Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Red is Dead, What about the Fish?

I've been thinking about the reality of being an atheist recently. I wrote a bit about it in this post and got some interesting and varied responses, with even one Christian crossing the floor to say hi. But I'm not sure that I am much further forward in my thinking about how aggressive I should be as an atheist to put my point across. One should not have to describe oneself in terms of belief or disbelief in religion at all as Greg says in an interesting post, any more than I should have to take a position on whether the Loch Ness monster exists. Whether Nessie is real or not is irrelevant to me and I would object strongly if I was expected to define myself as a Nessian or an Anessian.

I used to feel this was a rather petulant attitude. Christianity and other religions had been around for a very long time. Even supposing my views were correct, was it fair of me to expect society to change instantly from a nominally religious one to a non-religious? Didn't they deserve some respect? But there has been a recent example of a doctrine that was around for a long time that is now all but dead and gone and which lost its position and power almost overnight - Soviet communism. (It's not a perfect analogy but go with me on it.)

Here is an example of a long-standing belief system that was imposed on people for many years. Now it's gone and society feels no need to be respectful of its memory, just because it was around for a long time. That has given me confidence that the big religions are not so unique after all, just because they've been around a long time and have subjugated generations of people.

I think of Shostakovich, who had to compose music that was acceptable to the Soviet apparatus, and had to shape his creativity to the last of Soviet ideals, and he doesn't seem so far from the painters and composers of the Middle Ages who were only permitted to create religious works - they too could only express themselves within the limits imposed on them. And now the Soviet Union is gone...

I think watching the Soviet Union disappear without trace made me realise that any apparently all-powerful organisation can crumble overnight - that just because it's been around a long time and has bullied people into obeisance doesn't mean it has a right to be in charge. And I guess that's where I have a problem now. I'm a nice polite, peaceable kind of girl and don't want to deprive anyone of their own belief, if it gives them comfort. And yet, if the beliefs come from an organisation that has been frightening and bullying people for centuries, that is not tolerant of people outwith its circle, and has no right to that power, why should I accord it a status that it doesn't deserve, any more than communism did?

1 comment:

Greg said...

"And yet, if the beliefs come from an organization that has been frightening and bullying people for centuries, that is not tolerant of people outwith its circle, and has no right to that power, why should I accord it a status that it doesn't deserve, any more than communism did?"

This is an us against them policy that is fostered by opposition to an organization. Blaming an organization for problems that come from specific individuals in the organization only leads to greater conflict. We can point to any organization—Christianity, the U.S., PETA, the United Nations, etc.—and claim that organization is universally bad because of the actions of a few leaders or members. Just as we cannot blame all for the problems of some, we can't blame those of the present for problems of the past.

It is easy to use a different standard for other organizations than we might use for our own, but it doesn't help. I choose to respect individuals by their actions rather by their memberships, sexuality, race, or other arbitrary categorization. I don't have to respect an organization to be able to respect individual members of it. Just as respecting an organization doesn't mean I'll respect all members of that organization.

The worst argument that can be made is a generalization because nothing substantial is being said. A few weeks ago I saw the American actor, Tim Robbins on Bill Maher's HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. I like several movies that Robbins has been in, but this was the first time I actually heard him speak. While I share some of his views, he sounded like a complete moron because he kept spouting the same banal generalities that everyone already has heard. Not once, but repeatedly throughout the show like those were the only words he knew. Maybe that's the downside of being told what to say all your life; he may not be able to speak for himself.

I'm calling him dumb at the same time as admitting that I agreed with some of what he was saying. We cannot depend on catchphrases and mantras to make our arguments; we have to explore the details. So if we argue that religion is bad, then we must explore why.

My argument is that as we break down our analysis to the details, we will find that religion is no different than any other social structure. It was and is abused by those seeking self-serving goals. Despite reading about past and current horrors of religion, my personal experience with people in my community has been that for the most part, religious people are nice and helpful and I'm happy to share a community with them.

Watching a repetitive sport where players run back and forth across a field, never getting anywhere, makes absolutely no sense to me. That doesn't mean they should stop doing it. It only means that I don't watch.