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Against Ecumenicalism: Why Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Progressive believers often ignore religious differences in the name of tolerance. But this ecumenicalism is hypocritical, promotes anti-atheist hostility, and shows a callous disregard for the truth.

Coexist “Can’t we all just get along?”

Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people’s religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview… to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else’s religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.

And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.

Including me.

Why?

Don’t atheists want a world where everyone’s right to their own religious views — including no religious views — is universally acknowledged? Don’t we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don’t we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?

Oh, let’s see. Where shall I begin?

Well, for starters: It’s bullshit.

Jerry_Falwell_portrait Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections. They object to the Religious Right; they object to Al Qaeda. They object to right-wing fundamentalists preaching homophobic hatred, to Muslim extremists executing women for adultery, to the Catholic Church trying to stop condom distribution in AIDS-riddled Africa, to religious extremists all over the Middle East trying to bomb each other back to the Stone Age. Etc., etc., etc. Even when they share the same nominal faith as these believers, they are clearly appalled at the connection: they fervently reject being seen as having anything in common with them, and often go to great lengths to distance themselves from them.

And they should. I’m not saying they shouldn’t. In fact, one of my main critiques of progressive believers is that their opposition to hateful religious extremists isn’t vehement enough.

But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.

Mother jones And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

However, if ecumenicalism were just hypocritical bullshit, I probably wouldn’t care very much. Hypocritical bullshit is all over the human race like a cheap suit. I’m not going to get worked up into a lather every time I see another example of it. So why does this bug me so much?

Well, it also bugs me because — in an irony that would be hilarious if it weren’t so screwed-up — a commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility towards atheists.

Housemate_atheist I’ve been in a lot of debates with religious believers over the years. And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I’ve heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism. I’ve been called a fascist, a zealot, a missionary; I’ve been called hateful, intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic; I’ve been compared to Glenn Beck and Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, more times than I can count. All by progressive and moderate believers, who were outraged at the very notion of atheists pointing out the flaws in religious ideas and making an argument that these ideas are probably not true. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are passionate advocates for free expression of ideas will get equally passionate about demanding that atheists shut the hell up. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multi-culturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why.”

Circle holding hands In a way, I can see it. Ecumenicalism is a big, comfy love-fest. (Or, to use a less polite metaphor, a big, happy circle-jerk.) Everyone stands around telling each other how wonderful they are, how fascinating their viewpoint is, how much they contribute to humanity’s rich and evolving vision of God. Everyone is self-deprecating about how their own vision of God is of course human and flawed and limited, and how they’re both humbled and uplifted to see such different perspectives on him/ her/ it/ them/ whatever. Everyone tells the story of the six blind men and the elephant, and how God is too vast and complex and unfathomable for any one person to perfectly understand him, and how all these different religions are just perceiving different aspects of his immensity. And no one ever says anything critical, or even seriously questioning. About anyone. Ever. It’s one gigantic mutual admiration society.

Rain cloud sign And then atheists come along, and ruin everyone’s party. Atheists come along and say, “Well, actually, we don’t think any of you are getting it right.” Atheists come along and ask hard questions, like, “You actually have important differences between your religions — how do you decide which one is true?” Or, “Religion has never once in all of human history turned out to be the right answer to any question — why would you think it’s the right answer to anything we don’t currently understand?” Or, “If there’s no way your belief can be proven wrong, how do you know that it’s right?” Or, “Why do the six blind men just give up? Why don’t they compare notes and trade places and carefully examine the elephant and actually try to figure out what it is? You know — the way we do in science? Why doesn’t this work with religion? Sure, if God existed, he/she/it/they would be vast and complex and hard to fathom… and what, the physical universe isn’t? Doesn’t the fact that this never, ever works with religion strongly suggest that it’s all made up, and there is, in fact, no elephant?” Atheists come along and make unnerving points, like, “The fact that you can’t come to any consensus about religion isn’t a point in your favor — it’s actually one of the strongest points against you.” Atheists come along, like the rain god on everyone’s parade, and say things like, “What reason do any you have to think any of this is true?”

No wonder they don’t like us.

Which leads me to the final objection I have to religious ecumenicalism, and by far the most important one:

It shows a callous disregard for the truth.

What-me-worry This idea that religion is just a matter of opinion? That the most crucial questions about how the universe works and how it came into being should be set aside, because disagreements about it might upset people? That it doesn’t really matter who actually has the correct understanding of God or the soul or whatever, and that when faced with different ideas about these questions, it’s best to just shrug it off, and agree to disagree, and go on thinking whatever makes us feel good? That figuring out what probably is and is not true about humanity and the world is a lower priority than not hurting anyone’s feelings? That reality is less important, and less interesting, than the stories people make up about it?

It drives me up a fucking tree.

In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said “practically.”) I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality… isn’t it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

Symbols_of_Religions There are profound differences between different religions. They are not trivial. And the different religions cannot all be right. (Although, as atheists like to point out, they can all be wrong.) Jesus cannot both be and not be the son of God. God cannot be both an intentional, sentient being and a diffuse supernatural force animating all life. God cannot be both a personal intervening force in our daily lives and a vague metaphorical abstraction of the concepts of love and existence. Dead people cannot both go to heaven and be reincarnated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When faced with these different ideas, are you really going to shrug your shoulders, and say “My, how fascinating, look at all these different ideas, isn’t it amazing how many ways people have of seeing God, what a magnificent tapestry of faith humanity has created”?

Do you really not care which of these ideas is, you know, true?

Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stake A part of me can see where the ecumenicalists are coming from. I think they look at a history filled with religious wars and hatreds, bigotry and violence… and they recoil in horror and revulsion. And they should. I recoil from that stuff, too. It’s not why I’m an atheist — I’m an atheist because I think the religion hypothesis is implausible and unsupported by any good evidence — but it’s a big part of why I’m an atheist activist.

But the ecumenicalists seem to think there are only two options for dealing with religious differences: (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy, in which people with different religious views are shunned at best and outlawed or brutalized at worst… or (b) uncritical ecumenicalism, in which different religious views are ignored whenever possible, and handled with kid gloves when some sort of handling is absolutely necessary. Ecumenicalists eagerly embrace the second option, largely in horrified response to the first… and they tend to treat any criticism of any religion as if it were automatically part of that ugly, bigoted, violent history.

They don’t see that there’s a third option.

FirstAmendment They don’t see that there’s an option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief… while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken. They don’t see the option of being passionate about the right to religious freedom, of fully supporting the right to believe whatever you like as one of our fundamental human rights… while at the same time seeing the right to criticize ideas we don’t agree with as an equally fundamental right. They don’t see the option of debating and disagreeing without resorting to hatred and violence. They don’t see the option of disagreeing with what people say, while defending to the death their right to say it.

You know. The option advocated by most atheist activists.

United church of christ science I will say this: If the only religious believers in the world were progressive and moderate ecumenical ones, most atheists wouldn’t care very much. We’d still disagree with religion; we’d still think it was implausible at best and ridiculous at worst. But it wouldn’t really get up our noses that much. We’d see it about the same way we see, say, urban legends, or those Internet forwards your aunt Tilda keeps sending you: kind of silly, mildly annoying, but mostly harmless, and not worth getting worked up about. (And, in fact, while I disagree pretty strongly with ecumenical believers, I’m happy to share a world with them, to work in alliance with them on issues we have in common, to sit down at the dinner table with them and enjoy a long evening of food and booze and conversation. As long as we don’t talk about religion.)

American fascists But ecumenicalists are not the only believers. Not by a long shot. When it comes to religion, “live and let live” believers are very much in the minority. And progressive and moderate religion lends an unfortunate credibility to the conservative and extreme varieties. It lends credibility to the idea that faith is more valuable than evidence; to the idea that it’s completely reasonable to believe things we have no good reason to think are true; to the idea that wishful thinking is a good enough reason to believe something. It lends credibility to all the things about religion that makes it most uniquely harmful.

And this ecumenical attitude that reality is an annoying distraction from the far more important business of feeling good — and that insisting on reality is an ugly form of bigoted intolerance — is part and parcel of this unique armor religion has built against valid criticism, questioning, and self- correction.

It is not a protection against the evils of religion.

It is one of them.

Comments

  1. diego says

    this attitude you describe has a lot to do, i guess, with Political correctness and ill-understood cultural pluralism. it´s shocking how otherwise thoughtful and critical people fail to scrutinize their cornerstone metaphysical assumptions falling on pre-modern traditional systems of belief or their ever accomodating re aggiornated versions.
    great piece

  2. says

    Since you mentioned how scientists deal with being the six blind men and the elephant, there was a lovely example of that some time ago, when PZ Myers and Abigail “ERV” Smith appeared on Bloggingheads (this episode, I think).
    They got to talking about epigenetics. ERV defined it as a mechanism that evolved to help prevent retroviral infections. PZ got a confused look and said that as far as he was concerned, it was an embryonic development mechanism.
    They went back and forth a bit, and within five minutes concluded that yes, they were talking about the same thing, and understood why the other saw it the way they did.

  3. says

    I don’t hang out with the woo-woo crowd much, so I may be wrong, but isn’t there a similar “ecumenicalism” among people who believe in alternative “medicine”, astral travel, and so on?
    I don’t remember any practitioners of Feng Shui pointing out what twaddle reiki is, or dowsers citing the scientific evidence that astrology is Taurus-shit. I guess they all see Big Science as a common enemy, but beyond that, I think there might be a tacit agreement, as between moderate theists, that it’s best not to attack anyone’s beliefs.
    And for the same reason: when both your and your enemy’s position is indefensible, the best thing to do is to stop attacking each other and coexist.

  4. Indigo says

    @ arensb: It’s interesting that you bring that up; I recently had an encounter with someone who was horrified that I would actually take doctor-prescribed antibiotics for an infection that was causing me a significant amount of discomfort. Her mishmash of alt therapies for her health problems was apparently acceptable because it “worked for her”, but I wasn’t allowed to have conventional medicine work for me. Not unlike how many New Age theists seem to feel about atheism “working” for someone – you can believe *anything* is true, except that some things aren’t.

  5. says

    A few things:
    Your view should be contrasted with evangelicals, who share the same view: there’s only one reality, and all other religions are false. They tend not to participate in interfaith gatherings.
    Deductively, the view that moderate religion gives credibility to radical religion is plausible, but I don’t know how you could empirically test it. It seems that radical religion becomes more powerful where there is economic and political impotence.
    I would also suggest that the interaction of faith and reason is a little more complex than you suggest (although I recognize it’s a blog). And that the church has a long tradition of inquiry and curiosity (in fact the prayer for baptism in the Episcopal church says “give him/her an inquiring mind and discerning heart”).
    And last, for a sex blogger, I’m surprised you would come out against feeling good. When people use fantasy in sex-play, does one of the partners always remind the other that it’s a fantasy?

  6. llewelly says

    gdl | February 18, 2011 at 06:45 AM:

    When people use fantasy in sex-play, does one of the partners always remind the other that it’s a fantasy?

    I will get back to you when there is a special auditing-exempt tax-free status available to two storm troopers DPing a wookie in pink leather handcuffs.
    I will get back to you when dressing up as a frog in order to have cunnilingus with a princess gives one widely accepted perceived moral superiority over those who prefer different kinks.
    I will get back to you when nearly all politicians feel socially obligated to remind everyone that they loooove dressing up as cowboys or vampires on dates.
    I will get back to you when the congressional prayer breakfast is replaced with a congressional lesbian pirate octopus orgy.

  7. Locutus7 says

    “I will get back to you when the congressional prayer breakfast is replaced with a congressional lesbian pirate octopus orgy.”
    And I thought congress was boring!

  8. Makyui says

    Your view should be contrasted with evangelicals, who share the same view…

    Did… you just pull a “Fundamentalist Atheist” comment?
    Another reason why the “sex fantasy” analogy fails: people don’t insist on believing the fantasies are real, to the point of getting angry at, and shunning, anyone who calls them fantasies.
    The “feeling good” also doesn’t come from the hopes that the fantasies are actually real, like they do when people indulge in faith.

    And that the church has a long tradition of inquiry and curiosity…

    The church has an even longer tradition of stifling all inquiry that contradicts biblical doctrine, a tradition which survives to this day, though at least in Christian churches the practice of putting people to death over it isn’t as widely practiced as it once was.

  9. says

    Whether churches should be tax-exempt is a legitimate political issue and if atheists want to organize against that, then they should.
    But then – as in all political fights – be unsurprised when it doesn’t work that way in the public sphere. Don’t expect that supporters of that policy will be sweet and light.
    But if this is a “public/private” issue then perhaps it would suit all of us to just have thicker skins.
    As far as “fundamentalist atheism,” I don’t think of atheism is a coherent “belief system” as much as defined against any kind of theism. It is not anything like fundamentalism. However, “religion” does not have a monopoly on moral righteousness, social superiority, shunning and the like. That could be a description of any system of tribalism based on honor; a description of how the upper class works; or of a subset of atheists. The psychological characteristics of a fundamentalist can surely be shared by an atheist.
    But the argument that there is only ONE reality, or one true way to perceive the world is a presupposition that clearly some atheists do share with fundamentalists, even if that one reality is completely different.
    The statement “The church has an even longer tradition of stifling all inquiry that contradicts biblical doctrine, a tradition which survives to this day, though at least in Christian churches the practice of putting people to death over it isn’t as widely practiced as it once was,” while popular, is unfortunately really imprecise. Copernicus, as well as most scientists who liberated us from the aristotelian world-view, was educated at Christian schools and universities. To assume they didn’t permit inquiry was absurd. The story of Galileo was more about egos than about science (if you actually learn about the story – he had lots of friends in the Vatican). For all the vague talk of “science,” it came to be in Christian universities.
    As far as execution for conflicting with “biblical doctrine” I wonder if it’s possible to distinguish between that, politics and the anxiety caused by the plague.
    But let me sympathize: I have no issue with saying that yes, Galileo was persecuted, and that the church often reacted violently (as do states and other institutions) to its opponents. But the depth of imprecision and the sweeping generalities I find disappointing in any Atheists. I expect more (and, yes, much less from fundamentalists). Although, in all honesty, I remember that it’s a blog.

  10. says

    Your view should be contrasted with evangelicals, who share the same view: there’s only one reality, and all other religions are false.

    ???
    If by that, you mean “Atheists think reality exists, independent of what people believe about it”… yes. Most atheists think that. Most atheists think that, while different people have different subjective experiences, there is only one objective reality, which continues to be what it is even when we stop experiencing it. Are you saying that this isn’t the case?
    Where we differ from evangelicals, of course, is how we go about understanding that reality: what methods we use for perceiving and understanding it, whether we’re willing to change our minds when confronted with new evidence, etc. And, of course, whether we’re trying to force others, through legislation, to live their lives according to our views.

    And last, for a sex blogger, I’m surprised you would come out against feeling good. When people use fantasy in sex-play, does one of the partners always remind the other that it’s a fantasy?

    Please, please, tell me that you’re joking. Please don’t tell me that you really don’t understand the difference between the consensual playing-out of a fantasy that everyone involved knows is a fantasy… and living one’s life, and making serious decisions with real-world consequences for one’s self and others, according to mistaken ideas about the world that one sincerely believes.
    And please tell me where in my blog you have ever seen me advocate for “feeling good” in the short term at the expense of long-term harmful consequences; for “feeling good” for one’s self at the expense of harming others; for “feeling good” at the expense of self-delusion and the shutting out of reality.

  11. Makyui says

    The psychological characteristics of a fundamentalist can surely be shared by an atheist. But the argument that there is only ONE reality, or one true way to perceive the world is a presupposition that clearly some atheists do share with fundamentalists, even if that one reality is completely different.

    Yeah, you did just pull the Fundamentalist Atheist comment.
    I didn’t realize insisting that people believe an entirely faith-based doctrine as the ultimate reality was the same as criticizing assertions of reality that show no evidence of being true. I suppose those who criticize flat-earthers or geocentrists are being “fundamentalist” as well?

    The story of Galileo was more about egos than about science… As far as execution for conflicting with “biblical doctrine” I wonder if it’s possible to distinguish between that, politics and the anxiety caused by the plague.

    Doesn’t change the fact that heresy was still the charge, or that religious groups are still, today, trying to shove themselves in the way of scientific progress when it butts against their doctrines. It’s a good thing murdering people over it is kind of illegal in most places.
    Most places.
    Buuut most importantly, even if everything you said was true and complaints about the church’s role in stifling scientific discovery and murdering people for heresy and encouraging children to be ignorant were all huge atheist exaggerations, Christina’s article is still on the money. We don’t have to “respect” religion any more than we have to “respect” geocentrists or homeopaths or faith healers.

    But then – as in all political fights – be unsurprised when it doesn’t work that way in the public sphere. Don’t expect that supporters of that policy will be sweet and light.

    Thanks for your concern. We sure couldn’t have figured that out without you.

    But if this is a “public/private” issue then perhaps it would suit all of us to just have thicker skins.

    In other words, “Shut up.”

  12. says

    First: Objectively, it makes sense there is one reality. However, I’m skeptical I have the ability to understand all of it. I can barely understand the experiences of people on the other side of the globe (although I try).
    For example, I’m generally humbled before scholars on the other side of the world who are convinced that they have also seen witnessed spirits, even though I’ve never experienced reality in that way. I’m generally confined by my western, privileged, educated, urbane background.
    But absolutely atheists adhere to a set of different propositions than evangelicals. Still, the set of self-righteous is not monopolized by either one. Their beliefs may be different, but the psychological profile may be similar. Which is why I suspect moderate religionists react to both evangelicals and a set of atheists (not all) in the same way. They don’t want to be told how to think. It’s almost a reptilian reaction.
    When it comes to “reality” however, an atheist and an evangelical have similar views of the uses and efficacy of interfaith dialogue. That some atheists and fundamentalists have similar psychological profiles does not mean they believe the same things about Jesus.
    It sounds to me that you are especially critiquing of how religious institutions behave in the public. Forgive me if I get confused by the imprecision of the word “religion,” for it is far too abstract, fuzzy and imprecise for my taste. There are clearly religious institutions who have political views that should be challenged.
    The neat little taxonomy: Consensual, play, reality vs living life, real consequences, affecting others – is unsatisfactory for me. I wonder if this is, in fact, what plays out in reality. I think there are people in church who cross their fingers at certain times (although in my own case, we have four convinced atheists, and about half of the old ladies don’t believe in the afterlife); and they really don’t want the church involved in politics. As someone who has lived and breathed living mainline religion for many years, it seems to me your view is cultivated from too many hostile internet exchanges (and I’ll blame Christians for most of it).
    In my experience, talking about fantasy as a fantasy really kills the mood. And a good “private” relationships makes me a different person in public. Private, sometimes delusional thoughts (I’ll win this race!), help people manage.
    I also think the word “reality” or the phrase “reality matters” looks a lot like a “truthism.” It implies there is a connection between belief and action that is, empirically, shaky. And it conveys almosta religious sense of “truth” that believers can unanimously consent to. Admittedly, my post-modern sensibilities must be showing.
    I’ve never accused you of the crimes you mention. If anything, I think you do well when you talk about sex and atheist culture positively.
    But most people in religious institutions would argue that they also have an interest in long-term consequences; harming others; and use their faith to diminish their self-delusion. However, their contexts, questions and challenges are different, so their answers will be as well. Many would deny they are shutting out anything, but putting one framework in their psychological toolbox for future use.
    Please note: I’m not looking to change your mind about God. I am encouraging a little more thought about what actually happens when these institutions gather. This post insinuates that we’re ganging up on Atheists, when it’s usually something a lot more pedestrian and dull.
    Makyui, I admit, that I also play the monday morning quarterbacking game quite well. Judging by our standards, the 15th century church was downright medieval in their outlook. They were accused of heresy, but these issues had political and cosmological consequences. It’s not our worldview, but it’s kind of like blaming the 15th century for being the 15th century.
    But do you think that religious institutions should just disappear from the public sphere? If so, that’s not much different from the dream of Stalin.
    But it’s interesting that you’re offended by a suggestion that I offer to everyone. If anything, having thick skins might allow us to say more interesting things to each other. It might help us figure out what the policy stakes really are.
    I tend not to respect or disrespect ideas – I agree or disagree with them. I do wonder if some atheists, like Christians, are blind to their contempt for others who think differently.
    I think there’s another view: learning to tolerate those who have wrong beliefs.

  13. says

    I’m skeptical I have the ability to understand all of it.

    As am I. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. And we’re not going to get anywhere in that project if we ignore the questions about what is and is not really true, simply because other people get offended when their beliefs are shown to be almost certainly untrue.

    For example, I’m generally humbled before scholars on the other side of the world who are convinced that they have also seen witnessed spirits

    Why? An overwhelming body of evidence shows these experiences to be entirely natural: psychological products of the human brain. There is not one good, solid, methodologically rigorous, carefully cross-checked study showing them to be anything but. It certainly makes sense to be awe-struck at the kinds of subjective experiences the human mind can produce… but what reason do we have to see them as anything other than that?

    Which is why I suspect moderate religionists react to both evangelicals and a set of atheists (not all) in the same way. They don’t want to be told how to think. It’s almost a reptilian reaction.

    We’re not telling them what to think. We’re saying that we think they’re mistaken. And we’re asking them to engage in figuring out whether what they believe is true, and to look at the reasons why they believe what they believe and whether those reasons are valid.
    You’re making the exact mistake I talked about in this piece: assuming that the only two ways of dealing with different religious beliefs are either telling people what to think from an authoritarian perspective, or uncritically ignoring differences. What about treating religious ideas like any other, and engaging in the process of critically examining them to see if they hold up?

    It sounds to me that you are especially critiquing of how religious institutions behave in the public.

    That is a large part of my critique… but it’s very far from all of it. I criticize any belief in supernatural beings or forces that supposedly have an effect on the natural world. Regardless of whether people with that belief act on it in the public sphere.

    In my experience, talking about fantasy as a fantasy really kills the mood. And a good “private” relationships makes me a different person in public. Private, sometimes delusional thoughts (I’ll win this race!), help people manage.
    I also think the word “reality” or the phrase “reality matters” looks a lot like a “truthism.” It implies there is a connection between belief and action that is, empirically, shaky. And it conveys almosta religious sense of “truth” that believers can unanimously consent to.

    In other words… you really don’t care whether the things you believe are true?
    In that case — why on earth are you bothering to debate with atheists? Why are you wasting your time defending relativism against reality? Why do you care?
    I will agree that, in certain limited circumstances, a certain amount of personal self-delusion is necessary. (The need to rationalize decisions we’ve made, for instance, so we’re not paralyzed and can move forward. And a somewhat higher opinion of ourselves than is strictly warranted.)
    But given the history of grotesque harm done by religion, and its history of being singularly resistant to change, why would you argue that religious belief should be in that category? Doesn’t it seem that the default should be to prioritize reality, and that delusion should be defended only when it can be shown to be absolutely necessary? What evidence do you have that religion is necessary? Many parts of the world are getting along without it… and they’re doing quite nicely, thank you.

    But most people in religious institutions would argue that they also have an interest in long-term consequences; harming others; and use their faith to diminish their self-delusion. However, their contexts, questions and challenges are different, so their answers will be as well. Many would deny they are shutting out anything, but putting one framework in their psychological toolbox for future use.

    I’m sure they would argue/ deny those things. My point is that I think they’re mistaken. They think their faith does no harm and is not self-deluded or shutting out reality. They’re wrong.

    This post insinuates that we’re ganging up on Atheists, when it’s usually something a lot more pedestrian and dull.

    No. This post says that ecumenical believers often tend to (a) ignore important differences between themselves, (b) prioritize social pleasantry at the cost of trivializing reality, and (c) be hostile towards atheist when they engage with us. I don’t think the ecumenical churches are spending lots of time fulminating against atheists… but when its members do engage with us, they often wind up being hostile and bigoted.

    But do you think that religious institutions should just disappear from the public sphere? If so, that’s not much different from the dream of Stalin.

    And speaking of bigotry… we have Exhibit A.
    To put it bluntly — no. There is a massive difference between wanting religion to disappear through persuasion and debate and the open exchange of ideas, and wanting religion to disappear through force and violence.
    And shame on you for equating them. In the future, if I were you, I would think very carefully before I played the Stalin card in conversations with atheists. It is one of the ugliest forms of bigotry that gets aimed at us — and it’s one of the most common. It is a classic example of what I mean when I say that ecumenical believers resort to bigotry in their interactions with us. You’re proving my point for me

    I tend not to respect or disrespect ideas – I agree or disagree with them.

    Really? You don’t disrespect the idea that black people are inferior to white people, or that wives should obey their husbands, or that Jews grind up Christian babies and put them in their Passover matzohs? Does your post-modern relativism really not allow you to hold some ideas in profound disrespect, and even revulsion? I certainly hope not.

    If anything, having thick skins might allow us to say more interesting things to each other.

    ???
    Thick skins is exactly what I’m advocating. I’m advocating that believers not take it personally when we say things like, “I think your beliefs are mistaken, and here’s why.” I’m advocating that believers see their beliefs as just another idea about the world — one that can be subject to hard questions and debate.
    Yes, some atheist are jerks. We’re human. Alert the media. Specifically, atheists don’t always make the distinction between criticizing ideas and insulting people. But many believers don’t recognize it when we do make that distinction. They don’t recognize it when we tolerate the people with wrong beliefs, while not tolerating the beliefs. And that is very, very frustrating.

  14. Makyui says

    It’s not our worldview, but it’s kind of like blaming the 15th century for being the 15th century.

    If only it stayed in the fifteenth century and isn’t something we have to struggle with now.

    But do you think that religious institutions should just disappear from the public sphere?

    I don’t think I ever said that, nor did anyone else here.
    Are you saying that complaints about churches forcing their way into science classes, encouraging children to be ignorant, and murdering people for heresy is the same as pushing for laws to ban religion entirely? Are you saying that disagreeing with religion is the same as wanting to force people to get rid of it?
    Did you even read the article?

    But it’s interesting that you’re offended by a suggestion that I offer to everyone.

    What you’re doing is pretty much the theist equivalent of mansplaining, and I’m not surprised that you find it “interesting” that I would be offended by something like that.
    Yes, I do find it offensive that you imply that the reason we have a problem with some of the power and unwarranted respect of religion is because we’re “too sensitive”. But hey, maybe you’re right. The next time a government official in my state says that the reason why he chose to suppress my rights is because of his religious beliefs, or hell, the next time a congressman argues against global climate change with “The bible says God won’t let us destroy anything”, or the next time atheists are called intolerant shit-stirring assholes attacking other people’s beliefs for putting up a sign that says, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone,” I’ll simply take it on the chin, just for you. Can’t be too sensitive now, can we?

    I do wonder if some atheists, like Christians, are blind to their contempt for others who think differently.

    I wonder if some theists mistake disagreement and criticism for contempt, and I wonder why.

    I think there’s another view: learning to tolerate those who have wrong beliefs.

    Because when atheists criticize religious beliefs, it’s simply out of compulsion to correct errors, right?
    For someone who is bothered by presumed assumptions and “simplistic” attitudes toward theism, you’re quite quick to dish it out when it comes to atheist perspectives.

  15. says

    Thank you so much for taking the time for writing this! Almost all of the atheists I know don’t worry much about religious liberals despite the ecumenical attitudes displayed by so many people. For example, my school has a gay straight alliance which I belong to. Theres a few people in there who think I can be the most intolerant bigot out there for saying I say something bad about religion, ESPECIALLY liberal Christianity. Whens someone makes an assertion that something is true and you should be violently punished in this life or the supposed afterlife as they claim, that shouldn’t be taken as their opinion. Facts are objective, right or wrong, and they willfully deny this time and time again, as if it doesn’t even matter if something is right or wrong.
    I’ve also noticed something within the progressive groups I’m in is that the motives of religious people matter.
    We were once talking about the Westboro Baptist Church and almost the entire discussion ended up being about how we shouldn’t be too critical of them because they feel like they are doing the right thing. People who try to restrict marriage rights for gays, they feel they are doing the right thing. Interestingly enough I asked some of them about atheist authors such as richard dawkins and criticism of religion in general. It’s amazing what they thought, they think we are like the Simon Cow critics of religion, not caring about others sensitivity and only trying to put people down. I think a lot of this is that many people don’t think there really is any power that religious people have over us despite everything we go through. They don’t feel we have a reason to and think we should just shut up. People really need to show them that atheist/agnostic discrimination is real and needs to be addressed, sometimes they even say that criticizing religion so much is why the stigma exists. What do you feel is the best way to combat this?

  16. says

    Makuyi, I think we’re talking around each other. I offended you, and I’m sorry about that.
    There are excellent reasons to fight religious institutions who try to impose their religious beliefs in the classroom; who are organized in the public sphere against reasonable policy motives. I also think that there are excellent reasons to fight horrible policies that are defended on religious grounds. But I didn’t think that is the only argument
    Greta made.
    She made a couple statements which I don’t think are correct: that moderate religion is a small minority (actually, its large, but apolitical); that moderate religion implicitly defends reactionary religion; etc. I don’t think these are empirically correct (although I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence). I think these are short-cuts to thinking, assertions that atheists repeat to each other.
    However, I never suggested religious ideas were beyond reproach. I did imply that there were some contexts where it made more sense to do so. In the context of policy, absolutely! When interfaith congregations are getting together to talk about housing or celebrating the retirement of one of their colleagues? Well, why?
    I do think, for example, that Christians are too sensitive when it comes to people saying “happy holidays,” as if it means we’re returning to Pagan Rome. I occasionally encounter people who confide in me their sentiment that the world is about to fall apart because there isn’t prayer in the classroom. Of course I disagree, because I think persecution of Christians is nowhere on the horizon. They’re easily offended, and in my view, shouldn’t be.
    But I admit, I also don’t see the persecution of atheists in this country as particularly severe. Put the billboard up! So what if people complain about it? That’s the freaking point! If people aren’t getting all upset you’re not doing your job! Revel in causing trouble! That’s what I mean – not “stop getting involved in politics” – but the exact opposite – get more involved. But it’s not about feelings: it’s about policy and organizing. Does that make sense?
    I do think I was pretty careful not to lump all atheists as a group. There’s a wide range, right? Ranging from “religious” atheists like Altizer and Cupitt to materialists to skeptics to secularists to empiricists and non-theists. I’m participating not to shut anyone up, but to encourage a little more thought about what actually happens (“reality”) when interfaith groups gather.

  17. says

    “An overwhelming body of evidence shows these experiences to be entirely natural: psychological products of the human brain.”
    Sure. But I’m skeptical that there is a benefit to challenging him about that. I wonder if it is more for my benefit than his to explain it to him it’s all in his head. Perhaps it’s, sadly, my post-colonial sensitivities.
    “And we’re asking them to engage in figuring out whether what they believe is true….”
    Alright, but I suspect that there are conditions that would be satisfactory to them, but not satisfactory to you. For example, going to church to feel good might not be a satisfactory answer to some, but valid for the person actually attending.
    “What about treating religious ideas like any other, and engaging in the process of critically examining them to see if they hold up?”
    Perhaps this is where I’m stuck. It’s difficult for me to identify what’s a religious idea and what’s not. There are clearly propositions that make sense in some cases and not in others. In a church, one can say Jesus is Lord, and it makes complete sense to those listening. Outside, it’s like a foreign language. You may mean a proposition like “I was healed by the holy spirit” which a doctor would find ridiculous.
    “I criticize beings or forces that supposedly have an effect on the natural world. Regardless of whether people with that belief act on it in the public sphere.”
    Actually – this makes a lot of sense. But, empirically speaking, this is only one part of the set of practices in most religious traditions, and perhaps not one of the most important. I think there are plenty of good reasons to critique how people talk about the supernatural. It may be that this is where we differ. I think that the sets of religion and the supernatural aren’t identical.
    “In that case — why on earth are you bothering to debate with atheists? Why are you wasting your time defending relativism against reality? Why do you care?”
    I do believe in the placebo effect. Why debate? Fun and pleasure. And I subscribe to Alternet.
    We share political goals, but I think that churches are worthy, if not essential, political allies for important left causes. Much of the good we have now politically has a lot to do with the work, especially, of mainline protestants over the last century.
    “But given the history of grotesque harm done by religion, and its history of being singularly resistant to change…?”
    Hm – I recognize that we have very different intellectual traditions here. I think I am stuck on the word “religion” because it’s slippery. Remember that for most of human history, there really wasn’t the distinction between natural and supernatural; and that religion precedes much of what we call “culture” for better or worse. So I don’t think of religion, as “necessary” but I think it’s very hard to distinguish it from culture, generally. There’s a lot you’re trying to say here, and I suspect you’ve said it many times.
    “They think their faith does no harm and is not self-deluded or shutting out reality. They’re wrong.”
    I think it’s blanket statements like these that make me a bit skeptical. Faith in what? I can think of plenty of faith statements that are nonsensical or edifying as well as ridiculous ones. Some are delusional, some are insightful. Sometimes we question our assumptions, sometimes not. What’s harmful is when organized groups of religious people, or any people, terrorize others. This may or may not have anything to do with their faith, but even more because of their politics.
    “No. This post says that ecumenical believers often tend to (a) ignore important differences between themselves …”
    Hm – I think it depends. I can completely imagine the situation you describe. But it’s not universally like this. It really depends on the context, what’s at stake, and the nature of the discussion. Some interfaith gatherings are happy with difference – and it has an impact on reducing violence in the world.
    The hostility you’ve experienced is unfortunate. In my view, those who are lease secure are probably the least able to handle criticism of their perspective. In my own interfaith group, however, we had an ethical culture moderator who could offer useful perspectives from a non-religious perspective, but did so in a fashion that was challenging yet sensitive. He approached us more from a position of curiosity (and pity, perhaps) than as an opponent.
    As far as Stalin goes – my apologies for the insinuation. But do you think there is a distinction between secularism and state atheism? I would say there is. Julia Gilliard has a much different approach than Mao. But her view of religion is pretty sophisticated – it’s not an enemy, it’s just a reality.
    “Really? You don’t disrespect the idea that black people are inferior to white people…”
    I concede your point.
    “Thick skins is exactly what I’m advocating.”
    Well – on that note we can agree.
    I can sense your exasperation, so I’m apologetic in advance.

  18. says

    “And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I’ve heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism. I’ve been called a fascist, a zealot, a missionary; I’ve been called hateful, intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic; I’ve been compared to Glenn Beck and Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, more times than I can count. All by progressive and moderate believers, who were outraged at the very notion of atheists pointing out the flaws in religious ideas and making an argument that these ideas are probably not true.”
    Whenever you write this, Greta, I’m always saddened.
    I wonder if it is possible to be a form of ecumenicalism that is honest, which does acknowledge the differences between religions. It seems to me that if someone believes in a God who loves everyone, then that doesn’t mean that all religions are partially true. It means all religions which make exclusive claims are false, and the person had made a new ecumenical religion. I still think that God doesn’t exist, but it would at least be honest to admit that this God is not really simultaneously the God of all the religions, but an entirely different one.
    Thanks for writing! I don’t comment often, but I’m a regular reader.

  19. says

    Sure. But I’m skeptical that there is a benefit to challenging him about that. I wonder if it is more for my benefit than his to explain it to him it’s all in his head. Perhaps it’s, sadly, my post-colonial sensitivities.
    Generally post-colonial sentitivities work out to being pretty much what annoyed us about colonial senstivities. Its still othering us as inferior beings.
    We generally don’t value our cultures more than avoiding the problems being wrong bring us (EG: Children being accused of being witches) and we generally can take the idea of people disagreeing with us.

  20. Lenoxuss says

    I occasionally encounter people who confide in me their sentiment that the world is about to fall apart because there isn’t prayer in the classroom. Of course I disagree, because I think persecution of Christians is nowhere on the horizon. They’re easily offended, and in my view, shouldn’t be.

    The tepidness of the disagreement here (and other comments from gdl) is a very nice example of how moderate religion tolerates immoderate extremes. Since religion is a no-touchy, a fellow Christian isn’t allowed to really argue against someone who wants prayer in schools without feeling rude, or even dehumanizing. That’s what we need to break.

  21. Switchhttr69 says

    Great piece as always, Greta. I’ve been lurking for years, but had to speak up on this one upon rereading it. One of your commenters wrote:

    She made a couple statements which I don’t think are correct: that moderate religion is a small minority (actually, its large, but apolitical); that moderate religion implicitly defends reactionary religion; etc. I don’t think these are empirically correct (although I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence). I think these are short-cuts to thinking, assertions that atheists repeat to each other.

    Actually, that’s part of the problem with ecumenicalism: being deferential to religion generally creates a power vacuum, and as we know, nature abhors a vacuum. While progressive believers (at least some of whom are apolitical) fail to speak up for the separation of Church and state and against efforts to legislate morality (particularly sexual morality), the fundamentalist true believers will continue to represent themselves as the voice of the religious majority in America (particularly in the media), and they will continue to enshrine their beliefs in civil and criminal law. Elections get decided and laws get passed whether everyone votes or not. “Others” (be they women, queers, atheists, members of other religions) will pay the price, while the ecumenical folks wash their hands of the the matter.

  22. Ms. Puff says

    Greta, I am enjoying your blog. I’ve read several where you have suggested that atheists might attend the Unitarian Universalist churches as a way of having community. As an atheist and UU myself, I can only say that some of the most politically-correct people, akin to the ecumenicals you mention, inhabit UU fellowships. When my husband tried to share his dismay about the treatment of Muslim women after reading a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he was told to stop talking. He was the presenting a talk on the book and a woman told him she didn’t want hear him say anything bad about the Koran, even though she had not read it. It’s this kind of political correctness that will make me leave the UU’s.

  23. crowepps says

    “the fundamentalist true believers will continue to represent themselves as the voice of the religious majority in America (particularly in the media)”

    Quoted for Truth

    This plays out over and over and over: ‘The majority of Americans believe in GOD and therefore all public ceremonials held for any purpose by anyone at all MUST allow an Evangelical Christian to give a ‘the Rapture is Coming/Jesus Saves’ prayer.’

    The problem with ecumenicalism, as with trying to run anything else by committee, is that the person who shoves everyone else aside and insists on being acknowledged as In Charge always seems to be the most dysfunctional person present.

  24. says

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  25. Maurice Smith says

    it’s not. This is the truth you just don’t want to accept it. I can’t make you accept it, and I can’t force you to accept something that I truly believe and have seen and hear, although what I’m telling you now is that Christianity is not a religion. What other religions, do you see all these signs and miracles happening instead of the christian way that can actually call themself the Lord God of Israel. From what I understand no human can function as God and Walk in the way of man. How Jesus discribes it: Matthew (4:4) “Man doesn’t live by bread(chlothes, cars, trucks, religion, good deeds, etc.) alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. And from what God really is teaching me, that man can’t get to heaven by religion, or by merit, or by living a loose lifestyle based off of carefreeness, don’t be carefree, be humblingly thoughtful of others, in other words of what God told me one day as I was walking out of the bathroom in this audible voice: “What you do for others I will do for you.” The prove is evident there is a God and He wants us to WORSHIP Him in SPIRIT and in TRUTH!!! There is no other GOD, or any other God that is above the MOST HIGH GOD OF ISRAEL. END QUOTE. For in a way of following the Lord God of Israel, you do see signs, wonders, and miracles. Not only that!!! People get delivered from their addictions, families come together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and God show those who trust in Him Visions and Dreams, as He has said I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your son and daughters will prophesize. Don’t stop your children from speaking in tongues!!! Speaking in tongues, supernatural languages in a sign to unbelievers, THAT GOD LIVES!!!! HE LIVES!!!!

  26. Maurice Smith says

    You may not be paying attention to what I’m trying to tell you, although I know that God is sovereign and he is able to show you the truth.

  27. Greta Christina says

    Maurice Smith has been banned. My comment policy prohibits both comment hogging and religious proselytizing, and he has been doing both, in several different posts on this blog.

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