The delusion they’ll never live down

January 16, 2013

Yesterday I had one of those rare points of disagreement with someone I respect greatly. And since the subject is about damaging the coalition that leads to progress in our country politically, it seems better to put my answer here instead of there. Warning: it is rather long. That may be a problem. If so, just go “TL;DR” and check out this lolcat, then go on your merry way.

So, here is the relevant chunk of the article in question. It’s about Martin Luther King Jr., about whom I can’t help but have some mixed feelings, since it was religion that guided him to some good goals, but his claims about religion and the bible are still questionable. On balance I can only wish that I could do as much good with my life, because I never will.

The black church is still the center of much black life, and leadership is still drawn from it. Few of our churches are uni-class. We may attend service and be sitting in the same pew with a housemaid or day laborer.

Even those who moved away from Christianity, gathered around other preachers—like Malcolm.

The lesson I learn when I look at the face of young Martin, is that he could have been any black child I see today. One of those black children missing no one pays attention to.  One of those black children murdered by stray gunfire. One of those black children who winds up in the school to prison pipeline. One of those black kids headed off to Sunday school.

I am also reminded (no matter my own non-christian persuasion) that those on the left who deride religion and spiritual faith openly on forums such as these, do little to forge the coalitions we need to move forward.

For many on the left who pride themselves in their openly militant atheism—poor whites and their churches and revival meetings are merely objects of scorn. There is vocal derision of evangelicals, yet one of the most powerful progressive voices we hear today is that of Rev. William Barber, head of the N.C. NAACP, an evangelical pastor.

The fact that you don’t believe is your business. Mocking those that do disses many members of our most solid and stable Democratic Party voting block.

Young Martin’s family was guided by their strong spiritual belief. This is true in many black families.

So when you quote or cite the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remember young Martin.

Before you post remarks categorizing all people of faith as delusional, remember young Martin.

Before we get swept away in the celebrations to come—look at his young face. Then look at the faces of young black school kids.

Celebrate our children today.

Accept that many are growing up as he did.

Guided by faith.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s some irony to be sure — if only religious belief, or the lack thereof, could be simply our business. How hard is it to swap a few words from his speech, after all.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their belief in god (or lack thereof) but by the content of their character.

Dismissing atheism as simply my business is to dismiss the discrimination that goes on in this country. Whether it’s the latest silly uproar about some nativity display or monument to the Ten Commandments, or the new House rep from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, who seems comfortable with being an ‘out’ bisexual but not an ‘out’ skeptic, to the point that she’s officially dodging the question and refusing the label. She knows that skeptics in Congress are damned rare — Pete Stark was the last, and he lost last year — and she knows that label can damage her. The next Republican opponent could well campaign against her on the issue, and probably will in spite of her obfuscation. Here, in Arizona? You bet! I will try to remember this so I can report back next year.

At the same time, comparing the current lot of the American skeptic to the discrimination and outright violence that black folks still suffer to this day diminishes their experience; that dismisses it to some degree, I think. So, it’s tempting to buy into that reconstruction from ‘I Have a Dream,’ but no. It’s not that bad. Not nearly. We may now have a black President while the prospect of having an atheist President in my lifetime seems…ridiculous, impossible. But we’re not prone to being attacked and murdered even now, as the ‘stand your ground’ laws have permitted in Florida, for example. Gun enthusiasts may argue, of course they would argue with that. But, like it or not, successful or not, Floridians have taken that law to mean open season if they feel threatened. As a result of their own racism, for example.

Still. This statement questions my openly militant atheism — which is kind of laughable in itself, ‘openly militant atheism’ — wow, we question nonsensical beliefs and attack religious conservatives who discriminate and legislate and work to punish women, gays, minority groups — that’s what counts for militant these days. I kind of scoff at the very notion of being a militant, like it does not do the word justice. The militant muslim, in Bangladesh, attacks an open ‘militant’ atheist and tries to stab the skeptic to death for the crime of blogging. That’s no joke, but perhaps the comparison is! The militant christian, in America, Scott Roeder, shoots and murders Dr. George Tiller for the crime of performing abortions. Protestants led the KKK. And us joker atheists, damn our hides, we discomfit you. We offend you. Wow. Thin skinned much eh?

And yet my atheism, speaking out against religiously inspired discrimination and suffering and violence, that’s militant and damaging to the coalition. I shouldn’t speak out against evangelicals because some of them are nice people whose religion coincidentally leads them to do good things. Well, you know what? I’ve never spoken out against Rev. William Barber, give it some time and I could probably find something…but I doubt it. I choose my targets with care and they deserve the attention I give them. And if guilt by association is enough to damage our coalition, then perhaps these evangelicals should think twice about those with whom they associate.

Not every skeptic speaks out with discretion, though. I understand that. I agree about the damage some skeptics do, and, hell. On DK I’ve had to help drive off one such fellow and helped get him banned (this diary was one good example of the skeptic going too far). That was truly a bizarre experience, but in the end I let the site rules dictate what to do. However much I would have liked to sympathize with a fellow skeptic, he made it real hard to.

Even I may shoot my mouth off a bit much for the DK community, I guess that’s why I’m writing here and sometimes I refuse to speak my mind there. I seem to have been lucky so far, I’ve only spotted one hide rate on anything I ever wrote, and that one’s just funny. I got dinged in retaliation for attacking someone who used the racist epithet ‘Uncle Tom’. That guy was so in the wrong, I don’t even fret about it.

Ok, finally. On the topic of delusion. I think it’s fair to say at this point that this idea, which I think dates back to 2006 and The God Delusion, is one where Dawkins kinda stepped in it. You can read above about “categorizing all people of faith as delusional”. And I know from experience, over the years since, that most people take it in the psychological meaning…

: the act of deluding: the state of being deluded
a: something that is falsely or delusively believed or propagatedb: a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary; also: the abnormal state marked by such beliefs
Unfortunately the word is associated with mental illness, so that’s how people take it. Guilt by association again, I suppose.

A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.[1] As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.

Delusions typically occur in the context of neurological or mental illness, although they are not tied to any particular disease and have been found to occur in the context of many pathological states (both physical and mental). However, they are of particular diagnostic importance in psychotic disorders including schizophrenia, paraphrenia, manic episodes of bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression.

But I have his book, and I’ve read it, and Dawkins pulls out his dictionary and provides for what he meant, “a false belief or impression”. He concurs with a definition that looks much like the first sentence from the Wiki article. However, he also quotes Robert Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”

It’s hard for me to argue against that point. Hard for anyone, I would say. And so the last recourse is simply to find it offensive. Cases like Martin Luther King Jr. serve as examples of religion being put to good use. And yet, he was a Baptist; and the Baptists, I find, have a checkered past in this country.

Slavery in the 19th century became the most critical moral issue dividing Baptists in the United States. Struggling to gain a foothold in the South, after the American Revolution, the next generation of Baptist preachers accommodated themselves to the leadership of southern society. Rather than challenging the gentry on slavery and urging manumission (as did the Quakers and Methodists), they began to interpret the Bible as supporting the practice of slavery and encouraged good paternalistic practices by slaveholders. They preached to slaves to accept their places and obey their masters. In the two decades after the Revolution during the Second Great Awakening, Baptist preachers abandoned their pleas that slaves be manumitted.[18]

Religion might seem like an utterly beneficent influence in the context of MLK, but it’s not hard to look a little further back — or forward — and find it problematic instead. It’s interesting to consider the matter of interpretation that took place amongst Baptists trying to spread into the South. A hell of a thing to do, actually. Rather than stand on principle, they abandoned that principle, reinterpreted, and grew popular; and the bible, their holy book, has enough contradictions in it regarding slavery that they could actually do it. For every instance of abolitionist rhetoric

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

…there is another to support the institution of slavery

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;

Now, I would bet that Martin Luther King Jr. gave this some thought. And at least his Baptist religion at that point in history had learned from that mistake. Religion can have a good influence on society. Those who are guided by faith may turn out well. But this is not inevitable. Being guided by faith does not always result in good outcomes. At best, it is a guess, a shot in the dark — that is the essence of faith, after all, as even MLK’s quote above explains. Faith is no guarantee of good results. Good intentions, perhaps. Yes, well. The religious have a saying about that, too.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I reserve my worst mockery not for beliefs, but the horrible actions they inspire. We are entitled to believe what we want, but acting on it, that’s different, as religious users of peyote in this country have learned on occasion. Again — if this guilt by association offends, I suggest the believer reconsider that association. If it is bothersome to be catholic while the RCC covers up the scandal of pedophilia, if conservative evangelicals seek to pass laws to punish women for having sex, if right-wing religious nuts effectively murder their children by forbidding them simple modern medicines and choose prayer instead — the problem is not the believer’s offended sensibilities!

What’s the difference, anyway, between the likes of MLK and the case of Kara Neumann, who died of undiagnosed diabetes when her parents refused to seek medical help and chose prayer instead? In both cases we see people guided by faith. But one of them led to convictions of second-degree reckless homicide.

For my part, I will continue to choose my targets with care and criticize bad actions over mere beliefs, even if the beliefs are often disgusting. Eternal suffering in hell, for example. But I’ll try to be careful and focus on the real world and the consequences of religious beliefs. Hopefully, in return, those who are guided by faith will take it under advisement how little difference there is between them and the Neumanns.



  1. I have about half a dozen rough drafts for posts lined up and one of them deals with some of what you’ve discussed here. I think the point you make about how people understand the meaning of the word “delusion” is a good one and I’ll have to bear it in mind.

    Just because a person holds one view one thinks is dreadfully off-base doesn’t mean that all of that person’s views are wrong. For that reason, I try to avoid saying things like “religious people are stupid” even though I find the idea of religious belief itself to be ridiculous.

    • That’s the neat thing about people; they’re not required to be perfect, like most god-concepts are claimed to be. Even Dawkins, I think, has been wrong at times, even I have for that matter. Rather than employ the broad brush, I try to aim more precisely: this particular act of religion is stupid, this particular belief is nonsense. But again, being human, I may not manage that as well as I’d like.

  2. Faith is not taking a step when you can’t see all the staircase, faith is taking a step when you can’t see any stairs and there is no evidence that there are stairs at all. If you can see any stairs at all, it’s not faith. Many of the things which MLK said which are inspiring have some pitfalls too. A post I will make one of these days.

    There is, I believe, a dangerous act which almost all religious people commit that you seem to not be bothered by here. Their gullibility and desire to follow anyone and everyone that promises them a happy next life means they willingly oblige themselves to vote as their pastor or church does. While these poor sheeple are not in themselves wrong doers they are most willing to be led to wrong doing as long as they don’t actually have to get their hands bloody.

    This willful act of submission to wrong-headed leaders is an offense against society.

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