Tuesday, January 12, 2010


(Apology: This was not as clean and clear as I would have liked. Fight through it.)

Like the irony that everyone has a religion, whether they acknowledge it or not, there is also the paradox that everyone evangelises for that religion, even if their main evangelising point is that no one should evangelise. While this seems an offensive formulation to U-U’s, Episcopalians, and Jews – some of the leaders in the Thou Shalt Not Evangelise crew - I don’t think it need be. There are important distinctions, social and intellectual, between the hard evangelism of well, people like me, and the soft evangelism of the others noted above. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner of “it’s exactly the same” when it in fact isn’t.

At the simplest and least offensive level, if we think something is true, we eventually tell that to others. We might choose to keep silent in many situations, desiring comity; we might think it an important truth to remind others that there is no one truth, only perspectives; we may be forceful or subtle, open or covert, gentle or vengeful, but we eventually say what we mean. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks is one of the more brutal truths of scripture. Christopher Hitchens preaches a gospel that organised religions poison everything they touch, whether quickly or slowly; Richard Dawkins advocates strongly that what cannot be proven should not be believed. No problem, really, however irritating that is to many Christians. It’s just a different faith, derived in part from some of our own principles.

To contend that all religions are ultimately exclusive in their claims is murkier and more difficult, but I think it holds at the end. There is a wide gap between a srtict Roman Catholic, or say, a Jehovah’s Witness, or Moslem, Mormon, or Two-Seed-In-The-Spirit-Baptist and a modern all-paths “Spiritual” person; there is a wider gap still between any of them and a person who believes it is all eyewash, describing nothing. Yet in an odd twist, there is a unity among them. The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths, after all, not Speculations. Jews do not believe that everyone should be made to use two sets of dishes – in fact, they consider outsiders doing such things to be artificial and a bit of a mockery. From this they conclude that they are not claiming an exclusivity, a One Way to heaven. Yet they are. They believe that certain things about G-d have been revealed to their people, and these things are true. No matter how much ground they might give about things revealed to others also being true, or humility in asserting the imperfectly understood, or even, as with some Reform Jews, are uncomfortable with this God-talk in the traditional sense, still they will find many pronouncements about God to be quite untrue.

Those who are simply uninterested in the discussion at all would seem to have the strongest claim that they do not preach an exclusivity. These might have a mild fondness or antipathy toward other beliefs, but generally don’t think about the issue at all. Surviving is their focus, or advancement. Enjoyment, equanimity, or excitement might be their focus. In theory, some may exist who have absolutely no interest in larger and universal questions at all. But my experience is that this is always only in theory. When presented with the counter-evangelism of someone in their midst who forcefully asserts their own truths, they are quick to squelch that, or absent themselves.

Soft at the edges does not mean soft all the way to the core. Everyone eventually finds something up with which they will not put, because it’s just wrong, not true, not fair, not real, not polite, not important enough to bother about. It may be a negative religion, a negative evangelism, a negative exclusivity, but it comes to the same thing in the end. By nature, some folks have hard edges and like to insist that others attend to the details of what is true. Other folks have soft edges and don’t like to insist others adopt their details, finding that rude or intrusive. But that is in itself a statement that people should have soft edges, that we’d all be happier if everyone had soft edges, that good religions teach people to have soft edges. Imagining …no religion…living for today… is a deeply evangelistic and exclusive religion.


Redneck said...

You make some good points, but I have to take issue with two things. One is your use of the word "faith." By definition "faith" implies a lack of proof. Thus, if someone believes only in what can be proven to them, their belief system cannot properly be called a faith. Neither, by my definition at least, can it be called a religion. I think religion necessarily includes faith, or it ain't religion.

The second point is where you assert that having "soft edges" is in in itself a belief that others should have soft edges. I think here you're not wrong, but overstating your case. To use the first analogy that came to mind, it's like saying that by eating kimchi I am stating that every should eat kimchi and that the world would be a better place if everyone did. Besides the attraction of some to certain niche beliefs whose attractiveness lies in their obscurity, there some beliefs that some hold simply because holding them works best for them. For example, I avoid sushi because I don't like it. This in no way implies that I believe anyone else should avoid the foul stuff.

For a more relevant analogy, I hold no religious beliefs (again, defining religion as a set of beliefs that includes faith, which again implies a lack of proof), and do not proselytize against religion ("soft edges"), yet I happen to believe that those who do have a religion _should_ try to spread it through persuasion.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think those who assent to no especial religious belief do indeed try to streamline as much faith out of their opinions as they can - some quite actively. I think there's a practical weakness in that argument, though perhaps not an absolute one. Ninety, ninety-five, ninety-nine per cent of what we believe about everything is taken largely on faith. That does not exclude reasoning and proof to try and narrow the field to the most likely truths, and some people certainly subject some core opinions to more rigorous scrutiny. But ultimately the simple need for efficiency to get through the day at all requires an overwhelming number of mental shortcuts. Most of what we believe is unproven, and that's a good thing. Otherwise no one would get anything done.

Once this is noted, it becomes clear that we can not absolutely remove some element of faith from belief. I don't disbelieve you that you are attempting to reduce that to a minimum, and that each squiggle of identified faith in your beliefs you would honestly hold in suspension, once recognised. But there's a limit we can't get below, where we have to start choosing among the most likely answers, such as choosing to accept that other minds exist.

karrde said...

If I assert the existence of a deity (any deity), it has the same level of provability as the non-existence of that deity.

At least, I cannot, in my own mind, find one side of the argument to be more provable than the other.

Thus, atheism should have the same basis in unprovable faith as polytheism, pantheism, or monotheism.