Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Derb on Religion

With thanks to Andrew Sullivan for pointing it out, I really enjoyed John Derbyshire's column about his religious feelings. I think most people in America today tend to conflate conservatism and religion -- if you're conservative, you're religious, and you can't have one without the other. I think that's pretty clearly false. Derbyshire's a staunch (to put it mildly) political conservative, working for one of the most conservative magazines in the country. And yet, he admits to not being a Christian or even religious in a traditional sense. PZ Meyers, on the other hand, is a militant atheist and about as left-wing a guy as you'll find. I've known many very religious Christians who were rabidly left, and others who were rabidly right.

Anyway, here are a few excerpts from the column that struck a chord (all emphasis is mine).

Again, it made me realize how perfectly natural religion is. We have a religious module in our brains, and with little kids you can actually watch it waking up and developing, like their speech or social habits. The paradox is, that to the degree that you see religion as natural, to the same degree it becomes harder to see it (and by extension its claims) as supernatural.
I can report that the Creationists are absolutely correct to hate and fear modern biology. Learning this stuff works against your faith. To take a single point at random: The idea that we are made in God’s image implies we are a finished product. We are not, though. It is now indisputable that natural selection has been going on not just through human prehistory, but through recorded history too, and is still going on today, and will go on into the future, presumably to speciation, either natural or artificial. So which human being was made in God’s image: the one of 100,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? 1,000 years ago? The one of today? The species that will descend from us? All of those future post-human species, or just some of them? And so on. The genomes are all different. They are not the same creature. And if they are all made in God’s image somehow, then presumably so are all the other species, and there’s nothing special about us at all.

But doesn’t the I, the Me, that I mentioned earlier — the self-awareness that we humans uniquely have — doesn’t that make us special? Do tigers, toads, and ticks have an I? Do they have a connection to the Creator? I don’t know. Perhaps they have a fuzzier one — perhaps higher animals, at any rate, see through a glass as we do, but more darkly. In any case, that only makes us special in the way that an elephant is special by virtue of having that long trunk — more exactly, the way the first creatures who were able to register visible light as images were special. We are part of nature — an exceptionally advanced and interesting part, but… not special.


I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference.
The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don’t mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling [sic] it.
Please remember, too, what Roman Catholicism was like when I was growing up, as seen from England. It was the religion of Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, chaotic and communist-trending Italy, recently-keenly-pro-Nazi Austria (don’t let The Sound of Music fool you — the Anschluss was more a wedding than a rape), Latin America as then personified by the buffoonish Juan Perón and his sinister wife, and, yes, Éamon de Valera’s nasty, corrupt, willfully under-developed, people-exporting Ireland. That’s not even to mention France. As I looked out on it from the England of the 1950s and 1960s, Catholicism was the religion of poverty, fascism, obscurantism, and bad government; and I don’t think you can say that this was a wildly distorted picture.
I’d go a bit further than that. Conservatism, including (including especially, I think) religious conservatism, has at its core an acceptance of, a respect for, human nature. We conservatives are the people who see humanity plain, or strive to, and who wish to keep our society in harmony with what we see. Paul Johnson has noted how leftists always used to talk about building socialism. Capitalism doesn’t require building. It’s just what happens if you leave people alone. It arises, in short, from human nature, and only needs harmonizing under some mild, reasonable, laws and customary restraints. You don’t have to build it by forging a New Capitalist Man, or anything like that.


Anonymous said...

A couple of items in that op/ed National Review piece tugged at me. One was where he said he didn't see God after he had children. All experiences are different, but I definitely had my faith shored up after giving birth and watching my boys grow up. To see life and witness how each person is so different is such a miracle to me and much more than a random scientific chance. I was also sad for him that his uncle lost his faith at the end of his life. I've interviewed too many people who found their faith bolstered in times of trouble, and that's the difference, I feel, for people who hang on or find faith when things don't go the way they want them to. I felt so sorry for his uncle that he was without a faith at the end. For the hundreds of people I've talked with in similar circumstances, their faith was making their last few months bearable. But the question I've always thought we were basically debating here in this forum is the question and possibility of faith. We can prosletize, analyze and probe the science, facts and different ideaologies, but it does come down to faith, and I've chosen to believe. There is a serenity about people who have an unshakable faith, and it's not a zombie state or anything less intelligent. It's a plane of calmness and inner joy I don't see in others. Maybe I just don't talk to them in that context, I'm sure, but it's so plainly evident in the eyes of believers. But I did read the piece and am glad when you point these out. To close, let me introduce you to Dana. Dana's son died when he was 2 years old from cancer the doctors found when he was two weeks old. In Dana and Kevin's grief and sorrow after their son's death, they established Chandler's Tree Farm and the children at the elementary schools in our neighborhood collect their pennies, dimes and nickels, and Dana and her husband buy gifts for all the people quarantined on the cancer ward at Texas Children's Hospital. Every holiday, they are up there spreading joy to others with gift baskets for Mother's Day, stuffed animals and candy for Valentine's Day and a special red, white and blue basket for the Fourth of July. In this sixth year, one elementary school has raised over $10,000, all from pennies, dimes and nickels, given by children so others will be happy. When I asked Dana how she could go to that hospital month after month when life had been so unfair to her, she smiled and said she was doing God's work. For me, that's the proof --it's in Dana McBride's eyes and her actions. She reaffirms my faith and moves me to be a better person. That is what I see God doing in the world -- moving us to be better people through others. And I just can't put that down to science or physiology. It's more. That is my own personal belief and how I see God working in this often crazy world. Dana makes me believe. -- Denise

Jeff Hebert said...

That's a nice story, thank you for sharing it, Denise.

I think Derbyshire's point was that yes, some people respond to tragedy by embracing faith, but others do not. He was offering one personal example of an anti-"death bed conversion" story.

He went on to say that on net (taken overall), religion or faith seems to come out about even in terms of good and bad effects on people. It makes some better people, and some worse. Lack of faith does about the same -- some atheists are scumbags, others are wonderful human beings.

I think it's great that you and Johnny and others have a faith that help you get through your lives with joy, and that it has guided you in a direction that enriches the existence of others. MY point in writing about all of this, however, has been to show that atheism doesn't necessarily lead to moral depravity and "anger" or sorrow any more than religion necessarily leads to its opposite.

I've come to think of having faith in a given god or being very religious is akin to being deeply in love with someone. Everything they do is wonderful, every smile a sunrise, every thought a brilliant insight. But if you're not the one in love with that person, they're just a person like any other -- maybe great, maybe not, maybe gorgeous, maybe not. But you just don't see them the same way their beloved does.

And that's all right. I don't want anyone else in love with my wife the way I am, and it doesn't mean that love doesn't exist for others. The fact that I am not in love with my friend's wife doesn't lessen his love in her, and doesn't make her less of a great match for him.

In the same way, the fact that someone else isn't "in love" with your god -- isn't a believer -- doesn't invalidate your feelings and doesn't lessen your relationship. But you can't expect someone who's not in love with your god to think he's as wonderful as you do, any more than you can expect your neighbor to be as in love with your wife or husband as you are.

sharon said...

As I read these articles and the responses, I am comforted. Although I rarely struggle through issues of faith any longer(there is a small nagging within of wondering if I will again someday.)Pantheism is the closest word to describe where I have claimed peace, but perhaps word(s) are not capable of describing a personal relationship within one's own self with regard to creation and purpose, fair and unfair, right or wrong, etc. So as I read and smile at the words, I have a sense of knowing that within each of us is a place where the words are not sufficient. And I state that as fact - faith or the lack of faith is not tangible. Are words? So now I will wander a bit outdoors, perhaps annoy an owl and think of each of you and feel "pride?" that humans are complicated and interesting and challenging and fun! And then maybe I will try to tell the Owl in my words what I mean, eventhough the owl doesn't share any of the same life experiences or language - he is as likely to understand, truly understand my position of faith as one of my peers.