Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Atheists Say The Darnedest Things!

Strange. I’ve been encountering an unusual number of strangely misinformed remarks about religion by atheists recently. Maybe I’ve just been in a meaner, crankier mood than usual?

Try this one, from the late Arthur C. Clarke: “Science can destroy a religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” (The site attributes it to Childhood’s End, one of Clarke’s novels, so I presume it’s spoken by a character, not directly by Clarke. Ordinarily it’s not wise to assume that characters speak for their authors, but the blogger who posted the quotation to his own site evidently did, so I’ll go along with him.)

It’s true, Zeus and Thor have few followers now, but the credit (or blame) doesn’t go to science; it goes to a certain rival cult, which achieved its supremacy not by ignoring rival gods but by imposing itself by force, up to and including violence.

Actually, the first thing that popped into my head when I read Clarke’s remark was drapetomania. Discovered in 1851 by a white American doctor named Cartwright, drapetomania was a disease that caused African-American slaves to run away from their masters. As far as I know, no one ever demonstrated scientifically that runaway slaves were not sick, but few would claim now that they were. I’m not saying that Clarke would have accepted the existence of drapetomania, only drawing the parallel to show that proofs and demonstrations are not necessarily relevant.

Clarke was never one of my favorite sf writers anyway, but he finally annoyed me terminally with a remark in the afterword to 3001. After patronizingly expressing affection for his religious friends (some of his best friends are Buddhists and Jews and Christians and Hindus! isn’t he liberal?), he purrs: “Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than it is to be sane and un-happy. But it is best of all to be sane and happy.”

Maybe Clarke would have accepted the existence of drapetomania. There is no reason I know of to believe that most religious believers are “un-sane.” The complacent assumption that most people are crazy while the assumer is the only sane person is not exactly a sign of perfect sanity, however. It’s certainly not a sign of rationality to try to discredit another person’s beliefs by questioning their sanity. I’ve observed that tactic used by Christian apologists against agnostics and atheists, and of course as a gay man I’m well acquainted with the secular medicalization of unpopular life choices.

Try this comment by another atheist: “Religion starts from the assumption that an ancient text or tradition is true, and seeks to reconcile observed reality with the text.” Well, no it doesn’t. We don’t really know how religion started, but most religions are not based on sacred texts -- Greek and Roman paganism, for instance. Judaism was a novelty in that respect (though its texts were a relatively late development compared to the sacrificial practices, purity rules, and festivals that were its core – and these also changed over time), followed by Christianity and Islam. Christianity started from current events – Jesus’ career as a miracle-worker and preacher, culminating in his death by crucifixion and the claims by his followers that he’d been raised from the dead – not from ancient texts or traditions. Early Christians appealed to the Jewish scriptures to justify their new cult, but they neither took them literally nor based their claims on the texts: rather they interpreted the texts with amazing elasticity to force them to conform to the sacred events. (Nothing in the Hebrew Bible, for example, predicts that the Messiah would be crucified and rise from the dead.)

At around the same time as the Christian New Testament was coalescing, rabbinic Judaism codified its legal rulings into a new compilation, the Mishnah, again partly as a result of historic events: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which ended the sacrificial cult. This forced the reinterpretation of text and tradition to conform to reality, not vice versa.

Ancient texts and traditions weren’t always ancient. Once they become authoritative, they are used by their adherents in a complex way, both influencing believers and being influenced by them. The reinterpretation of texts reconciles the texts with observed reality, trying to make them fit present-day needs.

Finally, the blogger at whose site I found these quotations (except the one from 3001) wrote, as an example of the way that religion is a “fixed system,” unlike science: “The Catholic Church isn't going to ‘adjust’ or ‘self-correct’ their version of God based on conflicting ‘evidence’, whatever that might be; for them he is and will always be the omniscient creator of everything in the universe, and the ultimate answer to every question.” I can’t imagine Western science ever adjusting its basic approach to understanding the workings of the universe, namely trying to explain those workings without appealing to divine or other supernatural agency; that’s a given, though it was arrived at fairly gradually over the past 350 years or so. But even within the Roman Catholic tradition, the understanding of God has changed over the past two millennia. Augustine, for example, used Platonic ideas; Aquinas used Aristotle and other philosophical authorities.

The Church would probably claim that its understanding is indeed “self-correcting” (a popular, if dubious buzzword among scientific apologists these days). On less central issues, like slavery or Christendom’s relation to competing sects, Christian positions have changed quite a bit over the centuries. From the New Testament we know that widely divergent understandings of Christ coexisted and were in conflict from the earliest days of the churches. Outsiders had little or no input into these internal controversies, so I suppose their progress could be described as self-correcting.

It simply isn’t true that religion is a fixed system. As individuals, people change their religious beliefs in ways ranging from wrestling with personal fears and conflicts by interacting with tradition, to joining a new denomination or converting to a different religion – or abandoning religion altogether. Such changes may be affected by thinking about Copernican or Darwinian theory, but they may also take place entirely within a framework of religious thought. Believers sometimes want you to think their beliefs are fixed and solid, but it’s odd to find atheists taking them at their word. Nothing human is fixed and solid, and a look at the history of religious belief and practice will show that religion is no exception to the rule.