- Published on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 06:26
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 1899
Sounds like an oxymoron - how can a religious person be rational? As Bill Maher puts it: "How can otherwise intelligent people believe in the talking snake?" This is really a bigger question - how can rational people believe that the bible is true? And, rational people must see the pattern that people used to believe in Zeus and other supernatural gods that we now know to be myths but the Christian god is similarly supernatural - why is the current god any more believable? These difficulties must cause many to question the very foundation of Christianity and other religions. But as Bill Maher found out when he questioned author, blogger and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, some Catholics (and others) can appear to be rational. That is, they seem to have answers for difficult questions. When you have two people like these discussing religion, it's a more equal footing although unlike Bill Maher's usual form, Ross seems to "win".
Rationality by religious folk is not common. Mostly, "people of faith" resort to squishy emotional arguments that don't really answer anything - they instead change the subject and talk about the supposed benefits of believing and how good it makes you feel.
So is Ross Douthat really convincing? Superficially he makes sense - have a look at the video and then I'll attempt to respond to his answers.
[Original You-Tube video removed - now hosted on Cobourg Atheist].
The first point Ross makes is that although organised religion is on the decline, the average American "is still as religious as ever". He says "they may go to Church less but they still believe in a god" and he then says that "religion is a potent as ever". He should be saying: "spirituality is as potent as ever". He is equating religion with belief in god - but religion is actually a set of beliefs - it is not simply a feeling of being spiritual or believing in an undefined god. This kind of "belief" is actually one step away from religion; the closest label or name for it would be theism. If you don't go near a Church, you probably don't open a bible, you are making up your own set of beliefs. Ross even has a label for this new American society - he says "we're a nation of heretics!" So he admits that organised religion is on the decline but that theism and spirituality is as strong as ever in the U.S. OK, that's true world wide - Hindus and Buddhists are quite spiritual - it seems to be a need in the human psyche to be spiritual. But Ross has not shown that the average American "is still as religious as ever" - they are just as spiritual as ever.
The next point is that religion, especially as seen by the "right" is anti-intellectual. A good example of this is the rejection of evolution because it conflicts with the literal interpretation of Genesis - but Ross says that all the weird stuff believed by fundamentalists is a recent invention and not really part of Christianity. He says that before the late 19th century, it was accepted that Genesis was a non-scientific, non-literal story about creation. If so, he is saying that not all Christians are crazy or anti-intellectual.
This then suggests that some of the bible is to be read literally and some is not - how are we to know which is which? Ross thinks the answer is obvious - the bits that conflict with science are not to be taken literally! OK, so we can agree to basically ignore at least some of the bible (Bill calls them the "crazy" parts).
But what about the "wicked" parts - encouraging genocide and slavery, anti-women and anti-gay attitudes? Ross side-steps the question by seeing the bible as an historical document - despite the fact that the bible says that God commanded genocide etc - and says that people can be wicked independently of religion. Not everyone agrees with that - most of the atrocities in history were done in the name of religion. Even current ones like North Korea put god-like attributes on their leader and demand worship and subservience by the people. Bill calls these "secular religions". Even if Ross's point is accepted, he is ignoring the passages where God has commanded these atrocities be done.
Bill's next point is that people used to believe in Zeus and other supernatural gods that we now know to be myths but the Christian god is similarly supernatural - surely a rational person must see the pattern there. Ross's answer is that "the pattern is that people find themselves in a mysterious and mysteriously ordered universe. They find themselves equipped with intense moral instincts and they have religious [he means spiritual] experiences (so) they develop systems that explain them…". Further, "Human beings are believing animals" and there are some things that are non-scientific and are meta-physical - like Human rights.
Unfortunately for Ross, developing ideas to explain something does not make the ideas or beliefs true. His response does not come close to answering the question. He is basically saying: we invented religion when we didn't know any better and we are sticking with it! Duh!
The final question by Bill was about the ethics of killing Osama bin Laden - Jesus clearly said "turn the other cheek" but Christians think it's OK to kill an enemy. Ross thought that Jesus was talking about ordinary life but the case of bin Laden was not ordinary - that is, it was an exception and done by "civil authority". So if you can get to be a President, the rules of God (Jesus) do not apply! So again, Ross the Catholic is saying that he knows when to ignore the bible and the rules of God. He is interpreting to suit what he wants to do. He makes it sound reasonable by saying that Christianity has always accepted the idea of a "just war". That just means that Christianity has always made exceptions where it suits.
So in most cases the rationality disappears - this Catholic sounds like many other Catholics but if you listen to what he actually says, he's not really rational at all or he simply does not answer the hard questions put forward. Bill Maher had an "off night" so is a bit slower with responses than Ross. Maybe he was focused on trying to be funny - but this was mostly a serious discussion. He seems to have lost the arguments but I bet Hitchens would have had the right answers on the spot!