2.10.2011

On Being Perceived as a Condescending Elitist When it Comes to Religion

I think we owe it to ourselves to lift up the hood and really take a look at what we believe, and why. It's never pretty when we are honest about belief. It's easy to hit a nerve, and it's hard to not resort to verbal aggression when nerves are struck. I know. I do it all the time.
 

I get in a lot of discussions about religion, including my lack of it, its encroachment on public policy, or its frequent role in denial of basic human rights around the world.  I am misunderstood a lot of the time. this religion stuff is complex, and i have very complex feelings about it. It's easy to be misunderstood, and i realize that goes both ways.

Although folks like Hitchens would disagree, I never in a million years would believe that religion is a poison or a cancer.  to believe that would be to deny my very existence. I firmly believe that religion has been a powerful force in the shaping of human societies. I firmly believe that without religion, I would not be here writing this right now. I know that religion, along with evolved moral codes, has allowed many societies to become more cohesive, to flourish, and to survive. yes, religion has also been a great force of suffering in history. Nothing is black and white. Everything that is good in our world can also be bad, and every shade in between.

I do not for a second believe that religiosity cannot coincide with intelligence. Some of our greatest minds have been devoutly religious. My parents are two of the wisest and most intelligent people I know. My family members, relatives, and many good friends who are religious are way more intelligent than i could dream of being. I also know many non-religious folks who are morons. Quite a few.

Religion covers a broad range of ideologies and belief systems. And certainly we cannot talk about religion without talking about evolution. After all, everything evolves, including religion. It began somewhere, just like anything else. Not only did it evolve, but it played a role in our evolution. This is true and we have the evidence to prove it. As such, I find it just as open to study and dissection as the fields of geology, biology, cosmology, psychology, anthropology, or sociology. When we do look at religion from this perspective, and looking at the vast range that religion covers, we can make the association of certain religious beliefs to knowledge. We know for a fact that religion evolved partially as a means to understand the world in which its practitioners lived. When humans could not understand weather events, the reasons behind night and day, or why people get sick, they explained them with religious beliefs. throughout history, even as we gained more understanding about life and the cosmos and stopped believing that the gods controlled lightning or that demons caused malaria, we still looked to religion to explain more complex things that elude(d) our understanding. Even today, as sore as it makes people to hear or read it, there is research that shows the associations between broad ranges of religious belief and knowledge/education. As un-PC as it may be to point out, the more primitive fundamentalist beliefs (whether Christian, Muslim, Judaism, etc.) are more often associated with the less educated. The less primitive the beliefs, the more educated the believers (or non-) are. There is data to support it. To deny the connection of these associations is to deny that practitioners of currently practiced tribal rituals to oust an illness-causing demon are doing so partly due to lack of knowledge about human illness and biology. We also have to understand that way before the Abrahamic god came on the scene, there were countless primitive religions that covered the earth. Why is it that it took so long for monotheism to take hold if we are to believe that the Abrahamic god himself created us in his own image to follow him? That is a long, crooked path (with endless forks and dead ends) away from him to only come back in the last few thousand years (mere seconds in the time-line of human history).

You can infer what you will from the above statements. Do I believe that believing in the Genesis creation story (in a literal sense) is due to stupidity? No. Do I believe that believing in the Genesis creation story shows a lack of knowledge about what we have learned about life, the earth, and the cosmos? Yes. I believe mostly, however, that people cling to literal biblical interpretations mostly because of willful ignorance. people do not want to invest in understanding the oceans of data supporting evolutionary theory and natural selection. They do not want to consider the mountains of transitional species in the fossil record. They do not want to appreciate the vast, unimaginable stretches of time involved in evolutionary change. It is difficult for people with our lifespans to envision even 1,000 generations, much less hundreds of thousands, or millions. We look at our own children as they grow and do not notice how much they have changed until we look at a photo from the recent past. the change that occurs so slightly from generation to generation over millions of years is impossible for us to fathom.

We are usually told the stories of religion at a young age. We believe them because they are as true to us at that age as is the sky being blue. As we grow older, to unlearn certain stories, or even the literalness of certain stories is like denying our very existence. We fear we will slip down the path to not knowing ourselves; admitting one thing in the Bible is not true will make the entire house of cards collapse before us. This does not have to be true. Francis Collins of the NIH, and former head of the Human Genome Project consistently speaks of the coexistence of religion and evolution.  He is at once an Evangelical Christian and a staunch proponent of evolution.   These things are not irreconcilable. 
 

I realize that the above could further cement the impression that I believe that fundamentalist Christians (or Muslims, etc.) are ignorant, and that I am evolved and more knowledgeable. I don't know why I am how I am. but I can say that I have gotten here not without an incredible amount of research, soul-searching, self-education, and a daily thirst for further understanding the mechanisms that dictate the way life works and how the cosmos behaves.

I would never say that there is not some supernatural force out there that has set it all into motion. I do not know this. There are always things that humans will not understand about the cosmos and about life. But because we cannot explain things does not mean that we must ascribe those things a supernatural origin. I don't know for sure that pixies do not live in the forest, but I have to assume that they do not until I have something that proves to me otherwise.

But the fact that I don't entertain supernatural explanations about the world does not mean that I believe that anyone who believes in demonic possession, or ghosts, is not intelligent. They're certainly entitled to believe those things. I may wonder, however, if they have really ruled out all other possibilities. I may get upset if my tax dollars go to fund ghostbusters, and I may become vocal when public school science teacher teaches my child that ghosts may be just as good an explanation for why a door closes on its own
as changes in air pressure. I may even ridicule him. But that doesn't make me a condescending elitist.  However, that will not stop the ghostbusters from thinking I believe they are stupid. 

And so it goes.




This piece appeared previously on happyrobot.com. 



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