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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Most Knowledgeable About Religion

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says

I find this ironic on some levels, but my own experience bears this out.

One thing I don't mean to suggest here is "religious = uneducated/unintelligent." (I'm not saying you guys are saying that, I'm just making my own position clear.) I've known a good many smart and thoughtful people that practiced a faith, either casually or devoutly. I could discuss (or debate) points of theology with them because they knew their faith well, and sometimes were familiar with other religions.

As someone that has felt faith in his life, it's not a matter of being able to logically prove or justify that sort of belief. Faith isn't about raw knowledge, it's about how being hooked into a higher state of consciousness or being makes you feel. It's an emotional high of sorts, but that doesn't quite describe the experience of faith. It's hard to explain to someone that hasn't felt that, and it's certainly not my goal to indoctrinate anyone so they can "get it." My revelations, such as they are, are personal, and would have no relevance to anyone else.

By being "beyond logic," one can say faith "illogical," and by technical definition that's accurate. But it suggest that being religious requires one to live in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Now, for some people, that's pretty spot-on. But for many it's not. Faith and reason aren't mutually exclusive. Some people choose to develop one aspect of themselves while neglecting others. Reason and exist can exist side-by-side in the same person, because verifiably they often do.

What dismays me is how little many believers actually know about their own religions. It makes a certain amount of sense that a believer might not know a lot about other belief systems, but for people to invest their souls and lives in something they barely understand is almost inexcusable to me. The only way that makes sense is if they have a learning disability, are illiterate and can't read their holy texts, or are brought up in an isolated and oppressive religious community where alternate interpretations are not tolerated. Because if I'm going to invest that much of me in a religion, you'd better believe I'm going to learn as much about it as I can. I owe that much to myself, and also to whatever god or forces I believe in -- what need would my patron have of an uninformed follower, one that can quote homilies but can't be bothered to learn doctrine? To exist in a bubble of faith and ignorance doesn't do oneself or one's faith justice. Yet sadly that's the case for many.

I do have theories on why this might be the case. Be prepared, what I'm going to say isn't very flattering to a lot of people.

There's a certain stigma that accompanies intellectuals and education in this country, especially on the religious right. And it's easy to chalk this up to reactionary stupid people... a little too easy. Because I think, in many cases, we have intellectual elitism to blame: the attitude that we're better than those of lesser education, and that we can dismiss whatever they say. Hell, I'm often guilty of it myself. I believe the roots of this snobbery lay in class conflicts, as the educated typically (but certainly not always) have more money; this used to be the case more often than it is now, but old habits and attitudes die hard. When one is looked down upon by people -- as we do the evangelical redneck with little educational grounding in the Bible -- one begin to resent this treatment and look for ways to feel superior to the elitists. The religious claim moral superiority, in spades, and develop negative associations with intellectualism. They choose not to take a scholar's approach to their faith (consciously or not), as they don't want to emulate those arrogant snobs in tweed jackets or liberal TV pundits that so cleverly deconstruct what they believe is sacred. They find our Bill Mahers and Janeane Garofalos and every bit as abrasive as we find their Sarah Palins and Jerry Falwells. We quote scripture at them to discredit them, they quote it at us to brand us as faith-killing jerks, and no one really listens to anyone.

This is just my theory, of course, but it seems to pan out. Certainly, some people are just intellectually lazy and become mentally weak -- much like my own physical laziness has led to my being out of shape. There's no helping these people. But I think it's a mistake to discount all religious backlash against educated people as fundies being willfully stupid. Perhaps some of the blame lay at our own feet. Maybe if we self-proclaimed theologians made more attempts to reach out to the religious and find common ground with them, we would find it. That may not bear fruit, but what we're doing only alienates them. Trying something different can't hurt.

Of course, that would require us to climb off our high horses and meet them as equals, to offer the olive branch while not girded with the armor of intellectual smugness. Hard, isn't it? I'll be the first to admit, I'm often quite comfortable on my own horse. Especially when it seems the opposition is similarly mounted. So what do we value, honestly: accord or ego? Whatever we choose, that will help set the tone for further interaction.

1 comment:

  1. We began this discussion on Facebook, if I recall, and it was stated by several commenters there that one ought to know the opposition, so to speak. This was given as the reason atheists and agnostics knew a given religion better than its practitioners.

    We also must remember, however, that relatively few of us were born into atheist families. Most of us were indoctrinated into some religion or other as children. In my case, that would be the Roman-Catholic Church.

    Now the intellectually lazy, as you so aptly put it, learn what they must in order to get through Religion class without the nun beating them. Others, such as myself, delve deeper. I think I was 8 years old when I realized the Catholic Church was a business. It took me a few more years to realize its main purpose was political.

    "I'm King because God said I have royal blood and therefore I am His choice to be King."

    In other cultures, royal families claim actual descent from various Divine Personages. Do you see where I am going with this? (Probably far from your original point, Steve, for which I apologize).

    So... when one is using religion as a tool of rulership, and said ruler is a usually a despot it behooves the religion to keep its workaday followers unaware of much dogma. For example, in our own country, our soldiers fight hard for "God and Country." Most of them are Christians. It wouldn't be good for them to recall Christianity is a pacifist religion, dedicated to the sanctity of all life. "Turn the other cheek..."

    "Thou shalt not kill" has a period immediately following the word "kill." There are no qualifiers, not even the word "humans." Read as written, we should not kill anything, right?

    But we can't have that because animals are tasty. (Does the Homer Simpson gurgle, muttering, "Yum, animals" now...)

    Anyway, my own relgious travels have led me through LSD, Satanism of the Anton Szandor Lavey variety, Chaos mathematics, Juddaism and half-assed Buddhism, fusing the last two into something I call Zen Juddaism. I think Madonna calls it Kabbala, but I wouldn't know for sure. I'm not rich enough for a Kabbala teacher.

    I do know that both Buddhism and Kabbala teach the rejection of the material world and material goods, as did Jesus, so I am pretty sure Madonna's getting it wrong, because I am not seeing a whole lot of rejection of the material over there.

    My fondest hope at this point, in terms of religion, as the end draws near, is that H.P. Lovecraft was wrong about the Blind Idiot God dancing manically to the playing of insane pipers at the center of the universe, although the idea of Heaven as one huge mosh pit does have a certain Valhalla-like appeal.