Written After Midnight

Sleep-Deprived Ramblings

And Now, a Public Service Announcement

The SSA is being attacked.

For those of you who don’t know, The Secular Student Alliance is an educational non-profit that seeks to: “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students…”. They do a lot of advocacy for Atheist/Agnostic students, especially with regards to freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, etc.
My own experiences with the SSA includes interactions between themselves and my campus chapter of CFI, individual members I’ve met, such as JT Eberhard, and independent research of their organization. In my experience, they’ve proven to be a very straightforward and respectful collection of people. But despite their stated goals of promoting respect and equality, and despite their repeated statements that they have no interest in “converting” students, there are many people who feel threatened by them. Sadly, there have been numerous incidents where the organization as a whole, as well as individual members, have received threats, including threats of violence.
Most recently, the SSA’s website has been the target of denial-of-service attacks. Essentially, these attacks have done no permanent damage to the site or the organization, but they have made it necessary for them to incur an expense, cyber defense, that could otherwise go towards helping students.

Adam Lee, of bigthink.com, makes an excellent suggestion in his blog: “We don’t know exactly who’s trying to take down the SSA’s website, just as we raised money for the vandalized churches without knowing exactly who the guilty party was, but it’s safe to assume it’s someone who disagrees with their goals and aims. Are there any churches or Christian groups who’d be willing to prove they don’t condone this behavior by raising money to pay for the SSA’s hosting costs? Do they agree with us that the way to respond to speech you disagree with is with peaceful counterspeech, not criminal attempts to silence the speaker?”

Well, I agree. Most decidedly. Even if Hemant Mehta had not raised money to help the vandalized churches, what’s being done to the SSA is wrong. I’ll restate here my belief that if anyone is being mistreated, we do have a responsibility to help them. Not as Christians, but as human beings. Our priority should not be to defend our reputation, or even the Church’s, but simply to defend those being harmed. This has nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with freedom of speech and equality.

Adam Lee has already set up his own widget to take donations, which you can find here. Alternatively, you can go to the SSA’s website and donate there.

The Problem of the True Believer

Several months ago, I wrote a short piece for skepticfreethought.com about the issue of the ‘True Believer’ mentality all too present in the church. I’d like to revisit that problem today. I still constantly hear fellow Christians respond to instances of intolerance with the assertion the the offending party isn’t “really” Christian, or at least that they only represent an extreme, fringe minority.
The main reason this claim bothers me is that it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if these extremists are representative of the whole church or not. They are still using religion to promote hatred and discrimination. Even if this only occurs in a single member of our entire community, this is not something we should view complacently. Instead, such an appalling situation should spur us to action; not for the sake of exonerating ourselves, but for the sake of those being mistreated. That is our first responsibility, not rhetorical exercises.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)

The second reason the prevalent attitude of “True Believer” status is detrimental, is that it promotes division not simply between denominations, but in individual church communities. There are plenty of churches (if not entire denominations) that hold other church groups as heretical or ‘sub-christian’ because of ideological differences. There are still more individual churches that divide themselves into cliques because someone disapproves of their fellow members; because they see them as somehow less deserving of the title ‘Christian’ than themselves.
On an individual level, this state of mind rapidly creates an elitist attitude that in it’s least extreme treats others with contempt, and in it’s most extreme seeks to purge any particle of dissent or disagreement. Regardless of our opinions of our fellow Christians, we do have responsibilities to them. The first is to acknowledge that they are in fact a part of our community. The other is to respond to differences with humility and compassion. Disavowing each other when disagreements occur, whether they are insignificant or about core beliefs, accomplishes nothing beyond self-validation that we are a tiny minority of the pure in an rotten world. It absolves us of the obligation to question our own part in conflicts, or to recognize our own imperfections.
This is not a tendency specific to the church. It is a human reflex to prefer one’s own group or sub-group. If we are to overcome this tendency, we must remember that we are human; that we are all imperfect beings, and we see the world imperfectly. We need each other to show us our blind spots, and we can’t accomplish this by cloistering ourselves.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24)

No True Scotsman and Morality

In my previous post, I tried to address the problem that exists (in my opinion) when intentions are considered more important than actions. Tonight, I’d like to start a discussion about actions and belief. Not about how belief influences actions, but about how we view the importance of each in regards to moral reasoning, especially in terms of religion. I don’t have any experience with any religion other than Christianity, so forgive me if this is narrowly focused.

Over the past few months, I’ve participated in some intense conversation about morality and religion, specifically Christianity. I don’t think in general terms, this is a conversation that will ever cease in our culture, which is a good thing in itself. Every ideology, even sub-ideology, must have dissent if it is not to become tyrannical. But what bothers me is a question I never even thought of before joining CFI.

The question is about belief and moral behavior; which is more important? I’ve heard fellow Christians make the claim that an action done for the glory of God is inherently more moral than an identical action done for earthly reasons. This sounds an awful lot like an assertion that Christians are inherently more moral than non-Christians, simply because of the beliefs they hold.

This doesn’t sit right with me. I’m no theologian or philosopher, but (leaving our checkered history aside) shouldn’t we be more critical of our actions, not less, if moral goodness is our aim? Why should our reasons for acting matter more than the result of our actions? How can we dismiss others who do good in this world as morally sub-par, simply because they do not hold our beliefs? We believe in a forgiving God, but does that mean that we are therefore not answerable to our neighbors? My opinion is that we are answerable; no more or less than our non-religious neighbors.

What troubles me the most, is the dismissive nature of the above statement. It says that we don’t have to question our actions, or listen to outside criticism, if we are members of a church. It smacks of the same prejudice in history that said women were incapable of complex thought, or races other than white were sub-human.

If we are going to dismiss any moral thought or theory that doesn’t come from ourselves, simply on the grounds that it doesn’t come from ourselves, then we’ve admitted that it isn’t moral goodness we’re seeking, but supremacy .

Ahab Syndrome

I’d like to take a moment to discuss a problem I’ve observed among my religious peers; A problem I’m going to term “Ahab Syndrome”. I don’t intend this for extremists, although I think Ahab Syndrome often leads to extremism. Instead, I’m talking about what happens when we in the Christian world get out priorities mixed up.

There is a strong current in Christian thought that the highest virtue is zeal, or devotion. The more passionate and insistent a person is about their faith, the purer the soul, and the closer to God. The problem with this, that I’ve observed, is that it often obscures critical thought on how our actions effect others. When a religious individual causes a disturbance, or does something offensive, it is not uncommon to hear members of our community say things like: “Let it go, she means well” or “He’s misguided but his heart is in the right place”. This is just a figurative example, but I have seen a real trend towards regarding intentions as more important than actions; especially if those intentions are religious in nature.

There are several problems with this attitude that merit discussion; A major one is historical. The briefest glance at history shows us the damage that unquestioned religious zeal can do. The Spanish Inquisition, the Marian Persecutions, the brutal execution of William Tyndale, and countless others. Even in modern times, we find groups like the WBC, and incidents like the persecution of Jessica Ahlquist.

Granted, it would be unreasonable to claim that some of these incidents were devoid of political motives, but unquestioning zeal will always act as a catalyst for disaster, regardless of what the object of devotion is. Many otherwise normal people partook in these events, and many of them did it with the assurance that they were defending the Good and True. A point well worth considering when we grapple with religious issues in our modern society.

A second problem with this attitude, from a purely religious standpoint, is biblical. It is spelled out in the clearest possible language that zeal is not of itself a virtue. “It is not good to have Zeal without knowledge.”1 In other words, blind devotion without applying consideration or research to our actions is destructive. This is not an obscure passage or difficult concept. Less often-cited is the scathing critique that Jesus leveled at the religious leaders of his day: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces…. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”2 Severe words for a severe problem.

Christianity is specific ideology about the world and what it means to live in it. As practitioners of that ideology, it is our responsibility to put thought and effort into our stances on its teachings. It is our responsibility to avoid the pitfalls of elitism and arrogance, instead of attacking our critics. But more than anything, it is our responsibility to consider how we apply this ideology in our lives. We have a history of some of the most violent and appalling acts of cruelty. It is because of that history that we must subject ourselves to the most careful self-examination, and sharply question our actions. It would serve us well to remember, (as C. S. Lewis once pointed out,) that in Christian mythology, it was never bad fleas that became devils, but bad angels.3

1Proverbs 19:2. NIV
2Matt 3:7, 23:15. NIV
3This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote

A Little Light Plagiarism to Start…

Okay, so I’m basically stealing the format of this post from JT Eberhard’s excellent exploration of flirting and boundaries, but instead I’m going to talk about dialogue between members of the Christian and Atheist communities; um, please don’t leave yet.

As a Christian who is also a member of CFI, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with and get to know a group of people that is largely comprised of Atheists/Agnostics, which is new for me.  I do believe that my involvement, and the friendships I’ve made because of it, have gone a long way to opening my eyes to the discrimination and hostility Atheists/Agnostics deal with, and also the social privileges granted to religious individuals, especially Christians.   However, there’s a problem.

In my attempts to engage with Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, etc., (and I don’t mean try to change them) I try to be both respectful and open, but I sometimes make my conversational partners(s) uncomfortable, especially when I’ve just met them.  I’ve found myself in situations where someone has assumed I was also an Atheist because of the event I was at or because we share certain opinions that are more common in the Atheist community.  When correcting the misunderstanding, I’ve seen this cause unease and sometimes suspicion.  But if I slip into the conversation early on that I am religious, I find that the conversation is usually a lot shorter.

Personally, I don’t blame anyone for reacting this way.  I’ve had my own run-ins with religious peers, so I can only imagine how many of these new acquaintances have been treated, but that’s kind of my point.  Imagining really IS all I can do.  I want very much to facilitate open discussion, (whether it’s about religion or what cartoons I like), but I recognize that it requires a level of trust that I haven’t earned yet. Especially when I’m dealing with people who have been mistreated by the church, or just the church-centered culture we live in.

What I would like to know, is how do I be honest about myself in a non-threatening way?  How do I make it clear that I don’t have ulterior motives for talking to you?  Am I obligated to state my religious affiliation from the start?  If not, when is an appropriate time to mention it, to avoid misunderstandings?

The main reason I’m starting off with this topic, is that I would like to address religious and cultural issues with this blog, but my hope is to do so in a respectful and productive way.  So this is me officially (probably awkwardly) asking for help in reaching that goal.  Tips?

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