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Essay:A Rational Approach to Dealing with Religion and Society
Note: I don't have a lot of time to dedicate to this right now, but these are just some ideas I've been ruminating on lately. Feel free to give me some input on the talk page.
It's easy - especially around this website - to pile on religion and the effects that we see it having on our society. A big part of that, at least in my case, is the fact that we look for the worst examples of people harnessing faith as a way to justify a politics and a world view that we find repugnant. We all read about the latest school board wanting to teach intelligent design, or about a Young Earth Creationist museum showing people coexisting with dinosaurs, or someone using old or unreliable studies to justify a faith-based attack on women's rights or to justify the repression of homosexuals: from there it's really easy to tell ourselves - and each other - something along the lines of "Religion is total bullshit! This is just like when they went after Galileo! No rational,sane person would ever believe such a thing!"
It's nice to feel so right all the time, isn't it? Especially when you know that you have rationality and science on your side, and all they have is a big invisible white man in the sky (Played, of course, by Morgan Freeman in liberal Hollywood.).
The problem is; many rational people DO believe such a thing. Not the "such a thing" that Jesus rode a dinosaur or that kangaroos flew to Australia on a volcanic plume, but that there is something beyond the material plane of existence: something that helps them understand a difficult life and that gives them the moral strength and courage that we all need to make the right choices in challenging times. Some of these people - think Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, and William Wilberforce, just to name three - represent parts of an important tradition of religion being used as a critical tool in actualising, justifying and rationalising social and political change.
The world is a complicated place - and it's irrational to believe that something as diverse, subtle, complex and nuanced as religious belief can be easily shoehorned into one category and subsequently dismissed. Smart, open-minded, progressive people can and do believe in God. So do tools like Andy Schlafly. They are not the same people, and they are not using religion towards the same political, intellectual and social ends.
Elsewhere, it has been argued that to point out that asking people to respect religious belief based on the fact that some intelligent people do believe in God is simply an argument from authority that "may be dismissed without further concern." However, that's not what I'm trying to argue for. What I'm trying to argue for is that to call religion "bullshit," as some of us have, is to dismiss the ways in which religion can and has acted as a force for positive social and political change, and more importantly, helped individuals explain to themselves and deal with a complex moral universe. Dismissing things "without further concern" is easy to do - what's hard to do - and interesting to do, in my opinion - is to look beyond the strict rules of rationality in order to understand how ideas are lived in historical and sociological contexts. Dismissing what people believe and the truths that they live without further concern speaks to an ill-informed type of intellectual snobbery that does little to help me understand why the world is the way it is, how it got to be that way, and what we can do to make it a better place. If you want to dismiss with no further concern Desmond Tutu's beliefs and the role they played in inspiring him to work towards the liberation of a nation and a people, go right ahead. I prefer to engage with those beliefs, understand them, and from there understand how other struggles have - and have not - been able to do the same.
An attack on religious belief, if it is to have any intellectual merit, must account for that. The last I checked, tolerance and understanding are important human values (never mind liberal ones). And last I checked, a rational approach to an intellectual challenge is to try to understand the challenge for what it is - not to cherrypick the parts that are easy to attack while ignoring the things that do a little more - or a lot more - to complicate your reading and your argument. Religion is not rational. So be it. Proving that is about as intellectually satisfying as proving that two plus two equals four. Human beings and human life and human experience and human history are not rational either - not entirely, and not by a long shot. To dismiss out of hand an important part of the human experience because it is not rational is to dismiss part of the human experience for ideological reasons - which, to me, is not a rational thing to do.