Core Values, Atheism and Religion
John W. Loftus was our guest on Atheists Talk on May 24, 2009, and he said something very interesting about religious people and their level of intelligence. He said that they are not wrong nor stupid for being religious and even discussed the skeptical nature of the most intelligent of the apologists. We can wipe from this list of intelligent apologists the creationists, of course, because they choose to ignore or diminish any factual data that contradict their dearly held notions that the Earth and its resident life are a special creation barely 6,000 years old.
Loftus made the case that, in fact, people such as William Lane Craig are probably more intelligent than he is. I can name some religious thinkers far more intelligent than I am. The issue with religion is not intelligence. The issue is that of core values, and presupposition. (These are not Loftus’ direct words, they are my own interpretation.)
After leaving the station, I was listening to the occasionally entertaining “Speaking of Faith,” by Krista Tippett. Her guest was Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American with Shia Muslim roots. He was explaining the source of conflict between the Shia of Iran and the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. Yes, it’s a mess and the American war in Iraq has complicated things. But that isn’t why I bring it up. I came in at this spot, and when I listened, it helped illuminate what Loftus had been saying on the show:
Mr. Nasr: And therefore, you know, things don’t matter enough here for people to be killing one another but many, many years ago when Boston was dominated by Protestant English establishment and you gradually had an influx of Irish Catholics who came to Boston, you had a very clear sense of a difference, that the Catholic Church belonged to the Irish and belonged to the poor and the Protestant churches represented the Anglo-Saxon establishment in the city. Now, the differences were not so much theological as they reflected the fundamental identity division in Boston.
Ms. Tippett: Socioeconomic and ethnic.
Mr. Nasr: It’s socioeconomic. If we go to Northern Ireland today, you know, IRA fighters may go to church, may not go to church. I don’t think they’re really concerned with liturgy and what the Vatican says.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Nasr: Catholicism is not faith; it’s who they are. It defines what side of the tracks they were born.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Mr. Nasr: You know, who they are, what share of the wealth they get. And you have that in the Muslim world as well. I mean, in Lebanon or Iraq or in Pakistan, the Shia-Sunni difference is not necessarily theological. It is who you are. So the Shia in Pakistan are like the Catholic Irish of Boston.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Mr. Nasr: Or in Iraq, they were like the Catholic Irish of Boston. They were not the “in” crowd. They were the “out” crowd. And then above this, you obviously have the theological difference and the major difference is the following: that the Shias believed that when the Prophet Mohammed died that his legitimate successors were his son-in-law and cousin Ali who’s buried in the shrine in Najaf and that God had willed that the charisma of the Prophet would run through his bloodline, and his bloodline would be the legitimate leaders of the community. So you could only have true Islamic leadership if the family of the Prophet ruled.
The Sunnis, essentially, who became the majority and whose writ ultimately carried, believed that the most suitable of the companions of the Prophet would be chosen by the early Muslim community, and he would be the leader. And from that disagreement over succession, over the years the two faiths evolved very differently.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Nasr: They have a different historical experience, and then the two communities developed a very different ethos of Islam and they practice the faith differently.
I am good at math. It comes naturally to me when someone shows me how to do it. I have a natural proficiency when tutored in those concepts, and usually I catch on with just a few practice equations. I learned from having kids with math problems that I am not a very good math teacher. I do better teaching subjects at which I struggle, because I can better empathize with their struggle.
Having been a Christian, myself, I can certainly empathize with them when it comes to their difficulties in understanding a life without the “presence of God.” It is part of them, part of their roots and part of their community. Catholics brought up in the faith take the basic tenets as self-evident, much as do the Irish of Boston or the Irish Catholics of Northern Ireland. The Proddies were simply quite wrong, and their lack of understanding of the true nature of the Catholic faith led them to oppress the Catholics financially (and with the aid of the Anglican English, militarily).
Loftus mentioned that the atheists brought up without any sort of religion have a hard time emphasizing with the intellectual struggle of doubt that the religious face. It is easy to see that religion is false if one is not brought up with it as one’s cultural miasma. Leaving religion when I no longer believed was a struggle, because I thought that if everyone I trusted and loved was enjoying a relationship while I was not, then there had to be something wrong with me. I kept trying to find my faith and read the Bible and helpful works, but ended up deciding that the struggle was over and became an atheist.
Because it was tough for me, I can empathize with those who are still struggling with the doubt. The faith that they have is one of their core values. It is not an easy matter of learning that religion is wrong on natural explanations and from there concluding that religion is wrong (or inadequate at best) in dealing with other matters. Religion has “worked” for them and made the world whole in relation to their cultural experience. The Irish in Northern Europe, the Shia in Iran, the Sunni in Iraq, the Wahabi in Saudi Arabia, the Hindu in India, the Buddhist in China, the Shinto in Japan and the Native Americans didn’t grow up skeptically responding to the lessons their parents and their societies taught them. They are skeptical of all other religions, because they don’t make sense. Their own does, and it is self-evident.
For the atheists who don’t go through this the process is confusing and, like the problems that I have in explaining math to my kids, the non-Godness of the Universe is too obvious. So, for them religion is just kind of, stupid. It’s not stupid, it’s just wrong. 🙂
Debates between atheists and religious scholars are entertainment, but ultimately few minds are changed. People can only come to the atheist conclusion on their own and, until then, will rely on intellectual justifications to support their faith. I am well aware that the same can be said by a believer about my atheism, and that it is foolish. But then there is a story of a person risking his family relationships. Here’s an example from RichardDawkins.net:
At age 18, despite my homeschooling, I managed to get into a university to pursue a higher education and a better life, a pursuit I was able to continue through attaining a Masters degree. After finishing graduate school, I joined the military and went on to fly jets from the flight decks of one of the most spectacular displays of scientific and technological innovation, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. My parents were very proud of my accomplishments and even made reference to me as their “self-made man.” This reference has a special kind of irony for me.
I actually went more than a decade calling myself an agnostic. One reason for that was the process by which I came to my non-belief in faith-based assertions of truth. More than that was a need to prevent division between my family and me. Agnosticism provided philosophical blinders to allow my family to view me as a “backsliding Christian” instead of a “traitor.” Eventually, I accepted that I am an atheist (under Dawkins’ scale, I am a 6 out of 7) and thus began my fall from grace. All of the taboos of thinking, formally part of my programming, have slowly eroded to a basic understanding of what we know versus what we don’t know – and this has helped shape my cultural and personal values. Now I have become, in the eyes of a few, one of the aforementioned “savage wolves.”
As Marshall woke up, he was aware that people around him were unwilling to accept his new-found realization. It’s a hard thing to give up, those core values, even when they are based on mistaken beliefs that there is an eternal “giver” of values.
(Originally posted at Tangled Up in Blue Guy on May 24, 2009)
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