Let’s begin this conversation
While I may have a strange optimism for the future of humanity, and I think that the answer lies not in the division of the religious and the secular but in the joint efforts of all involved, I still see it as a troublesome proposition. As you may have seen in the “Revelation TV” interview with Richard Dawkins, talking plain sense to someone, even with staggering evidence, cannot sway the beliefs of someone who truly believes in their own experiences, however implausible they may seem from a rational standpoint. It is for this very reason that meaningful and open dialogue between the religious and secular must be initiated, not to try to prove one is right over the other, but to see how we can set about moving into the future with a unity that embraces all people, not just the faithful.
The main problem with this proposition is that many believers think it is not only their right, but their duty to impose their beliefs on others. In both Christianity and Islam, the very books they use as a basis of their religion include statements which say that proselytising is a part of the religion which should be adhered to. Admittedly not all sects of Christianity hold this to be true, and no doubt there are Muslims who just go about their daily lives without a thought for the beliefs of their neighbours. Those who quietly worship their God without imposing it on others are not the problem here. It’s those who scream loudly, who condemn and even threaten others with their doctrine that need to be addressed.
So the real question is “How do we move forward? How can we begin to tell someone who’s not listening that secularity is not only preferable, but necessary for progress on this planet?”
I have a few ideas, but I think the answer lies in the willingness to listen. Even Richard Dawkins, however calm and composed he may be, seems to talk past Howard Conder in their debate. And the likes of Christopher Hitchens in his debates may remain calm, and I’m sure a man of his intellect hears an understands what people are saying to him, even as he delivers the almighty “Hitchslap” to them, but is he really listening? The words people say and what they are implying are often very different things.
Sometimes, for instance, when someone says “There MUST be a God, and there MUST be a Heaven” what they might be implying is that they are scared of death, and can’t bear the idea that this 80 year ride is all they get and that they can’t imagine how life on earth could originate without a creator God. If someone says that “The bible is literally true” they may be saying they are afraid of the idea that they are alone in the universe, and the ideas if the scriptures gives them hope that they are being looked after. When someone says “You wouldn’t understand if you didn’t experience it yourself” may mean they themselves don’t understand how something happened to them, so they have to explain it away as a “miracle”. If someone says “I want you to understand the teachings of the bible as true” they may simply be asking for a validation of their own beliefs, or they could be truly believing that God wants you to believe. Regardless of what words they say, the root of their belief stems from a fear of the unknown, fear of death, and fear of God’s righteous retribution against man for being born at all. These fears are real fears (except the one about retribution) and we all hold them.
These aforementioned fears may stem from a feeling of insignificance in the universe, a loneliness that for some is just unbearable, the fact that you are literally on your own through life, and that you only get one shot at this life. Also there is the idea that those who they love and who have passed on are gone for good, and they will never be reunited with them. It’s a big ask of someone to change the beliefs they have been brought up with, and nigh on impossible to convince someone that their deep seated beliefs are wrong.
So what to do? Well I think that the first thing to do is listen to what people are saying, really listen, and let them know that their fears are valid, that their words are being heard and that we understand the reasons behind their fears. Many when approached in this way will see that their beliefs are not rational, and while they won’t stop believing, they may be able to see why we have a problem with irrational beliefs.
You can’t crack every egg this way, but there are some intelligent people who hold irrational beliefs (I’d go so far as to say that ALL people hold some irrational beliefs, or are not acting rationally all the time.) Just because someone is religious doesn’t automatically make them stupid. Cherished beliefs are the hardest thing to deal with on a purely rational level. The more closely someone holds and cherishes a belief, the tighter that grasp becomes when they are presented with a perceived threat to that belief. To quote Richard Wiseman:
“When evidence conflicts with cherished beliefs, most people are happier to explain away even the most compelling data rather than abandon their beliefs.”
This pretty much sums up the situation at hand, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to approach these people.
Apart from listening to what these people are saying, we need to recognise that their deeply held beliefs hold a large amount of emotional baggage with them. Irrational beliefs, for the believer, offer an answer to some of the most difficult questions we ever have to face, at least enough to satisfy the believers’ curiosities.
If a person is offering up their reality in conversation, and believe they are not being heard, they will either clam up saying “You just don’t understand, do you?” or they become agitated and aggressive. The problem is that many of us do understand, and yet we still reject their beliefs offhand as being fancy. To believers their reality is as real as anything we might see in text books.
The second part is to realise that without respect for the people we are making no ground. I respect the right for people to worship whatever they like, but it doesn’t mean I have to respect the religion. I can respect the historical significance of religious texts, in so much that historically they were relevant to a great many people, but I don’t have to respect them enough to feel compelled to introduce the words as law. I respect the right people have to follow their book of magical forgiveness as much as they like, so long as the beliefs don’t affect me, don’t hurt others including their own family members, and aren’t forced upon anyone else, especially their own children. The people I respect as human beings, as members of society, as valid voices and as worthy of this same respect I would ask in return.
The third part is that the believers must be willing to listen also, be willing to try to understand why a secular society is desirable, and must understand that nobody is going to take their precious beliefs away from them. Only they can do that to themselves.
All this is well and good, and in a perfect world all this would not only be possible, it would be the accepted norm. But people are afraid of change, and are afraid to lose the oh-so-convenient God-given sense of entitlement that comes with being one of God’s children. When you are one of God’s children, and not simply a human animal, you have the authority of God on your side, however you choose to manipulate that. And it is true that without this entitlement, the world is a much bigger place, scary, lonely and uncaring. At least it is on the surface. We make our own meaning in life, even the religious, we choose what it is to us that makes our life’s worth living, the things that bring us joy and happiness, and if religion does that for you, then good for you. I’m not tying to take this away, but I will point it out to you if you claim that my life is any less worthwhile than yours simply because you think your beliefs entitle you to more than me.
I don’t really know if this blog piece makes any bit of difference, but I do hope that at least some atheists and theists will read this. I do expect to get a bit of flack from the atheist community for this, but to be truthful, the next steps in improving the world are going to take some uncomfortable steps. I am willing to put forward this proposition, however awkward it may seem.
It is intended as a beginning of civil dialogue, so I guess we’ll see how effective it is.