I don’t want to go on the cart!

June 21, 2012

Skeptics continue to predict the final downfall of organized religion, and well…I’m skeptical of that. Of course, some atheist prophet claims it’ll be by 2038 and I figure, I’ll be dead by then anyway. Kind of an easy prediction.

That being said, it is amusing to see the typical “I feel fine!” responses from annoyed believers. Since the original claim was from Huffington Post, it seems only natural that the response was there as well. Their religion section abounds with such foolishness.

Relying on what he calls the “existential security hypothesis,” Barber claims that people turn to religion to calm the fears and insecurities caused by economic deprivation. But once their basic needs are assured and they are protected from early death by violence or disease, they become more secure in their daily lives and their need for religion fades.

That’s the sort of thing I see, although I wouldn’t make a case from a few anecdotes. I wonder if ideas like reincarnation require a decent standard of living to come up with. The truly miserable pine for heavens; but people who like life may want to go on living, or perhaps come back again and live some more. And certainly the ranks of non-believers in America are growing. But I wouldn’t put much stock in seeing religion go away anytime soon.

Although it would be nice.

I felt sorry for Mr. Barber, just as I feel sorry for the other champions of atheism who are so intent on demonstrating religion’s imminent demise. I have the good fortune every week of sitting at the family table, absorbing the light of the Sabbath candles, feeling my spirits soar and experiencing the pure serenity of sacred time. Without Shabbat, and without the other rituals created by humankind’s great religious traditions, how do these atheism-obsessed individuals measure holiness? How do they distinguish the holy in life from the ordinary and the profane?

Although the rabbi’s argument presupposes a valid existence of that which is holy or sacred and can be shot down right there, it is interesting to consider the description of his experiences. Although it’s cloaked in sacred-osity, what he’s describing looks like being happy. His ‘spirits soar’. He finds ‘pure serenity’. Does he really think that being calm, peaceful and happy is somehow different in a believer just because they stick a special label on it and call it ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’?

I suppose so, given the question he asks. How does one measure holiness? What’s its unit of measure? Outside of fantasy games, I haven’t found one. My monk character in Diablo gains Spirit – her spirits soar! – from beating the crap out of enemies. Go figure.

Now here the rabbi gets to his point, that atheism lacks humility, imagination and curiosity.

I am a liberal, in both politics and religion. The heart of liberalism is recognizing the pluralistic nature of the human condition and devising a political system that enables us to live democratically with religious and political differences. In its embrace of diversity, pluralism, and religious tolerance, liberalism inevitably promotes humility about the world around us. Seeing how different we are from each other, liberalism encourages us to consider the possibility that there are things we do not know; that we might be wrong about matters such as God and the language of faith; and that even if the language of faith is not our language, it may be the language of others.

And yet religion empowers the believer to feel that they have acquired some special knowledge, that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Not all religion, or every adherent of it; hopefully not the rabbi himself. But he’s speaking to a nation primarily composed of xians, who to one degree or another feel that they have the market cornered on truth, and that millions or billions of people are so wrong that they will suffer eternally for it.

How do liberal believers handle this? Well, a lot of them drop that kind of language from their belief systems. But as per the rabbi, they’re supposed to be humble, and admit that they could be wrong. That someone else’s faith is just ‘their language’ and as valid as anyone else’s.

In my experience, and knowing the conservative types we’re fighting against, I’ve seen religion put to use in destroying humility, imagination and curiosity. As an atheist myself, I don’t worry about holy vs. profane. I don’t have to put special labels on what makes me happy in order to be happy. Being a skeptic meant abandoning the warm glow of certainty enjoyed by the faithful. Which is humble, and which is arrogant? My interest in science and seeking truth isn’t limited by religious notions of forbidden knowledge and articles of faith trumping demonstrable reality.

And we can see that, in religious nutbags writing climate change denial into their state laws. In school boards writing creationism into their science textbooks, and encouraging a war of ideas among children – kids who we’re supposed to be teaching, instead are obliged to decide for themselves – after years of religion-biased indoctrination, of course.

When it comes to humility, imagination and curiosity, I think I’ve got most believers beat. And it’s funny to me, to see how the rabbi sets up his own arrogance of the sacred and holy, and can’t even see it as he shakes his finger at the skeptic. Standing on a pedestal he set up, he declares himself humble. Walking a traditional religious path defined centuries or millenia ago, he declares himself imaginative. Naysaying and insulting the skeptic, he calls himself curious.


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