an off-the-cuff manner that nobody in the audience managed to challenge it. Perhaps most of them didn't even notice it; I can't say. I can only say that I did catch it and that, as always, its simply a wrong-headed statement. As others have pointed out many times over, not having faith is a faith in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby, particularly when the assertion being made is really that not having faith in religion of any sort is itself a faith. One can have faith based on precedent and evidence in entirely rational things without ever placing any credence at all upon universal morality, supernatural intercession, divinity, or the notion (as put with a good deal of emphasis by Imam Kareem, who accompanied Mr. Ali) that a particular text is "exactly" the word of God to some prophet. These are very different things; Ali conflated faith that is the belief in things unseen with that which is based precisely upon that which evidence supports. Technically speaking, the latter is inference and not faith.

David Niose made the point that irreligious people don't have a problem with other people believing in whatever thay like per se but with the way in which religion is exalted, as he put it, in American society. In subtle ways, I think the rest of the panel — as affable and inclusive as they were — proved his point, albeit in relatively subtle ways as I've noted to this point. Perhaps the least subtle comment of the evening in this regard came from St. Francis Episcopal Church rector Richard Simpson. Simpson, while again a very inclusive sort of person who speaks from what seems to be a genuinely broad mind when it comes to social issues, made particular mention of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, casting them as people who consider God to be evil. This would be particularly odd in consideration that both maintain that God doesn't exist in the first place; what Simpson was really saying, as far as I could see, is that he believes they consider religion to be inherently evil. I don't think this is a fair assessment, particularly when it comes to Dawkins (I'm not nearly so familiar with Hitchens). That Dawkins criticizes religious thinking is true, but that's not the same thing as calling all religion maleficent. That Dawkins points out that religious belief can open the door to cynical manipulations is also true, and Simpson had a greed with a similar point made by someone else on the panel earlier in the discussion (I think it was UU Minister Aaron Payson, but I may be incorrect). It seemed to me that Simpson's problem with Dawkins essentially comes down to his being a critic of religion who comes from outside of a religious context, and this speaks to Niose's point. If religion isn't going to be exalted — that is, set apart in some way — than it has to be subject to criticism from without as well as from within. Among the religious, what Dawkins does is sometimes termed "New Atheism," but how new is it?

Thomas Jefferson said a couple of centuries ago:

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.

— Letter to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813

Moreover, Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason had some things to say about Christianity in particularly that are just as critical, if not moreso, than anything Richard Dawkins has ever said on the matter — and Paine himself was more a Deist than an atheist!
This single reflection will show, that the doctrine of redemption is founded on a mere pecuniary idea corresponding to that of a debt which another person might pay; and as this pecuniary idea corresponds again with the system of second redemption, obtained through the means of money given to the Church for pardons, the probability is that the same persons fabricated both the one and the other of those theories; and that, in truth there is no such thing as redemption — that it is fabulous, and that man stands in the same relative condition with his Maker as he ever did stand since man existed, and that it is his greatest consolation to think so.

The Age of Reason, Part First, Section 6

All in all, I don't find myself coming away with any new insights or having changed my mind about anything due to last night's meeting. I'm glad to know that religious and irreligious people appear to get on with each other better in this part of the country than in the part in which I was until a few months ago a resident. I still think that there are fundamental problems with a mindset based in religion, however, of which even the bearer of such a mind may be unaware. In a person of liberal mind in general, this is not a terrifically troublesome thing. I didn't get the impression from anyone on last night's panel that they would be inclined to force their views onto others or to defend against an argument with any sort of violence, physical or psychological. On the other hand, these small inconsistencies and presumptions can, in someone who takes a more myopic view of the world, fester into the sort of religious psychosis that afflicts much of our country today. What is simply a flaw in logic in one becomes a bigotry in the other. The leap from one to the other is not itself a momentum imparted by religion, but without the critics to point these things out, I think there would be many more people falling over the cliff than we have already.

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