About a year ago, I signed up for the Old Fart's version of Facebook at a social network called TBD. I'm not real fond of social networking as a general rule, but it was in its early stages and I thought I'd give it a whirl. As social networks go, it's pretty unobtrusive and most of the people on it actually work and have lives, so you aren't alerted every time someone scratches their ass (thank God!). There's no "poking," few widgets, and actually some fairly interesting people. Maybe that's because they're all my age.
The discussion groups were just starting up and I got in on the ground floor of one of them, as a happy coincidence. It was called "Losing My Religion." The initiator said she'd grown up Catholic and was now disillusioned and "cynical" about religion and was she the only one who'd become that way as she'd gotten older?
I hadn't yet made the final leap I've made here, but I was teetering on the precipice and was the first person to respond, with this:
You're definitely not alone in this boat. I was raised a [redacted] but I never really felt my heart was in it, and I was never very good at at (or good enough, anyway). I've still got a pretty strong belief in some kind of diety, but I'm really not sure what. I don't really care for the label agnostic though; I still feel there's some unfathomable intelligence out there that we've placed into little boxes for our convenience and because it's bigger than we are. Lately I've gotten interested in Buddhism, since it seems to mesh with what I know about science better than other religions.
I don't think it was my own mortality so much that made me question what I'd been taught as it was just a slow realization that I'd grown out of those clothes and they were binding me now. Guilt? Oh yeah. I think that's inevitable because organized religion relies on guilt to maintain control. And there's sadness too. It's a loss of belonging to a community, even if you don't really fit in with them very well. I feel now like it's the constant search that matters, the constant questioning of the self and the external world, striving to be a better person, and to treat others well, to make the world a little better while I'm here. If that isn't a definition of worshipping God, I'm not sure what is.
That was almost a year ago. The discussion kept going, but I left it after a short while because it turned into a kind of rancorous mutual baiting of atheists and fundamentalists. It kept going in my absence and as of a short while ago, had 1721 Comments and 221 members. I've dipped my toes back into it recently and while the trolls and the baiters are still there, I hope I've grown sufficiently in the meanwhile to offset them a little instead of imitating them, as I found myself doing originally. Back then, my own change was too fresh, too scary, for me to be objective or calm about it. I hope I'm settled enough with my decision that I can keep a cool head, because there are some really interesting folks there, talking about chaos theory, scientific objectivity, the nature of faith, the nature of religion, the nature of spirituality, and nature of truth, church history and other topics I'm interested in.
I've been pondering the presence of the baiters and name-callers on that list and hadn't been able to figure it out until Jen alerted me to the PZ Myers kerfluffle. In case you're not a science junkie, PZ Myers is a biology professor and the author of a blog called Pharyngula, who delights in baiting creationists. He's been chewing on his foot in a post about communion wafers which I will merely link to but which has enraged large numbers of people to the point of death threats (no verbal statement excuses death threats, sorry. That's just wrong.). Even the science blogosphere has been in an uproar about it, since PZ is notorious for stirring shit with religious people. This is the kind of behavior (if not quite as extreme) that I saw on our discussion list that turned me off. PZ's fellow scientists came out in support of his right to free speech, but several have given him the what-for to varying degrees for said shit-stirring. There was even a lovely Platonic dialogue involving Golden Retrievers and Dobermans over at Uncertain Principles about it, which nicely counters another post I was more disturbed by over at Cosmic Variance, written by my friend Jen's husband Sean, who is a happy atheist.
Sean says, for one thing, "[A communion wafer] doesn’t turn into anyone’s body, and there’s nothing different about a “consecrated” wafer than an unconsecrated one — the laws of physics have something to say about that." This just makes me sigh and shake my head. The laws of physics have nothing to do with it. While I've never believed in the transubstantiation myself, I understand that it's about symbolism and desire not laws of nature. The laws of physics argument is invalid because it is addressing the wrong question. It's asking how and if the wafer becomes the body of Christ when the relevant question is why and when. Physics doesn't do well with why until there is an actual process involved, and it's not good with symbolism that isn't mathematical. There are conflicting paradigms here and the tools for one paradigm don't work well in the other.
But this was the statement he made that really bothered me:
My hope is that humanists can not only patiently explain why God and any accompanying metaphysical superstructure is unnecessary and unsupported by the facts, but also provide compelling role models for living a life of reason, which includes the capacity for respectful disagreement.
I don't usually comment on Cosmic Variance because it's pretty technical and often beyond my capabilities, though Sean is one of the great explainers of extremely complicated physics problems. Here, though, I felt I had something to say:
My difficulty with both sides of the religion/secular humanism argument is that both treat the other like a problem to be fixed. Religious belief is not something to be eradicated like smallpox anymore than secular humanism is. There are extremists on both sides, crazies in both camps, social problems that arise from both world views. Both points of view have a value and sometimes they even (gasp!) co-exist quite comfortably. The only reason mockery is called for in any argument is as a corrective mirror, but it seldom functions that way. People don't like to be mocked, so they tune it out and the message is lost.
Listening to arguments like these, I'm reminded of the opera lovers I know, so many of whom are completely convinced that, "of course you'll love this! You just have to hear this person, that aria, this conductor, see that production! It's so wonderful! How could you not love it? I love it!" Opera is a matter of taste, beliefs are a matter of conscious choice. No amount of sincere insistence of any kind is going to change either. Changes in belief happen from the inside out.
And from the disinterested distance of someone who's in the process of making changes in my beliefs, both sides of this argument sound too damn much alike. Richard Dawkins has not done the secular humanists any favors. He's your Oral Roberts.
Sean closes his post with: "Even if both atheists and believers are susceptible to the temptations of tribalism, that doesn’t make them equivalent; the atheists have the advantage of being right on the substance." And I sputtered when I read this, too, because that's a hell of an assumption to make. Right on the substance of what? Of physics? Okay. Of theology? Not so much. To use a little math-speak, these are non-congruent, non-intersecting sets. And how is this better than the fundamentalists saying, "we're right because we've got the Bible"? To argue you're right on the substance, you have to first have substance in common. That's missing here.
What's missing also is the idea that reason alone, any more than belief alone, is insufficient. Sean is setting up reason, basically, as an equal substitute for spirituality. Remember those B-movies with the disembodied brains (representing pure reason, pure logic, pure science)? Were those brains ever the good guys? There's something in us that knows reason and logic is not enough.
The more I poke around in these areas, the more convinced I am that they can co-exist and do have something to say to each other that's beyond "you're an asshole," and "No, you're an asshole." Some of the first modern humanists, were, after all, churchmen; some of them were burned at the stake for it. But we'll never learn from each other if we can't play nice in the same sandbox. Like Sean, I hope I can be if not a voice of reason, at least oil on the waters.