Saturday, October 21, 2006

On the virtues of doubt

Traveling through Tennessee recently I spent quite a bit of time listening to conservative Christian radio stations. They've become much more prevalent since I was a teenager. Nowadays it's hard to turn the dial without tripping over half a dozen of them.

I grew up in the South and I've spent a fair bit of time studying religion in general and Christianity in particular, but nothing prepared me for some of the things I heard. Substitute "Allah" for "Jesus" and it could have been Taliban Radio. To cite but one example: there was an entire show devoted to the question of whether women were more easily taken in by lies than men, with the obvious Biblical launching pad of Eve and the Fruit of the Tree. But though it began rather gently and furtively, it didn't end that way. Fifteen minutes or so into the program the advocate of the women-are-more-easily-fooled-than-men position was saying that women are "absolutely worthless" (an exact quote) except insofar as they have a relationship with Jesus, and ranting about how horrible it is that some people to try to teach young girls to have self-esteem (can you imagine?) because it diminishes their true source of worth, which is Jesus, etc. etc. It was so extreme it almost seemed like the sort of thing that Richard Dawkins might come up with to parody religion. But this was no parody.

And, of course, the person saying these things was a woman.

But what shocked me the most is that over three days and many hours of listening I never once heard even a hint of dissent or doubt. Not once did anyone ever say, "Whoa, hold on just a second, are you sure about that?" Every comment, no matter how extreme, was met with, essentially, "Amen, Hallelujah, and furthermore..." The only hint of a moral qualm came from a caller who was agonizing over who to vote for now that the Republicans have been exposed as child molesters because "the Democrats just want to hand the country over to the homosexuals."

A pickle indeed. I felt the caller's pain.

I have never worried much about religious fundamentalism in this country because I have faith (yes, faith) in our evolved moral intuition, that when push comes to shove common sense (and commerce) mostly prevails. I decided to put that faith to the test with a little experiment: I would post on the Internet an ironclad logical argument that according to the Bible, cannibalism is not a sin.

The result that I was expecting -- hoping for actually -- was that people's moral intuition would take over and make them say to themselves, "Whoa, hold on just a second, that can't be right." (I was also expecting a lot of angry responses from people telling me I was going to burn in hell, which is how True Believers generally deal with cognitive dissonance.)

Instead there was just a deafening silence, and two people saying, essentially, "Gee, he might be right."

I find that very scary. If without even trying very hard I can convince people that God thinks it's OK for them to chow down on their children, just think of what someone who is really skilled and charismatic could do. If people won't raise their moral hackles at the thought of cannibalism, if women can't be bothered to dissent when they are told they are "worthless", I fear we may be in for some truly horrific times before we emerge from our collective nightmare. The Taliban are not in Afghanistan, they are in East Tennessee.

When I was 30 I read a book called The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. The first question is "Can one doubt the existence of God and still be a good Jew?" The answer is: not only is it possible, it is required to maintain at least a little bit of doubt about His existence because absolute certainty leads to fanaticism. I think the world would be a better place if that creed were more widely spread. Maintaining a little bit of doubt about whatever you believe is a good thing if for no other reason than that it keeps you humble, which even the most ardent Christian at least ostensibly believes is a virtue.

This, I think, is the central evil of both the religious and political Right nowadays: they have transformed people's perception of doubt. On the Right, doubt is not a virtue. It is not a tempering force that can keep you out of trouble. It is instead a distraction, an emasculating influence that robs you of focus and purpose. Doubt is a Bad Thing that must be eliminated.

The problem with this point of view is that it only works if you're God. If you're a fallible human you will occasionally make mistakes, and sooner or later reality will get in your face with the fact that you are not always Right About Everything. At that point, if you have hewn to the belief that doubt is bad, you have to start invoking some serious psychological defense mechanisms, like denial.

Alas, denial seems more fashionable than humility at the moment.

10 comments:

joe said...

i've had similar thoughts when flipping through the christian talk stations.

We've all heard Muslim cleric soundbites, where they are ranting and raving and talking a mile a minute, yelling, probably damning people to hell, whatever. And we all think "jeez, what a nutjob. psychos....". But we mostly say that because we can't understand what they're saying.

But i realized, to someone who doesn't speak english, the fundamentalist preachers probably sound the exact same to them as the clerics do to us. You can just feel the hate coming from these guys.... it's scary

Larry Clapp said...

Instead there was just a deafening silence, and two people saying, essentially, "Gee, he might be right."

Wow, you're using me as one of your poster-boy "Gee, he might be right"-ers? That's pretty funny.

Trust me, Ron, I'm a long way from being a Christian, and I'm even farther from being a Biblical scholar. The fact that I couldn't show chapter and verse on why you're wrong doesn't mean I think you're right, it means (at least) that I am ignorant (of the Bible) and apathetic (about the issue). Because even if you could show conclusively that the Bible says cannibalism is okay, I wouldn't care. I already think the Bible says all kinds of stuff with which I categorically disagree (endorsement of slavery, treatment of women, and treatment of homosexuals to name just a few); cannibalism would just be one more.

Frequently on Usenet we see people called "trolls" who post inflamatory crap just to see people fall all over themselves to disagree. I can't imagine anyone with the intelligence to debate you not realizing that you're trolling for Christians, and I think most of them would just ignore you, which (surprise!) is exactly what happened. I am surprised that you are surprised at this.

And you're basing all this on the response to a post on your own blog? Go post it on, I don't know, alt.religion.christian or something. (I don't know if that's a real newsgroup; see "apathy" above. :)

Ron said...

Just because you don't care doesn't mean you don't think I might be right ;-) I'm basing my surprise on the fact that when I've written previously about similarly inflamatory issues (like abortion) I've consistently gotten at least a few people posting dissenting comments. But you're right that a lack of response is not a very solid foundation for drawing any conclusions.

quantamos said...

perhaps Christians themselves are becoming less "intolerant" of what is played on radio stations.

denis bider said...

I agree with your observation about the Talibans being in East Tennesee, the mindset of religious fanaticism is quite disgusting and it is, sadly, present in the US like it is present in the Middle East.

If religious fanaticism hadn't been present in the US, the US wouldn't have engaged in a war in Iraq that has so far killed between 400,000 and 1 million Iraqi people.

Al Qaeda with their destruction of WTC, leaving less than 3,000 people dead, is only a mosquito compared to the death spree initiated by The Bush Clan, which itself is backed by US religious fanaticists.

Who's the real terrorist here?

That said, I don't know what your problem is with cannibalism. As you framed the argument, it's about eating human flesh after the person has died of causes unrelated to the eating itself. I don't see any problem in that. The person is dead. So? People have done that in desperate cases when it was necessary for their survival, and the only reasonable argument for prohibiting this, I think, is the problem of abuse (how do you prove the death was unrelated to the eating?).

You yourself engage in cannibalism every day when you eat a bit of chicken or a steak, and that's not just cannibalism either, it is murder - the chicken or the cow died because you and others like you want to eat its flesh. If you argue that's OK, you have no reasonable arguments against human flesh eating, unless you want to engage in the psychological games you alluded to yourself (denial).

denis bider said...

There's a medical problem with cannibalism in that you can get the human equivalent of the "mad cow" disease (called "kuru" in New Guinea, where people (used to?) regularly engage in eating human flesh). But that's unrelated to the moral problem. As far as morality is concerned, unless the person's death is related to the eating, I don't see a problem with the eating itself.

Ron said...

That said, I don't know what your problem is with cannibalism.

I have no principled objections to it if the eater and the eatee both consent, though I have to say it does make me more than a little queasy. (Of course, so does eating insects, so my queasiness is no reason to prevent someone else from doing it.)

But I suspect that most people are more than queasy. I suspect that most recoil from the thought in horror, that they consider the very epitome of depravity and uncivilized behavior. And even if you don't recoil from the concept of cannibalism in general, surely you recoil from the concept of forcing someone to eat their own children, which is what God was going to do (and which therefore can't be a sin either).

Hi said...

You keep arguing with the church people -- the churches are (spiritually) dead now, and God's Spirit has departed from the church since 1988.
The true Christians are commanded by God to leave the corporate churches:

http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/church/new/church_contents.html

http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/nomanknows/nomanknows.html

Satan is ruling in the corporate churches in these days:

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.

Ron said...

> You keep arguing with the church people

I'm arguing with you. Are you a church person?

> Satan is ruling in the corporate churches in these days:

It's either Satan or Loki. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

> the churches are (spiritually) dead now

You need to read Matthew 7:3.

Hi said...

> Are you a church person?

According to God's commend from the Holy Bible, all true believers are to leave the corporate churches. So I have. The Bible alone in its entirety is the authority. (I am not the authority).

> You need to read Matthew 7:3.

Every verse in the Bible needs to be understood in its entirety of the Bible.

I am not asking anyone to trust me or any human beings, but rather, trust only the Bible, which is the Word of God.