Friday, March 20, 2009

Setting the record straight

I got into it over religion at The Smallest Minority again -- even though I keep promising myself I won't, because I just don't have the time or energy -- and the same points end up being repeated ad nauseum. I have to give up on this at least until the semester is over, but I want to take a moment to lay something to rest once and for all.

First, I am a devoted Christian. I used to be an atheist, and I was pretty hostile toward religion. About ten years ago I came to believe in a rational, loving God. Three years ago, I converted to Christianity. I believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God whose sacrifice opened the door to our salvation. I am also an astrophysicist with a Ph.D. from a respected institution, and have no difficulty whatsoever reconciling my religious beliefs with my work as a scientist. I believe that the universe is 14 billion years old, give or take a billion. And for the record, I believe that life forms have gradually changed from the less complex to the more complex over the history of the Earth, which is approximately 4.6-billion years old. I believe these things, because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them.

Second, I know a lot of atheists, and a few anti-theists. Most of them are exceptional people: intelligent, moral, decent, and just generally all-around good people. Of course, I would like them to convert, but that's between them and God.

Now, here's the sticking point. I strongly believe, based on the evidence, that there can be no such thing as a moral atheistic society. It has never happened. It isn't happening now. The USSR, China, North Korea, Cuba, Cambodia -- all obscenely horrifying places. There has never been a moral, prosperous, progressive nation that is atheistic. A rational person has to look at this and accept that it means something. Of course, logically, it doesn't rule out the possibility that there could someday in the future be a moral, prosperous, progressive society that's atheistic, but then again, socialism might work and Obama might end up being a terrific president. Are you going to count on it?

Pointing this out in a debate is risky, because someone inevitably makes the leap that because I acknowledge the obvious -- that there are no moral atheistic societies -- I must think all atheists are immoral, and that anyone who doesn't live in a Christian society is immoral and backwards. I've never said that, I've never believed it, and I never will. You can most certainly have atheists who are moral individuals. I know several. But I stand by the conviction that it doesn't work on a societal level.

I am not a bigot. I know that moral, intelligent, talented people are born everywhere, not just in Christian societies -- and, sadly, I have to admit that there are some really nasty, backwards so-called Christians out there. But in non-Christian societies, moral, intelligent, talented people are like seeds dropped on pavement, their goodness doesn't take root and grow. Of all the places in the world, why do huge numbers of people immigrate to the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia? These are all nations with a shared Christian heritage based on the English Protestant faith -- the same faith that ended the worldwide slavetrade, and gave rise to the industrial revolution, science, and individual rights -- and they incorporate the good aspects of many different cultures until the overall culture becomes a beneficial blend. It works, because Christianity is the fertile ground upon which the healthy seeds of humanity can grow and mingle and flourish. That's why Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Shintoists, Buddhists, Confucianists, and atheists can come to these places and prosper.

Spiritually, I am committed to my belief in God. Politically, I am committed to the principle of freedom. I want my freedom, and, more importantly, I want your freedom, and that means the freedom not to be Christian and even to be anti-Christian. But I will persist in pointing out that the latter is counterproductive. I consider any conservative/libertarian atheist to be a valuable political ally, but I will forever argue that the Christian faith should be acknowledged as the source of freedom, because failure to do so only chips away at the foundation of that freedom.


Anonymous MadRocketScientist said...

As a dedicated Agnostic, I agree with you regarding the counter-productivity of being rabidly Anti-theist. While I avoid organized religion to satisfy my own conscience, I recognize that, like spree killers and bearded ladies, religious whackjobs standout in our society exactly because they are so rare. Most of the faithful, of any stripe, are decent people who are happy to keep their faith to themselves and are not interested in forcing everyone else to conform to their unique values.

3/20/2009 11:55 AM  
Blogger Russell said...

By their fruits shall ye know them.

And, you are like a moth to a flame! :)

3/20/2009 12:11 PM  
Blogger American Patriot said...

The assumption that morality and appreciation of individual liberty springs solely from Christianity is as arrogant as a libertarian atheist dismissing all Christian freedom lovers because they base their sense of morality on an imaginary creature in the sky.

3/27/2009 10:25 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

This is probably the second most inevitable leap, right after "you believe all atheists are immoral." Seriously, y'all either need to read more carefully or ask what I think before you make an assumption. Nowhere did I claim that morality springs solely from Christianity.

What I will claim is that, of all the great cultural forces in the world, Christianity has done the best job of propagating and upholding morality.

I didn't explicitly say this in my post either, but since you brought it up, I'll claim that the notion of individual liberty does in fact spring from Christianity -- Protestant Christianity, to be exact.

Protestantism gave rise to the notion of true individual liberty -- that is, liberty for everybody, not just for a privileged class. The Protestant faith was founded on what was at the time an utterly novel concept -- individuality -- which came from Luther's belief that every one of us has inherent worth in the eyes of God. The corollary to this, and one of the reasons Protestants broke from the Catholic Church, was rebellion against the idea that we commune with God collectively through an intermediary. Luther believed that we each have a duty to foster an individual relationship with God. (This is also why literacy became so widespread in Europe, because Luther held that everyone was obligated to read the Bible and understand it for himself.) When Protestantism spread, it spread with it the notion of individuality, which gave rise to individual rights.

It's very likely that someone, somewhere before all this thought individual liberty was a great idea. But the notion obviously was not rooted in anything firm enough to take hold. Thus, individual rights effectively originated with the Protestant Christian faith.

And, as with the propagation of morality, no one has even come close to Christianity when it comes to championing individual rights. I'm not talking about the right to abort a fetus or to stuff cocaine up your nose endlessly, but the defense of human dignity. It was evangelicals in England who acted on their Christian consciences and put an end to the most egregious offense to individual liberty, the worldwide slavetrade. And it was Christians in America who did something never before done in the history of the world by going to war and dying by the hundreds of thousands to make an entirely different group of people free. I challenge you to find any group who has put such a belief into action more than Christians.

3/27/2009 8:02 PM  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

There's no point in arguing religion at Smallest Minority. Kevin was apparently bitten by a Christian at an early age and has never recovered. I've had a few exchanges with him myself. His attitude is typical of the doctrinaire Randian: Rand condemned religion, therefore religion is evil, and don't you dare suggest otherwise!

The problem of pseudo-religions, evil religions, and pseudo-Christians who don't live according to the tenets of their supposed faith will complicate our lives for decades to come. But there's little to be done about it, except to point to the words of Our Founder and ask the skeptic, the jeerer, and the militant atheist, "Tell me, please: What did the Redeemer say that you object to?"

4/02/2009 4:29 PM  
Blogger Gringo_Malo said...

I'm a lapsed Roman Catholic, so I'm certainly not going to argue against Christian faith. I rather admire your ability to maintain the faith, actually. In the 21st century, however, Christianity seems to be self-eliminating.

As you say, "Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Shintoists, Buddhists, Confucianists, and atheists can come to these places [i.e., historically Christian countries] and prosper." Oddly enough, none of the non-Christian foreigners you mention will admit European Christians to their countries as immigrants to prosper or not. They don't operate under the Golden Rule. Reciprocity is not an appealing concept to them.

When the non-European, non-Christian people you mentioned become a majority in our country, America will be a third world cesspool that combines all of the worst features of the lands from whence they came. (By the way, they're becoming our new majority with the aid of our own welfare system, a perverted institutionalization of Christian charity.) Those who apply the Golden Rule universally will cease to exist among those who apply it only to immediate family, if that. Should you oppose your own dispossession, you'll undoubtedly find yourself at odds with your own church.

Got a solution to that problem?

4/30/2009 10:02 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...


I attended two symposia on religion and society this year that featured experts on religious demographics -- the Baylor Religion Survey researchers, among others -- and to my surprise I doscovered that, while the mainline traditional churches (of which I am a member) are on the decline, non-denominational churches are more than making up for this. Even more surprising was that the overall breakdown according to religion in this country has not changed in the last 50 years, and the vast majority of people still identify themselves as Christian.

The problem isn't that we're outnumbered, it's that we're allowing ourselves to be defeated by those among us who pretend to act on behalf of non-European, non-Christians, namely secular humanists and the pseudo-Christians Fran mentioned.

If and when this becomes critical, well... I can't think of a practical solution that has a chance of actually being implemented. It would require two things, one of which is very unlikely: 1) Christians would have to develop a backbone; 2) There would have to be a general acknowledgement that the laws and culture of the land are based on Judeo-Christian principles. #2 will probably never happen.

Non-Christians have discovered the Christian kryptonite, which is, of course, guilt. This has caused Christian people of good conscience to back away from their own principles -- the things they know to be right -- in the name of compassion and charity, and now we are increasingly dealing with the problem you described. The frustrating thing is that without this guilt, Christianity would be a virtually unstoppable cultural force. There is considerable pressure to do otherwise, but Christians need to stop feeling guilty for their beliefs.

I'm not giving up entirely. If #1 happens, there's at least a chance that #2 can happen, and hope is better than nothing.

As for maintaining my faith, it's not difficult. Confessing it, publicly, to those who know me and have power over me, i.e. my peers and employers (I'm in academia), is the difficult part. I've only recently become less timid about it. Principles don't mean much unless you're willing to pay the price for having them.

5/04/2009 12:41 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

I really wish blogger had an edit option on comments.

Just to clarify, "Even more surprising was that the overall breakdown according to religion in this country has not changed in the last 50 years..."This means breakdown along broad lines, i.e. according to Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist, etc., not individual sects within those groups.

5/04/2009 12:50 PM  

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