Saturday, August 8, 2015

Faith and Reason

I attended the inaugural Gateway to Reason conference in St. Louis last weekend and very much enjoyed all of the half-dozen or so sessions that I managed to fit into my schedule. Although I don’t consider myself an atheist, for all practical purposes Gateway to Reason could have been referred to as an atheist convention – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Fans of the old Seinfeld television show will recognize that last aside as the reoccurring punchline from one of the episodes, uttered each time one of the show’s characters disavowed being gay. Come to think of it, it’s a fitting punchline to invoke in this context because it quickly became apparent to me that atheists are members of a similarly oppressed subculture here in the U.S.

Being “out” as an atheist is much like being “out” as a gay person, with all of the concomitant dangers of being ostracized, unfriended, disowned, oppressed, and threatened. Questions and comments from those in attendance frequently alluded to being “out,” and some expressly solicited guidance as to how to navigate as a known atheist in a family or community that is so steeped in Christian culture. Take that to the extreme and consider what it would be like for a Christian minister who has lost faith and subsequently “come out” as an atheist. That is precisely what one of the speakers, Teresa MacBain, spoke of during her session. She now directs the Recovering from Religion hotline project, a resource for those who may be suffering deeply for not believing as their families do, or as their community does.  She also spoke of the Clergy Project, a resource for religious professionals who have lost their faith, thereby jeopardizing their livelihood and, if the threats are to be taken seriously, their lives.

Such work is not readily visible, understood, or appreciated by those of us not affiliated with the atheist community. The fact is, however, that this is important, compassionate, and necessary work that benefits all of us. Society as a whole suffers when any one of us is wrestling with feelings of isolation and meaninglessness. Society as a whole also suffers when any one of us is ignorant, uninformed, or misled. And so it was that I appreciated the talk given by Aron Raa rational/intellectual who, among other things, has taken up the cause of trying to keep religious superstition from being inserted into the textbooks used to educate our public school children.

I didn’t manage to catch his talk, but I can even appreciate the work of Lucien Greaves, an atheist and spokesperson for the Satanic Temple whose activism helps call attention in very bold ways to the fact that recent legal and political developments promoting Christianity are not really in the best interests of society. Sometimes it takes something as “shocking” as the proposal to erect a statue of Baphomet on public property to reveal how Christian symbols on public property might appear to those who are not Christian, or to those who simply believe strongly in the constitutional separation of church and state. So, make sure that you really want that Ten Commandments statue to be placed on public property because you might just have to put up with a goat-headed man/deity glowering at you as you pass by! By the way, you might be surprised at how…, well…, reasonable the tenets of the Satanic Temple actually are!

Regular readers of this blog – a rather rational and reasoned exploration of spirituality and religion, if I do say so myself – might think it makes perfect sense that I’d be interested in attending such a convention. After all, spirituality, as I define the word in general, and in my Spirituality and Religion post in particular, is not off-limits to even the staunchest of atheists or rationalists. On the other hand, given the fact that I still call myself a Buddhist, and given the fact that many in attendance likely consider this to be a rather quaint, anachronistic, and irrational system of belief, I did feel a little bit as though I were harboring a secret – despite my being present with the sincerest of intentions. I wondered if some might consider me an outsider at best, a spy at worst, but most certainly not as reasonable as the others in attendance. Indeed, despite much of the conference’s focus on the detrimental impact to all of us caused by the more dogmatic adherents of Christianity, it is not a stretch to say that this pro-reason gathering was also very much an anti-religious gathering – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my first criticism: Despite the preponderance of examples of religious inanity coming from the most stubbornly dogmatic and literal-minded fundamentalist Christian camp, despite most of the “deconverted” speakers in attendance having come from the ranks of Christianity, the conclusion seems to have been drawn that all religions share equally in the guilt by mere association. They are all non-rational in their various ways and therefore subject to dismissal out of hand.

Let me be clear, I consider myself to be anti-religious in many respects. I’m anti-religious when it comes to religion being used as a basis to deny the science of climate change. I’m anti-religious when certain adherents want all children to be taught a blindingly ignorant version of creation in lieu of the solidly scientific version that is indisputable to all but the “faithful.” I’m anti-religious when a certain religious group thinks that they are divinely entitled to the land of others. I’m anti-religious when a powerful religious hierarchy goes out of its way to protect pedophile priests. I’m anti-religious when those in the U.S. government want to base foreign policy on some misguided modern biblical interpretation of what the so-called “end times” are supposed to look like. Yes, I’m anti-religious when Christians are killing Muslims and vice versa. I’m anti-religious when Jews are killing Muslims and vice-versa. I’m anti-religious when Buddhists (yes those ostensibly peaceful Buddhists!) are killing Muslims, or anyone else for that matter. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of Buddhism: I’m anti-religious when it comes to Buddhist practices that are imbued with sexist attitudes, and when teachers are little more than sexual predators masquerading as enlightened beings. I’m anti-religious when a narcissistic Buddhist teacher stops at nothing to hold onto the absolute power of his position, and others reflexively support him. Yes, and I’m anti-religious when the hierarchical organization of which that teacher is a part remains silent in tacit approval of his actions. Check out Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking and my August, 2013 series beginning with Power - A Prelude if you would like the backstory for these latter remarks.

So…, if I’m as rational as I say I am…, if I’m as peacefully and selectively anti-religious as I am…, if I was present during this Gateway to Reason conference with the sincerest of intentions…, why then did I still feel a little bit like a mole who’d popped up out of his burrow with hundreds of hawks circling around overhead? I think the reason is that, whereas I describe myself as peacefully and selectively anti-religious, my perception was that many in attendance were peacefully anti-religious, period, with no selectivity about it – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my second criticism: Most of the presenters that I listened to seemed to be of the opinion that the world would be much better off if everyone would just cast off the yoke of superstitious and destructive belief and become a rationalist, an atheist, or what have you. Much of the focus seemed to be on winning arguments and changing minds, thereby incrementally moving the world in a better direction. The problem is that ALL religion seems to be considered superstitious and destructive. As you can see, I’m very ready to call a spade a spade, but I am not quite ready to draw the conclusion that the world would be better off without religion. Sure, John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion” is a fruitful one to consider. But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean that we are not spiritual either? Are we still spiritual but we just don’t allow ourselves to be tainted by religiosity? Should we eschew both spirituality and religion in order to become purely rational beings – whatever Spock-like entity that might be? Is that what will make the world a better place? That’s a lot to consider! I only think it reasonable to revisit such questions in a future post!

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank


  1. Mark, great stuff. Thanks for that. I can relate to your feeling a little out of place and maybe the desire (if not the actuality) to attend the conference incognito. I attended church for years as a non-Christian with the hope of maybe, some day, seeing the Light. It never worked for me...thank God? ;) I read from Neil DeGrasse Tyson (I think it was; ya know, famous astrophysicist) that humankind's knowledge is only 4%. I find it remarkable that non-selective atheists can't be rational enough to admit our 96% ignorance or stupidity or whatever. So why is there something and not nothing? Me thinks another physicist, Freeman Dyson, has it right: "It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment."...or maybe Karen Armstrong with her strong emphasis on compassion. (She also likes humor.) Incidentally, I'm currently reading Tara Brach's "Radical Acceptance." She writes that the word "radical" come from some Latin word signifying root or origin. I think we have to accept humankind's limits to certainty about our origins. Looking forward to you next post!

  2. Thank you very much for reading and commenting, CV! I apologize for my delay in responding. Perhaps it's my karma of late to feel a little bit like an outsider of whatever group I might be part of for a time. Whether I'm with Buddhists, Atheists, Christians, Secular Humanists, or what have you, I always seem to have a huge chunk of my awareness nestled in yet another way of viewing the world. I'm using a little bit of that "Radical Acceptance" to simply let that be as it is. It is just another manifestation of the dance of our separateness within oneness, I suppose. So much of the Atheist way of questioning belief resonates with me. So much of the progressive Christian focus on social justice issues resonates with me as well. I hope to be able to continue to be able to be present in all places that the forces that make up my existence might place me! Thank you again, CV