On “cherry-picking” the faith

Recently, the Atheist Greta Christina in the progressive magazine Alternet,  offered another complaint about us theologically minded progressives.   Her argument:  we “cherry-pick,” and we’re not allowed to.  Her reason:  because there is no God.

Now I admit, I’ve heard this  before.  Traditionalist Catholics call some of us “cafeteria catholics.”  They call Episcopalians, “catholic-lite.”  It’s meant to be insulting, but it merely exposes a broad misunderstanding of the tradition and how it was actually lived. Continue reading “On “cherry-picking” the faith”

A Couple Thoughts on Belief

Greta Christina is a sex-positive writer and atheist.  I get sent her writings through the list-serve Alternet, which is a progressive news portal.

Greta represents, in my view, the casual atheism of well read, urbane liberals.    Smart and usually thoughtful, they rightly rail with passion about injustice, and are particularly attentive when it comes to the crimes of the church.  They see the abuse that happens in religious communities and they want it to stop.  Religion, for them, is deception, arrogance and power.

I will admit that, predictably, I find her understanding of religion and belief remarkably shallow.  She offers a monistic view of the system of explanation called SCIENCE, and literal, mechanical understanding of Truth.   For this reason, she is positively baffled by what she considers religious behavior.  Granted, I feel the same bafflement when watching most music videos. Continue reading “A Couple Thoughts on Belief”

Atheists in Foxholes

Because I susbscribe to Alternet, I occasionally read the blogger Greta Christina.   She’s an atheist, one who believes that it is important to be aggressive in overcoming “religion.”   I have many philosophical disagreements with her, such as a belief in God, but more fundamentally, she is a useful example of an atheist who is tone deaf to the experiences of those who find religious traditions worthy and useful.  She is also one an atheist who doesn’t believe she needs to learn much more.

In her most recent Alternet column she takes on the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  It’s a charming, quaint assertion, one that, she rightly points out, is most likely empirically untrue.  Atheists do face death and they don’t suddenly become metaphysicians in those times.  My father, when he was diagnosed with cancer, didn’t start praying,  although he did continue going to a Unitarian Universalist church (he was one of those atheists who wasn’t offended by religion) and did not drive out the Episcopal chaplain who offered consolation when he was in hospice.

She also argues that it is a bigoted assertion.  That somehow it insinuates that atheists, in their moment of questioning, will then abandon their beliefs and join, for example, the Catholic Church.

At heart of the conundrum is the example of the “praying atheist.”   What she doesn’t seem to understand is that the issue is not about the afterlife, or about death, nor is it really about belief.

For her, in a foxhole, the true atheist may fret, complain, twiddle their thumbs, anything except pray to something that doesn’t exist.   But does an atheist in a foxhole who does pray suddenly a theist?   No:   all they have done is express a desire to be rescued.

And there would be nothing wrong with that.

The phrase, as Ms. Christina reads it, is a good example of one that misdirects.  To add to the confusion, she mistranslates it, interpreting it mainly as a comment on the faith of atheism, rather than on their desires.  Religious language, however, directs the hearer to look and hear in a particular way.  Greta Christina hears religious language in a foxhole as a communication to a non-existent object.

But is that all it is?  Not really.

Being in a foxhole presumes a couple things. One is that we would be completely powerless.  We would have no control.  And that our lives are at stake.  In these situations, our mental energy might be consumed, believer or non believer, by one possibility.

We’d want to be rescued. And that presumes that rescue is possible, even when the facts, the reality, is that we won’t be.  Reality matters, of course, and in a foxhole, the reality is that we would probably die.  To a religious believer, in these situations, prayer is justified.  And I would assert that it would be perfectly reasonable to do so, even if it were inefficacious.

But it seems to me that any sort of prayer, for Ms. Christian, is that prayer is an incomprehensible language, the expression of which is not merely nonsense, but also – even in its utterance – morally circumspect.

When someone says “there are no atheists in foxholes,” however, the assertion is not merely that they will become metaphysicians.  It is not necessarily about the supernatural.  It is an expression that asserts that even when we are powerless, we may desire a power that will rescue us.   It may be a natural, materialistic power.  But the desire still exists.    Even when the object, the rescue, the rescuer, may not exist.

If anything, the praying atheist is merely taking a bet, covering all bases.  When one is powerless, it is fully rational and pragmatic to put ideology aside and take a risk, even if is a poor one, if only because the only temporary cost to prayer is one’s identity as a non-believer.  If praying is merely an archaic tool that probably has no use, there is no shame in using it in a time of need.  But if it is a tool that is morally and conceptually offensive to one’s own identity, then it becomes a problem.  Greta seems to be in the latter category.  Praying is not merely incomprehensible, no true atheist would use it.

Granted, not all atheists require a belief in human power.  But for many people – including non-believers – power is desirable, especially when faced with death.   Such a statement about atheists in foxholes is to place them in the company of human beings who have such desires.  And these desires are reasonable, even if the outcomes are not guaranteed.

Greta is clear:  “the fact that atheists love life, that we’re deeply attached to the people we love, and that we experience fear and grief in the face of death. It’s a lie that tries to depict us, as not just callow and naive, but as something less than human.”   Well, I do hope that Christians could understand that.  In fact, it might be exactly why they say “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  Even an atheist loves life and experiences fear and grief in the face of death, and a desire not to die.

Atheists often make a similar assertion about Christians:  that if they really believed in the afterlife, why wouldn’t they just love death and kill themselves?  After all, isn’t the afterlife a better place?  Although there is a legitimate tension, the truth is that there is no place in Christian theology that requires a Christian to love death.   There is a strong tradition of not being afraid of death, but the two virtues are not identical.  One can be both brave and love life.  If anything, the doctrine and tradition of the church is precisely directed thus.  This why suicide is circumscribed and the funeral mass is a resurrection mass.  The challenge to the belief in the afterlife that Christians should love death, illustrates a misunderstanding of the tradition and human experiences within that tradition.

A Christian may admit that merely wishing does not make things happen.  Wishing, after all, is only one dimension of prayer, and not even the most important one.   But if I were in a foxhole with an atheist, and s/he started to pray I would neither condemn her for her hypocrisy or her weakness.  I wouldn’t expect her to ascribe to any metaphysic or join a church afterwards.   I would understand the desire.  I might share in that wish.  For sometimes we are powerless, and we want someone to rescue us, and have to find a way to express that hope.  And prayer is a rhetoric that is not circumscribed only to believers.

When we do get rescued, it may be a human face that does, and for me, that face would seem a lot like God’s.

Deliver Us From Evil

Greta Christina has a review of the movie.

Often I get visitors from the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them have been in congregations where priests have, in some way, abused their authority. A local pastor had a gambling addiction; the bishop had an affair; a priest in Croton had molested young boys. They say to me, “I love God and the church. I just can’t be in that family any more.”

Andrew Greeley once argued that the fundamental problem is pride and secrecy. The priests don’t listen to the people; the bishops don’t listen to their priests, and the holy see doesn’t even listen to its bishops. People can report to priests; priests can report to the church, but as long as the imperial church places itself above the rule of the state, without being held accountable, it will continue to harm people and open itself to further disaster.

In the early 1940’s a priest in my current church exposed himself to a young boy. He argued it was “sex education.” There was a local controversy. The wardens and half the vestry wanted to excuse the priest, but the bishop stepped in and in a letter argued, “what if it were your boy?” The bishop let the state handle it, and upon their verdict defrocked the priest. The bishop wrote a letter to the priest: “Our prayers are with you. But you have done irreparable harm to the family and to the church.” The case went to court. The bishop followed through.

Thus, my experience has been of bishops doing the right thing, even when parishioners themselves were convinced otherwise. The church is a wide organization.

I know the movie’s story. I get it a lot. I hear from people fleeing the church. Even my uncle, a Roman Catholic, joked with me after telling him about a break-up I’d had: “you aren’t the kind who likes little boys, are you?” He laughed, thinking he’d told an innovative, hilarious joke.

“Heh. Funny.” I replied.

I did not think it was funny.

Ms. Christina is an Atheist. She isn’t content to be a secularist or a humanist, a skeptic or a materialist. Atheism is the true way of understanding the world. Religion is for idiots. It’s really about the supernatural. Justifiably, she carefully unpacks the inconsistencies of particular propositions uttered by the religious.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but she does it with passion.

Here isher review.

And I have a couple complaints.

First, she believes she’s learned the entire nature of the church from a movie.

Yes, a movie. Not much reading on the early fathers, or Aquinas, a church historian or even the New York Times.

Here is what the church is about for Greta: When you teach people — especially children — that the only way to God and Heaven is through the rites of the Church, administered by Church authorities? When you teach people — especially children — that Church authorities have a special connection to God and goodness that ordinary people don’t have? When you teach people — especially children — that defying the Church and its earthly representatives will condemn you to permanent, infinite burning and torture?

The Children!
I thought this was the standard fundamentalist cry!

I understand: if you want to example the insanity of American Foreign policy, analyze Cuba; if you want to learn about graft, just examine how stadiums get built. We learn from lenses. And this is Christina’s lens. Is it the right one?

While she turns to the harm that religious institutions do, I wonder how empirically different it is than the eight years of mismanagement and real harm done to the entire world by the previous political administration. Were they religious? Not really. The religious right were their electoral pawns. Most of the neo-conservatives weren’t Christian, or religious. But she seems, however, to think the church behaves differently than other institutions that are shaped without checks and balances.

It’s a fairly pedestrian view: our culture doesn’t support sex and children. Blame the Catholic church! It just seems a little more tawdry than when it’s done in a public school or the boy scouts.

Why doesn’t she ask what the church really says about itself, and what its intentions are? I learned it was motivated by a love of the world and all people, not merely political power, working for their interests. It may be that the two are intertwined, and that it is difficult to tell one from the other. It is a view that can, and should be challenged. But all the evidence should be laid out, not just the ones of the detractors.

Arguing she understands the true maliciousness of religion through this movie is a lot like saying we know a lot about Germany by watching movies by Leni Riefenstahl. Or, saying that Stalin is a good example of Atheism in power. Is it absolutely true? Probably not. Did Germans participate? Are there atheists who would like to round up the dull and send them to Siberia? I’m sure a few. As she condemns the entire church, rightfully, for the coverup, there is an insinuation that somehow sexual abuse is worse because the church is the church. It reminds me a bit of how Michelle Malkin critiques Obama.

It’s not as if atheists are the only people critiquing the church. So is the church. Plenty of Roman Catholic priests are already critiquing the institution. Ms. Christina overreaches in implying these terrible events represents the entirety of religious work, or that finally damns the religious “experience.” There is no doubt that the secrecy and lack of accountability destroyed the lives of many. Where as she might say it is all too religious. I would argue, it is all to human. Alas.