I was watching a film by this name last night.

A mutual friend, who had seen it, told another mutual friend with me in the room she hoped I never came across it on Netflix because of how it might offend my religious sensibilities. However, said friend knew me well enough to know that I'm not easily offended.

The film was a concert-series montage of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss going about their lives arguing for science and against religion, sometimes at Humanist/Atheist conference love-ins, and sometimes in deliberately antagonistic environments, for example in a debate against the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Australia.

And in watching, yet again, the usual anti-religionist stuff as part of the film, I removed myself from the obvious snarkiness of pointing out that there seems to be a clear link between atheism and HORRIBLE dress sense, Dr. Krauss in particular. And there was quite a bit in the film that shows up so often, it warrants a response.

The first is the oft-thrown out comparison and juxtaposition between the perfectly reasonable Dawkins or Krauss with a mob of baying religionists outside either threatening one or both with hellfire and other "Christian" slogans (the quotes are deliberate, here) or in a latter part of the film, a very angry Islamist mob talking about Islam as a state solution for "the atheist cancer".  It's almost comical that a group that prides itself on fair and level headed logic should stoop to blatant logical fallacy of this sort - suggesting that religion, in and of itself is some kind of vicious and hateful in-your-face belief system that always results in the most dramatic and unthinking mouthbreathers who protest them, and given it involves the worship of an all powerful and violent and torturing being it stands to reason that its adherents would be such obnoxious and hateful people.

What a throwaway line from Dawkins in the movie reveals is that he's more than happy to discuss things with non-fundamentalist religionists, but the moment they become fundamentalist he's no interest at all - and the filmmakers whiffed at the ball. "Religionists" do indeed include the Westboro Baptist Church, Jim Jones and Osama Bin Laden, but they also include some pretty progressive people and some unsung heroes acting incredibly selflessly to advance the positives in religion, and there are many positives. Just as how feminism hates its opposition constantly focussing on "straw feminists", there's some dismay at my part and others at this sort of comparison, because we fight against the same sort of people for exactly the same reasons as the Dawkins and Krausses of the world.

Secondly, they decry religion on the basis of the fruits of what certain religious people have done. Just as how it is categorically unfair to demonize Islam based on the actions of a small minority on September 11th, one cannot throw away the message of Christianity because of what happened during the Crusades (the first of which was defensive, for the record), or what happened to Galileo (which, behind the scenes, was actually orchestrated by one jealous scientist against another). Except in very very specific circumstances which are extremely aberrant, the Boko Harams and the Fundamentalist Christians of the world - there is no quarrel, per se, between religion and science. Christianity and Islam advanced science tremendously across the centuries. 

In theory, if you were going to say that religion should be thrown into the garbage can of history based on certain corner case evils, you could argue the same thing about science. Sure, religion gave us the Inquisition, but science gave us vivisection. The Christians sacked the ancient libraries, but science gave us a weapon that could literally destroy the planet, many, many times over. Go ahead and complain that "religious people" don't care about climate change, completely sidestepping the fact that it's a product of science. The internal combustion engine blueprints aren't in the Bible, or the Koran. That's a silly game to play, because what you're really trying to deal with is human behavior.

In fact, fascinatingly, I was listening to NPR this weekend and a psychologist whose name I'd kill to remember was talking about the terror threat of religion, and his findings were fascinating. Religion was not a good predictor of radicalization at all - a better predictor was if you were into sports, especially action-packed ones, specifically soccer. Radicalized people almost always have very little or no religious training, are often converted in their late teens and early 20s, and are more motivated by changing the world than the dictates of any belief system. If you wanted to find people involved with that person, don't examine their holy books, examine their social networks. The notion that religion in and of itself leads to the horrors of this modern world is patently false. Ask any Christian who's tried to talk a sign-weilding protestor away from a gay pride march or abortion clinic, and he or she would tell you the same thing.

Dawkins and Krauss consistently try to diminish the purpose of religion by scoffing that it cannot be empirically proven. They hold tiresome and tedious debates, all of which they are guaranteed to win. Of course I cannot prove, empirically - that there is a God. If I could, then it would not be a religion, but a science, and there would be no debate at all. It would be like me asking you to paint a painting with mathematics or better yet explain how to differentiate a quadratic equation with interpretive dance, define love with a chemical formula, or distill much of human experience - that which cannot be quantified or put into a box - into a mechanistic and repeatable equation, and then claim that you are totally wrong and your understanding of the world is null and void because you couldn't create a sculpture that proved climate change. The Bible makes no claims to be infallible or the dictated Word of God in the Koranic sense, and they don't even realize much of the Christian world operates on that principle and cannot stand the "full gospel" Biblical literalists as much as they do. Congratulations on winning in a forum of your own design, where the discussion is only winnable by your rules.

Even science is open to debate and isn't "provable" but "the evidence shows". Look at climate change, for example. Of course it's happening, but it isn't something provable, just something that can be modelled. There is no "control" earth. We cannot repeat the experiment of re-industrializing and de-industrialising the planet over and over again with exactly the same conditions each time. In theory, there's no proof that cancer is caused by smoking, just a very alarming correlation. 

Dawkins explicitly decries the fact that religion doesn't change its mind when presented with evidence, which is also ridiculous. There are women pastors and priests in several denominations. Certain churches marry gays. Slavery was something churches stopped defending "Biblically" decades ago. The Dalai Lama has openly said the moment science disproves Buddhism, it should disappear. Ideas in religion are absolutely influenced by experience and even reason, which is one of the main pillars of the via media.  There's a movement in Islam called "ijtihad" (transliterations differ) - "diligence" - which injects reason into understanding what the shari'a is about. The Torah is insignificant in size compared to the books and books and tomes of commentary and oral tradition around those works.

Feel free not to believe in my God, or in any God. The first two words of the Christian creeds are "I believe". (or "We believe"). If the question is can God be spoken of in terms of the empirical proofs inherent in creation? Not at all. If you don't, I have no quarrel with you and concede absolutely your point. But realize that you stray from your supremely valued empricism when you talk about the beauty of science, the elegance of certain aspects of creation. These are subjective experiences, you're straying from the "what" and the "how" to the "why" and the "what purpose does this serve?"... and now you're in the same realm in which religion lives. You cannot prove to me your science is "beautiful" - show me the equation. Show me the undeniable proof. I'm waiting. Can't you? Then beauty doesn't exist, right?

I'm not saying that to mock, chide, or otherwise deride the atheists, MANY of which immerse themselves in any of a number of fantasy worlds and/or take tremendous joy in frivolous and subjective experiences. I'm pointing out that they're really beating a very, very dead horse. You cannot tell me there is nothing of value in attaching importance and credence to something that is for all intents and purposes fantasy, and then become incredibly enthused about a brightly printed book involving a man in spandex tights flying through the universe with his equally strangely dressed friends, all of whom possess incredible and certainly non-natural powers. Your own experience argues against yourself at that point. 

One young man late in the movie was wearing a T-shirt with various religious symbols on them, along with the words "They can't all be right". Actually, they can. All of the religions on that shirt talk about charity, talk about kindness especially towards strangers, about controlling one's behavior. About acting towards others as you would want to be treated, avoiding slander, lies, malice, theft, adultery, murder and cruelty. There are significant contributions to what we consider acceptable behavior and what we consider moral based on the ideas in religion. 

Dawkins argued that instead atheists should take back "intelligent design" as an expression and laugh at the idea that you need a God for morality, and thoughtfully design your own morality. Isn't that what the 1960s was all about? That turned out well, didn't it? I'm not suggesting you need a God to be moral, but I am suggesting that those ideas need to be tempered by some outside ideas that go beyond your own selfish understanding of the world and your own unique viewpoint.

At the end of the day, I'd like to call on these kinds of folks to stop, drop and roll. You've proved everything you could possibly prove, just as much as there's no point anymore in asking passersby if they've heard about Jesus - unless you were raised in a cabin in the woods with no contact with the outside world, you most certainly have. The next stage, or dare I say... evolution in your approach would be to stop baiting the low-hanging fruit/usual suspects and engaging in "aren't I clever, here's a contradiction in this holy book that negates it all" (note: I've tried doing the same with a math textbook with a typo - and somehow that's DIFFERENT, because REASONS) echo-chamber glad-handlings and start asking, "okay, so what does this mean? How do we build for ourselves what religionists already have? Where are our life rituals, where is our sense of wonder, what's our corporate purpose."  I have to think that the reason they haven't done so yet is because they'd then have to venture out into the realm of non-empiricism, of stepping away from their comfort zone of striking out things with a red pen and moving on to some more difficult issues. The good news is that there've been several communities at work on this problem for several thousand years, many of whom would be glad to share their findings without enforcing a belief in their prime directive.





 

 


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