Thursday, November 3, 2011

Guestpost: Losing My (Liberal) Religion


I have been promising Steve that I would do this write-up since I gave the sermon back in August, but I’m a horrible procrastinator. And, the fact is, that writing this forced me to confront some truths that I’ve known were coming for quite awhile.

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for a few years now, and I’ve been fairly active from the start. I’m a member of the Worship Committee, helping to steer the topics for each week, and as a Worship Associate I have helped to run the services. I’ve given sermons on military chaplaincy, the Winter Solstice and its extra-religious significance, and the one you can listen to (embedded below) on religious tolerance versus religious pluralism. I have even set myself on a course to become an ordained UU minister (codenamed “Operation Pogo Pope”), so that I could become an atheist military chaplain and provide support to non-theist service members in a way that I never had during my 12 years in the service. My involvement with the UU Church is probably coming to an end.

Originally, I was going to give a sermon on punk rock as a social justice movement. Then the massacre in Norway happened. I changed my topic to “Religious Tolerance versus Religious Pluralism.” While I was putting the service together and writing the sermon, I struggled not to rail against religion in general and give an “evangelical” New Atheist lecture. The service that was conducted was very well received, which the New Atheist one wouldn’t have been. I didn’t record the service in its entirety, because I felt that would be a violation of trust, as it includes a lot of member participation (singing, the sharing of joys and sorrows, etc.). There are going to be parts that are going to raise some hackles. For instance, the “frivolous lawsuit” by American Atheists over the I-beam “cross” found at Ground Zero. No, I do not think the cross should be included. Yes, I think that David Silverman is a dick. I wish the lawsuit had been brought by the FFRF, or some other freethought organization, rather than those yammering, publicity-obsessed idiots at American Atheists.

I’m not going to expound on the sermon I gave too much, although I’ll gladly reply to any comments made on it. Really, this post is about what I went through when writing it, and the results of having to review my (then) current stance on things.

Unitarian Universalists, while evolving from two Christian denominations, are now a fairly diverse lot. They are accepting of all the groups I mentioned in the sermon (atheists, agnostics, pantheists, deists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarian, Pastafarian, Baha’i, etc.), plus various personal innovations. UU’s truly do believe in freedom of conscience. Their Seven Principles are to be lauded, as they are a fine representation of humanist thought. The problem is I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t nod and smile as someone talks about how gods and goddesses of long dead religions have talked to them. I can’t indulge liberal followers of the Abrahamic faiths that believe that they have a god of love and compassion, and that the extremists are misinterpreting the horrific texts that they all look to for guidance. I can’t in good conscience allow my son to sit in religious education classes where he will be taught about the heroes of the Bible and Bhagavad-Gita. The fact is that most of the people in these books either never existed, or are cultural inflations. It’s bad enough that Sunday Schools teach white-washed versions of their scripture, but do I really want to back the teaching of liberal interpretations of these figures? The UU church I’ve been part of rotates through an annual curriculum of “world religion” and the Bible. The Bible program is called “Biblelodeon”, and is described on various UU sites,

Bibleodeon introduces Hebrew and Christian scriptures by presenting the best-known Hebrew and Christian stories with such props as the Bibleodeon microphone and such interactive challenges as investigating the Cain-Abel crime scene. Participants act in 11 amusing playlets with characters like the Fatted Calf, illustrate a time line, keep doodle books, give awards to outstanding biblical women, and more. They explore connections between biblical events and Unitarian Universalist principles, between biblical ideas and their own lives. They experience the Bible as one of many wonderful UU sources.

When I was a kid I remember learning about Lot, Jesus and Abraham, but not about giving your daughters to be gang-raped (Genesis 19:6), an anti-family psychopath (Luke 14:26 and 19:27), nor a man willing to kill and mutilate his child (Genesis 22: 1-19). The UU versions are set on an even lighter note. Why would I let my child be taught to revere the people in these stories? They’re monsters! Children are taught sugarcoated versions of these horrific tales, and many as adults continue to believe them. This is where moderate religionists come from, and why when confronted with violent acts committed by fundamentalists, they are able to say, with a clear conscience, that the “extremists” are distorting their religion.

Hemant Mehta recently reposted on Friendly Atheist a post from Elizabeth Joy’s blog. While I agree with the values she has set out to teach her children, I disagree on a major point. She says,

They know that some people believe that there is a “magical” being or beings called gods. They’ve also heard about reincarnation and that some people believe that our souls keep coming back as different living things (Carmen really likes this one and wants to come back as a bird). They have been to church and temple and understand that some people go there all the time to talk to (and about) their gods. They know that people wear different outfits, and that sometimes these are based on the rules of their respective gods.

What they have NOT heard is that any of these beliefs or practices is “wrong.” Just different. They also have not yet been told that some people believe that others should be hurt or killed because they believe something different. I don’t want to scare them when they are still so young, after all….”
This is moral and intellectual cowardice, plain and simple. Those religious beliefs are wrong. They are wrong about the morals that should govern a society (beliefs on sexuality, genital mutilation and slavery), they are historically wrong (Hebrew enslavement and exodus, lost tribes in the Americas, and who wrote their sacred texts), and they are wrong about the way in which the universe works (the structure of the universe, the age of the universe, and the theory of evolution). They could not be more wrong about everything. If there ever is a god or creator to be proved, the current and past religions would still be wrong, for these very same reasons. I will not allow my children to be misled by taking a hands-off approach on material truth. This is essentially giving “equal time” to clearly incorrect and irrational concepts of reality during the formative years of a child’s life, just as the creationists want. The Earth is not flat, it’s not the center of the universe, it is not on the back of a turtle or elephants; the sky is not held up by a titan, it is not a firmament separating two bodies of water; life was not created in its present form, there is no evidence for reincarnation or immortality of a spirit. Instilling in our youth every person’s right to a free consciousness is not the same as turning your head and leaving them in ambiguity.

I have come to grips with the fact that I am a New Atheist. I do not see any redeeming characteristics in religion, and in fact I see that it is a poison to our species. My beliefs will change with new scientific discoveries, but not based on the supernatural teachings of primitive societies. Religion is not just humanity’s least accomplishment; it is its greatest failure. It is a failure of reason, a failure of conscience. In time, it will be our greatest shame.


@blamer said...

Thank-you Nicolas,

No doubt the religious will readily accept your criticisms of specific flaws in particular religions, whilst disagreeing with your inductive reasoning; that every religion retains its teachings long after academia has identified them as untenible, misinformation, or incompatible with the facts.

To my mind; the in-group thinking drives religious ghettos, it encourages hypersensitivity to blasphemy, sympathy for outmoded postmodernist (epistemically agnosticistic!) relativist rhetoric, and resorts to the defence of cultural traditions as being "no more incorrect" than all competing explanations and predictions.

Meanwhile, please take a look at these myths relating to the psychology of terrorists, (hint: "psychologically normal folk of strong moral commitment drawing attention to their idea, via a display of power")