06 March 2015

More still thoughts on anti-theism

Something which has occurred to me in observing the vast majority of other atheists is that they come from a religious tradition that they have abandoned or escaped or rejected. To the extent that this represents an often significant portion of their lives that were expended in what now are visibly wasteful time and effort, or inspired them to hold to beliefs that they found inconsistent or harmful, or otherwise amended their behavior in ways they now find to be unnecessary (or were harmful to others), the level of animus toward that former religious entity is understandable. I did not experience this break personally, and I have a hard time processing the pre-eminence it seems to take for other secular-minded persons without reminding myself of this experience.

There are obvious advantages in such people and their stories and identified issues however. They can demonstrate first hand where a faith and its practices have gone astray and become harmful, which is necessary if we wish to focus effort on reducing the amount of harm religions and religious persons can do to a society. They can also identify a path that helped them to recognize that that faith and its practices were harmful or no longer something they could hold to, which may be helpful to lead people to become less religious, non-religious, or at least stop practicing and believing the most egregious and destructive aspects of a faith.

But there's a limitation to this as well. It reminds me of how political exile communities are treated where there is an unpopular dictatorial regime we wish to replace somewhere on the globe. In that it is easy to give to such voices too much credit that they know and understand the mind and intentions of many, if not most, of the body of adherents to the faiths they have left behind. Political exiles are apt to be somewhat unusual, sometimes elite bodies of people who were capable of escaping a previous circumstance in part owing to some outside world connections that permitted it and this makes their credibility in criticizing or providing intelligence as to the public sentiments of a foreign country somewhat less reliable than might otherwise be the case. There's also a strong incentive if the goal is to overthrow and/or replace the regime to provide misleading intelligence of the sort demanded by the powers that could assist. Religious "exiles" are in a similar circumstance, that they are often escaping to Western liberal societies, and often live and work in largely secular communities (such as academia or the media). There will be few voices available to say, "that's fine, but that's not how I experienced my faith". And it is telling that when such voices do arise, they are often told "that's not how you experience your faith", or if not that brazenly, that's not how "other people not myself do or did". This variety of mind-reading may have some merit where they have firsthand experience with other persons and the mindset that was imposed, as they see it, upon them for a portion of their lives. But it has limited utility for people who did not in fact share that mindset, which is likely to be the majority of adherents to a particular religion. No religion is that uni-polar that all or even many of its adherents experience it, practice it, interpret it, and believe in its dogmas and dictates in the same way. This is a common occurrence that these exiles seem to lack this nuanced expression of how other people must be experiencing religious devotion or beliefs and by this declare that it is the beliefs themselves that are harmful as an entire structure (be that Islam or Christianity).

In less freedom tolerating societies outside of the Western world, where religious belief is often compelled by law and violence, perhaps this is so, or perhaps it is more true at least than it is in the West. But as indicated in my last bit on this, the western world is the field on which most of us will experience interaction with religious persons as most of us will not travel widely to areas outside of that arena and will have little or no interest in the foreign relations that lead us to intercede in the affairs of those countries. So it is the secularized West for which our interactions and assessments of fear are largely predicated. And in the secularized or secular-ish west, such experiences as a uniform "truth" as it applies to all Christians, or all Muslims, are not typically bound up in legal traditions that compel people to believe in a particularized, often radicalized way (nor is that prevented, provided it does not lead to violence or compulsion by force). It is more likely that it isn't the beliefs that are at danger or issue in this world and environment but that the people are largely selecting religious beliefs to justify things they already want to believe and practice. In that light, beliefs which command or appear to command violence are dangerous if they expound beyond mere beliefs about the nature of unbelievers or apostates or homosexuals, to cite some examples. But given that much and most violence in the US occurs without such commands, this appears to be a very unusual concern to place highly on our list of issues to be afraid of is the religious theology of command morality. It is well that humanists or atheists are not well-represented among the prison population, but this says more about where humanists and atheists are typically drawn from (well-educated, middle class or upper middle class, Caucasians, all groups who are also unlikely to be in prison), than it does about the apparently or supposedly religious motives of the prison population when viewed in this perspective. That is: that it is unlikely that any variety religion and religious belief is uniquely dangerous as a process in the life of the average Western atheist. They are dangerous in legal or political terms at times, but this is distinguished from the low probability of death or imprisonment by the state or via extra-legal means.

This all leads to the highly specious assertion that removing religions, or religious beliefs, or specific more uniquely "dangerous" religions would be of great benefit in alleviating the risks of violence across or within societies. I submit that this is unlikely to have a great effect on the rates and causes of violence if the only change is to eliminate religious beliefs and practices and that the intended focus point here is wrong as a result. If the problem is that some religious beliefs are bad, or harmful, and dangerous to societies, and that the practice of those beliefs results in violence and other offenses, and is otherwise an impediment to a form of moral progress or enlightenment, then it is these specific things that our energy should turn toward seeking ways to eliminate or restrict, and to challenge the theological or logical grounding of such beliefs. If that means that more people embrace a form of "liberal" religion, instead of strict adherence to a fundamentalist mindset, then that's one option. If that means that many people must lose their religion entirely and work must be done to see that this occurs, that too is an option. Religious beliefs or practices have also over time tended to moderate some of these more annoying and destructive perspectives. It takes longer sometimes than it should and much harm is done in the meantime. But it is possible to do. They do not necessarily remain moderated either. Which is also something to be on guard about.

The progress of a society governed by the reforms of the Enlightenment era in Western history is substantial but not guaranteed. As a historical example, both the Roman and Ottoman Empires experienced long and enormous gains in civilized behavior and societies themselves, and both eventually disintegrated and were broken apart or conquered, with the civilized gains in agriculture, urbanization, law, trade, philosophy, science, and education lost or abandoned for many years after, lacking the infrastructure to support them. In this respect, the work of anti-theists represents a defence of these gains against encroachment from the past eras of squalid and cruel destruction. It does not necessarily represent or propose an advance however. Which seems a far more interesting moral and social goal to promote than a rear guard.
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