Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Faith & Anti-Faith: Noble Enemies

When I was working as a typesetter in the mid-1980s in Madison, WI, I was the regular typesetter for the monthly newsletter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, headquartered in Madison. The monthly newsletter was mostly news articles, originals and reprints, the occasional opinion or op-ed piece, and legal updates on the cases the Foundation was undertaking via their legal defense fund: many cases about the constitutional separation of church and state, many of which overlapped with ACLU cases of a similar nature. Typesetting the monthly newsletter was always a treat for me, and often made me laugh out loud.

The FFRF was co-founded and is still co-led by Dan Barker, and the core group is the Barker extended family. It is a non-profit dedicated to freethinking, agnostic, and atheist principles and activism. The name of the foundation states their purpose rather clearly.

Now, let me just be clear about my position here: Although I am not a politcal animal, and rarely engage in political debate, I am often intrigued by the psychology behind religion. I support the basic concepts behind a lot of the FFRF's legal cases, as I strongly support the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I think the religious right in the USA, nowadays, is quite out of control, aided and abetted by the current trend of neo-conservatism (which is a serious misnomer—but I digress), and I support the FFRF's stated goal to prevent the USA from becoming a de facto theocracy.

Also, just to be clear: I am not an atheist, I am not an agnostic, and I am not a practicing member of any established, institutionalized religion. While I agree with the basic concepts behind the FFRF, I don't agree with all of their means and tactics.

Here's why:

Dan Barker, along with others in his family, had been a born-again hellfire and brimstone preacher prior to his embracing atheism. Apparentally it was a quasi-religious anti-religious conversion experience for him. I find that deeply ironic. What was most interesting and fun for me about reading through the FFRF newsletter was that the rhetoric was still very apocalyptic—but now the cause was atheism rather than born-again Christianity. The Cause was still the Cause, only the subject itself had changed. It was like looking at a mirror-image of a religious fundamentalist.

Frankly, it seemed to me that the only difference between Dan Barker the tent revival born-again fundamentalist preacher, and Dan Barker the crusading atheist, was the subject matter. The man had apparently exchanged one belief-structure for another, but his personality and rhetorical style had altered not a whit.

So, if Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung were right about religion being the opiate of the masses, how is this not a clearcut case of one opiate being substituted for another? How is this not a clear case of one addiction being subsituted for another. In a very parallel dynamic, most twelve-step groups substitute an addiction to a quasi-religious system for an addiction to a chemical substance; no matter what language they use, most twwelve-step groups are based on religious belief-systems. Barker now spends 100 percent of his time fighting for atheist causes. But the rhetoric still has exactly the same tone, the same sense that "anyone who believes differently than me is an idiot." The Cause is still the Cause.

The problem with most atheist rhetoric, which is pointed out clearly by the example of the FFRF, is that it is "noble friend" or "best enemies" rhetoric: it actually reinforces the arguments of those with blind faith, because it attempts to make a negative proof based on the same beliefs and ideas as those of its opponents. Most atheistic rhetoric is denial rhetoric, attempting only to contradict and disprove its opposing rhetoric. It doesn't engage, typically, even with the agnostic idea that there might be some mysteries we don't and can't understand. At heart, most hardcore atheists are dismissive of agnosticism, even as they ally themselves with agnostics for political purposes.

Personally, I have never seen much psychological difference between atheists and fundamentalists. The mindsets are often nearly identical. Both seem to me to be identically emotionally and mentally committed to their positions. At their worst, they both maintain rigid stances with zero flexibility, and no one really convinces anybody of anything, because everyone is too busy shouting out their own positions at deafening volume. Truly civil discourse and dialogue are pretty much nonexistent.

Madelyn Murray O'Hair, the original crusading atheist, whom I met when she once visited my elementary school in Ann Arbor, struck me as being an authentic fanatic; she had given up everything for her cause, and devoted her total existence to that cause. Her work was an irrational pursuit of an extreme form of rationalism. The Cause was was the Cause. The delicious irony of this logical contradiction struck me even at age 9 or 10.

Eric Hoffer made the point brilliantly in his short, essential book The True Believer, that one may be a fanatic regardless of what one purports to believe, that fanatics of all faiths and causes have remarkably similar psychological and emotional states of being. Hoffer defines a “true believer” as “the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause.” The cause is irrelevant: it could be anything. What matters is that the strongly-held belief-system be held up as the answer to all of life's problems, with the corollary that those who disagree with you are wrong, and need to be convinced of the rightness of your beliefs over all others.

But this is still a binary polarity: two sides of a coin; two polarized positions that appear to be in contradiction, but in fact whose underlying assumptions about the true nature of reality are deeply shared. Noble enemies are those enemies whose resistance is fuel for clarifying one's own position. Best enemies are those antagonists that you can't do without; fighting them helps you keep your edge; without them, you flail around with no true purpose or goal in life.

In the ongoing argument between true believers and scientific atheists who view all religious ideas as delusions, it strikes me that much of the scientific-atheistic rhetoric is the rhetoric of fanaticism and the noble friend.

Matthew Fox, among others who include such notable scientists as Rupert Sheldrake, describes "scientific rationalism" as a quasi-religious belief system that has many of the functional earmarks of a religion, including: received dogma that may not be questioned; an aura of reverential Mystery around the pursuit of knowledge (which in this case means lab-coated researchers rather than frocked theologians); the worship of saints, many of whom were theoreticians and technologists (Darwin, Einstein, Edison, etc.); the de facto attitude that its own internal belief-system is right while everyone else is wrong; and so forth. What we are left with is an irrational pursuit of rationalism—another "noble friend" rhetorical trope that I find highly ironic.

The biggest mistake that scientific rationalism makes is to place itself in the position of being the One True Faith—which seems exactly parallel to what happens when a born-again Christian becomes a born-again atheist and continues to fulminate his views as the Only Truth—and it is in these circumstances that atheism itself seems most similar to a religious creed itself. Functionally, in terms of psychology, atheism is a religion.

It often seems to me, in these continuous arguments between polarized camps, that the only people who still keep open minds any more, who give third or fourth options, who think in genuinely different directions, who are willing to wait and see, and who are comfortable with uncertainty and mystery, are agnostics and mystics.

Agnostics are unsure of the answers, and unwilling to be placed into fixed belief-systems full of received dogma and imposed doctrine. Agnostics tend to want to look at the evidence, and decide for themselves. As Graham Chapman once said at the conclusion of one of my favorite Monty Python skits, "I've always said there isn't anything an agnostic can't do if he really isn't sure if he believes in anything or not." As the line from Richard Marx' song The Prayer goes, "Isn't faith believing that all powers can't be seen?" So, agnostics are seekers, but not true believers. They are willing to believe, but not willing to believe blindly. I've met a number of declared agnostics who are skeptical seekers, who respect the faiths of others while at the same time are uncomfortable with proselytization and missionary zeal, and who generally prefer to find personal answers rather than institutionalized ones.

Mystics are those who seek out, and experience, direct contact with spiritual realities that transcend yet infuse everyday life. Mystics, like agnostics, want to look at the evidence of their experiences, and decide for themselves. Mystics tend to explode all dogmas, and their belief systems tend to be based primarily on their personal experience, and very much not on received wisdom. This is why most mystics are routinely condemned as heretics in most of the world's organized religions. Mystics are chimera, not sheep. They take strange, unknown shapes, and report back visions of the divine as they experienced them, sans interpretation. Mystics are spiritual reporters, and spiritual technologists. They might seem otherworldly, but in fact they tend to be deeply pragmatic.

Mysticism tends to envelop and overarch binary-polarized arguments about faith and anti-faith. Mysticism is not "either/or" but instead is "both/and." Mystics are comfortable with paradox—the very paradoxes of opposition that drive the atheists against the religious. A paradox, rather than being resolved, can be maintained in dynamic tension: the same sort of dynamic tensions that the universe seems to be built on, for example, whether light is wave or particle or both.

As Hoffer says, the need to believe in something can supercede the rational assessment of what the belief is. It can make us be irrational about rationality. Rationality needs to be reasonable, rather than extreme. That seems so obvious, yet it is so rarely encountered.

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