Thursday, December 3, 2009

Three Tiers of Religious Belief

Atheism is one logical conclusion of a skeptical worldview. Once you train a thoughtful and inquiring eye on almost any aspect of religion, it begins to unravel. Look into the history of religious texts, and it becomes clear they were written by fallible human beings not so much inspired by God as making God up as they go along. Tracing a line through the Bible, you can find God referenced in the plural, referenced as just the greatest of many gods, referenced as a sole force of vengeance, and finally referenced as a quasi-human example of perfect kindness. The evolution of God doesn't teach us anything about an actual deity, but it teaches us a great deal about the changing priorities and ideals of humans as we multiplied and civilized ourselves.

So, it's no wonder skeptics' circles include many atheists. Once you discover evidence of God being a human construct, it's hard to believe in Him any longer. But atheism isn't a necessary conclusion of skepticism. As Bill Maher proves, it's very possible to be skeptical of religion without carrying that attitude over to other important topics like science-based medicine. Martin Gardner, one of the founding fathers of the modern skeptical movement, is a deist. Or, more specifically, he's a fideist in that he believes God exists as an unknowable entity who doesn't take an active role in our existence.

But many atheist skeptics oppose religion not just on historical or philosophical grounds, but as a matter of morality. It's undeniable that organized religion has perpetrated innumerable horrors. Mass murder, torture, thievery, and anti-intellectualism have all been committed in the name of religion, and the harm is still ongoing. The Catholic church, in opposing science-based sex education and condom distribution in Africa, has been complicit in the deaths of millions of people due to preventable STIs, including HIV/AIDS. By campaigning against the teaching of evolution in public schools, many different religions have tried and succeeded to impede the education of our children in favor of dogmatic ignorance.

It's because of these moral crimes that many atheist skeptics also become too dismissive of religion and the religious. It's difficult to ignore the fact that whatever charitable organizations that exist in our communities to feed, shelter, and clothe the poor are far more likely to be run by churches than by secularist groups. It's also difficult to ignore the fact that despite the Bible's teachings about the stoning of homosexuals, the banishing of women on their periods, or the sins of eating shellfish, most followers of Judeo-Christian beliefs are able to ignore these teachings. This is because in addition to their top-down, monolithic bureaucracies, religions are also necessarily bottom-up forces. No matter what horrible decrees come down from on high, the people are always free to ignore them. And if they're ignored by enough people, they become irrelevant.

A quick look at religious history bears this out. Religion once condoned slavery, but religious people have since rejected it. Religion has excused genocide, but religious people have fought it. There's a steady, though tediously slow march toward progress, even though the figureheads are reluctant to change. The reforms adopted by the Catholic church at Vatican II show how necessary and inevitable it is for the top to adapt to the bottom. And even though the newest pope seems to want to roll back those reforms, he'll find it's nearly impossible to do so.

Lately, the fight to legalize gay marriage in the U.S. has created a new tension between religion and reason. There are no serious political arguments against marriage equality for gay people. All of the opposition is firmly based in the irrational moral beliefs of the religious, which have no place in public policy. But skeptics, humanists, and rationalists should understand atheism isn't the only cure for this kind of institutional religious ignorance.

Last year, California voters struck down marriage equality by passing Proposition 8. This would seem like a damning statement about the harmfulness of religion, but the numbers tell a different story. 47.76% of voters chose to preserve the civil rights of gay people by voting against the measure, according to the official election results. But only about 20% of California's population identifies as non-religious. This means that a large percentage of voters who fought for gay rights at the ballot box were religious people. Like the scriptural ban on eating shellfish, they were able to put their compassion and reason above dogma. If this means reinterpreting scripture, so be it. The effect is the same.

Simple belief in God may be irrational, but it's not a symptom of an irrational mind, as Martin Gardner's deism proves. And disbelief in God is not a symptom of a rational mind, as Bill Maher's anti-science beliefs prove. And the teachings of any particular religion don't always trump basic human kindness, as the numbers in California prove. Yet it's not difficult to find skeptical bloggers and commentators speaking about the religious as if they're all idiotic, dogmatic robots. As if their internal and external contradictions are just a front for their true loyalty to the worst of religious teachings. The reality is more complicated than that. And the priorities of skeptics should reflect this fact.

So, I'm proposing a three-tiered classification system for religious beliefs, scaled according to importance.

Tier #1: The Irrelevant

This tier encompasses an abstract belief in any kind of supernatural deity. Even among members of the same faith, there are numerous interpretations as to who or what God is. To some, He's a blind watchmaker. To others, He's not even a he. To many, He's nothing but a vague force with malleable motives and powers according to what makes the believer feel good.

This kind of belief, while possibly irrational or even silly in its meaninglessness, is not harmful in any appreciable way. Criticizing it or deconstructing it or railing against it as anything other than an intellectual exercise is both shrill and useless.

Tier #2: The Inaccurate

This is when skeptics should start to take notice. Inaccurate religious beliefs are those that contradict established, empirical scientific evidence. These beliefs may or may not be harmful to society, but they're undeniably wrong. The Hebrew exodus from Egypt as recounted in the Bible, for instance, is not based on fact. The divine origins of religious artifacts such as the Shroud of Turin are questionable at best. These kinds of curiosities should be treated with an unwaveringly fact-based, but light touch. The goal in fighting them should be education, not necessarily outright ridicule.

Young earth creationism may be the most problematic inaccurate religious belief. Many religious people may accept the myth that our planet was conjured out of nothing only 6,000 years ago, but they also may do so only by default. Maybe being taught this since birth has made them less likely to question. Or maybe a larger ignorance of history and geology makes it easier to accept this false belief.

The danger comes from people who would push this belief on others, especially on the educational system. In this case, creationism would fall under the third tier. But some who would try to spread misinformation or outright lies about evolution do so in such a silly and ineffective way that they really pose little harm. Ben Stein's anti-evolution documentary "Expelled" and Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort's altered "On the Origin of Species" fall under this category.

Despite what some skeptics have claimed, "Expelled" was no flop. It didn't make the money of a summer blockbuster, to be sure, but it did respectable business for a documentary on a niche topic. Still, its influence is negligible at best. Poll the average person, and it's doubtful he or she has even heard of the movie, much less seen it. We have to ask ourselves if skeptical coverage of the film even outweighed its exposure in popular media. I suspect so. In the end, "Expelled" was an effort doomed to speak only to the choir. Its release was definitely noteworthy, and a point-by-point response to its distortions was warranted, but its impact was slight and not worth too much hand wringing.

Skeptical blogs, podcasts, and journals similarly have been buzzing about Comfort and Cameron passing out copies of "On the Origin of Species" with their added introduction chock full of creationist lies. Even more than "Expelled", the effect of this publicity stunt on the popular culture was negligible. The best way to influence a busy college student is never to hand them a dense Victorian science tome, regardless of what you've printed in the front. Someone at that age who has enough science education to accept evolution as a fact isn't going to be swayed by reading an essay from the banana guys. It's insulting to the intelligence of college students to pretend otherwise. Ultimately, this was another case of preaching to the choir on Comfort and Cameron's part. And once again, they were given more attention from skeptics than from the larger media. This was a topic worth addressing, but nothing worth any kind of serious fuss.

Tier #3: The Insufferable

Religious beliefs in this tier go from being simply wrong to demonstrably harmful. Creationists who use their positions of political power to influence science education are dangerous and should be dealt with vigorously and thoroughly. The Vatican's opposition to sex education and birth control in Africa is outright deadly. Christian Scientists have proven themselves willing to harm their own sick children because of their religious aversion to medicine. Religious superstitions such as the belief in demonic possession or witchcraft can destroy communities and end lives. These beliefs are insufferable, and skeptics have done an incredible job exposing and debunking them. All efforts could be more effective, but none of these issues has been ignored.

However, there is one insufferable religious belief that has provoked less skeptical outrage than it perhaps should. Again, there is no argument against marriage equality that is not firmly based in religious aversion to homosexuality. Though incremental progress has been made, the forces of reason on this front are fighting a tough war, even losing battle after battle. In the case of California, the courts struck down marriage discrimination, but the voters built it back up. Recently, government officials in New York proved themselves unwilling to legislate civil rights for their state.

To reiterate, this fight is not one of atheists versus the religious. Though the arguments against reason are based on religious belief, I've shown that the religious are willing to go against the scriptural teachings of their faith when reason wins out. But for every skeptical article on gay marriage, there seems to be a dozen or more on Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. Kirk and Ray may have invaded college campuses, but anti-equality laws are currently invading the homes of every gay person in America and the consciences of everyone concerned about equal treatment under the law.

It's time we re-prioritized and divided the inaccurate from the insufferable or the irrelevant. It's time we stopped equating atheism with reason. It's time we showed kindness and understanding to those religious beliefs that deserve it and vigorously attacked only those that truly don't. But in everything, we should act with a generous heart, a sense of humor, and a respect for the only thing that unites all of us: our humanity.*

*Those reading this who might be new to my blog might be wondering why so many other posts contain juvenile jokes about robots, genitals, and robot genitals while this post is mysteriously robo-genital joke-free. To that, I can only say this: Mechadong.