Church: What Is It Good For?!

Christian UniversalistDigby brought my attention to a Pew Research Center poll, Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty. This isn’t exactly news. But the report contained a graph on the attitudes of different kinds of religious people. The bottom line: white Christians really like the death penalty — whether Protestants or Catholics, they have higher approval than the population as a whole. Black and Latino Christians, however, are just the opposite — they support the death penalty at much lower levels than the population as a whole.

I shouldn’t be surprised that American Catholics should go against the Church on this issue. American Catholics go against the Church on pretty much every issue you can name, most notably same sex marriage, abortion, and most of all, birth control. Protestants are so fractured that it is impossible to say what they are supposed to believe. But it is safe to say that religious people believe what they want and don’t give a lot of thought to what their churches claim.

Although I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty, the fact that Christians don’t listen to their churches is largely a good thing. We don’t want angry Christian mobs stoning adulterers. But the whole thing makes me wonder what people are getting from their churches. As I’ve written about excessively, popular religions are shockingly useless at answering ontological questions. So that leaves them only with the churches’ moral teachings. And on that front, most Christians have apparently decided that their churches are equally useless.

What is especially interesting here is how people make moral decisions based upon their life experiences. I don’t believe for a moment that white Americans are more vindictive than black Americans. But for most white Americans, police abuse of power is not really a thing. The worst they need worry about is an officer giving them a speeding ticket. What’s more, white Americans are less likely to have much direct experience with the milieu in which poverty leads to desperation and desperation leads to violence.

This is a good thing to remember the next time a Christian asks you how a civilization can have a moral code if it isn’t given from God. The truth is even Christians don’t have a moral code given by what they think is the word of God. Even those who take their holy books very seriously have to deal with contradictions. And what they always do in these circumstances is pick whatever belief feels right to them. And that is what we all do. So what exactly do people get from their churches, synagogues, and mosques?

I think religious people get one thing: a sense of community. And this has obvious good aspects. Humans are social animals and we can only survive by working together. But there is a bad side to this. The same things that bind us together also tear us apart from those outside the group. This is one of the problems with the New Atheist movement: people spend most of their time dumping on believers. And the same thing happens among the believers. This is why I’m so fond of the universalists. Are they a religious group or just an open minded collection of people who like potlucks? Regardless, even they have their limits. We couldn’t have a society if some things weren’t outside acceptable bounds. And people ranting Fox News talking points can ruin a good potluck.

Update (8 September 2014 7:47 pm)

In an article today, Scalia’s Utter Moral Failure: How He Destroys Any Claim to a Superior System of Justice, Digby quoted the devout Catholic justice:

While my views on the morality of the death penalty have nothing to do with how I vote as a judge, they have a lot to do with whether I can or should be a judge at all. To put the point in the blunt terms employed by Justice Harold Blackmun towards the end of his career on the bench, when he announced that he would henceforth vote (as Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall had previously done) to overturn all death sentences, when I sit on a Court that reviews and affirms capital convictions, I am part of “the machinery of death.” My vote, when joined with at least four others, is, in most cases, the last step that permits an execution to proceed. I could not take part in that process if I believed what was being done to be immoral.

See what I mean? When his church says “Same sex marriage is wrong!” he’s on board because he’s a bigot and that’s what he wants to believe. When his church says “Thou shalt not kill!” he’s not on board because it isn’t what he wants to believe. He is a vile man who history will judge very harshly. And he knows it.

6 thoughts on “Church: What Is It Good For?!

  1. Most sermons these days are careful to emphasize the sins of people their congregations dislike, and avoid issues that might challenge their congregations’ prejudices — fundie preachers rail about homosexuality and abortion but rarely about the death penalty, gluttony, or helping the poor. And most self-proclaimed Christians in the US don’t really go to church very often, anyway.

    I would dispute that the New Atheists “spend most of their time dumping on believers.” We mostly attack religion, which is not the same thing as attacking religious people.

    • Fair point. But on Twitter there is a lot of mutual in-out group stuff going on between the atheists and the theists. Over and over and over again! I follow a number of atheists. Also, Skepticon is a highly insular event. I long felt I could take the place as a kind of interfaith atheist, because although I am an atheist, I understand and even appreciate religion. But I don’t have the right kind of personality. Regardless, theists find me too scientific and atheists tend to hate that I even call myself an atheist given my intense interest in ontology.

      But this is something that I think the New Atheist movement should think seriously about. The most prominent representatives of it are people I find offensive: Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. And if I find them obnoxious, it doesn’t speak to a movement that has good prospects. It speaks to a movement that will always be stuck at perhaps 5% of the population. I’ve seen how the movement has affected Richard Carrier who I greatly admire. He’s become far more shrill over time and I think it is because he spends too much time interacting with people that go to Skepticon. And that generally means: upper-middle-class white guys. On the other hand, if the New Atheists just want to be a group that allows atheists to vent, I totally understand! I feel the same way a lot of the time. But I don’t think that’s what the people in the movement really do want. And the first step in branching out is to appeal to atheists like me. I mean, at this point, if anyone in the New Atheist movement mentions Stephen Jay Gould, it will be to mock him. That’s real “People’s Front of Judea” nonsense.

      • A funny thing about Dawkins. He’s terrific at his day job — explaining evolution to non-scientists. I quite enjoy his science books. In those books, he occasionally comes off a bit peevish, as in “I can’t believe I have to go over this” but most of us occasionally slip into that tone when we’re discussing something we’ve studied/practiced for years. It’s easy to forget your early mistakes and misconceptions when you’ve put a lot of time into overcoming them. It’s easy to forget that not everyone else is as interested in the subject as you are, and that your task is piquing their interest, not belittling them for being where you once were.

        That same peevish tone which rarely emerges in his science books is almost his permanent tone in his writings against religion. Which might be fun for Dawkins but it serves almost no purpose. And has no justification. If I can forgive his being a little impatient with those of us who know far less about evolutionary biology than he does, I don’t forgive that impatience and condescension towards readers who know exactly as much about religion and theology as Dr. Dawkins does (very, very little. I daresay I’ve got the doctor beat in this area.) Even when he attacks religion on a firm basis (torpedoing ID) the tone accomplishes nothing at best and is harmful at worst. (Not all religious faith rejects evolution, and the ones which don’t are out of his league to criticize as an expert. Criticism as a matter of opinion is fine.)

        Those of us who are terrified of climate change howl when coal companies and the like hire scientists to claim climate change is no threat. Our biggest howl is that these scientists aren’t biologists or climatologists! They’re physicists and chemists! (You could hire a biologist to say “I don’t believe in muons” but that doesn’t make him/her right.) Well, Dawkins knows very little about religion, and writes as if he’s an authority. On all of it. He’s not.

        I get why the non-faith community has latched onto the likes of Harris and Dawkins. It’s the same reason right-wingers latch onto angry screamers on Fox or talk radio. When you feel under attack, it’s natural to attack back. And to some degree non-faith has been genuinely under attack. (Those Fox/talk radio types have long tried to demonize us as a group worth blaming/hating, with varied degrees of success. Americans won’t vote for an avowed atheist; however, they won’t ban atheists from holding jobs or getting married.)

        As the numbers of those with no faith affiliation grow, the community’s methods of advocacy need to grow as well. What makes the right-wing screamers so ludicrous is how they adopt a persecuted tone when they’re winning (anything but totalitarian victory is, to them, persecution.) We have to avoid that. After all, our goal (the goal of most of us in the non-faith community) isn’t total victory, the end of religious belief. It’s the end or virtual end of religion as a means for manipulating people politically. (Obviously people’s individual beliefs will always affect their political views, but those views/beliefs should come from the individual, not from those wishing to indoctrinate others for political gain.)

        The atheist screamers served their purpose when the right was targeting non-faith as the source of all our woes. Now they’re counter-productive. We can beat ID and young-Earth creationism with the likes of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We need to beat the anti-Muslim prejudice that is growing in the West, has resulted in the acceptance of untold military violence, and if it continues will certainly spur more Muslim fundamentalism. We can do that if we support efforts to reform Islam instead of ridiculing and demonizing it. We need to slow climate change. We can do that if we support those who are trying to explain to believers the religious basis for stewardship of the environment.

        It’s almost as if the non-faith movement is growing faster than it knows how to handle. It’s important to focus our efforts on how faith is manipulated politically. Otherwise, as you say, we risk falling into that People’s Front trap of complete irrelevance. I could see it going either way!

        • Hold on there, cowboy! I don’t think you meant to do this, but you just slighted us physicists and chemists! I’m not sure you meant to say what you said. The theoretical basis of global warming is physics and chemistry. It is all about radiative forcing and how different chemicals affect that. One of the coolest things about climate science is that it is a great crossroad of many scientists. My degree is actually in Atmospheric Physics but all my actual work was atmospheric chemistry, looking at how the natural atmosphere removed pollutants (technically: the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere). But you may well be right that Exxon hires physicists and chemists to do its apologetics — they have a lot of them around with backgrounds in geophysics and geochemistry. (That’s probably what you were saying.) The weird thing is that the physics of it absolutely cannot be denied: it is about as simple as saying that putting on a coat will keep you warmer. In some ways, I think capitalists are digging their own graves. They are proving better than any Marxist ever could that the system is rotten to the core.

          You are absolutely right about Dawkins on religion. I thought his book just attacked straw men. Although I will admit: he was attacking the vast majority of Christians. He also seems to be a misogynist. I too like Dawkins’ writing on evolution. It’s weird that he can be such an engaging writer on that subject, but when he writes on religion he is, in addition to being simplistic, boring. As for Sam Harris, I really like his writing. Letter to a Christian Nation is a great polemic. His problem is that he so easily falls into racism.

          I think there are a few problems on both sides of the divide. First, Christians flatter themselves about persecution. They are always looking for ways to claim it so they can feel like what they see is actual persecution in the early days of Christianity. Most atheists do think that some day religion will be gone. I think that’s delusional. You are right: all we really should be fighting for is for the vast majority of people to accept that the Enlightenment happened. We’ve really devolved.

          The biggest problem with the New Atheist movement (to me anyway) is how poisoned it is with libertarianism. And if you look at the demographics of the New Atheists, they are the same as they are for the libertarians. It drives me crazy. (Although I know that there is a strong current liberalism as represented by Infidel753. If you don’t already, you should keep up with his site; it’s excellent.)

          Finally, I want to be clear: I don’t have a problem with being angry and frustrated with the fundamentalist crowd. What I hate is false equivalence. Some Californian New Age weirdo is not the same as a Southern Baptist who doesn’t believe women have rights! The truth is that Tyson shows his frustration as clearly as anyone. But you are right: he is a great symbol of what modern man should be. I liked in Cosmos how he hammered on the idea that there have been all these religious people over the centuries who nonetheless completely embraced science and denied dogma without losing their faith. That’s much better PR than, “All you Christians are idiots!”

          • My apologies to physicists and chemists out there! Of course I meant the types who don’t know the first thing about climate change offering their reputations up for hire by the likes of Exxon. As described in Oreskes’s & Conway’s “Merchants Of Doubt.” I’ll also be the first to admit I’m pretty woeful on most of the science myself. I stick with simple stuff like the IPCC reports because it’s my comfort zone. (I am going to try and educate myself a bit in physics, but that’s going to be a very long project!)

            Eagleton did a great job reducing Dawkins’s arrogance towards (and ignorance of) theology to shreds. Again, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your personal distaste for religion even if you don’t know much about it. But you can’t then dismiss the opinions of others who do know more about it. Or others who have non-intellectual but very valid reasons for religious belief. The people who believe they are called by a higher power to work for justice and clothe the needy — do we really want to call them fools? Maybe a bit more mystical than you or I, but not fools. Gandhi was no fool. Gifford Pinchot, who is probably responsible for preserving more American wilderness than anyone, used to go camping with the likes of John Muir and disappear into the forest to meet with the vision of his dead wife. A bit of spiritual awe towards the existence of Nature/other human beings is not the worst sentiment in the world.

            While I don’t lurk those atheist sites, I did grow up with people who had a rather libertarian attitude towards the harm bad religious teachings can do. “I freed myself,” they would say, “if others don’t have my mental fortitude than too bad for them.” To me this attitude makes announcing your atheism pointless. It’s like the person who escapes tyranny, flees to America, strikes it rich and then says anyone who still is trapped in that tyrannical country is a weak failure. Any respect I might have for someone overcoming enormous obstacles disappears immediately when that person poo-poohs others stymied by those obstacles.

            I think that, unless non-faith is under direct attack or threatens to become a target of direct attack (aka, atheists losing their jobs), there are only two real uses of advocating for atheism. One is providing an example for those who are leaning towards but intimidated by bucking their childhood programming. In this case, it’s important to encourage people to make up their own minds about what they want to believe, not tell them “you MUST be” an atheist instead of an agnostic or progressive believer or whatever.

            And the other is attacking the genuine harm bad religious teachings and prejudices cause. If you’re just attacking religion, period, as a mystical philosophical doctrine about the origins of existence or the possible destiny of self-aware intelligences after death, you might as well be engaged in a furious debate over whether or not people should enjoy playing pinball. It’s not going to change anything that needs changing. (Mind you, I’m all in favor of pointless arguments, as long as the participants know the arguments are pointless!)

            Atheism devoid of activism — uninterested in fixing the harm done by bad religious teaching and altogether proud of itself — is just as self-righteously annoying as fundamentalist religion. And atheism convinced it will conquer the world is just as deluded, potentially dangerous, as fundamentalist religion. (Ayn Rand and Stalin were hostile to religion, as well as other humans in general. They’ve done their fair share of harm.)

            As I’ve said for a while, the progressive non-faith people (the majority, I suspect) should be teaming up with the progressive religious people (maybe not the majority, but there’s a lot of them) on the things we can agree upon. We could actually be the real “big tent.” Science is real, war and economic exploitation are obscenities. By working with each other we could even come to regard each other’s quirky beliefs as kinda charming, the way everybody outside Iceland regards their belief in underground gnomes.

            Or the non-faith movement could dissolve into another dumb class-and-culture signifier thing. Like I said, I could see it going either way. Time will tell.

  2. @JMF – We’ve run out of reply levels…

    My biggest problem with the atheist community is when they claim to simply not understand theists. But I’ve come to realize that a lot of atheists really don’t understand. There are questions that religion is designed to answer. I think the Abrahamic religious especially do a terrible job. But I understand what it’s all about. If atheists are as clueless as they claim, then I think that just like the fundamentalists, they are missing out on an important part of life.

    But among atheists I talk to, they mostly do understand the questions. Often they don’t care about them. And I think this leads to a kind of public posturing that the questions are silly or not understandable. Now reasonable arguments about these can be made. But there is a kind of thoughtless disdain for them that I don’t think helps anyone.

    I really wish the atheist community would get serious about defining atheism. In as much as they have done that, I am clearly an atheist. But it clearly hasn’t been done enough, because most atheists don’t think I’m one of them. And I’m fine thinking of myself as a mystic. Of course, I see no contradiction in “atheist mystic.”

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