Tiptoeing to Religion

“When you look at it rationally, there is no reason [religious] ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow that they shouldn’t be,” Douglas Adams, author of the delightful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said some time ago, as quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Dawkins complains further: “The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices, But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe on ‘religious liberty.'”

Douglas Adams chose carefully veiled satire to pose many of his questions regarding faith and God. I absolutely love his brilliantly biting depiction of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I’m not sure how many people get the real joke(s), but I won’t spoil it for anyone here. Perhaps a few will go back and read it again and think to themselves, “Oh my…!”

Dawkins’ own hyperbolic plaint looks a little skewed pulled out of context as it is, but an honest appraisal may actually grant him his point. Or, perhaps we should at least examine our religious and legal structures more carefully. Fair warning: Here is where I am likely to offend my religious friends (if I haven’t already).

In the second half of his introductory chapter, Dawkins expresses distress and confusion over the irrational respect granted religious persons, institutions, statements, customs, etc., even when they fly in the face of common sense. It is as if the avowedly religious have some sort of holy force field around them that makes them immune from scrutiny and even legal obligation.

It really isn’t hard to agree with Dawkins here. He has two issues. One is that religious people do not feel it is necessary to defend their ideas in the face of other ideas. They are offended when required to do so. The other is that religious behavior is extended all kinds of respect even when it absolutely does not deserve it.

I’ve grated against these frustrating practices myself. And I’ve experienced some of the ridicule that Dawkins has faced. When I’ve called certain well-known and flamboyant evangelists to task for their astonishing abuses, I’ve been rebuked and vilified for the trouble. I could almost see the shimmering shekinah force field. The common response to me has been the ubiquitous, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”

I should pause a moment to address that particularly widespread and ridiculous misuse of the Bible. When I ask the fiery-eyed quoters of this passage if they know where it came from, I usually meet with a blank expression. I remind them that it is a quotation from David, who was a Jewish guerilla war leader at the time he said it and who basically argued that it would be wrong for him to commit regicide among his own people (as in assassinate his own king, 1 Sam. 24:1-15). That’s when I lose my audience. They can’t make the connection between the explanation for the quote and the way in which they have heard the passage used again and again. And that illustrates the problem. The quote has absolutely nothing to do with preachers and so-called religious authority. Nothing. Nada. Zippo, if you prefer.

But that doesn’t stop such people. You can be as calm and rational as you like, and as respectful of them as individuals, but touch on certain untouchable “holy” ideas and, rather than engage in discussion, a scripture-breathing puppet bursts out of their chests shouting lethal doses of Old Testament that are supposed to strike you dumb, singe your hair and paralyze your limbs.

With regard to irrational protection of religion, why should any preacher, church or religious organization enjoy tax-exempt status if it cannot demonstrate a significant material charitable contribution to its community? For tax-exemption, they should be held to the same standard as other non-profit charitable institutions, which is, I believe, a documented twenty percent of their in-take. If a religious organization is not a strong giving organization, helping the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, then is it anything more than a social club with mutual member benefits paid for by dues commonly referred to as “the tithe”?

I know this sort of thing is not to people’s liking, but it seems tragic that good people stand by and allow religious abuses to go on without question. Martin Luther would not stand for it in the sixteenth century and is regarded as a hero by those who embrace his courage. Perhaps that particular brand of courage is not available at the altar today.

Too many people have drunk their own flavor of religious Kool-Aid. Is it possible to be devout without being duped? I believe it is. Dawkins the atheist states that he cannot extend undue respect to religious entities. Theists should be even more circumspect. Why? Because they should know better.


12 thoughts on “Tiptoeing to Religion

  1. So, I guess, I’m getting stuck on Dawkins’ phrase, “extend respect,” when used toward religion (or faith, I assume). If you run around saying you don’t “extend respect” to most other aspects of folks’ lives (race, marital status, career choice, or any other trendy demographic) you’ll get close to exiled from modern society. And, I’ve never seen someone “defend” the fact that they have blue eyes or brown hair. We extend respect to people we don’t agree with all the time. Even if we don’t like it, we grin and bear it. In fact, at the risk of sounding too much like the religious right, religious freedom is a founding principle of our country. People live here to have respect extended to them. It’s part and parcel of this parcel.

    On the other hand, if you can’t defend (or at least explain) your faith, maybe you should consider digging a little deeper.

    Anyway, You’re right on the money (no pun intended) about misuse of Scripture and ab-use of charitable organizations. And the of the cloth.

  2. Dean

    I think Dawkins goes a little further than your post demonstrates, however. Dawkins doesn’t just use the religious charlatans as examples, but also individuals who are sincerely faithful and well-intentioned as well. Much later in the book he makes an example of what he considers an abuse of faith’s apparently right not to be questioned.

    The example he gives of the Amish, who by pleading using faith, are able to keep their children out of public schools and raise them directly in their community. Similarly, Dawkins considers the otherwise meek and mild Amish to be using faith to dangerous, abusive ends. He writes, “There is something breathtaking condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.”

    All of this ties in to the grander point Dawkins is trying to make: As long as religion exists in any form, be it liberal, conservative or anywhere in between, there will be negative consequences and in turn radicals that stem from such beliefs. Additionally, for the radicals it will be easy to gain support simply because they can claim that “God told them so.” and in turn many will believe them if at least not accept it.

  3. Dean

    Oh.. almost forget, my citation is from page 331 of the hardback edition of “The God Delusion”


  4. Matthew Melton

    I do agree with Dawkins’ point about religious abuses and about not lending respect where it isn’t justified, but his use of the Amish is unfortunate because theirs isn’t solely a religious issue, not by a long shot. Dawkins’ underlying assumption is that societal and cultural “progress,” is an unchallengable good. His language, as always hyperbolic, is absurdly intolerant of the possibility that the alternative might carry valuable truth and that a group of people who choose to stand in apposition (I don’t say opposition) to that idea might, by their behavior, be telling the rest of us something important.

    At the root, he may despise the fact that Amish children have no choice in the matter. But educating children has never been about choice for the children.

  5. Dean

    I’m going to side with Dawkins here, but for reasons Dawkins may not be aware of. You are correct that Dawkins primarily sees the “abuse” religion in the case of the Amish over their position on education. Dawkins impression of the Amish, however, seems to be of the stereotypical one.

    The Amish are not 17th century Luddites as is commonly believed, but rather 21st century legalistic interpreters of scripture. They have taken a single murky Biblical concept, “Be in the world but not of the world.” and have translated it legally into their way of life. This is why you’ll see Amish using roller-blades but not skateboards; why the (some) Amish use tractors but not cars; why they use cellphones but not landlines; why they drive forklifts, but only ones with steel tires; or why they can have electronics that run on batteries but not generators (except electronic farm equipment) or the power grid. It’s also interesting to point out that with every new significant invention schisms of varying size develop within the Amish community.

    This all being said, for me, the Amish actually represent a worse abuse of faith beyond education. Even though I agree with Dawkins, as he asks, if there can be religious reasons for parents pulling their children out of school early, should secular ones be available as well? If not, why does faith get the free pass?

    That being said however, if there is any “valuable truth” that the Amish “might, by their behavior, be telling the rest of us something important”, it is completely accidental. The Amish, working strictly from dogma, for them the Ordnung, arrive at a conclusion which may have little relevance to reality. A good example of would be the amazing number of gas powered devices allowed for Amish men but the relatively few allowed for Amish women. This is far more indicative of the Amish’s perspective of the woman as a home-maker with work that is not as competitive (read: compromise-requiring) as the work done by men.

    Again, this is the true danger of faith. While it may at times stumble on truth, we have no way of confirming or verifying it. The Amish may have stumbled on some aspect of truth, but it is lost in the otherwise complete gaffs of dogmatic faith like gender inequality and demonizing an honest desire for education.

  6. Matthew Melton

    Anabaptist sub-cultures are, as you indicated, not uniform, cookie-cutter approaches to life, and the Amish have their own variations within that. Ironically, as I was growing up in a tyrannical isolationist Pentecostal sect in the swamps of southeastern Virginia, I felt sorry for the Mennonite children down the road.

    But to address your point: Are the Amish solely guilty of balkanizing reality/faith/praxis on the grounds of their own preferences? I wonder at the degree to which this seems a chronic human problem. It’s hard to fault the Amish when I listen to the athiest on PBS’ “The Question of God” cherry-pick from ethical and metaphysical philosophy/religion to suit his own tastes. (He seemed like a terrific guy, though).

    I’m not trying to be contrarian. I just don’t see how the Amish, even with these articial “protections” and “privileges” are the ideal poster-children for Dawkins’ spleen. I have so many others I’d love to roast on this issue. The Anabaptist tradition commits no crimes (that I know of) in the name of faith. Are we not to grant them their ways because we are more enlightened than they?

    When I say they are making a statement, please forgive my inprecise language. I am a rhetorician by trade and to me all behavior makes statements, regardless of intent.

  7. I think the Amish treatment of a hate-crime (see here) can certainly show us a part of humanity that I bet we’d miss otherwise. The impractical, unpopular, unexpected quality of mercy was exhibited by the Amish – by the grandfather of dead children – in the wake of a tragedy. And the Amish are missing things we can teach them?

    That kind of stuff doesn’t get votes, make money, or sell newspapers. But it’s real, and you can feel it. In fact, props to that broken community for asking the gawking, smell-it-and-sell-it, sensationalizing media to leave the community. Dignity trumps CNN, and the Amish are up by two.

    The Amish probably don’t want to be categorized all as one (there are indeed divides and splits), but neither to atheists, agnostics (or gnostics or ignostics), Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists. The idea that a perfect humanity is available if all differences are quenched is faulty, and the Amish proved it a year ago.

  8. Dean

    With everything, even the Amish, things are not as they seem. That humility that was displayed was typical of of the Amish concept of Glassenheit. It effectively translates to English as “humility through our community”. And while it certainly is an interesting concept, it pretty much only works if you’re a community of a very limited size. Glassenheit extends to everything, not just tragedy in life. It prevents Amish from getting involved in politics and from speaking out against injustices in the social order (we’re back again to gender inequality, taboos on education and non-farm employment, etc.) Paradoxically, your comment that “[t]he Amish probably don’t want to be categorized all as one” is, in my understanding of Glassenheit, patently false. In my understanding of Glassenheit, they would want to be categorized by their community at large and if the individual Amish doesn’t then they must, by the idea of Glassenheit, keep quiet about it.

    While humility is a virtue, I think we should also remember that being vocal about what we consider to be injustices to also be a virtue. Given how I understand Glassenheit, if it were to translate to the greater society, it would mean eliminating our First Amendment rights.

    As for responding to “the other Matthew”, I’ve never seen “The Question of God” on PBS. I do however know that it would not be surprising that an atheist would cherry-pick ideas from society and religion to develop their own ideas of right and wrong. Atheism strictly is the “lack of a belief in God”, and it has no codex, moral code or authorities attached to it like most other belief systems. To be a moral atheist one typically has to draw from a system of beliefs such as those from culture at large. I typically describe myself as a Libertarian Transhumanist Ignostic.

  9. Matthew Melton

    LTI? Cool.

    I think we are all cherry-pickers, actually. Which, apropos of nothing, reminds me of, “I’m not a feather plucker, I’m a feather plucker’s son and I’ll be plucking feathers till the feather pluckin’s done.” Which gets more fun the faster you say it.

    New post soon.

  10. Dean

    Doh. Glassenheit should be spelled Gelassenheit. Oh well, the Google Toolbar spellcheck can only go so far. πŸ™‚

    And get that new post posted already. The Amish are boring.

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