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A Debate With Greta Christina on Myths Atheists Believe About Religion

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by Be Scofield Crossposted from Tikkun Daily Greta Christina argues that a personal belief in God will make you more likely to harm others and embrace an "extreme, grotesque immorality." In her rebuttal to my article "5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion," (reprinted on Alternet.org) Greta Christina claims that I've reproduced religious privilege and oppression. How? Because I used the word "myth" and associated it with atheists. According to Christina by using the word myth (which I could easily interchange in this case with "have wrong," or "incorrect") I'm in the same category as all of those people who attack atheists with harmful slurs. "Bigoted myths about atheists abound -- myths that we're amoral, selfish, hateful, despairing, close-minded, nihilistic, arrogant, intolerant, forcing our lack of belief on others, etc. -- and many of us experience real discrimination as a result." Thus, by me calling Christina's claim that all religions are equally crazy a myth I am somehow in the same boat as someone who hates and oppresses atheists. While myth may not be the grammatically correct word I'm uncertain as to how my article would cease to be oppressive if I had merely used "have wrong" or "wrong belief" instead of myth. Again, the substance of what I wrote is not an issue for her. Rather it's one word, myth. Her logic entails that if I called Malcolm X's early belief that all white people are devils a myth then I am supporting or contributing to all racist and white supremacist myths about black people. I don't follow this line of thinking. I am deeply concerned about religious privilege and the dehumanization of atheists. I recently wrote an article "If I Were an Atheist I Wouldn't Trust the Religious Either" describing the problematic nature of trying to incorporate atheists into interfaith work. I've also previously written how religious people need to defend atheists against attack and dehumanization. In using the word myth it was synonymous with untruth or incorrect. It is possible for atheists or anyone else to believe wrong things about religion. Pointing this out is not oppressive or discriminatory. Otherwise all religious people must remain silent and not critique atheists. Nor is using the term myth to describe a wrong belief. Maybe it isn't the best choice of words or the most grammatically correct, but myth isn't a dirty word nor does saying the word invoke all other awful myths associated with any given category. We use it everyday very commonly despite it perhaps not being the accurate choice of word at the time. Greta Christina's words appear in blue. Liberal and Moderate Religion The point is not that liberal and moderate religion justifies religious extremism. The point is that liberal and moderate religion justifies religion. It justifies the whole idea of religious faith: the idea that it's entirely reasonable, and even virtuous, to believe in invisible supernatural entities or forces for which there is no good evidence. I understand Christina's logic. But I think it is overly simplistic. Does the presence of a small business justify the whole idea of capitalism? Are all businesses equally crazy because they all justify capitalism? Does smoking pot justify the whole idea of drug use? Sure, I guess. There are other things like social behaviors, group dynamics and cultural understandings that justify drug use as well. Can't you be against capitalism but also acknowledge meaningfully the difference between the local hardware store and Enron? Or must you say as Christina does, "We're saying that the entire well of religion is poisonedbecause it's wrong. And we're saying that liberal and moderate religion justifies that wrongness." The comparative analogy is, "We're saying that the entire well of capitalism is poisoned because it's wrong. And we're saying that small businesses justify that wrongness." There are many things which stifle critical thinking in our culture and religion certainly can. Just as there are many forces that support U.S. style capitalism. And small businesses may participate in that support to some degree. But it also can challenge it. So, rather than aligning with religion vs. non-religion why not align with those forces that support critical thinking vs. those that don't? Yes, of course liberal religion justifies religion, but it also in many ways offers important correctives to religion. The incorporation of science, critical thinking and historical criticism by liberal religious reformers has done more than any atheist has to challenge the irrationality in religion. Thus, the liberal theologian has done significantly more to challenge all of those things that Christina dislikes about religion than any atheist ever has. They've demonstrated how the Bible is myth, doctrines are false, history is complex...etc. These positive contributions far outweigh any concerns with liberal religion supporting religion. But liberal religion only gets one designation: supporting and justifying religion. It's whole name is tarnished despite that it is actually more closely aligned with many skeptical atheist positions on religion. In Christina's world it's an all or nothing game. You are either with us or against us. No room for compromise. When I think of liberal religion I think of this quote from the Christian Hosea Ballou in 1805,
The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been moulded [sic] into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel.
According to Christina, Ballou is wrong because he still believed in a God. But his book A Treatise on the Atonement from which this quote was taken is filled with these sorts critical ideas. And his work is an important chapter in liberal theology and the challenging of dogma. There are many others like him out there. Rather than dismiss Ballou as "justifying religion" or "wrong" why not align with people like him on the points in which he supports critical thinking and challenges the irrationality in religion? Is the liberal theologian who critically challenges the doctrines of Christianity and teaches that they aren't literally true more supportive of religion than an atheist who doesn't challenge any religious dogma? Now, many atheists do think that liberal and moderate religion provides intellectual cover for the more extreme varieties...But even these critics aren't saying that Unitarianism is some sort of gateway drug to fundamentalism. Here is Dawkins again, "The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism." I rest my case. For the overwhelming majority of people who use the word, "religion" means "belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world...As long as you don't think there's any god, or any soul, or any afterlife, or any sort of supernatural anything... we don't disagree with you. And we couldn't care less. Christina's definition of religion would mean a person sitting in his room by himself who believes in God but doesn't attend any religious service. Religion is one person believing in a God detached from any sort of sociological, institutional or cultural framework. This is not only extremely out of touch with any definition of religion it denies the entire social dimension of it. Religion is a cultural and institutional system of meaning making that may include rituals, practices and beliefs. I've never come across her description of religion from anywhere including sociology or religious studies. One person believing in a God by him or herself is not religion. Secondly, Christina's sole focus on belief in God denies all of the disturbing group dynamics that can happen in religious organizations. Would she really be ok with an organization like the Catholic Church with hierarchy, rules, regulations, dictates and orders as long as there was no belief in the supernatural? It seems undo attention is placed on one factor of religion; belief in a supernatural God. Yet, it is the group dynamics and social pressures that inspire people to act immorally not a personal belief in any given God. Otherwise anyone who believed in God would act the same. Religion and Bad Behavior The point is that the very nature of religion itself -- the very nature of a belief in the supernatural -- is, in and of itself, harmful, and is more likely to both inspire and rationalize terrible harm than other kinds of ideas... It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality... and extreme, grotesque immorality. Following Christina's logic we'd expect that a significant amount of believers would have an "extreme, grotesque immorality" and that many would be inspiring and rationalizing "terrible harm." Where is the evidence for this? Most believers are like non-believers. They have jobs, get married, have children, live peacefully...etc. While believers hold to certain theological beliefs their lives in general are no different than anyone else. When a religious group or leader does engage in harm is it because they have a belief in a supernatural God? Or is it because of group dynamics and a charismatic leader? The point is there are billions of people who believe in God and these billions of people don't have an "extreme, grotesque immorality" and they don't harm anyone. Thus, Christina's logic is flawed as there is no evidence for her claim. Would Stalin have been worse had he believed in a God? This is essentially what Christina is claiming. If believing in a God is so dangerous and harmful why are there billions of believers who don't exhibit extreme, grotesque morality and who aren't harming people indiscriminately? Christina is basically saying believing that the earth is flat will lead you to be immoral and harmful. I don't follow this logic that an individuals belief in something untrue will make them immoral and dangerous. Besides, is it really the personal belief in God that matters? What if someone (and they are certainly out there) doesn't actually believe in God but is a religious leader who claims divine authority? And why are there people who believe in the same God but yet don't resort to the same fundamentalist, divine authoritarian beliefs? Those same claims of divine authority have been made by political rulers without reference to God. Isn't the issue how any given community chooses to interpret their God? Again, you can have two communities that believe in a supernatural God. One community is queer friendly and teaches love and kindness. The other community teaches that God tells them to hate queer people and bomb abortion clinics. How can this be if belief in God is the variable that is responsible for immorality and harm? Wouldn't we expect them to both to have an "extreme, grotesque immorality" that inspires harm? I've shown that the vast majority of people who believe in God aren't immoral nor do they harm. I've also demonstrated that belief in God is not the correct variable to examine when trying to explain why people behave badly. Otherwise all people who believe in God would act the same way. Or even the majority, or even a quarter of them would act badly because of their belief. But yet, this isn't the case. Bad behavior in the name of religion has to do with sociological and group dynamics, not whether one believes in a God or not. Again, you can have two groups that both believe the earth is flat. One is violent and hateful, the other is peaceful. Is the incorrect belief that the earth is flat really why one of the groups is immoral? Of course not. You can believe untrue things and not be more likely to be immoral or cause harm. All Religions are Equally Crazy We get that some religions are more disconnected from reality than others -- but we still think they're all disconnected from reality. If Christina really gets that some religions are more disconnected from reality than others then she can't claim they are all equally crazy. She proves my point exactly. I know that Greta Christina doesn't think that Dr. King and Osama Bin Laden are morally equivalent. It's that she doesn't acknowledge in any meaningful way that there can be degrees of theological differences. For example Dr. King explicitly rejected the divinity of Jesus and said it was dangerous to believe he was divine in an ontological sense because it would mean that we couldn't aspire to such heights if it came from God. He also denied the existence of a literal heaven/hell, rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus, thought the Bible was myth and denied the virgin birth...etc. He never wanted to be a minister until he encountered a course in the Bible that brought a very critical and scientific perspective to it. But he always believed in a supernatural God. One that supported justice in the world. Because of this Christina claims that King is as equally crazy in the theological realm as someone who is a fundamentalist like Osama Bin Laden. Because they both believe in God they are both equally "wrong." End of discussion. There is no interest in recognizing how science, reason and critical thinking has played into the reforming of religious belief. In reality religious reformers and theologians have done an incredible amount more than any atheist has to challenge irrationality in religion. It's not even a close comparison. Yet, all of these contributions are negated if the reformer still believes in God. They get slapped with the label "wrong" and "equally crazy." Dr. King is equally crazy to Pat Robertson in theological terms, despite very large differences in their theology. To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s free newsletter, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkunon Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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