Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Another way that religion poisons everything--forgetting who your friends are, for faith

I'm cutting straight to it here. Luke Winkie published a piece for Vice.com titled "Hey Atheists, Just Shut Up Please." Let me get two huge points out of the way first before getting to what I want to say about this.

First: Hemant Mehta did an absolutely beautiful job answering the content of this piece already with his post today "Reddit Atheism, I Still Love You" on his blog Friendly Atheist on Patheos. It's beautiful right down to the xkcd comic he included that indicates this entire growing movement, which I like to call the "devout agnostic" movement, is more about psychological superiority than it is about much of anything else, perhaps save some attempt to renew a semblance of harmony between the non-religious and the so-called do-no-harm religious folks.

Second: The Winkie piece is just another one of the "Shut up! That's why!" arguments that atheist blogger Greta Christina decimated way back in February of 2009. In fact, Winkie isn't even subtle about it--the "atheists: just shut up" is right there in the title of Winkie's piece! Just shut up? No, no, and no. Mehta did a decent job explaining why we shouldn't, as has Christina less specifically to Winkie, so there's no need to cover that ground again.

What I want to talk about is my experience with this article today, but first let me note yet another point it raised for me right along the lines of the working subtitle of Christopher Hitchens's last decade of life, not to mention his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (emphasis mine). (Hitchens, incidentally, is mentioned in Winkie's piece, where he is noted for making a career out of "'debating' religious people"--in which I might detect a cynical undertone that I've heard before from the devout agnostic camp and elsewhere that folks like the "New Atheists" are in it for a lucrative career, not to effect real change--ad hominem and likely to be false.)

In fact, in this video compilation of pieces from Hitchens, he rather indirectly points out one way that religion poisons things: due to Jesus' rather immoral and fanciful command to "love everyone," the religious are not necessarily able to know an enemy when they see one (see timestamp ~13:30).

That said, my experience with this article today went essentially like this: I saw the post from Hemant Mehta on his blog and read his take on it, skimming Winkie's original piece. Frankly, at this point I find Winkie's kind of annoying flap increasingly difficult to read and thus don't pay it a lot of stock any longer unless I deem it extra important for one reason or another. That reason came for me later when a dear friend of mine over the last decade posted it to his Facebook timeline. As I have Christian friends, this normally wouldn't have raised my eyebrow too much--I plainly see why Christians are tired of open-mouthed atheists, particularly given that we frequently "carpet bomb" religion, especially on threads like Reddit's--except that this friend of mine is gay.

What does his sexual orientation matter? Simple: it seems altogether unseemly that one oppressed minority would find it conscionable to lay a "Shut up; that's why!" argument at the feet of another. In this case, there's a lot of data suggesting why it's extra surprising. Eyebrows officially raised--if only I were Sam Harris... the argument would be over!

Thus, I realize that religion poisons yet another aspect of our lives--it sometimes renders us unable to see who our friends are.

Clearly, I should note that the terms "gay" and "straight" are not sufficiently clear for the purposes of careful discussion, but since the study from The Barna Group that I am going to briefly mention here uses that terminology, I will match it. They indicate that roughly 70% of gay Americans, compared with 85% of straight Americans, claim Christianity as their religion. The study notes further: "Another gap was then noted among those who say they are Christian: about six out of ten heterosexuals say they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith, compared to about four out of ten among homosexuals."

Using their statement that roughly 3% of the adult population of the United States is homosexual, only around 2% of the adult population of the United States is gay and Christian, and only around 0.8% is gay, Christian, and absolutely committed to the faith (Cf. roughly 83% of straight Americans are Christian with 50% of the population absolutely committed to the Christian faith). Bear in mind that somewhere between 1.5% and 2% of the American population self-identifies as out-and-out atheist. In other words, there are roughly as many gay American Christians as there are American atheists.

Now some data from Pew Research, bearing in mind that same-sex marriage is the defining social struggle for gay Americans today (along with others worldwide!).
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people (16% of the population--closest thing to atheists in the research) are by far the most motivated among the various religious groups to be in favor of same-sex marriage. In fact, some 73% of "unaffiliated" people support it, versus barely 50% of the general population, Catholics (53%), and white mainline-Protestants (52%). Only 35% of black Protestants and 19% of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage.
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people are more likely to be in favor of same-sex marriage than American Democrats (62%). Independents come in at 52% and Republicans at 24%.
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people actually edge out liberals in general on the matter of favoring same-sex marriage as only 72% of liberals support it at this point. Compare 57% of moderates and 26% of conservatives.
  • Atheists are very likely to outstrip "religiously unaffiliated" people on this matter, though I have no data other than anecdote to support this--it was news to me that there might even exist atheists that don't support same-sex marriage (on what grounds would they oppose it?), but apparently they're out there. Indeed, again from Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist, a Gallup poll indicates that 88% of those who self-identify as having no religious identity support same-sex marriage. From this we can conclude that roughly twice as many atheists that favor same-sex marriage exist in the United States as do gay Christians.
It is absolutely no secret that Christianity is perceived, particularly by young people, as being openly hostile to the LBGT movement. Indeed, Christianity, as an organization, is recognized as the primary anti-gay, anti-gay-equality organization in the United States and the central motivating force for the vast majority of the rest of them. Some people, it seems, think of "anti-homosexuality" as the primary defining characteristic of the Christian religion today! It is rather surprising, to me at least, that there are so many gay Christians, though surely they will be the ones that help the religion dig itself out of the gutter on this issue. Either way, atheists have no particular beef with gay people and have all kinds of beef with using religious justifications for essentially any bad idea or general injustice. 

In short, most atheists should be staunch allies, if not friends, of LBGT folks, even the Christian ones, so long as we're permitted to paint with such broad strokes. Hell, we're even loud about things in general now, particularly about this, where the opposition to same-sex marriage is a clear application of religious privilege acting poorly, as usual. In fact, that we are loud against religious privilege and religiously protected bigotry is one of the central reasons Winkie wrote his piece in the first place! Religious belief, though, apparently can trump even that. Unsupportable beliefs with disproportionate importance can have that effect on you.

What would my gay friend say, I wonder, if I had posted on my own timeline some petty piece indicating that all of the gay people should "just shut up please"? Actually, I don't wonder. I'd get the vitriolic response I deserve--or worse--and I know it. Majorities throughout history have told minorities fighting for their rights to "shut up"--blacks, women (though they were never a minority in numbers, they were in social status), and yes, gays. People of almost every minority religious persuasion have gotten it too--at least in countries where people have the rights to be different and to voice their views.

My friend said he agreed with every single point Winkie makes. I feel his frustration--atheists can be quite caustic, for which I expect we have our reasons (like that being extra nice and accommodating seems not to work and is rather lacking in intellectual and moral integrity--once one really knows why they do not believe in Christianity, at least). He even contended that he agrees with what is perhaps the most outrageous point in Winkie's piece: that rational argument cannot change someone's religious beliefs.

Winkie writes: "By the way, what is more arrogant than assuming someone can be reasoned into abandoning their faith?" This is a surprising statement, characteristic of this devout agnostic movement that likes to win a feeling of superiority by flagrantly misusing the word "arrogant" by throwing it back at atheists (who are often wont to point out the rather considerable vanities contained in religions like Christianity--a universe created for mankind, a personal relationship with creator, Lord, and God, that beliefs in certain improbable propositions can morally trump any set of deeds, etc.). Certainly reasoned arguments led me away from my faith and are at the centers of almost all of the deconversion stories I know, even if the arguments don't produce a deconversion on the spot or in real time. Indeed--those reasoned arguments hit me when I was looking to validate Christian beliefs for people while I was "religiously unaffiliated" for a time before walking away from the faith entirely.

To Winkie's point I would respond: other than, perhaps, through outright disgust at the moral outrages presented by the juxtaposition of this world and the claims about God, how else, other than through reasoned arguments, has anyone ever left their faith?

To my friend I would ask: has your religious belief made you forget who your real friends are?

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