Saturday, April 08, 2006

An Exercise in Futility

Something that I have noticed when talking to evangelicals and fundamentalists is the hermetic seal that exists around their beliefs. There is a strong divide between believers and non-believers, patrolled by emotional fealty on the believers side more than sound causes. I was once a believer myself, and there was a time when my walls were pretty thick too. What eventually broke them down was that I could not believe in their God, a God whose moral character was so repugnant that I wouldn't give him bus fare if I met him on the street, let alone bow down and worship him.

So, in part, I was led away from theism by my scientific background, but the clincher was a belief in a objective standard of ethics and truth which retained their character and content regardless of the will of a cosmic bully. In other words, what was good and true did not depend upon God, but were independent facts by which God himself could be judged. This belief was the lifeline that led me out of the cave of superstition.

When I talk about objective standards of ethics and truth, I am not claiming the finality of any particular expression of what is true or good. I am claiming that there are things that are true regardless of one's historical or cultural circumstances, that science really does permit us to expand our domain of knowledge and attain a good measure of certainty in regard to how the universe works. I also believe that we have made genuine moral progress over the centuries, and now understand to be wrong many of the things that we once blithely accepted as right. The calamities of the twentieth century do not convince me otherwise; it is always possible for any generation in any place to forget what has been learned and to regress to a more primitive standard (and if there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is this.) I believe in the possibility of progress, not in its inevitability. The scale of the disasters of the last century is only due to the size of the populations involved, and the efficiency of the tools at their disposal. The malice involved was quite ancient, as passages in the Bible demonstrate.

I'd say I wasted twenty years digging myself out of this religious hole, but it wasn't entirely wasted. I got a good look at the other side--a look that most atheists who escaped at an early age haven't had. What strikes me about the our current breed of religious demagogues is something both new and old. Like Constantine, they are political opportunists. When Constantine had his fateful dream, "In this sign conquer," he recognized that Christianity had already conquered Rome, and he had but to mark his shield and those of his army with the Christian symbol to take Rome without a fight. The same tactic, I am afraid, is now being pursued by the Religious Right.

There is, however, something distinctly modern, indeed post-modern, about their position. Their claim that there is no morality without religion is essentially relativistic, and even nihilistic. In the late nineteenth century the same position was held by Nietzsche and Dosteyevsky. Nietzsche declared that God was dead, and looked to the Overman to impose a standard of ethics and truth by sheer will, the Will-to-Power. Dosteyevsky said that "Without God, everything is permitted," and called for a return to faith. Essentially, Dostoyevsky's God became the ultimate Overman, the tyrant who maintained order by brute authority. But either position leads to fascism (despite Nietzsche's own loathing for it--he would have held the Nazis in utter contempt.) If there is no hope of establishing an objective standard of truth or justice, then rational argument is pointless. The only valid argument is a steel-toed boot. Belief in God does not change this, because God doesn't take interviews, and scripture is as vague as a Rorshach ink blot.

So, if religious extremists make common cause with cultural relativists who claim that truth and morality are in the eye of the beholder, it is because they share this belief. This I call the post-modernist dodge--all truths are equal, until it's our turn to speak, and then, our truth is equaller (to paraphrase Orwell.) This seems to be a new low for absolutists, but their absolutism is a mailed fist in a velvet glove, to be unveiled when power permits. Thus, the religious agenda is essentially a political agenda, a Will-to-Power. Political power allows one to set the law, the law controls the courts, and ultimately, the police and the army. The public-relations campaigns of today make way for tomorrow's boot.

Part of the attraction of this position for evangelicals is brinksmanship. They cannot resist the temptation to claim that social and moral perdition will follow closely on the heals of unbelief. But the consequences of this position can be disastrous. If truth and justice adhere to standards independent of an intentional agent, then there is no one who can be bribed or flattered, no appeal. The consequences of your actions are inescapable--they will ripple through the social fabric, and you are likely to get only as much mercy as you give. But if you are saved by faith, or confession, or whatever ritual your religion prescribes, then party hearty--just get to the church on time. No one really expects to die tonight. Between action and consequence stands a supernatural arbiter, who can weight the dice for you. Maybe you'll get lucky. In fact, the preacher man says I will get lucky, if I drop an extra twenty in the pot. Who needs condoms?

Because they do not believe in any form of objective truth, arguing with evangelicals is pointless. Their references to the Bible are not appeals to reason or evidence, but appeals to authority--a logical fallacy, yet it is the only standard of truth that they recognize, and they are utterly incapable of understanding why this is not convincing to us. I suspect that there is some facility for critical thinking which they genuinely lack. I can understand them, but they cannot understand me. This essentially nihlistic position is dangerous because of its fascistic potential, but it is particularly dangerous in Christians because without an independent standard of truth and justice, all parts of the Bible are on an equal footing. The calls to genocide, torture, slavery, infanticide, the glorification of God's cruelty, the insistence of blind obedience in committing attrocities, all stand on an equal footing with the Sermon on the Mount, and everything since the publication of this bronze age text is swept away. We find ourselves face to face with the barbarity of the ancient world, a barbarity which is already gripping many Muslim nations.

This is not the triumph of Christianity or Islam, but the death of them. This latest breed of zealots no more understands their religion than they do science. Fundamentalism is fossilizing religion. In place of spirituality and ethical consideration, we are confronted by mere memetic replication; people who parrot religious quotations but do not engage them. Israel means "He who struggles with God and wins." These people don't struggle with God at all; having no standard by which to tell between truth and falsehood, they have no way of telling between a real and a false Prophet, or between the truth and an Idol of their own making. To wrestle with God, you have to have something to stand on, and they have nothing beneath their feet.

They have chosen superstition over faith. By faith I do not mean a specific belief, but a general attitude of optimism and trust. To have faith in you is to trust that you are both honest and competent, but it remains faith because the outcome lies in the future. I cannot have proof before the fact. The same goes for faith in myself, and in a more general faith in future outcomes, that difficulties will not be insurmountable. This same definition of faith comprises hope (for positive outcomes), charity (the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt), and courage (born of optimism.) This is real faith, the very thing that Christianity talks about, since all of the so-called Christian virtues are clustered around it. But I have not mentioned God once in talking about it. Faith is not superstition. Yet superstition is the cause for which Fundamentalist Christians are fighting, and in doing so, they are killing their religion. Not that this will do anyone any good--a dead religion is more dangerous than a living one.

If there is any hope for Christianity, it must abandon its hankering for the occult and swear an allegiance to the truth. It must embrace the project of the Enlightenment, continue to question and refine the ethics which grew out of the Christian tradition but have evolved since, and return to the standards of establishing the truth that science has proven so successful. Other religions have successfully made the transition from superstition to spiritual practice; Bhuddism has come to the West largely free of its metaphysical baggage, and Judaism is making the transition from orthodoxy to orthopraxy. Jesus doesn't need all the smoke and mirrors to be taken seriously as a moral philosopher. I do not expect born-agains to understand a word of this. They would, no doubt, respond to this with their usual list of Biblical quotes, threats of damnation, and a litany of logical fallacies. I don't care, but they won't understand that either.

Nevertheless, they are still a minority, despite surveys that say otherwise. Between atheists and born-agains lie a huge segment of the population, perhaps the majority, whom I call secular believers. These people go to church occasionally, but don't really think much about God (most atheists have probably given more thought to the subject than they have.) They don't know much about science either, but they know they like what it provides, and if they come to see that there is any danger of losing that, they will rise up in protest. And they do believe for the most part, however much or little they think about it, in some objective standard of truth and justice. Work on that. That is really all we need.