Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bridges and Windows

Let me start with an apology.

One of my very favorite verses in the entire Bible is James 1:19-20: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

I like this verse so much that I have it tacked up on the wall of my cubicle at work. And yet, though it’s right there in front of me every day, I fail at its instruction – especially the part about being slow to speak – about once every 30 seconds.

Sometimes things make us angry, and that’s okay. Looking at the world around us, I am reminded of the liberal campaign slogan from 2004: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” But to act on anger in a moral way requires us first to listen and to speak only later. In between hearing and speaking comes thinking.

There is no healing in anger. Anger doesn’t knock down walls, it’s what the bricks are made of. So I apologize for my incautious words. Calling a stranger a bigot most certainly does not work the righteousness of God.

I am not here to convert people or to lecture people or to warn you to repent or else. That’s not my style, and I don’t believe it’s an effective way to bring people to faith, even if that were my intent. I only want to build bridges; if not of agreement, of understanding. If I can’t open a door for you, maybe I can at least point you to a window. I want modest things, like communicating to more conservative Christians that there are legitimate, alternate ways of understanding Scripture, and demonstrating to atheists – many of whom have been deeply wounded by religious people – that faith can be positive and beautiful.

I take great pains in my writing and in my life to set myself apart from Christians who claim faith means an abdication of God’s own precious gift of critical thought; of Christians who insist that to believe in God means our understanding of the origin of life and the world itself can never progress past the limits established by an ancient people who couldn’t even fathom that the earth revolved around the sun. I set myself apart from Christians who believe in a faith of limitation and exclusion, apart from Christians who seek the destruction of the planet and the destruction of Israel and the destruction of Islam because they believe in a God so puny and weak that he needs our foreign policy and our wars to achieve his aims.

I am not here to deny that unspeakable evil has been done in God’s name, or that religion has been a source of oppression and injustice probably since the earliest humans or human ancestors first developed the capacity to imagine something beyond their immediate existence.

But if atheists are going to structure their beliefs on critical thinking, then they, too, have a moral obligation to be open minded, curious and intellectually honest. Just as they would expect religious fundamentalists to acquaint themselves with the facts of evolutionary biology before they reject it, atheists have a responsibility to investigate faith traditions more fully if they’re going to rail against them.

I’m not very good at making effective arguments for the existence of God. But I’ll happily settle for the opportunity to demonstrate that Christians are diverse, and that even if you don’t necessarily believe in the existence of God, there is common moral ground between us (see James 1:19-20). Won’t you give me that chance?


Anonymous said...

you're ok,andy.
thats why i hang out here.
not to mention you and your boys can be quite entertaining.

its normal, in the course of debate or discussion to have your buttons pushed. and to push back, as well. my Lord, y'aint a bloggin 'bot!

sometimes calling an obvious spade is all you can do.
especially when said spade displays himeslf over several posts.

Quinn said...

Wait, did Gino just call me a Boy?

Future Geek said...

Anonymous was being a prick. You reacted. See, this is why I'm an agnostic. I don't have to feel too bad about getting angry.

But he (anon) had some good points, and spoke from a position I imagine is common among atheists. I hope he accepts your apology.

If he doesn't, f*** him.

Paul said...

Wow. Just wow.

Oh, and thanks for expressing so eloquently exactly what I've tried and failed to explain so many times.

I'm printing out this post and putting it up in MY cubicle.

Luke said...

Hey Andy, sorry about all these irrational atheists commenting on your blog. As an atheist who tries to be rational (but not condescending) towards religion, I love reading your blog. It's well reasoned and informative.

We should try to get back in the habit of haning out, eh?

Andy said...

Aw, thanks everyone. I wonder if Anonymous will come back.

Quinn: No, I think Gino was just being progressive in light of my recent post on gender. Don't you?

Jade said...

I've always had a cynical view of religion (because of the hypocracy of Catholicism I was raised around) however your blog is chipping away at the cynicism quite successfully - so I'm glad that you write what you do, and I'm glad that a little argument here and there doesn't stop you.

Jim said...

Not to be nit-picky about words (and not like anyone listens to me anyways), but "atheism" does not necessarily mean "irreligious." People who do not believe in any supernatural element in the universe(s) often call themselves "atheists," so it's not surprising that atheism has been equated with exclusively rational beliefs. But that's not exactly what the word means. Atheism is simply the disbelief in the existence of deities. Now, there are highly irrational belief systems that do not incorporate gods or demons. Concepts like Tao and Karma are completely irrational in the scientific sense (though quantum physics do dabble in them); nonetheless, these religious concepts are, in fact, atheist since deities are not involved. Sorry if I have ended the conversation awkwardly.

chiron said...

Hey Andy, even Jesus was unnecessarily rude to his mother, so you can relax, dude, because your friends and readers think you're way cool too.

About your attempt to build bridges, you've already accomplished so much, but allow me to play the devil's avocate again.

I wonder whether you can ever make very many atheists really care if the focus of your writing is Christian virtue. What goodness can a Christian cultivate that atheists don't cultivate equally as well?

A more salient idea in your post, one that resonates with me, is your oblique reference to Christian eschatology, but I think you're still too circumspect.

Personally, I think the onus is on us and on anyone who calls himself Christian to disidentify with postmillenial fundamentalists and to educate the public about what these crazies really believe. We have to remember that, while they no longer control Congress - for now - they are wildly rich and they nonetheless still occupy the entire Executive Branch including hundreds of government posts given by the president to fundamentalist Christians. Whether they want (a) to make earth fit for God's return or (b) to hasten God's return by accelerating the onset of an apocalyse, they arrogantly think God's history is theirs for the making; they are still in positions of power; and their motives should be exposed.

This is why I find your recent complaints about the failings and hypocrisy of relatively powerless and harmless atheists less than compelling.

Fundamentalists have a written agenda, supported by a multi-million dollar public and foreign policy apparatus, that has very specific expectations about what will happen next in world history. They happily expect to see Damascus destroyed very soon. They expect Babylon to be rebuilt and become a center of world commerce. Go Halliburton! And they expect the US to endure the destruction prophesied for "the Pharoah" in Ezekiel 32. (OH WAIT A MINUTE...THAT LAST ONE WAS BIN LADEN'S AGENDA)

Sophisticated Christian academics poo-poo eschatology as pure spookiness, but they do a disservice by being circumspect as well, because hundreds of millions of fundamentalists on both sides of the Muslim/Christian divide read the same playbook and have very specific horrors in mind for the rest of us.

So tell me more about this bridge you're building...

LeshDogg said...

I wasn't aware that the onus of proof was required for religious-types. It's called "faith" for a requires no proof.

Andy said...

LeshDogg: yes, exactly, this is a debate that isn't going to get us anywhere, looking for "evidence" of God. At least according to mainstream Christian thinking, free will is an essential component of salvation; we make the choice to accept what is offered to us. As I have said many times before on this blog, if there were "proof" of God, you'd have to be some kind of nitwit not to believe in him, wouldn't you?

Chiron: You make a great point. Finding ways to expose the bad thinking of some Christians (as Slacktivist does so excellently) has the double effect of drawing attention to those weaknesses and highlighting to skeptics the diversity and integrity of Christian thought.

I think my issue though is that living here in Manhattan, I am not really troubled very often (in person) by hardcore Evangelicals. I am much, much more likely to run into angry people who have abandoned objectivity like "Sonya" on the post ARGH below.

Let me put my life in context for you: my closest friends in NY are people who say things like, "The most depressing aspect of Battlestar Galactica's vision of the future is that everyone is still religious...and still fucking everything up." That's hard to respond to, not least because all you have to do is open a newspaper to see people doing morally insane things in the name of religion on a daily basis. I'm not living in some insulated mutual circle jerk of happy Christians here, my life basically consists of defending my beliefs in the context of Jerry Falwell's latest idiocy. And sometimes I get really, really frustrated with the arrogance and hypocrisy of nonbelievers.

Sonya said...

Yes, I am angry when I find out priests and nuns were killing innocent people. Is it me who has lost objectivity? Am I dilusional to be upset about such a crime? I think it's quite normal to be upset about such a crime, so I'll have to disagree with you and continue to be upset about it, and any other ugly crimes done by religious leaders.

It's your Christian nature to forgive these religious leaders. I find that attitude lacking in objectivity, sorry I can't forgive them.

kr said...

Sonya, I just answered this at the end of the ARGH string.

But here I will just state that niether Andy nor I implied or said that those nuns and priests should be "forgiven." I too feel the especial horror that accompanies betrayal by people who have publically asked for especial trust; as a Catholic, such evils by nuns and priests hit me perhaps harder. We did not discount the evil; I just asked for placing in context.

Because, as FG points out, evil happens without God-belief, too, and examining the problem of evil cannot only examine religious-related evil.

Andy said...

Yes, Sonya, you are mistakenly equating the necessity of forgiveness, compassion and understanding with approval. Forgiveness is really, really hard. To forgive someone doesn't mean you just overlook or excuse someone's bad behavior.

You have lost objectivity, because you've lost sight of some basic rationale, here. Holding all who call themselves Christian culpable for the actions of some of them is not a particularly enlightened point of view. Furthermore, the moral failings of individuals suggest neither the absence of God nor the immorality of religion as a whole.