To know is often metaphorically described as “seeing,” as in “I see the truth” or “I see what you mean.” Sight is felt in experience as an immediate act, a feeling that is undiminished regardless of an increased understanding of how optics work and how the brain filters and fills in information. To speak of engaging with sight is an odd phrase precisely because sight is as indelible to our usual experience as breathing and the maintenance of a heart beat. We do not consciously choose to see, we simply do it. The same goes for beliefs. Attempt for a day to act without any beliefs, for that matter even a mere minute, and the sheer overwhelming demand of projecting our understanding upon the world as beliefs will become glaringly obvious. To know or believe is basic to human experience, an inevitable compulsion resulting in what is commonly referred to as a worldview.
Weeks ago I came across an article titled “5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist.” Honestly, I no longer refer to myself as an atheist, not having suddenly reconverted to a theistic paradigm but because I think the term is without any intrinsic meaning, much in the same way that I think the term “god” is lacking in intrinsic meaning. Still, as the article was written by a Christian believer, I was intrigued as to whether the same tired arguments and bad stereotypes would be trotted out. I was immediately struck by the author’s distinction between “evidence” and whether such “warrants” a particular conclusion. The difference is commonly missed by the layman or internet philosopher.
Evidence Does Not Lead to Conclusions, A Worldview Does
The reason for this misstep or conflation between particular points of evidence and a conclusion is not merely due to philosophical ignorance, but a, likely non-deliberate, strategy. If a particular set of data can be inevitably bound to a particular conclusion then the strength of that conclusion increases in perceived legitimacy, making, as it does, any questions about the evidence and how such a conclusion was reached null and void. Essentially this is the root of fundamentalism, whether it manifests in religious, political or social ideological systems.
Unfortunately for those who would like their conclusions to be the one and only for all eternity, evidence doesn’t demand a particular ideology to accompany it, though quite obviously it usually does. Further, facts do not necessitate particular conclusions, though obviously people who hold to them will declare that they do. What all too often happens, and what the author of the article laments, is the existence of a caricature of theists being insane, mentally disturbed, anti-rational, anti-science, people who utterly lack any evidence and believe anyway. This depiction is great as a dehumanizing tactic, but dismisses the very real difference between evidence/facts and conclusions and utterly lacks any nuance concerning the means by which people determine what is and is not knowledge or beliefs.
There is evidence for the resurrection of the Christian Christ, but as even the author of the original article contends this doesn’t mean that such evidence warrants a particular conclusion. Historical documentation, supposed eye-witness accounts, personal experiences, etc. all are evidence. Is there other evidence to consider? Absolutely. Is there multiple means of coalescing the data into different conclusions based on different analysis? Very much! But that doesn’t mean the theist is an idiot or against rationality. At one time in our lives we’ve all believed something that wasn’t true, only to find out that the evidence we thought led to a particular conclusion did not in fact do so. History is replete with examples of learned people, even scientifically literate people, who came to what eventually was deemed a false conclusion. The evidence didn’t go away, it just got re-analyzed, expanded upon and a new ideological structure was provided to make a new picture out of them.
Just what is knowing all about?
Knowing or believing is an extension of our automatic interaction with life. The means by which someone personally justifies their beliefs is as much about providing a secure foundation for their worldview as it is about getting to “Truth.” A person’s central desire is a world and their place in it that makes sense to them, where desires and demands can be met. This worldview is put into practice by each person’s identity, a self capable of moving forward in life and meeting the ebb and flow of living. Knowledge and beliefs are bound to this frame, they are the substance of the worldview that the person is using.
We cannot help but hold beliefs, many of them constrained by our socio-cultural upbringing. Let’s face it, none of us started with a blank slate and consciously worked through each and every belief we hold. The point of contention comes up when a person needs to personally justify themselves in the face of inquiry. For the sake of brevity we can isolate paths of knowledge to three: faith, authority and rationality. These epistemic systems are the quick and dirty answer to “how do you know?”
The worldview of an identity determines which method of personal justification is going to be useful. There is no singular choice here, no overarching method to put in place. Take the path of authority. Everyone uses it to varying degrees. Existence and all the subjects of study involved are simply too big for any single person to study, choosing an authority to trust is not only inevitable it’s logical. Does this mean that the authority is “Truth”? Clearly not, but then that’s not the end goal for anyone all the time and often not even any of the time. What is at issue here is how the authority is chosen, which brings us back to worldview and a person’s identity. The selection of an authority figure is an extension of the person, it’s why when such a figure is attacked, figuratively or otherwise, it is felt as a personal affront. In all the ways that count, it most certainly is personal, their worldview and sense of self has been harmed.
So then what about faith and rationality? As a general term this whole process of utilizing a path of knowledge to establish the substance of a worldview and therefore of one’s identity, can be referred to as “reasoning.” As “reasoning” is an inevitable enterprise of the human person, calling it a moral good seems about as absurd as calling perspiration a moral good. Unfortunately, in the modern social debate between secularists and religious believers, “reason” has been marginalized as belonging to a particular group, setting up the tactic of declaring anybody who disagrees as being contrary to or opposed to “reason.” The result is a particularly absurd gang-like verbal warfare between self-proclaimed “rationalists” and what are derogatorily referred to as “faith-ists.”
No person always uses only one path for personal justification. The most informed of us will always be ignorant of something and when faced with that absence of knowledge, will rely on the authority of someone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a general rule, it saves time and quite often holds no negative consequences. Further, authority is not the flip-side of faith anymore than it is of rationality. The same goes for faith and rationality, they are not the opposites to authority or to each other. They are all paths for personal justification. They are all tied to the demands and desires of an identity struggling within a worldview.
There is a difference between the path of faith and that of rationality and authority. The difference is found in the purity with which it is felt to be tied to one’s identity. Authority and rationality have a public or external component, they rely on more than the internal desire of the person, the felt demand to hold one’s beliefs as accurate. What faith is, is justification via personal identity, it is the felt sense that one simply knows because to deny it would be to deny one’s very self.
We Use Many Ways to Justify Our Beliefs
The fact is, we all use faith as personal justification, just as we all use rationality and authority. None of us use any of them all the time, we’re simply not capable of it. Caricaturing someone else as doing so is not only false, it is belittling to their humanity. Declaring that one does so is simply gross delusion. The only difference between people is the subjects and the substance of those areas that the paths of knowledge are utilized. Often a person will use one or more in the same area. What person claiming faith won’t refer to their holy book (authority) or attempt the construction of an argument (rationality)? What person claiming rationality won’t quote an expert (authority) or when cornered on a point of ignorance simply declare they know themselves to be right (faith)?
The reality of our lives is that we as human beings are not calculating rational machines. Our interests guide our behavior and our worldviews provide structure for our identities to interact with others. These interests and worldviews are bound to the relationships we form with the people we trust and the ideas that provide meaning. There are plenty of places to meet in open generative dialogue because we are all human. A person may come to a false conclusion based one path of knowledge only to come to a true conclusion based on another or even the same one. We won’t ever know better how the result happened or what could be found helpful along a path if the only response is dismissal.
© David Teachout
Featured Image Art by: www.elreviae.com
No other debate seems to generate as much antipathy and levels of mutual condescension than that concerned with belief in a god. History is soaked in the martyrdom of groups of believers, often even when the groups are merely variations on a larger one. A very real fear surrounds political rhetoric concerning crusades or some other declaration pitting one religious group against another. Certainly many wars have been fought within that dynamic, but it’s fair to say that those are eclipsed in number by conflicts of sects within larger groups. The conflagration that is the Middle World, for instance, is not between Christianity and Islam but that of the sects of Islam. With that in mind it is certainly a blessing that the modern vocal debate between atheism and theism does not follow the same trend.
Still, while violence does not typically follow this debate, similar levels of ignorance and condescension do. Much is said about how tribalism has a hand in this, pitting one group against another as we fulfill the human social propensity to separate ourselves into disparate groups. The difficulty here is tribalism doesn’t necessitate conflict or certainly not conflict of any particular kind. We can no more stop identifying with groups than we can stop forming pictures from disparate data points, like seeing Jesus on a piece of toast or animals in cloud formations. What we can shift is what we then do after such automatic tendencies, the “second-step” so to speak along a particular path. The first step doesn’t necessitate a conclusion, only a trajectory. What we do after will far more determine where we find ourselves ending up.
Determining an end goal in any debate is an important variable in what behavior manifests along the way. If the goal is a collapse of the other person’s position, then total war is often inevitable. Words such as “decimate” start getting bandied about. Unfortunately for those cheering on one side, the other side will often use the same descriptive terms for the same debate. This is an indication of where the war metaphor loses its legitimacy. In a physical war, “decimation” is possible, there are physical objects that move from one state to another, from completion to destruction. This is difficult to determine when it comes to ideological debates because the fortresses of a person’s individual mind are not so clearly constructed. At the surface level of speech, a person’s position can appear to varying degrees stable and monolithic. Beneath that surface each belief is an amalgamation of various other beliefs, often predicated on a structure of viewing the world that is little acknowledged.
Keeping within the topic at hand, we can look at the belief in a god. Note first that it’s stated as belief in “a god,” not “God.” It is egoistic hubris that leads many believers to think that their particular version is the only one. When they ask “Do you believe in God?” it is almost always about belief in their god, not a general inquiry, meaning the parameters of potential answers have already been pre-determined by them. What is being ignored in such questions is a host of other beliefs. I’ll point out merely two, though there are many others, with these two being beliefs everyone holds whenever engaged in dialogue. One, each person must tacitly accept that their sensory capacities are functioning in such a way that they can trust that what is said by one is heard exactly or nearly so by the other. Two, both tacitly must believe that these words serve as a means of truly describing, or true enough, a shared reality. Clearly such beliefs are so seemingly obvious that pointing them out seems absurd and yet precisely because they are so “obvious” is why further beliefs develop which are anything but helpful.
Let’s take the belief that words describe a shared reality. As any experience of miscommunication that involves some iteration of “that’s not what I meant” can attest, words may point to a shared reality but the potential object or meaning is far broader than any single one of us may have in mind. Imagine a chair and then ask someone to do the same, write down a brief description and then compare. Odds are the descriptions will hold some general similarities, but that’s all. If such is the case for seemingly simple things like chairs, imagine what it may mean for far more complex notions like justice, equality, forgiveness and a god. However, if the tacit belief that words describe a shared reality is blindly and simplistically accepted, the result can and often is a further belief that when one says something it must only mean exactly one thing, whether that be from the perspective of the speaker or listener.
There are few more contentious examples of this belief in monolithic meaning than that concerning “god.” The fact is that the term has no intrinsic meaning, not even that of a general kind like the previous chair example. With a chair and other physical objects there’s an extra layer of data being accessed beyond that of the mental space known as imagination, namely a potential or actual shared experience of interacting with a chair. With “god” all that exists is the mental space, there is no potential or actual shared experience because there’s no commonality outside of an internal construct. There’s no way to externally verify between two or more people that what one is thinking is the same as another. All that is possible in this scenario is the sharing of yet further words/concepts and the approval or disapproval of their appropriation for “god.”
An Empty Vessel
The result is “god” as an empty vessel, a hollowed-out term capable of being filled with anything a person desires. Unsurprisingly the substance of the term is filled in by the character qualities, desires, hopes, dreams and socio-historical assumptions of each person. This is why when confronted by a theist-believer, the question of “what god do you believe in?” should always be followed up by “how do you consider your fellow human being should be treated?” or other such question concerning ethics. To stop at the first question is to fall victim to the assumption of monolithic meaning. On the contrary, there is simply no “true” believer if such is understood as being a singularly accurate representation of adhering to a particular god.
What is being fought over between and within theistic ideological systems is empty space. The conflict here is not over who’s god is better, but who gets to fill in the space with their desires, aspirations, demands, etc. It is a war over emptiness, an absence that is as tiny as the supposed human soul and as large as the cosmos. This is no less true than when the atheist enters the party. There is nothing being added when this is done except yet another person’s notion of what to fill that emptiness with. The only distinction between a theist and an atheist is the possible substance accrued to the term, with the theist removing all other potential substances than their own and the atheist removing the last of them.
Combine “god” being able to be filled with nearly anything a person desires with the human tendency to view contrary opinion-holders as somehow deficient in intellectual or moral character, the result ends up being the very collection of ignorance and contempt that so often describes the dialogue between competing groups. To avoid this, first acknowledge the emptiness of what is being fought over, then accept that a person’s concept of “god” may be different than what was assumed, and then move on to what truly matters in the practice of living: how we treat one another and the world in which we find ourselves. Forgoing this, we’ll simply continue circling the emptiness being fought over only to eventually fall into that dark morass.
© David Teachout
Mockery is easy, particularly when presented ideas are deemed so clearly farcical. Examples of religious absurdity are so abundant, from declarations of the end of the world to seeing Jesus on a piece of toast, that poking fun and snorting with laughter has become a past-time akin to baseball for some. Unfortunately for the practice of mockery, it offers little help for any form of engagement to result in an expanded understanding. Perhaps such isn’t the goal though, and forgetting the silliness of their own childhood beliefs, the simplistic humor of mockery serves as a protestation of distance, each joke a declaration that “I am not like him.” When recognition eventually dawns that the other person, separated through mockery, has been struggling with issues intrinsic to all humanity, the gulf then that exists makes any helpful dialogue that much less possible.
Recently having watched the movie “Fury,” a scene plays out when one soldier asks another why the Germans haven’t given up as they are so clearly beaten. The other soldier looks at the questioner and asks: “Would you?” Whether it’s nationalistic pride or ideological allegiance, there’s a level of safety being sought in both, an identification with something bigger than one’s self. In issues of meaning and purpose, this identification can take on a great deal of weight, scrambling to hold onto it even as the mental fingernails scrape and break over the gravel of reality.
The Divine has a lot to answer for, being called on as the source for everything from a winning play in a sports game to bringing about a healthy end to surgery. From the truly extravagant to the utterly banal, the Divine of nearly any religious tradition seems to constantly and consistently be pointed to as the progenitor of anything good or welcome. Much can be said about the opposite being absent, that is the negative. Rare is the person who praises their Divinity for the death, destruction and heartache of everyday living. More so, the negative is absent even when the positive assumes the existence of such. I was in a small group once where a person wanted to pray that they would receive, via the prosperity gospel, a large life insurance settlement. When I pointed out that this required the death of a supposed loved one, I was quickly told to be quiet. This can be said of every claimed miracle of someone surviving a catastrophic event, their survival by Divinity infers that all those who died horribly were at minimum not chosen to live by that very loving Divinity or, more consistently, that they were in fact chosen to die horribly. Little wonder then that such thoughts rarely get voiced. Pointing out the self-serving egotism of such thinking simply goes without saying, but it still needs to be said.
Such self-serving ideas are not without historical roots, it would seem to be the underlying purpose afforded by the metaphysical allusions of religious ideology. Ignorance of natural events, from storms to death, served as impetus to determine some form of understanding, leading to the foundational elements of primitive Divinity. The result provides both consistency, but more importantly a sense of meaning, of purpose. If an event x occurs that is unclear or unhelpful, Divinity is called in to provide a sense of meaning or purpose via the instrumentality of the believer through some ritual. The result is an internalization of control-after-the-fact, of placing the event via human action upon an altar of Divine origin. Those rituals have changed over the years, some more than others depending on the religious tradition, with western Christianity reflecting a general lackadaisical attitude of mere projected thought as prayer being enough. On the other hand, perhaps the lack of overt and complicated rituals is indicative of western arrogance and self-empowerment. We don’t need the public bloody slaughtering of a bull, a silent wisp of a thought provides the equivalent. In any case, the Divine is called upon as the ultimate post-hoc logical fallacy, the consequence being the loss of any real human meaning.
Wait, how does that happen? Notice the locus of meaning and purpose. Certainly there’s a sense of empowerment by the believer, but it’s a passive one, an apron-strings approach to living. Bad thing happens, meaning is placed on the Divine and life moves on despite there being no real understanding. Let’s face it, the Divine provides no explanation, merely a place-filling box that itself is hollow. Ignorance rears its ugly head in the face of adversity and is side-stepped until a story can be made to explain it. Think back on stories of Divinity, there’s a sequence of events. At first the naming of the Divine occurs, with some emotionally-laden cliche about mysterious plans. Only later, time dependent on the need and imaginative powers of the individual, is there any substance provided and always of some ego-saving form. Why did the bad thing happen? “I don’t know but God’s ways are mysterious.” Same question later asked and such turns into “God caused it to happen so I’d learn x lesson or find y door had opened.” Such thinking, by removing human intent and active engagement, results in a loss of connection with the real suffering of the world.
Now then, we don’t want to leave out the positive. We can see from the negative that there’s a disengagement, a general lack of removal from life that occurs when any meaning associated with suffering is placed on the Divine. When the same practice is done concerning the positive, the full hyperbolic destruction of humanity is complete, with nothing of what we do coming to have any meaning. Those years in school, the dedication to practice and sacrifices made to learn medicine and surgery, the personal level of intention and power of the human drive to succeed? All wither before the Divine hegemony of the good. The years of sweat and tears, the pain from training, the dedication to a team resulting in a beautiful cohesiveness of people working together to complete a goal? All of that is cast aside to be replaced by the Divine act. That sports players and doctors are lauded even by believers simply indicates the true shallowness of the idea. What it doesn’t remove is how utterly devastating such thinking is to human meaning and progress.
The existence of a Divine source for human action does not provide meaning, it places it in a realm outside of human reach. The Divine will relegates all human purpose and meaning to the scrap-heap of broken hopes and dreams. Our suffering and heartache become not sources for poetry and perseverance, our achievements and the humane quality of humanity become not sources for sonnets and hope-filled pride, all are but testaments to a Divine source of which we are but flotsam in the sea of changing materiality. The constancy of the Divine takes away any revelation of joy and meaning to be found in the day-to-day living of human existence. So yes it is easy to mock when silliness is ascribed to a person’s personal Divinity. The reality, however, is far more potent and deserves more than rueful sighs. Such a believer desperately wants to find meaning, but in so doing has lost any real source for it. That’s not silly or worth mocking, it’s completely tragic.
© David Teachout
Identity politics in the United States is a testament to the human ability for self-blindness. Essentially the practice of identity politics boils down to “a particular social identity is considered good in itself” and then combined with “all actions therefore by true adherents of that very social identity are inherently good and right.” There are two central points to consider here: 1) actions themselves are not judged by merits but the association with a social identity and 2) by deeming only the actions of “true” adherents sacrosanct then anything contrary is removed from criticism and sets up an ideological aristocracy. In other words, those in power, whatever form that may be, get to occlude themselves from any critical analysis of their actions or the legitimacy of their ideological stance. This is not only anti-democratic, it is contrary to the pursuit of knowledge through skeptical inquiry that lies at the heart of science, and sets up the nastiest form of tribalism that such can manifest.
With knowledge, facts and even the type of questions to be asked circumscribed by social identity, there are few behavioral possibilities when dealing with external criticism. The first is a self-proclaimed elitism, where by virtue of being a “true” believer one has access to a set of information or source of knowledge that others simply don’t. This is a favorite of fundamentalist religious believers and of presuppositional apologists in particular. Unfortunately such a tactic is also becoming prevalent in the political playground. Accepting that they can’t actually prove their opinions to anyone, they resort to a metaphysical reality that is completely self-referential. In other words, anybody inside the box knows what they know is true and anybody outside the box will simply never understand. The metaphor is particularly apt considering the blinders that must be constantly kept in place and the isolation that results. The apologist ignores the inherently shared reality required to even have a conversation, and the political demagogue, with false humility in full splendor, will declare “I’m not a scientist, but…”
The second tactic is some form of ad hominem where the goal is to dismiss the critical party. This can take the form of name-calling, but often it’s about selecting an otherwise benign feature and using it to create a self-defeating caricature. The white establishment looks at black behavior as “aggressive” even though similar behavior by whites would be considered “passionate.” Males have long considered particular female behavior as “emotional” when in any other situation it would be considered as “speaking their mind.” When it comes to the religious majority, the attempt is made to declare atheists as being simply “angry” when often such behavior in another situation would simply be referred to as “critical or questioning.” The examples here are chosen because they center around “anger,” since when any actions of similar form are taken by those in power, such is no longer considered a detriment but a testimonial to the strength and righteousness of their cause.
Dismissing critics is more than simply removing people from consideration in public discourse, it is to remove even the words themselves. We live in a country where the strength of one’s opinion is not based on the quality of rational appraisal given to it, nor the honesty with which criticism is dealt with, but whether there’s a suitably large enough gathering of supporters to buttress the opinion against the encroachment of contrary ideas. We no longer live in a marketplace of ideas, we live in a militarized zone of barbed-wire fences demarcating who can go where depending on uttering the right catch-phrases and the extent of commitment to mindless status-quo mediocrity. What this does is stop bad ideas from fading away into the dark night of mental oblivion, fit only for the worst of cranks and conspiracy theorists. That such bad ideas are often at the heart of destruction, both personal and global, only makes the dismissal and the attached criticism that much worse.
A 2008 survey found that 95% of U.S. people believe in a god. Further research has noted that those who attend religious services weekly or more and believe that religion is very important, are predominantly conservative. This fact points to why despite a scientific consensus to the contrary, the vast majority of conservative political adherents either don’t believe the earth is warming or that human behavior has nothing to do with it. Such a denial of scientific understanding makes sense when faced with another scientific consensus, that of the accuracy of evolutionary theory, where 69% of those who attend church weekly believe their God created people in the present form. The connection between the denial of evolution and the denial of climate change is truly remarkable and makes a circular form of rationality; if the earth is only a few thousand years old and your God is in complete control of all of creation, then not only can the earth not be warming due to human actions but we have nothing to worry about. Since more than 100 million people live within three feet of sea-level, the extent to which rising oceans will cause destruction and displacement is catastrophic. Dismissal then is more than removal of inclusion in public discourse, it is a complete disregard for the very real problems faced by the marginalized.
If the effects of belief remained at the global level, we might have a way of working within the masses to effect change by informed debate and gathering more information. Unfortunately, the global level of effect is predicated on an inability to note the damage caused at the individual and social levels. Vast numbers of minorities, from women and children to atheists and anybody else who doesn’t conform to the self-proclaimed moral imperatives of religious conservatives, have been and continue to be abused, maligned and their struggles dismissed as mere examples of “not being right with God.” Recent research on the caricature of the “angry atheist” note many studies showing atheists to be generally considered lacking in morality, disapproved of if selected as a spouse, unsupported if running for president and denied medical treatment. The research noted that the higher one’s stated belief in god, the greater the perception that atheists are angry. Further, when looking at traits associated with anger, atheists in no way demonstrated that they were angrier than anyone else, in fact often less so.
The authors note that such stereotypes are detrimental, as “research has shown that perceiving other people as angry can make us hostile and set the stage for conflicts that need not happen (Berkowitz, 2012; Orobio de Castro et al., 2002).” Also, “Stereotypes are detrimental to stigmatized groups because they create expectations about how people should treat out-group individuals (Bahns&Branscombe, 2010).” This is the worst of tribalism. We cannot help ourselves from identifying with groups and logically then there must exist in-group and out-group individuals. Such does not necessitate the mischaracterization of out-groups. What caricaturing the out-group does is take the natural proclivity of tribalism and move it into the support of bigotry. People are no longer looked at by their own character, but through the projected discriminatory constrictions of the powerful.
Let’s look again at how incredibly poor the myth of the angry atheist is. Remarkably, given the clear discrimination, deliberate mischaracterization and perception of mistreatment, atheists are not in fact angrier than other groups. An old piece of wisdom cautioned that prior to judgment, one should attempt walking in the shoes of the other. Consider then the situation from the atheist viewpoint. For those atheists who were raised religious, the change in ideology leads to the recognition that they were raised under a lie and the actions of their parents and caregivers were such not for their benefit but for the appeasement of an imagined deity. Further, as they were raised as such instead of offered the chance to think for themselves, the very notion of free choice was withheld from them, leading to the simple conclusion that those who raised them cared less about their individual development than the continued devotion to parental authority structure.
Now consider those atheists who were not raised religious, placed in a world in which the vast majority disagree in some form about a fundamental aspect of reality, the result of which is then to be looked at as inherently immoral and lacking in benefit for engagement in matrimony. Then consider the many uses religious ideology has been put to for denying global problems, supporting abusive punishment, vilifying a particular gender, demonizing one’s sexuality, and banishing from social discussion any form of legitimate criticism. This is but a short list, though considering the far-reaching consequences it truly becomes monumental that the myth of the angry atheist is just that, a myth. Seen from their perspective, they have every right to scream retribution from the top of every mountain.
Why the myth then? Stepping back to a point above, note that false projections of anger are utilized by those in some form of power to dismiss and disregard the existence and criticism of those deemed beneath them. This allows their actions to continue without any degree of need for introspection. Given the self-referential reality that is pervasive, placing all critics outside the box of the in-group and cut off from access to the “true revelation,” declarations of anger amount to little more than patronizing paternalism. Faced with empty and demeaning platitudes of various racist, misogynistic, discriminatory forms of “believe in order to know” (in other words, agree with me and you’ll then see that I’m right), the atheist and other minorities find themselves looking at a world that does not in fact consider them worthy of belonging.
Remember, “Persecution on one hand can be a debilitating experience when felt in conjunction with not having any support. However, persecution, or at least the feeling of it, can be rather beneficial when one feels supported by a community. This is exacerbated more so by the human tendency to hold even more tightly to one’s beliefs when feeling attacked.” If those in power can continue to paint any opposition as childish and cement their mischaracterization within the echo chamber of their own groups, there exists no reason to ever doubt their self-righteousness.
© David Teachout
In 2014 Ted Cruz won the straw poll for the second year in a row at the Values Voter Summit. The Summit was started back in 2006 based on upholding the social conservative holy trinity of “traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government.” For a conference that draws all of 3000 people, focusing on it would seem silly if not for the outsized role those associated with it play in American politics. In warfare the technological expansion of destruction makes it so fewer and fewer people can deal death to a degree that previously required enormous armies. In a country like America where political identities are diminished to a select few and media is more interested in entertainment that disseminating information, groups who otherwise would have little influence in national discussions now carry heavy weight. Regardless of the ability for someone like Cruz to win a full presidential election, he still stands for an ideology that plays an outsized role, one that is diametrically opposed to the humanistic history and egalitarian principles of the American ideal.
To show just how far Cruz and his supporters are from the American ideal, we have but to focus on the three areas for which the Values Voter Summit demands allegiance. Cruz is running to represent the entirety of the United States and since religion is at core divisive, we’ll set it aside initially to see how the ideas presented through a broad public application in no way are representative of America.
Cruz’s position on marriage equality is unabashedly against adults making decisions for themselves.
“I support traditional marriage between one man and one woman,” Cruz said after speaking to the Richardson Chamber of Commerce. “The Constitution leaves it to the states to decide upon marriage and I hope the Supreme Court respects centuries of tradition and doesn’t step into the process of setting aside state laws that make the definition of marriage.”
“Tradition” here is of course selective and time-limited since Cruz is not promoting the purchasing of women for heads of cattle. Rather, marriage is here defined through sexual identity, where it exists as a social demarcation between groups based entirely on reproductive possibilities. For a country built upon the transformative pursuit of personal potential, relegating any social structure to the presence of particular genitalia is essentially to be against the individualism that supposedly makes America great.
Religious Liberty –
Cruz defines the defense of religious liberty as a defining issue in politics today. It is important to note that by “religion” Cruz is quite clearly talking only about Christianity. In his speech at Liberty University for announcing his presidential aspirations, Cruz noted:
“Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.” – Cruz, Liberty University speech
Regardless of the facts of this statement, the point is that Cruz’s identification is not with the American people but only with those who identity with Christianity and then only with those who vote to display values in the way he believes are accurate. Conservative historical revision loves to paint America as founded upon Christianity, but even were this true the office of the president is not like that of the Pope. The president represents the interests, ideally, of the American populace. “We the people” does not mean “only those who agree with me.”
Limited Government –
Speaking at the Fort Worth Convention Center, Cruz said: “I spent all week in Washington, D.C., and it’s great to be back in America..”much to the delight of the crowd. This is not mere rhetoric, it is an indication of precisely how Cruz considers the federal government to be related to the American people. Positioning the fed as being inherently against the public may seem peculiar for someone running for the highest political office, but for Cruz, in order to make this state of affairs better requires someone of the people to be in charge of the fed. The practical expression of such is a promotion of individual responsibility and national defense, except of course where such goes against the particular parameters of Cruz’s social morality.
This latter leads into how Christian dominionism links all three of these topics under what can be referred to as Cruz-ism. Now, dominionism is defined as: “the belief that God desires Christians to rise to power through civil systems so that His Word might then govern the nation.” Not every political candidate who espouses belief in Christianity can or should be placed under this label, but it is synonymous with the belief that America is a christian country, a phrase far too easily bandied about without immediate and vociferous challenge. The term “Cruz-ism” is here concerned with pointing to the fundamental problem of dominionism, that due to it having no self-corrective the result is tyranny through social domination.
Even a cursory glance at Christian denominations will show a panoply of positions regarding social issues, theological matters and personal practices. The reason for this is that despite all of them using the same “good book,” that very book has no instruction manual for correct interpretation. Most people don’t realize that there are fundamental theological debates concerning such basic rites as baptism, the repercussions of which concern eternal salvation of one’s soul. If there are debates about whether to sprinkle water, full body dunking or whether to baptize at all, is there really much surprise that there are debates about complex social issues?
Again note that all the groups are using the same source, “the Bible,” and coming to wildly different interpretations. The only way to limit interpretive potential is through external authority and here is where Cruz-ism comes into play. Cruz (and anyone else of similar political weight who has a different opinion) would set himself up as final arbiter of what is just and holy. This isn’t merely out of egotistic desire, it’s a necessary requirement. Without an instruction manual and placing truth outside the realm of rational human discourse, the correctness of theology is established only through the power mechanisms of enforcement. The more one can enforce an opinion, the more right it becomes.
To say that such a stance in political power is undemocratic is to bury the needle in obviousness. Cruz and those who support him, including all who support dominionism, are not concerned with a government based on “we the people.” When they declare rights are “God-given,” they are referring only to their God. Further, since their God is only understood through the interpretive lens that, conveniently, is provided by them, such rights can be removed whenever it is desired to do so. In such a system, social identification becomes far more than a means of group cohesion, providing the basis for who is allowed to hold political office and who is worthy of having basic civil rights.
The American ideal set up freedoms and rights as intrinsic to being humanity, not as being given by an authority figure, as being open to discussion concerning how they instantiate in a complex society, not as directed by self-proclaimed high priests. Cruz’s America is not a land of the free, but a home for the religiously despotic.
© David Teachout
When faced with the question of “Do you believe in God?” the immediate response should be “Which one?” This query goes to the heart of the inherent ego-centrism of the initial question. Let’s face it, the person uttering it is not at all interested in getting into a long and winding philosophical discussion about metaphysics, the nature of knowledge and the degree to which personal experience is relevant to claims about reality. No, they’re asking whether you belong with them, and by them of course is meant those who believe in their particular deity. The quizzical look that passes at the response is an indication of just how myopic their vision of human experience is, that of course when that funny three-letter word is used, particularly when capitalized, it can only mean the god they believe in. Any others are but pale human-made facsimiles.
The term “god” has no inherent content, it’s like a Platonic form waiting to be filled in by actual experience. At best, “god” can allude to some transcendent principle or being or experience, but beyond that there’s no details as to what any of those actually entails. As when we hear the term “chair” or “table” or “car,” we have an immediate framework for what such means and our minds supply images. Utilizing the proximity principle of cognitive heuristics, the images that come up are often what we saw last or are most often interacting with. Similar occurs then when we hear the term “god.” The mere ability to come up with an immediate image or idea in no way proves the legitimacy of that image or idea, it just points to the tendency of our minds to fill in the gaps of uncertainty. As such we can utilize god to mean anything from a transcendent principle like love or purpose (“god is love”), to a panoply of deities (Hinduism, pagan traditions, etc.), a monolithic supernatural person (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and as synonymous with the holistic quality of being in the universe (Ernest Holmes, Jerry Goldsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson).
As with “god,” so it is with “religion.” At best we can consider religion to be an identifier for a particular social construct focused on a transcendent purpose, containing rituals that bind people together and may contain the presence of a deity or deities. Nothing here demands the form such rituals take, what people are included in the group or how many or what type of deity is being promoted. For that matter, there’s no reason to even have a deity, at least not in any humanoid form. There is absolutely no necessity for a religion to have any particular deity nor is there any necessity that a religion adhere to any particular set of metaphysics, i.e. belief in a supernatural or a-natural forms or places. This is true regardless of whether such a religion does currently exist or how long any such religion has or will last
All too often when attempting to remove or limit the extent to which conservative supernatural religions employ their concept of deity, humanists and those aligned with similar purpose forget to differentiate between the social structure and particular loathsome or unsubstantiated ideas. Railing against “god” or “religion,” these well-meaning and humanity-promoting individuals miss what is at the root of the problem they’re rightly incensed about.
Rituals are not (barring those which actually do harm) in themselves harmful or anti-human or anti-rational. Each and every one of us partakes in rituals every day, from the way we put our clothes on and brush our teeth to the broad way in which we conduct our lives going through day-after-day of work and personal activities. Rituals give a false sense of control that, with repetition, we smilingly look past their foolishness. Getting rid of them would be like removing fundamental aspects of our humanity. When refusing to acknowledge the very real difference between the particulars and the socialized generalities of “god” and “religion,” there is a link being made between wanting to get rid of one and the other. Little wonder that a common argument against atheists is that atheism or science is a religion or that the same people believe in nothing. The arguments are not foolish, they simply reflect the inevitable linkages people make between life and the demand to create structures of meaning from within it.
The heart of the problem in particular conceptualizations of “god” and the “religious” frameworks that support them is when they cross over from offering potential meaning or potential ways of understanding experience and into being the one and only actual meaning or understanding. God and religion are not the problem faced by humanity, absolutism and its religious form of dogmatism is. A person who fills the concept of “god” with love and understanding is not going to blow up buildings, but a person who believes their “god” is the one and only who’s dictates are never to be questioned certainly will. A person who’s religion is about fellowship through non-judgment and equality is not going to deny basic civil rights based on sexual desire, but a person who’s religion denies skeptical inquiry based on a divine revelation to their eyes and ears only will certainly not hesitate in removing from society those deemed less worthy.
Meaning and purpose are cognitive and social constructs, a means of determining intent in a world that has no similar conscious quality. We are in the world and a part of it through these mechanisms of social cohesion and connection. Only when such sets people apart from each other and demands subjection of self and the skeptical queries of a searching mind do they become a plague. When talking with people who adhere to a god or religion, it is best then to remember that their humanity brought them into such circles and it is their humanity which will bring them out.