Discussion with a transcendendalist

Recently I received notice of a comment on a thread that I thought was dead and buried months ago. Apparently not so.

The article being commented on began thus: “Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a list of 15 anti-Muslim extremists, including writers, intellectuals, and activists. This “Field Guide” is meant to help journalists tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” by providing them with ammunition against outspoken critics of Islam.” On the list was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I have to agree (on this very rare occasion) with The Federalist, that that is an outrageous claim. Muslims would call her an infidel (the title of her remarkable book), but she is not a terrorist. Her current goal in life is to make sure that girls are not subjected to genital mutilation, as she was as a child.

All of this is irrelevant to the subsequent discussion with Sophie B, which began last week when she chimed in on my post from seven months ago:

“I interpret that (Hirsi Ali’s condemnation of Islam) as saying very strongly that religion is a problem. It is. As Voltaire said: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Sophie responded:
“People have had religion for millennia. In many cases, it has been a positive for societies. Really intelligent atheists can recognize this.”

The implication that I was a not very intelligent atheist riled me somewhat and I responded:

“Yes. People have had religion for millennia. They needed an explanation for why we are here, and there are some 4000 creations myths. All but the one found in the Book of Genesis have been dismissed as just that – myths.
Since Darwin, there has been no need for a supernatural explanation of creation. Really intelligent believers can recognize this.”

And so it went on. Sophie:
” The purpose of religion is not to scientifically explain natural phenomenon. To the extent that it does; it is only incidental. Religion brings transcendence to people’s lives. That is its purpose.”

Me:
“As my favorite atheist (Richard Dawkins) says ‘What worries me about religion is that it teaches people to be satisfied with not understanding.’ If you want ‘transcendence’ – whatever that means – join a meditation group.”

Sophie:
Some point here? Religion provides transcendence; so do meditation groups, music, art, etc. People can get their transcendence where they choose.

Me:
‘And if you choose not to “get” transcendence? Is it mandatory for anything other than supposedly getting into heaven? Personally, I have never felt the need.

You want a point? Religions are manipulative and divisive. They play off ignorance and fear. They claim to have the answers, and Christianity’s answer to all the awful things in the world – things you might think a merciful god would prevent – is that suffering is good for you, and if you suffer enough in this world you will be rewarded with eternity in heaven (and no escape clause if you get a bit bored after a hundred thousand years).’

Sophie
‘People can choose whether or not to seek transcendence. It is their own choice. Don’t be silly here.

Not all religions are manipulative. If some are more than others; it is often because of human nature. Not all denominations of Christianity teach that suffering is rewarded or even required. You are speaking more of Catholicism here. The last sentence is silly.’

Me:
‘Not silly at all. Have you ever thought about what eternity in heaven means?

I guess it must be your transcendence which allows you to dismiss serious criticism of religion as silly. Lucky old you.’

Sophie :
‘C.S. Lewis has dismissed that argument. Mark Twain also used the argument but I assume he was choosing to display his sense of humor. On several different levels it is silly.For one thing, it assumes people are tethered to physical laws. Theism would posit that God & such transcendence exists beyond the physical. Measurement of time is also tethered to the physical world. We measure time by the rotations of the earth. Eternity would not be like that. The idea of boredom is also something that exists here in the shadows of the physical but may not in a transcendent condition. There is nothing that says the incorporeal life includes our fallen human state wherein we experience specific emotions connected to physical laws.

There are many many religions. I thought we were discussing religion in general. However, you seem to have a particular anger against Christianity alone.’

Me:
‘I’m not sure which argument C.S.Lewis dismissed. He was certainly a deep thinker, but being dismissed by a single person more than half a century ago, does not negate an argument. Personally, I see very little difference between an eternity of incorporeal life and being dead. But as I said before, I’m firmly tethered to the knowable.

My “anger” (your word – I would say disdain, scorn or derision) for religion is not confined to just Christianity. Any mono-theistic religion deserves as much contempt as I can pour on it.

The many, many others are little more than personal philosophies and generally harmless, albeit it quite silly (to adopt your favorite adjective).’

Sophie:
‘This is not an argument put forth by one person only. To declare that the unknowable can be known & completely understood only by the parameters of the known physical world is to state one is tethered to a very limited understanding. It is also to declare man is somehow the center of the universe. There is nothing that exists beyond his understanding.

But whatever. If that is the way you choose to see the world that is your own choice; your own business. You can also scorn whomever you like, but I would question the wisdom of it.’

Me:
‘ I commend you on the calm way in which you respond to my deliberately provocative arguments. I guess that is what having reached a state of transcendence does for one.

Arguably nothing does exist beyond man’s understanding. Think of the things of the past the did not “exist” in early human society – metals, nuclear power, DNA, planets, galaxies, black holes – because no one had yet “discovered” them. I have no doubt that there will be further discoveries, but it is extremely unlikely that life after death (an entirely human construct) will be one of them.

And you, of course, can choose to see the world as you do. You are not the only person who has questioned my wisdom in expressing scorn for religion. Not surprisingly those people are ones who are reluctant to examine the foundations of their deeply held beliefs.’

Sophie :
‘Theists posit a reality beyond this present reality. It would not accord with our physical laws at all. Therefore life after death would not be proven scientifically since it occurs outside physical parameters. All the wonderful scientific discoveries still occur inside this physical reality.

From your perspective, why not just enjoy the varieties of religion in the world? After all, I cannot see a National Geographic writer treating his subjects so derisively. I know many atheists who are kind & not particularly angry at religion. They simply do not believe.’

Me:
‘I gave up all pretense of believing in the teachings of the Anglican Church when I was 12. For the next 50 or so years I was a mostly silent atheist, but then the damage that religious conviction does to the world began to get to me.

In January I spent 8 days touring Israel, visiting the “shrines” of the three major religions, plus the Bahai in Haifa. For someone who does not acknowledge the God of Moses, it was an uncomfortable experience to say the least. Here’s the problem. They can’t all be god’s chosen people, but they act as if they were.

They – a generalization, of course – also act as if there is only one way to live your life: their way. And even religions can’t decide within themselves what that way is supposed to be.

The US Constitution states quite clearly that the government should do nothing to promote a particular religion. That part of the First Amendment is violated every day when children are expected to pledge allegiance to one nation – UNDER GOD, or when government meetings (from school board and city council to the House and the Senate) begin with a prayer. Sorry. An invocation. They are all supposed to be ecumenical, but they all presuppose a belief in a deity, one which atheists choose not to believe in.

I have had enough of other people’s beliefs impinging on my life. I object to being included in prayers without my consent. I object to religions enjoying tax exemptions. I object to people getting away with murder (literally in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists who withhold medical treatment from their children) because of their beliefs. I object to religions, cults and sects expecting respect because of their deep-seated beliefs. Like you really deserve respect for basing your life on words that were apparently spoken by a burning bush. Anyone who takes the Book of Genesis seriously should not be respected, they should be locked up in a mental institution.

Incidentally, I do not consider myself an atheist. That is far too tame. A-theist implies that there there is a god, one which some people obstinately choose not to acknowledge. Anti-theist would be a better description.

As the late Christopher Hitchens put it: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”

There is no god. And if there is an alternative reality, we are very unlikely to experience it.’

Awaiting her reply.

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