February 23, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-3: The conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In the previous post, I said that the statement that Jared found offensive and hurtful is that "The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural." He said that "I think you really don't get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them" and that it implied that I felt that "The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)" and that "to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification", and as such constituted hate speech.

Actually, I really do get "how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith". After all, I was one of those people once and am still surrounded by them in the form of friends and relatives. It is this very deep-rootedness that I identify as precisely the reason why religions are so persistent despite the lack of evidence in favor of them and the abundance of counter-evidence. What I don't understand is why that fact should earn the believers of religions a pass from criticism.

I also frankly do not understand what is meant by to "wish away" people and propose their "nullification". I assume it does not mean that I want them exterminated! Is the desire to "wish away" certain beliefs the equivalent of wanting to "wish away" the people who hold those beliefs? Surely not. What I think Jared means is that religious beliefs are such an essential part of people that losing them destroys them as individuals.

That assertion is flatly contradicted by the fact that many people have given up their once deeply held religious beliefs (to either join other religions or become skeptics) and been none the worse for it and even come out stronger. Just because a belief is deeply held does not give it some kind of immunity. After all, people deeply hold views that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, or exhibit other forms of bigotry. Some people also label themselves by the signs of the Zodiac and infer innate qualities based on them and even act on that basis by consulting astrologers and horoscopes before making important decisions. No one would seriously argue that the world would not be better off without those beliefs or that those views should be protected just because some people identify with them strongly, or that we are hurting those people when we try to convert them away from these absurd or noxious beliefs. Why is it hate speech to encourage people to use evidence, rationality, and reason in every area of their lives?

The only reason to argue that religious belief should be treated differently from those others is because religious beliefs are obviously good or beneficial and the others obviously bad. Religions have used that trope for years to try and shield themselves from criticisms. But isn't that the very point in dispute? I don't think religious beliefs are good or benign, even though religious individuals can be both. For reasons that I have given before, I think a world where religion has ceased to have people in its thrall and where people no longer identify themselves by divisive religious labels would be a better world than what we have now. But why should such a view constitute hate speech?

The issue of attempted conversion seems to be another element of Jared's discomfort with my post because he says:

I'm not asking you to stop being an Atheist.
I don't believe you are going to Hell.
I don't want to convert you to my way of thinking.

I would just hope that when you publicly "wish us away" that you realize it's not friendly. And if you know it and you don't care - then its just not nice.

As I have said before, I don't understand this disdain towards conversion. (See here and here.) In the first of those two links I said (slightly edited):

The present situation, where some religious people seem to think that politeness demands that they should refrain from claiming superiority for their own religion, seems (within the framework of religion) contradictory. After all, religious people presumably think that their faith is the most important thing in their lives, so why be so reticent about it? Like the many debates we have had during the primary elections, why not have debates as to which religion is the best and which god is the right one to be worshipped? If we can spend so much time and energy in selecting a mere president, surely we should be willing to do at least as much for something as important as the ultimate fate of people's immortal souls?

I for one would enjoy listening to public debates as to why any one religion is better than the others.

Addressing Jared directly for the moment, if you think that your own religion of Judaism is true and that the god of the Jews is the one true god, then what is wrong in saying so and trying to persuade other people of it? I certainly would not be "offended" by such an attempt even though I would disagree with it. Surely you are a Jew (in the religious sense, not as a member of an ethnic group) because you think that it confers some spiritual benefit to you? Why would you not want to share that benefit with others?

Next: More on the conversion question.

POST SCRIPT: Diet fads

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on an industry that thrives on people's ignorance.


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Mano, Thanks for the reply.

In some ways we might be playing a game of semantics.

To address your last question first. In the Jewish environment in which I was raised "I learned to believe" (I use that phrase so you can enjoy it) that there is nothing wrong with NOT being Jewish.

In fact Jews generally do not go out and seek converts and traditionally turn them away. The argument is generally a form of "Why aren't you happy with the role that God put you in?" There are various answers of transcendence that people come to which I often feel come back to how your brain is wired.

You know I am an educator and because of this I strongly believe in understanding the way the brain is wired. We have students look at their Learning Style, their Gaming Style, their Personality Types. Can't these metrics also be placed on the way that people perceive their own spiritual place in the world.

Concerning religion you wrote "despite the lack of evidence in favor of them and the abundance of counter-evidence". Of course there is no evidence! If there WAS evidence it wouldn't be religion anymore it would be science. You are applying the wrong rules to the game at hand.

Let's talk about method. In Science we use the scientific method. Its the rules by which we play. What about Religion? It too uses a method - but that method is called Faith. I am a creationist at heart - but I am terrified that someone would want to teach it in a science class. It isn't science - its religion. At the same time I get very offended when people start to put science into a religion class.

People say that pork is not Kosher BECAUSE of trichinosis. And while historically its a nice side effect of the dietary law - the Rabbis would tell you that it is not the REASON for the law it is only an EFFECT of it. To underline the reason eliminates the Faith. (And yes for those who know me and my lack of Kosher keeping we can discuss all that later and less publicly).

I really dislike the notion that God is provable. If you could prove it then you wouldn't have any more Faith. That's the problem with people who DO attempt to convert. They try to logically bring people to a place where traditional logic doesn't apply.

I did enjoy your twist on my words of your words to say that "I think a world where religion has ceased to have people in its thrall and where people no longer identify themselves by divisive religious labels would be a better world than what we have now". I can't argue with that - at its simplest it could be easily "Why can't we all just get along?"

I wish I could fly. I can't fly, but I wish I could. I can't fly because I am not built to fly. As a matter of fact I don't really wish I could fly - its not a deep rooted need in me. If it was and I spent my life trying to fly and unable to obtain it then I would have a problem.

I believe in God. I need to believe in God. And within my belief system I have reached a level of fulfillment by finding that faith in God. It is part of who I am. I don't believe I can prove it and I don't desire to prove it.

I do have a disdain towards conversion. It is an admittedly touchy subject. Its invasive. As a teacher I don't get into 'invasive'. Persuasive - yes - invasive no.

There is a story of a Rabbi who met a farmer who everyday prayed to God in his own way - just thanking him for his world. The Rabbi told the farmer he was praying wrong and instructed him in the 'proper' way of praying. Later the farmer forgot what the Rabbi taught him and because of this stopped praying and thanking God altogether (after all he knew what he was doing previously was wrong). Of course the blunder here is confusing the mechanics of religion with the foundations of faith.

Messing with a man's faith - to me - is one of the worst things you can do. Not just from a religious perspective but from a psychological one - and that's what you are hearing in my words.

Why can't we all just get along? Apparently, because world religions dictate that we can't. And from what I have read - neither does your stance on Atheism. I think we are doomed. :)


Posted by Jared Bendis on February 23, 2010 11:43 AM

Good post. Regarding conversion, there are many religious who strongly believe they have reason and evidence on their side, and are eager to debate and try to convince. I have friends like this, and of course their logic and evidence is transparently post-hoc and invalid, and I wish they could be like Jared, and just admit they have no rational reason for what they believe.
The Christian religion, of which I was once a part, has a specific admonition in the Bible to "always be prepared to give a reason" for your faith, and so perhaps this is why Christianity is more interested in converting people than Judaism is.

Posted by Robert Allen on February 23, 2010 12:26 PM

Jared -

I'm writing this hurriedly during lunch, so if it seems a little fragmented & is.

The thing that scared me most about your post was "needing to believe in God." I think there are two interpretations here: one is yours, that your need for belief is fundamental on the order of need for food, shelter, air, and love. The other is Mano's (and mine), which is that this need more closely resembles a junkie's need for heroin - that the need has been instilled through constant exposure and isn't healthy (although probably not on the same level as heroin).

Having been raised Jewish, I understand a lot of where you're coming from in saying that your Judaism is so fundamental that to eliminate it is to remove a part of you. Judaism, for me, has always occupied a gray area between ethnicity, religion, and culture. It's extremely pervasive that way.

It was also very difficult to sort out the religious aspects from the ethnic & cultural ones for me, but necessary. You say that religion shouldn't be taught in science class, and vice versa, but the problem is that we're dealing with two mutually exclusive statements of fact: either the world is 6,000 years old, or it is a couple of billion. It can't be both.

I think Mano's central point is that it's time to stop ducking that question and pick a side. Too many people want to have it both ways because they're unwilling to abandon the feeling religion gives them. I can understand why you would say that messing with someone's faith is a terrible thing to do to him. Unfortunately, the junkie would say the same thing about someone taking away his stash, for the same reason.

Posted by Eric on February 23, 2010 01:19 PM

I could not be more thankful that my own past religious and political convictions were shaken to their core and largely destroyed, and I cannot imagine having instead experienced an “academic” environment that was unwilling to touch certain topics because they are “touchy.” It seems unethical to censor debate or discourage the flow of ideas, especially regarding such an impactful topic as religion and its validity (or lack thereof). The beliefs of individuals make up a society’s collective belief and its character. Especially for those who are voters, policymakers, or educators, it is extremely relevant what one believes and their basis for doing so, no matter how personal and untouchable they consider their convictions to be.

Posted by Kyle J on February 23, 2010 02:37 PM