Friday, August 12, 2011

On the Fence?

As part of my attempt to become more clear thinking regarding my new epistemic position (one in which I take an increasingly atheistic viewpoint), I decided to pick up Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion.

Those familiar with the book (or Dawkins in general) won't be surprised by this basic fact: Dawkins allows there to be no middle ground in the fundamentalism v. rationality debate. Moderate religionists and atheists/agnostics who tolerate religionists are, according to Dawkins, only giving fundamentalists more time, energy, and freedom to entrench themselves against the voices of rationality. Allowing people to maintain their illusory and fanciful beliefs in a deity does the least good for humanity as a whole. In no uncertain terms, Dawkins (speaking primarily to those sympathetic to his atheistic worldview) tells the reader that even allowing notions such as "the Bible is, generally, a good book" or "religion can help people be good," such notions only undermine widespread acceptance of thoroughgoing rationality and, conversely, unwittingly endorses the more destructive and irrational forms of religion. To be on the fence is to give the game away to religionists.

I appreciate Dawkins' passion and commitment to rationality. I think, on the whole, that he argues clearly and handles a wide range of topics with care (though not always the care a specialist might give them). Moreover, I agree with him that religion does, on balance, encourage a lack of clear thinking, self-reliance, and critical scientific inquiry. 

My problem comes, however, with the notion that anyone who endorses the same views as Dawkins must work to dissemble religion in our society, through doing such things as, e.g., dismantling the foundational beliefs of those religions (as Dawkins has attempted to do in the book). The reason I cannot affirm such an antagonistic position comes from my own experience:
I would not, until about six months ago, ever have considered picking up Dawkins' book. From what I had seen in the media and heard second-hand, I thought Dawkins was an angry atheist, determined to prove how wrong religiously-minded people—especially Christians—were in their basic assumptions. Why would I want to read that? He didn't have any interest, as far as I could tell, in exploring or changing his own convictions; why should I do him the honor of letting him explore, and indeed criticize mine?

What changed my mind about the God question had nothing to do with people rhetorically dismantling my beliefs about God. I changed my mind through a confluence of events, in part facilitated by caring individuals whose perspectives differed from my own, who helped me to understand the world being bigger than I imagined it to be. I also turned toward rationality because of specific circumstances that made me open to a life without God. Without those two things—people who cared about me with different worldview than my own, and unique circumstances that gave me room to change—I would still be a Christian.

That's why I will remain where I am: on the fence. Do I think, on the whole, that religion produces socially and environmentally destructive individuals? No, I don't. I think it might make us naive, but by no means are all religious people leading us inexorably to a social catastrophe. (Honestly, our attention should be at least as focused on corporations, advertising, technology, and militarism as elements undoing our society.) Religion will create "nut jobs," but it also helps people to become a better version of themselves; that's what happened to me, anyway.

My aim isn't to tear down the faith of others. Even if I find myself teaching on Christianity or the Bible, with a number of the faithful in my midst, I'm not going to be working to undo their dearly held beliefs. If anything, like Dawkins (I hope), I want to inspire people to pursue the truth, to become more open to the viewpoints of others, and to recognize that life isn't as simple as "us v. them." I want them to join me on the fence, to see that there's a place where compassionate, thoughtful people can discuss ideas with honesty and care for one another. 

(Ahem: Sorry if that got a bit preachy. I am, after all, attending a seminary, and am just speaking my "native" dialect. Forgive me.)

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