Uncommon Sense

August 28, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 2

As if to prove my point in Part 1 (yesterday), the N.Y. Times ran an opinion piece on how religion is portrayed on TV and other “smaller media” (“Where Is God on the Small Screen?” by Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozikaug, 8-24-2016). The article didn’t prove my point, but the comments sure did! Atheists and theists lobbing bombs back and forth, bright flashes of light, tremendous bursts of bombast … any real communication? Naw.

The crux so far of the dialogue between atheists and theists (pun intended, sorry) is the sense that “both sides cannot be right.” This, however, is not a path forward as it leads to a discussion of who is right and who is wrong and, well, history has shown that does not get us anywhere. Instead, let us consider the possibility that both sides are right, not in the details but with regard to things that are really important. This is not a caving in on my part, it is just a rhetorical device to get past a rather large road block.

Sharing Facts Does Not Work
Let us get this out of the way from the get-go: sharing facts does not, will not, and can not work. Each group has its own facts and is relatively ignorant of the other group’s facts. There is a sizable majority of folks who possess very few of any pertinent facts, but they still have opinions. What those opinions are based upon is important as I hope to show.

So, my favorite topic: pointing out the flaws in others’ thinking (I enjoy it so much that I enjoy it when others point out my flaws in thinking) is counterproductive. The situation is both sides have an array of weapons at their disposal. When one is fired, but has no effect, we reach down and select another weapon and try that one. We don’t stop to reflect on why a direct hit by the opposition has no effect on us. We shrug and assume it is probably the case that their weapons are ineffective. Well, they are ineffective, in both directions, because we slough off any effect they might have if we were to consider what was actually said. Like two children arguing over a point of honor, we stand toe to toe and shout “Is!” followed by “Isn’t!” followed by many repetitions of the same.

I might add to this that euphemisms and clarifications will also not help. Various theists describe god as “Nature” or “the All” or “the Ground of All Being,” whatever. Some sociologists describe god as a metaphor for society as a whole, in that it is all powerful and can crush us like a bug, but if we follow its rules, we have hope.

Naw, doesn’t help.

“Let us consider the possibility that both sides are right,
not in the details but with regard to things that are really important.”

Let’s Peel the Onion One Layer at a Time
Let’s take one claim for the benefit of religion espoused by theists and examine it: the solace a religion provides when a loved one dies. Most of us atheists want to jump to point that fantasies may be reassuring but they aren’t real, but try for a moment to see what is actually going on.

A neighbor of ours has lost her mother and her brother in just the last month. Along with all of the sorrow and loss being felt there are funeral arrangements, settling the affairs of the deceased, informing friends and family, and myriad of other tasks to attend to. Anybody having lived any length of time can relate to this situation.

If one is the member of a healthy church community, a whole cadre of folks are activated when a member dies. Even before your loved one dies, prayers are offered for their recovery and visits to the sick bed are common. Now, you and I know that praying doesn’t work, but it addresses a number of the fears that people have about dying. Few of us want to die alone. We aren’t children; we don’t need somebody to hold our hand as when we learn to cross a street, but physical human contact helps. It is reassuring. Also, we don’t want to be forgotten. We live on in the memories of people who knew us when we were alive. But human memories are plastic and fail when the person owning them dies, so people often try to leave a more permanent legacy, in the form of a building, a book, or something that will point to our existence after we are gone. This is a need we all have. Praying and prayer circles don’t work in an actual physical sense but are examples of an often large number of people holding you in their thoughts, which means you will be remembered, at least for a time.

A solid church community has processes in place to assist members suffering from a bereavement. Church ladies show up at your door with a casserole so your kids can eat, knowing that you won’t feel up to cooking. If your minister is any good, they will call (physically, not via email or phone) and outline all of the support systems being offered. They will check in with you. Some churches have grief counselors available.

The church proper is available for a funeral service or memorial service with folks available who can help with the arrangements. If you want to have a reception after the service in the church’s meeting hall, often all of the arrangements are made by other members.

Who would not want this for a loved one who has to cope with your death? This is solace with a capital S.

And, as atheists, what do we offer as a substitute? Some kind of intellectual purity and a feeling of being all grown up because we no longer believe in fairly tales?

The Big Bugaboo: Death
Many of the benefits of religion seem to surround the Big Unknown: Death. But in my experience, the vast majority of people I have known have spent almost no time thinking about death. We entertain ourselves, ad nauseum, with the potential of dying in myriad movies and books, but actual death … not so much.

Woody Allen said “It’s not death I am afraid of, it’s dying.” and I think he hit the nail on its head. We have all experienced pain, discomfort, fear and other negative emotions and our imaginations allow us to extrapolate those feelings to the transition from being alive to being dead. Being dead has no negatives about it because there are no more emotions, no feeling, no nothing, but we think about leaving loved ones in the lurch, with unresolved financial issues and more. Clearly, dying seems to be rated as “most unpleasant” by most if not all people for good reasons. In addition, evolution has provided us with survival reflexes. If we step off of a street curb and a bus is coming right at us, we step back. We don’t even need to think about it. Any species that did not routinely avoid death would not be around very long. So, we are primed to avoid dying in many, many ways, often subconsciously.

It is “normal” that religions would sprout up to apply salves to the emotional wounds of those left behind which also acts as training for those who will be dying themselves in short order.

And what do we atheists offer instead?

Okay, take a deep breath, I know you want to say that deluding ourselves with fairy tales is not a good way to support healthy lives. You know I agree, but that attitude does not solve the problem. It itself does not solve the problem.

We need to change the way we see things. I remember being appalled when the presiding minister at my uncle’s memorial service stated that he “knew” that my uncle, an avid golfer, was up in Heaven playing golf! (The clergy, like other traditional professions has suffered a brain drain.) When I took the time to think about it, I don’t believe any present actually thought there were 18-hole championship golf courses in Heaven. I suspect that a number of them might have pictured my uncle in the “other place” playing golf with Beelzebub. What most thought was probably something along the lines of “… that’s what I would expect from good old Bob!” It would have been perceived as a joke by those who knew my uncle and not as being blasphemous.

The main message was “your loved one is in Heaven” which, of course, no one could know even within the parameters of religious doctrine. (Imagine the length of the waiting line and the amount you could charge if you could prove whether or not a deceased person was actually in Heaven. For everyone not wanting to know there would be two people who would gleefully want to know whether someone was in the “other place.”) Though Christian scripture indicates in many, many ways that while many are called, few are chosen for admittance through the Pearly Gates, yet according to every Christian Church memorial service, every member who dies is going to Heaven. This is another form of solace for those remaining behind.

We need to learn to translate “what we hear” into “what they hear” if we expect to be able to communicate with them.

I know this is a bit rambling, and I expect to ramble some more but I am heading to a place where we can actually address the real issue: how to meet the social and psychological needs of people who are now using religion to meet them. Because if we do not, then it is no contest, because they are right, their religion does offer solace when a loved one dies and they are right about a great deal more.

August 27, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 1

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:41 am
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Yesterday I received in the mail a paperback book which was a proselytizing instrument. Curious I flipped open the book and read a couple of lines. The author was writing about Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness and drawing a conclusion from it regarding our own future as his god’s children. My thought was “… but if Jesus were God, he could have done 40 days in the wilderness and gained weight from the experience and, as for Satan tempting Jesus with dominion over earthly kingdoms, how much sway would that have over the being that created those kingdoms, who already had dominion over everything, and who in fact created Satan? Don’t these people think about what they are saying?”

I am writing, not about the war between theists and atheists because there is none, but about why there is an almost total lack of dialogue between the two groups. Were I to draw a Venn diagram describing the interaction of the two groups, the overlap between the community of atheists and the community of theists (represented as circles) would show the two groups closer to being tangential than overlapping significantly.

And do not get me wrong. I have reveled in my ability as an atheist to be able to share my perspectives with like-minded people (while secretly holding out the feeling that some brilliant argument on my part will help some deluded theists see the light) but it is clear that I and you have been “preaching to the choir” and have not added anything to the discourse that could affect a meeting of the minds of even just a few members of these two groups. We have basically been talking amongst ourselves. And those in the scant overlap of the two groups, the Christian apologists and prominent atheists who debate one another from time to time, have had no effect whatsoever upon the other group.

I have been taught and truly believe that in order for there to be useful communication between two people, let alone two groups, one much expand one’s reality to include the reality of the other. So far, all we have done is to explain why “those people” don’t belong in “our group.”

An exercise in group communication that I was stunned by when I first did it (in a union-management context) was to have each group in isolation characterize the other group, including all of their wants, desires, etc. Then each group viewed the record created by the other group, in silence with no comment allowed. What I was stunned by was how clearly the management representatives saw and understood us union types and later we found out that they were as equally surprised at how well we understood them. Now that is the basis for further discussion! Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case in this situation. Members of the two groups stand far apart and occasionally throw a rock that hits nothing but the ground. This is some war!

Currently as I see it, this is how atheists view theists and vice-versa:

How Atheists View Theists
Religion is an archaic, irrational force, a source of superstition, including beliefs about an invisible world of spirits and ghosts. Religion has been and still is an institution of inquisitors and heresy-hunters, burning people at the stake or lopping off their heads for their beliefs. Religion is an upholder of the status quo, a kind of agency of the ruling class that makes people put up with economic and political injustice in return for a better life in the hereafter. Religion is a relic of the Dark Ages, something that will die away as societies become modernized.

How Theists View Atheists
Theists are in the vast majority and have been for ages and can’t see how all of those people could be wrong about something that is so profound for so long. Something in which people believe so strongly could hardly be based upon nothing but an error in reasoning. Atheists, in denying the even existence of God, are turning their backs upon all believers and on society as a whole. Standing outside of a religious body, they cannot be trusted to act in a benevolent fashion and their sheer existence can lead the children of future generations astray, to their destruction.

Being perfectly scrupulous about the source of these descriptions, I lifted much of them from Sociological Insight by Randall Collins, a classic of sociology. Please note I avoided including any of the scurrilous claims made by each group about the other.

So, in an effort to re-examine my atheism, I have read a great many books and articles about atheism and Christianity written over the last three thousand years or so, I have viewed many hours of debate between members of the two groups and now, I am here. I have but one question: how is the dialogue going so far?

Obviously, and I do not use the word lightly, it is going nowhere.

In future posts, I will address how atheists could change their role in the dialogue to create a different future. I won’t presume to address the other axis of the communication but would hope that some theists somewhere might accept the challenge and see if they can do the same for their group.

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