Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Is it OK to mock supernatural beliefs?

Digby goes all soft and nice on astrology of all things. Apparently, Jerome Armstrong (co-author of Crashing the Gate—see sidebar for link) believes in astrology, and some conservatives are using this to mock him. How do I feel about this? Well, in some sense, I agree with those mocking him: I think astrology, which I understand to be a system of divination predicated on the assumption that the position of various celestial bodies has an influence on events in our lives and on our personalities, and that by studying these positions we can gain useful information that would otherwise be unavailable to us, is total bunk. As on many subjects, one of Shakespeare’s characters has some choice words on the subject (Edmund in King Lear I.ii):

This is the excellent foppery of the world,
that, when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by
necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves,                             
thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedi-
ence of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of
whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to                          
the charge of a star! My father compounded with my
mother under the dragon's tail; and my nativity
was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough
and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled                        
on my bastardizing.

So if Armstrong does in fact believe in astrology, I think his political opponents can mock him for it. However, if one can be mocked for a belief in something ridiculous like astrology, one should be able to be mocked for something as ridiculous as believing in virgin births, transubstantiation, young earth creationism, or that Nicole Kidman was never married to Tom Cruise. But oh, we must respect people’s religious beliefs! Especially if we Democrats wish to get elected, we must pander oh-so-carefully to the majority’s Christian sensibilities (i.e. religious prejudices). And the Democrats must encourage us atheists not to be too strident, so that the Democrats who are Christians can show the voters how hip to Jesus we are.

This whole situation puts me in a bit of a bind. I understand that if I’m trying to convince Americans to vote Democratic, I should do my best not to offend their religious sensibilities. And I respect everyone’s right to practice their own religion within the framework of our laws, and to have their own beliefs about theological matters. I believe this right is essential to the smooth functioning of society. And I do want to get Democrats elected. So as a Democrat, I feel I should say, “You conservatives should not mock Armstrong’s beliefs about astrology, because many people have such beliefs, and these supernatural beliefs are similar to those that many Christians preach. And these beliefs should be respected and not used to mock people. The Bill of Rights says there can be no test of religion for any office, and your mockery displays contempt for the principles on which this great Republic was founded. We Democrats, rather than mocking people, want to find ways people of all faiths can come together and build a better America.”

But as an atheist and philosophical materialist who lives in a society inundated with supernaturalist nonsense, I want to say this: “You rightly mock Armstrong for believing in astrology, a system built on premises that are false and frankly preposterous to anyone who has the vaguest understand of how the world actually works. But frankly, much of the stuff that many Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and New Agers believe is just as false and often even more preposterous (“It’s REALLY the flesh and blood of Jesus now!”). It’s just that those ridiculous beliefs are cloaked with the mantle of “religion”, so people are either too deluded or too polite or too chickenshit to call them the stupidities that they are. But in substance they are no different than the astrology we all feel free to disparage openly. By mocking Armstrong’s belief in astrology, you’ve just declared open season for mockery all beliefs not grounded in a study of reality. To which I shout, ‘Amen, Halleluiah, and PRAISE THE LORD!’”

I think I am very outside the mainstream of our society in that while I believe we must respect each other’s right to practice different religions, we are under no obligation to respect the religions themselves, or the beliefs they espouse. Religious beliefs should not be granted any special dispensation from criticism, either philosophically or socially. In this respect, I agree with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. (I disagree with his view of how pernicious supernaturalist beliefs are.) I think an environment in which religious ideas were subject to open debate and criticism would be a radically different one than the one we currently inhabit. I don’t expect things to shift overnight, but I want to remove this “shield of politeness” that we put around beliefs that people justify with religion. A dumb idea is a dumb idea is a dumb idea, no matter what sacred text it comes from or whose infallible god said it. I just want to be able to say that. The same goes for good ideas, of which religions have plenty. Of course we’ll disagree on which ideas are good and which are dumb, just as we’ll disagree on politics, fashion, movies, music, and every other area of human belief and preference. I just want to pull the rug out from under the idea that supernaturalist ideas are somehow not questionable.

I’ll sign off with a quote I’ve used before: “We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” -H. L. Mencken


Blogger App Crit said...

No Democrat will get elected to high office in the US without being a practicing member of some religion, not in our lifetime anyway. And Democrats probably do a lot more pandering to religions than the current model of Republicans, who really seem to pander only to evangelicals.

Dumb ideas or not, a lot of people, even intelligent people, take religion pretty seriously. And so whilst it is ridiculously simple to deconstruct many religions, especially Christian religions, we should at least repsect the force it has for many, even if we do not ourselves respect the religion.

To be sure, many abuse religion and use its rules in the wrong forum, simply for posturing. The other night Colbert brilliantly exposed a Republican congressman who supported posting the Ten Commandments in the House yet could only recall three of them. That's crap. These idiots wear religion like a merit badge: they do just enough to brag about it for the rest of their (political) lives.

Yet, religion is so deeply part of American history and will always inform the political dialogue in this country, for better or for worse.

A lot of my students come from deeply religious backgrounds, usually fundamentalist Christian traditions. Well, you can imagine what happens when I teach Gilgamesh and they meet Mr. Utnapishtim. Many come to my office, deeply troubled, even angered. But, instead of using it to shatter their notions of Christianity and attack their family and tradition, I use it as a way that allows them to question the universality or exclusivity of religious tradition and virtue. By the end of the term, most come to see the similarities in religious thinking and devotion. They also see religious institutions as culturally-embedded organizations. Suddenly, Islam isn't so strange, and they can recognize abuses of it.

So, in short, religion may be the dumbest of ideas and its practitioners may not be without hypocrisy, but it won't go away, and we'll have to live and work and vote with those who take it seriously.

Cheers, mate

5:13 PM, June 28, 2006  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Yes, I agree with your overall assessment and approach. I certainly take supernaturalist religion very seriously as a social reality. One would have to be a fool not to.

I did a post on that Colbert episode, which can be found here.

I'm glad to hear you've had some success in introducing Christian fundamentalists to other mythologies. That is valuable work and I hope it makes some of the misery of academia you document so well on your blog worthwhile.

4:22 AM, June 29, 2006  
Blogger craig said...

I saw your comment on hullabalo.
I absolutely agree with what you said.Loved the last quote from HLM.
Digby's great BUT cummon, I'm supposed to tippy toe around someones belief in the utter crock
that astrology is?
Sorry, no can do! Pity maybe.

8:34 AM, June 29, 2006  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Thanks for stopping, by Craig. Glad you agree with me on this.

I don't think we should have to tippy-toe around each others' beliefs at all, even if they aren't crock. I want to change society to the point where I can say "I think what you believe is wrong" and have that not be the equivalent of farting at a diner party.

9:37 PM, June 29, 2006  

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