Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I don't understand religious moderates and progressive Christians

I don't understand religious moderates. At all.

Let me start with the caveat that I *love* religious moderates and progressive Christians. Yay for religious moderates! I am glad that you are moderate, progressive and liberal. Religious fundamentalism and extremism pose significant threats, both to individual people (e.g, George Tiller) and to societies as a whole (e.g., generations of people in Africa condemned to die of AIDS because the Catholic church continues to lie about condoms and forbid their use). These are among the reasons our governmental structures need to be built on secular, religiously-neutral pillars. This is where the fight should be, and nontheists and moderates alike can strive for this...

But this post is not about fundamentalists. It's about moderates. It's about people I view as allies on nearly every issue I care about, but I simply do not understand why they are religious. And the issues here are at the core of why I'm an atheist. (Note: I talk here about Christianity, becuase that's the tradition I'm most familiar with, but the same goes for just about of the big "world religions.")

I touched on a lot of these same things last year in my review of For the Bible Tells Me So, the documentary about Christian families coming to terms with their homosexual children. I'll try not to reiterate TOO many points from that post. (You may want to read that post, as well.)

Okay, enough preamble. Let's do this:

Religious fundamentalists get a lot of criticism (and rightfully so) from nontheists, liberals, progressives, and religious moderates. Some particularly egregious examples (viz, Westboro Baptist Church) even get a fair dose of criticism from the right.

Many of these criticism take the form of "you're just reading the Bible the way you want! You're cherrypicking only the parts that back up your hateful views!" arguments.

These points are right on the money: Fred Phelps and friends (bizarrely) protest in front of soldier funerals that "God Hates Fags" but you never see him in front of Red Lobster saying "God Hates Crustaceans." They are cherrypicking the Bible. They are the just choosing the parts that back up their hateful views, and ignoring the "love thy enemy as thy self" parts.

But here's the thing: religious moderates are doing the same thing, just with different passages. They are cherrypicking the Bible (or whichever holy books they happen to be using), identifying with the passages that back up their already-held views of love and acceptance and charity, and ignore the parts advocating for murder and rape and avarice.

Homosexuality is perhaps the most currently pertinent case of this cherrypicking. I'll try not to rehash my points from my earlier post, but here's the thing: The Bible is pretty unequivocal about homosexuality, or at least male homosexual sex: The punishment is death. Period. People like Phelps say that every time homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, it's met with execution and/or revulsion. And you know what? They're right. And that goes for the supposedly-progressive New Testamant as well, which also includes the only explicit mention (and condemnation) of lesbianism.

In fact, the Bible makes the point again and again that RAPE, though nearly always viewed bad (except when "righteous" men order it as a punishment), is somehow far less bad if a man rapes a woman than if a man rapes another man. In fact, if a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, the only "punishment" is that she has to marry him and a small fee is paid to her father. That's horrid.

Let's look at a case in point: Do you know the Bible story of "the Levite?" In this charming little tale (itself a partial plagiarism from another part of the the Bible, the story of Sodom and Gommorah), a man and his concubine are traveling to Jerusalem and get caught on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. A man invites them to spend the night in his house, but things don't go as planned:

22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing."

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

Now, it's not the central lesson of this story (which, as it happens, was that you should never trust anyone who's not part of your own ethnic group), but one of the explicit lessons here is that it is far preferable for these men to rape the concubine and the virgin daughter than the man. Like I say, the rape is condemned regardless, but it is less bad to rape a woman. It's the same thing in the story of Sodom and Gommorah: Lott offers up his daughters to be raped, and when the Sodomites decline the offer, God destroys them and their city. What an asshole.

How is it that someone can look at this story, or countless other horrid "moral" lessons found in the Bible, and say that the book is a good document to use as one's moral code?

And it's not just an Old Testament/New Testament thing. It's often said that the Old Testament god is a being of jealousy and wrath and terror; while Jesus and the New Testament god is/are being(s) of love and peace and forgiveness... But that's not really true.

Now, on the whole, there's less to dislike in the NT than the OT, but it still doesn't come close to being a positive moral guide, if you ask me. Jesus DOES say to love your enemy, but he also says people (by which here, as most anywhere in the Bible, he means only men) should abandon their wife and chidren for a cool reward. The NT states explicitly numerous times that women are subordinate to men. Paul, who more-or-less founded Christianity, had many charming things to say about women and their place in the chruch.

Let's be clear: *I* am cherry picking here, too. I'm only picking out a few particularly ugly and abhorrent passages. There are many positive moral teachings and lessons in the Bible.

But for for every one of those, there are three or four truly abominable moral lessons. Those lessons are ignored by progressive Christians and religious moderates... And though I think that's a good thing, it's also my point:

If the Bible is such an unpredictable mixed-bag anyway, why use the it as a moral guide at all? Either the Bible is the word of God or it isn't, right? If you're a good person and you recognize the nastiness of the stories mentioned in this post, then clearly the Bible is not really your moral compass anyway. Why not embrace the qualities you cling to and live by, and reject the superstitious and hateful nonsense?

Again, I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone who reads this. Positive, negative, whatever. Please post in the comments! :)

Also, in the course of writing this: Reed at Homosecular Gatheist put up an excellent post touching on similar themes. Go check it out as well.


[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

I'm right there with you. I'm glad for religious moderates and liberals, but I'm similarly baffled. I think it might also have to do with the fact that I went from being a orthodox religious conservative Mormon to an atheist socialist within the span of less than a year. I never have experienced moderate religion, because the same reasons moderates give for rejecting fundamentalism, I also use to reject moderate and liberal religiosity.

I understand the mindset which keeps a fundamentalist suspicious of science and facts and things like that, but I don't get how someone who believes in facts and reality can still believe in god(s) or the supernatural.

My intuition is that many moderate religionists have never had to confront the inherent illogic of being both reality-based and religious. They're perhaps unaware of the history of religion, their particular religion, and how thoroughly religious texts have been debunked, and how scientifically unlikely gods are.

GreenishBlue said...

I think you're right on on those points. I also think that the stigma against nonbelief has a lot to do with it. We nontheists are, after all, the country's most distrusted minority. Leaving the fold can be painful, resulting in the loss of friends and family. The moment you label yourself an atheist, you immediately are the object of whispers and distrust.

I also think the threat of loss of the religious community has a lot to with it. If you have a close-knit congregation and enjoy going to church every week, losing that may not be worth it just for the sake of admiting to yourself that you don't believe...

I don't know, though. I emerged from adolescence a full-fledged atheist/agnostic, so it's extraordinarily difficult to put myself in the mind of a religious moderate.

Alex G said...

I'm actually in pretty full agreement with you on this, especially the cherry-picking part. The whole "homosexuality and religion" thing is especially dear to my heart (being raised Mormon when you're gay is such fun!). I had a hard time with the idea that if the Bible tells you that something you know to be natural and not a big deal is in fact evil and sinful, why would you go out of your way to bend the book to what you believe instead of just ditching the crazy thing altogether?

That last sentence was grammatically awry. Apologies.

Anonymous said...

My apparently unoriginal guesses would be:

1) Loss of community
2) Social stigma
3) Never thought about it before
4) General apathy (i.e., thought about it, shrugged, moved on doing the same old thing because why change)

My main beef is their lack of speaking up against the fundies. We're on the same side of that one, but we're doing most of the talking. It would be nice to have more public support.

Alex G said...

Been thinking about this more and I think it's also that a lot of people who claim to believe in the Bible haven't actually read the thing cover to cover, and might not fully realize what kind of craziness is contained therein.

nathaniel wallace said...

I see it as a good thing. Obviously no one wants to see slavery or stoning come back into vogue. And those are clearly in the Bible. It isn't difficult for us modern people to see how transparently wrong those practices are. As atheists, we are freed up to dismiss everything in the Bible that does not line up with our own perception of morality. For progressive Christians, in order for their religion to make any sense at all, they have to assume that the Bible is right about something.

So as our society evolves and our collective consciousness grows, Christians are left with fewer and fewer cherries to pick. The reason we don't see this changing as quickly as we'd like is because the older generation is still alive. In twenty or thirty years I imagine that we'll look back on the early part of the 21st century and be shocked at how homosexuals and women were treated, just as we look back at the 50s and 60s (and every century before that) with horror at how whites treated just about every other ethnic group. The old racists die out and their kids take their place. We move up one notch.

Unlike Sam Harris, I don't really see religious moderates as a huge threat. Sure, they empower fundamentalists, but they are the moving force that is prodding religion, inch by inch, toward complete irrelevance.

GreenishBlue said...

I agree entirely. Yeah, I think religious moderation is a good thing. And I wholly disagree with Harris' contention. I do agree that it does, perhaps, help perpetuate the stigma against the nonreligious, but Gene Robinson, for instance, is NOT empowering fundamentalists.

I hope this didn't come across as me saying that religious moderation ought not exist, or that I was calling for them to abandon their faith... I just, personally, do not understand how one could live with that much cognitive dissonance.