Wednesday, August 11, 2010

About Moderation

This entry started as a comment on this entry about what "Progressive Christian" actually means. It's a subject about which I've given a lot of thought, and I've held this opinion for a pretty long time before being willing to say anything about it. There's a lot that I believe that I'm unwilling to say, for fear of alienating people who would otherwise be my allies.

Isn't that silly? Once I really looked at it, I realized what a condescending and nasty thing that is for me to think about my moderate theist friends. If you learn what I really think, you'll stop caring whether the courts blame rape victims, whether our judicial system executes an inordinate number of mentally-challenged and black or latino convicts, or whether gays ever have equal contractual rights in this country. You'll stop fighting with me if you hear the things that I didn't want to hear back when I was a theist.

I didn't, though. When I was a theist, I listened. Eventually. Brian can attest that it took a lot of time and patience on both of our parts before we came to a meeting-place on the question, but I didn't abandon the people and causes I cared about, so I'm going to trust the people reading this not to do it either.

See, when theism was still something I was down with, I'd get kind of butthurt when atheists lumped all religious people together and said that anybody who believes in a God is failing to get it, is unwilling to face their beliefs head-on and really question them, and is enshrining a dangerous irrationality. I hated it when I was painted as complicit in the social evils perpetuated by conservative religion. After all, I was a friendly science-loving atheist-dating Pagan. That stuff had nothing to do with me, and I was actively involved in fighting the tide of hatred and bigotry that came from those other traditions.

I thought, "What does this have to do with me? Don't they know that not all theists are like that? Some of us like you guys!"

I think it's the kind of argument that takes a while to really sink in. For example, I know guys who seriously have failed to understand why I didn't want to walk someplace alone at night. If I say, "Listen, if you were a woman and you lived with a target on your back and an entire culture ready to blame you for getting hurt because you weren't aware enough of that, you would refuse to go anyplace alone, too," the correct response is not, "Yeah, I mean, I see what you're saying, but you gotta understand. Not all men are like that, and it kind of hurts my feelings that you look at us all the same way."

To contrast, I've had guy friends who say, "Oh. Shit, you're right. Hang on, I'll get my coat." They didn't say that not all men are saddled with a sense of entitlement that drives them to do everything from trivialize sexual assault to actually commit it. They didn't say that. They didn't tell me. They showed me.

So what does this have to do with religion? If you're not sort of seeing where I'm going, let me make it a little clearer. I don't care anymore when people say "Not all X are like that," if they're not showing me. White people can't stop being white. We're a group of people who share a privilege whether we choose it or not. Men can't choose to stop being men. They're a group of people who share a privilege whether they choose to or not. Can we really say that Christians are similarly stuck? Or can they do more to show the victims of their privilege than white people, or men?

Can more be asked of people whose privileged position is based on VOLUNTARY factors like religious affiliation? I think it can. I think if you're choosing to be part of the dominant group, then you are a different sort of animal than the people who are born with privilege printed on their skin. Religious affiliation is a choice, no matter your beliefs. Ask Jimmy Carter. Ask Anne Rice. Ask any of the other followers of Christ who finally got tired of apologizing for the cultural system they're feeding and just finally DITCHED it altogether.

It’d certainly be POSSIBLE (not probable, but possible) to redeem Christianity and reshape it into the mold of progressive thought that I know a lot of Christians would find more palatable. But if we’re going to start deliberately molding and changing the religion to fit our beliefs, why NOT start from scratch? If the tradition needs so much change for it to be workable for progressive Christians, what exactly is their attachment to it in the first place?

I know there are moderate Christians who are trying to reform its myriad sects from within. What they’re doing is good. However, they still seem to me (as an outsider) to be more attached to keeping a Christian identity than they are to creating lasting cultural change. I mean, if suppressing women and hating LGBT people isn’t a dealbreaker when it comes to associating with a certain group, then what is? Is it too much for me to ask that people stop associating with a major world religion like the RCC until its holy men are assaulting children at a rate LOWER than the rest of the population?

I acknowledge the reformers’ hard work, but I can’t see it being sufficient. Until reforming Christianity seems like a faster or more effective way to fix the broken-ass homophobic and misogynist culture that Christianity currently feeds… then I’m not going to do their PR for them and disclaim everything I say with “but I know not all churches are like this.” If them reforming their own broken and terrible organizations relies on the cooperative efforts of the people they’re hurting in order to clean up their PR… then sorry. I guess they’re screwed, and I have a hard time regretting it.

And besides. Christian organizations and churches are not going to clean up their act until they know that their members are willing and able to vote with their feet. As long as people are content to stay with the group no matter what, Christian organizations have no incentive to reform. I don’t know if there are many self-identified workers for reform who are happy to see people like Anne Rice or Jimmy Carter voting with their feet, but unless churches realize that this is a very real risk, they won’t be listening to the reformers anytime soon. Why would they?

It’s the same reason that the DNC doesn’t listen to LGBT activists and allies. They know we’ll never vote Republican, so why appease us? They’ve got us forever. It’s not until they realize that we need to be appeased that they’ll ever start to try. The difference is that in a two-party system, LGBT people have nowhere else to go. Christians who want to find less poisonous religious organizations have plenty to pick from, so there’s no excuse not to join an LGBT-friendly congregation for the people who actually care.

The author of the blog post upon which I initially commented has another entry that goes a little further than I'm currently willing to, but which still really resonates with me. It's here, entitled Moderate Religion - Two Lies in One.

Moderate Christianity is deceptively alluring because of its seemingly scientific basis. Most educated Christians have no problem admitting that there’s something to evolutionary science, and they have no problem admitting that the earth is very old, and that dinosaurs once roamed about. In fact, if you get a good Moderate Christian into a theological discussion, they will almost inevitably tell you that they believe questions are good, and that any thinking person ought to question what they believe.

Forgive me, but the devil is in the details, and they’re missing a very, very important detail. The admission that questions ought to be asked makes it seductively simple to believe that moderate Christianity is ok, and doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe it’s even helpful in some way. The problem, and the main point of this essay, is that questioning is not ok for moderate Christians. I can prove it. Next time you’re talking to a moderate, try getting them onto the nature of god. If you’re any good at debate, you can quickly steer them to one of the half dozen paradoxes inherent in god belief. Once you get them there, note how quickly they will revert to the position, “There are some things you just have to take on faith.” If you press them into explaining why, they will get defensive. They will probably end the discussion very quickly.

The simple, indisputable fact is that any god belief requires faith, and if you follow my writings at all, you know that “faith,” properly defined, is “belief in a thing despite evidence to the contrary, or a total lack of evidence.” Once you get them to the point of admitting that they hold a belief despite it’s opposition to reason, you can see that the facade of moderation is just that – a facade. At their core, they are exactly the same as fundamentalists. They just pick a more socially acceptable irrationality. What they really mean when they say you should question everything is that you should question everything – except for the validity of faith as a means of acquiring knowledge.

I know I'm quoting a lot here, and I apologize for leaving these great huge chunks of the other entry in here. However, for the link-phobic, I want you to understand why I'm including this.
Accepting the belief that some things are true and irrational is what gives a perception of validity to every religious belief. Right wing fundamentalists are crazy. These are people who are out of touch with reality. The reason they are not either publicly ridiculed or maybe even forcibly medicated is that they are given a free pass — because it’s religion. If people believed the Jolly Green Giant was making proclamations from the side of a can of vegetables, they would be examined by a psychologist. However, when they believe an invisible man in the sky tells them to kill abortion doctors, they’re politely encouraged to be a little more moderate.

The primary reason that moderates refuse to come out publicly against fundamentalists is the vulnerability of their own position. The really smart moderates know this, and I suspect that the rest sense it even if they can’t put their finger on it. The only way to effectively call out the fundamentalists is to challenge them on rational grounds. Moderates are too intellectually dishonest, or too scared, to apply logic to all questions, lest they have to give up the precious illusion that their own personal invisible friend will make everything ok for them. So, you see, the lie in Moderate Christianity is that it is moderate at all. It is not. It is, however, to use the colloquial term, chicken shit.

I'm not yet willing to blame the value on faith for all of our culture's ills. I'll say that right now. However, I do believe that faith can only exist under the same circumstances that allow racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to exist. It requires that certain beliefs be above and beyond question, even if the person holding them also wishes to see themselves as rational (as, I think, most people do). I don't think faith is the root cause of all this rampant magical thinking, knee-jerk self-destructive loyalty and xenophobia, or prejudice. It's just another symptom of the same cowardice, the same unwillingness to really ask oneself a single crucial question.

"I know that I like this belief. But is it true?"

People of faith are not the cause of irrationality. However, because of their own love for their own pet delusions, they do tend to enable the irrationality of others whose insanity is far more dangerous in its impact. This... this I do resent, even if the faith they treasure is not itself a threat to me. I resent the other delusions protected by our reverence for faith. Faith may not be the root of our culture's ills, but defending faith defends those roots. By making it okay to build a worldview around an unquesetionable assumption and defending vocally the virtues of doing so, they unthinkingly (or perhaps uncaringly) defend the very premise behind what they tell me and tell me and tell me they're against.

They tell me and tell me and tell me, but this is what they show me.

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