Sunday, July 19, 2009

Christians and Atheists Discussing Religion

Is it possible for Christians and atheists (and agnostics and skeptics and so forth) to discuss religion without the discussion either remaining on such a superficial level that it hardly deserves to be called a discussion at all, with the participants either politely avoiding the subject entirely or ignoring their opponents' arguments, and/or or quickly degenerating into a bitter fight which threatens to permanently ruin friendships? I cannot recall a single example of a discussion which avoided both of these pitfalls. And I've seen a lot of discussions of religion between believers and non-. And yet here I am, trying again.

On January 20th of this year, someone noted in an Internet forum that on that day in the year 250, the Roman Emperor Decius began a persecution of Christians. Only with difficulty did I resist the temptation to make some flippant comment such as "A good start." or "And 1,759 years later, so much remains to be done."

I don't actually advocate killing Christians just because of their religion. But they do tend to weary me, when they talk about their religion. Otherwise, they're not necessarily any different to me than anyone else.

A few years ago, Jonathan Miller made a series for the BBC entitled "A Brief History of Disbelief." It's thoroughly excellent, I recommend it highly. Miller says he is an atheist, but that until recently he had been reluctant to describe himself so, and had given the matter little thought. I have heard many other disbelievers make comments similar to both of these. I find this very strange. Perhaps having been raised to believe in God, as I was, and then rejecting belief, causes one to be more inclined to think about the subject, and to think of oneself as an atheist rather than as an agnostic or to resist such labels altogether. Frankly, people who identify themselves as agnostics annoy me. It seems to me that their worldviews tend to be the same as those of us atheists, and that they're splitting hairs and being solipsistic. Strictly speaking, they're right: no-one can be certain whether God does or does not exist. But strictly speaking, nobody can be certain about anything else, either, and yet we get on with our lives as if we were certain of all sorts of things, and agnostics, for the most part, don't get solipsistic about a lot of other things.

Miller does a very good job in his program of showing how recent, in Christendom, is the phenomenon of fully open atheism. (Before Christianity, of course, and in parts of the world where Christianity has not dominated, speech was a bit freer.) He points out that even the Baron D'Holbach (1723-1789), often referred to as the "Newton of atheism," was not all that free and open in his atheism, and that people of his time often preferred to refer to themselves as deists -- sometimes because they were deists, and sometimes because deism was much safer than atheism. Between the 4th and the 18th centuries, in Christendom, you really have to read between the lines and guess just exactly how skeptical this person or that may have been. Besides deism, there arose in the 18th century (and persists to this day among, for example, many neoconservatives) the phenomenon of "elite atheism," where one, assuming oneself to belong to an elite, is an atheist, but believes it unwise to let atheism spread to the masses. Just very gradually did we get to the point of openness and tolerance of debate of such things which we enjoy today. And things could be more open still.

Not that I'm bitching or claiming I'm oppressed. Others still are, but me -- not so much. One unproductive result of Christianity -- and perhaps of many other religions. I don't know them nearly as well as I know Christianity -- is how it has spread the completely unrealistic idea of perfection. (Christianity inherited a lot on the subject of perfection from Plato and his followers.) I'm a firm believer that nobody and nothing is perfect. I admire Miller and Richard Dawkins and Spinoza and Einstein and Leibniz and Voltaire quite highly, even though Miller in his series on disbelief keeps referring to "Christianity" as if Western, that is, Catholic and then also Protestant, Christianity were the only sort there ever was, as if he had never heard of Byzantium and Orthodoxy, let alone the Armenian and Coptic and other assorted Churches; even though Dawkins starts off his fine book The Selfish Gene by quoting approvingly some jackass to the effect of the uselessness of philosophy before Darwin, and despite the fact, a fact which seems to have partly dawned on Dawkins himself, that The Selfish Gene is a very poor title for his very good book; even though Spinoza and Einstein made such easily-misunderstood comments about God; despite Leibniz' thedicee; and even though Voltaire reduced Leibniz, in his famous character Dr Pangloss, to this theodicee, even though Leibniz had all sorts of thoroughly brilliant things to say on a staggeringly wide variety of subjects other than religion. Hate the sin, love the sinner, say some Christians. I say, let's be as decent to them as we can, and not, however eyerollingly teethgringingly painful it may be when they get theological, mistake the belief for the whole believer. Peace out.

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