Tabik! My posts of late can scarcely be described as meaningful, so I figured that I better make up for it by generating things that are less inane. As always, politics should be a good start: this is about Obama, religion, and, to some extent, bikinis.
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You would surmise that a massive number of jaws dropped in unison this mid-December: the pro-life, homophobic pastor Rick Warren is to deliver invocation for Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony! To some people, this is absurd to such a stellar degree, in par with the idea of Luke Skywalker inviting Palpatine for his Jedi graduation observance.
For others, it was not that much of a shock. Obama is, after all, a politician, and perhaps this was his attempt to polish his image amongst the conservatives (the pastor’s presence could barely hurt anyway). Or, maybe it was not surprising for other reasons; like how Obama is after all Christian and publicly devout. Nevertheless, it was not the Rick Warren thing that caught my interests, but instead, the response. (Noam Chomsky is particularly nervous, but that is another story.)
As aforementioned, Rick Warren is not exactly fond of the LGBT movement. It was this that ultimately rubbed the LGBTs nationwide the wrong way — plus, plenty of them; gays, lesbians, and the like, are inevitably liberal, and felt rather betrayed. Now, I do not wish to talk about politics, as I am hardly qualified to even answer a yes/no question on it. I wish to talk about something else, another unrelated issue, my interest of which was triggered by the Obama-Warren controversy.
The Dawkinsian Response
To cut the long story short, Warren, apparently, made quite a strong comment on homosexuality, in which he compared the practice to incest and paedophilia. And paedophilia, as with all social issues containing “children” in it, is always something that we all take for granted (it’s all “for the children” politics). That is, it is evil, and the homosexuals were made furious.
Browsing a number of webpages discussing the issue, I arrived at a freethought-oriented website (it discussed an open letter of a secular community complaining about it, as it is deemed to be alienating for them). A man, presumably atheist and homosexual, stated that he does not plan to compromise to the likes of Warren (understandably so, perhaps), as “the pastor compared him with paedophiles and incestuous libertines”.
Politics stopped here. The rest is philosophy. Amateur philosophy maybe, but philosophy nonetheless.
That comment triggered my interest on ethics once again. This man here is a paragon of everything that is bad about the new wave of atheism/freethought (a “Dawkinsian” perspective, obviously named after Richard Dawkins), which can be described in a few words: oversimplified views on morality! This is an attempt to discuss religion in a purely social context — I do not wish to touch any of their metaphysical claims. For a disclaimer, I only disagree with Dawkins on very few things. Please do not slate me as an intellectual flea like you consider Alister McGrath!
Let us begin with the million-dollar question. What makes homosexuality morally superior than incest and paedophilia? Why did the man feel offended? If the said homosexual justify his actions from creeds (e.g. a certain interpretation of religious dogmas), then I can say no more, but it is unlikely. I would expect that the man derived his thought from secular philosophy.
In such case: I know it is a bold question, likely to offend, but if you actually talked about freethought and religion, offensive questions should not be unfamiliar. My imaginary homosexual friend would maybe take offense of being considered as morally equal to paedophiles, but, I demand reason. Of all people, atheists should know best that an “I am offended” remark is no substitute for a serious philosophical explanation.
Again, “for the children” politics may come as a fine line here. Children, who are mostly individuals with intellectual immaturity (i.e. stupid), are people whose judgements should be met with skepticism, and therefore should not be involved yet in serious matters such as sexual orientation issues (the same reason why they cannot drink or drive). Therefore, we can deduce that paedophila is something to be avoided, as it may be exploitative. Ergo it is reasonable to forbid it all the way as a safety measure (for Child Love movement proponents: platonic loves can wait, and those kids are not adolescents for a lifetime). Homosexuality, on the other hand, is generally understood as a relationship between two adults, and hence does not cross this line. Of course, it may involve children, but that would fall into the paedophila category and void homosexuality’s “no child abused” pass.
Then what about incestuous conducts? This, I think, is trickier. Again assuming that it is between two adults, is there any solid justification as for why it is less holy than homosexuality? Most Dawkinsian atheists would be happy to condemn incest, but on what ground? What makes homosexuality a decent liberal idea that is to be fought for against religious bigotry, and not incest? Richard Dawkins mentioned the Genesis story of Lot where the his daughters made love to their drunk father to the point of impregnation, and dubbed it a “dysfunctional family” (The God Delusion, chapter 7). This is not a rhetorical question, rather, sincere; as I was never against even gay marriage.
These two cannot be said to be too distinct. Both deviate from traditional family values (which may or may not be moral), both are biologically “misfirings”, both done with mutual consent, both are private, victimless sex acts, and, to invoke “for the children” doctrine once again, no kids are involved! Even the confusion that would arise from the offsprings that might be born is really not alien since homosexuality has that double fathers/mothers issue.
I am not trying to condone nor condemn both practice in this writing, but rather to picture my concern and worry on how Dawkinsian atheists abuse their freedom to erect a holier-than-thou (no pun intended) attitude. Even Nietzsche (no less) is concerned of the negative effects of atheistic nihilism. The fact that even Dawkins can, without proper reason, stood for homosexuality and against incest should serve as quite a reminder.
Dimensions of Beliefs
Allow me to explain my personal understanding of the whole issue.
I offer a suggestion that the root of all the ruckus is the misunderstanding of the position of freethought, as Dawkinsian atheism champions, when compared to religions. Atheism is not a wholesale replacement of religion. For a religionist to deconvert to atheism is like taking off her bikinis and put on a boxer afterwards — it’s covered down there, but still bare chested. Atheism does not replace religion, it replaces theism.
A freethinking stance and a religion (in its popular, Abrahamic-esque sense), is oftentimes not something substitutable, as they carry different numbers of “dimensions”. To compare them, hence, is in a way like comparing apples and durians.
What many new wave atheists failed to recognize is, I predict, the fact that religion is not merely about believing in God. This can be illustrated by the following crude representation;
As we all know, the domains, or “dimensions” of belief include a wide array of spectrums — that may be best presented by listing out major branches of philosophy, as shown above. Each and every individual capable of sustaining himself intellectually in society (i.e. not mentally handicapped or immature) should, must, and do possess a set of beliefs or stances on each spectrum; whether consciously or not. These are to be drawn from “ideologies”, and what must be understood is that ideologies are not obliged to cover all spectrums. Several ideologies may influence a spectrum in some proportions, but the bottom line is that individuals have a complete set of “beliefs”, while ideologies are not.
Pure Christianity, for an instance, covers metaphysics with detailed and sophisticated accounts of God, but says little or nothing at all of logic or language; its stances on other spectrums include the alleged support for secularism from the New Testament, which perhaps means that it does not cover the political spectrum of one’s beliefs. Consider Islamism (in a political sense of that word, Islam per se is another case) as another example, in which it also details politics (a trait which triggered the rise of Hizb-ut Tahrir).
While religions leave holes in some dimensions, it must be noted that all individuals have a complete set, thus the rest must have been acquired from outside of religious beliefs (by the way, this model of belief is compatible with Dawkins’ assertions that religious people nowadays actually abide to modern humanism, and that Stalin’s atheism is irrelevant to his dictatorship). To illustrate, consider my interpretation of liberalism as pictured above — a Christian, who received no political suggestions from his or her religion, may then decide to follow an external source such as this. In this case, liberalism would fill the gap on politics, but would then compete or blend with his or her Christianity in matters of ethics.
Now, on to the main topic: atheism is simply a condition which describes metaphysical belief. It should be blindingly obvious, but as I said, too many have mistaken it for a wholesale exchange for religion. It does not work that way — the ethical spectrum, for example. In most people, this is governed almost exclusively by religion, and by deconverting to atheism, it indeed would leave a gap. Of course, the atheist may afterward adopt things like humanism or nihilism, but this bears repeating. Atheism offers no comments on morality.
We could relate this to, obviously, the seemingly holier-than-thou and smarter-than-thou attitude present in many of the new wave atheists, though, to be fair there are at least just as many humble and respectable (new wave) non-believers. This trend, I do not get it; in the light of the aforesaid belief model, for a born-again atheist to claim moral superiority over religionists is not too much unlike a former Democrat claiming to know better about automobiles after switching to the Republican Party.
Oh, well, not that absurd, but still.
This is more like a rant, and as such, I do not prepare any meaningful answers to all the questions that might arise when my readers churn through the paragraphs above. I have nothing to say on Obama’s inauguration, I have nothing to say about homosexuality, incestuous relationships, and paedophilia, I have nothing to say on ethics. All I am trying to establish here is that I would like to express my concern on the atmosphere in which freethought (Dawkinsian atheism in particular) is now viewed — careful approach must be taken lest freethought will be dismissed by its opponents as merely a naïve, teenish, and arrogant subculture rather than a serious metaphysical position.
It is then misleading, philosophically flawed, and strategically unwise to present freethought as some kind of panacea — this is really no better than the Taliban who offered the Wahhabist version of the Sharia as some sort of perfect solution (which resulted in such a sad regime that, for my money, was worse than what I could do while blindfolded). Freethinkers must not presume that religion is some kind of plague, after abandoning which one would automatically become a saint. Being an atheist does not make one automatically pro-choice, or pro-human rights, or pro-separation of church and state. It does not make one automatically pro-science nor anti-superstitions. It does not make one automatically support homosexuality and not incest. A komodo dragon is an atheist and all it does is to lay all day. I request that the practice of presenting atheism as some kind of moral and intellectual elitism be stopped — it is at best a disservice to freethought itself.
Upon leaving religion, the ethical spectrum of one’s belief is inevitably be filled with a collage of ethical doctrines from various sources; the zeitgeist, cultural values, former religion’s remaining ethical philosophy, or the ethical beliefs reflected by the writings which persuaded him or her to deconvert in the first place. It is this that oftentimes be mistaken as the default values of freethought. Except that it’s not.
I’m not saying that ultimately atheists are bound to a life of no moral compass, it could even be an objectively good thing, as you would then start to formulate your ethics in better manners. I’m saying that it is infuriating — for theists and otherwise — to see an atheist feeling that he or she is morally superior (and got everything figured out) just because he or she holds an atheistic worldview. Some thinkers coined the term “fundamentalist atheist”, but it does not work for me; it is simpler. There are good theists, there are annoying theists. The same goes for any demographic; atheists, agnostics, postmodernists, anarchists, or Jonas Brothers fans (though the last one might be debatable).
Amongst the freethought community, it is common to compare religious ideas to prisons. Freethinkers broke free from their shackles, and became free. It is a good metaphor, but I must remind them (and myself) that when prisoners broke free, they would lost their daily meal and shelter; then they must set on a quest to find the replacements. On their own two feet and their own two hands.
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(p.s. If you’re interested, William Saletan wrote about the homosexuality-and-incest matter on Slate [link], but purely on legal and pragmatic grounds. Ah, it is frustrating that every time you come up with a new idea, you find out that somebody had suggested it before! Ryan North called this “pre-emptive plagiarism“, which is a quaint choice.)