Hello, everyone. This is my first post. I'm looking for some advice. I'm quite torn.
For a number of years I've co-hosted a podcast that is similar to "Christian and Atheist" which was formerly called "The Believer and Skeptic Show" but is now called "Alarm Clock." I co-host it with my best friend, who is a staunch Christian. So far, though, the format of the show has shied away from the predictable Crossfire-like confrontations, and instead we've spent more time going after the problems we see in our own respective communities. He'll spend a lot of time talking about the frightening and ridiculous hold of right-wing Protestant fundamentalism in the country and I frequently criticize our own community for its extant racism and misogyny (yes, alas, I'm sorry to report that these things indeed exist).
We are united by a generally progressive political world view and we often format the show around the "same conclusion, two vastly different ways of getting there" idea.
The problem is this. He's my best friend. I have a great deal of personal affection for him. He's had a very, very difficult life. He is congenitally blind and grew up in an abusive family. When you say that people are using religion as a crutch, that's him, and very obviously so. Over the years, I've tried rather gently to explain my own divergence from his view, but he keeps hoping I'll come around because I too am his best friend and he wants us to be pals forever in Heaven.
The other reason he absolutely will not give up his faith and see anything resembling reason is because he honestly seems to believe that Jesus is going to cure his blindness. There's no hope, at least not with today's standards of modern medicine. He's told me as much--- that I'm going to eat my words the day Jesus cures him. And that he will see forever in Heaven. I once pressed him on this because I felt like it was a "be honest or cop out completely" sort of moment, and I told him, yes, I believe one day he will see. But it will be because of the advances of medical science. That, I believe, is his very best hope to see. And who knows? Maybe someday science will be able to reform his disfigured optic nerve. I don't know enough about it to say.
He is also going through an enormously bitter divorce from an abusive soon-to-be-ex-wife. So this is very much not the time to kick him while he's already down. Our podcasts mean a lot to him, as does the camaraderie we enjoy putting the podcast together. Heretofore, we thought we were doing a good thing, "modeling respectful dialogue between disparate world views" and all that.
Here's the problem. The more I immerse myself among *like-minded* people, the more contempt I feel for religion itself. All of it. The less and less I feel like modelling anything resembling respectful dialogue. I listen to the Brass-Knuckles approach of a show like Scathing Atheist and, to paraphrase one Barry Goldwater, in my heart I know they're right. I'm very sad to admit this, but I am beginning to feel contempt for my best friend's oh-so-sincere, oh-so-reasonable-seeming religiosity. There's a part of me that would never want to take away his hope that Jesus will make him see again. But there's another part of me that respects him quite less as a mind because of that patently absurd belief.
Ours is a productive partnership. We write a lot of music together that has nothing to do with religion. But on the podcast, as long as I'm dealing with my partner with kid's gloves instead of going after him like a pitbull, as long as the goal of the podcast is to "model respectful dialogue," I feel like I'm just an accommodationist tool. And oddly enough, he thinks that the bare-bones line of challenge that I bring to his views on the rare occasion that I feel the show needs a little punching up--- he thinks he can't even handle that much satisfactorily in defense of "his side." He has no idea--- none--- what he'd be up against if I unleashed a fully prepared, ready-to-rumble Rob Gross up against his piety. But I don't want to do that to him. It would be kicking him when he's down. And it might also be a bit of a bait-and-switch, since I *agreed* to the "modelling respectful dialogue" premise.
I suppose I'm framing a false dichotomy--- it's not a choice between being milquetoast or being absolutely savage--- but the more I immerse myself in the atheist community writ large, the more savage and contemptuous I feel of this obvious absurdity that captivates the minds of most people on earth.
In the larger picture I worry about what my contempt for religion will mean for our friendship long term. I get very tired, very weary, of trying to keep up that "respect" muscle in my brain that is eroding while the "contempt" muscle builds larger and larger. I know I don't want to lose this friendship. But I also don't want to cave in to *anyone's* demands that I pretend to be something I'm not--- that "something I'm not" increasingly becoming someone who is more "tolerant" of religious perspectives.
That is the crux of the matter, well stated!
...fairness and justice in the absence of human intervention are null concepts....
If WE don't do it, It Won't Get Done.
I recommend to theists the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, where Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts the evolution of his beliefs in the face of his son dying from an incurable congenital disease. He ended up believing in a very limited god, who isn't pulling strings for an unethical [if not downright sadistic] Mysterious Plan, but who actually can't make everything all better, and is as outraged as we are at the world's injustices and tragedies.
Please go upvote the "most helpful critical review" on Amazon if you agree with it:
... Reconstructionist Judaism ... [sees] God as the impulse in us that brings out our best traits and leads to live honestly and ethically. [...] It is, in other words, a religious worldview that takes a more mature, probing approach to divinity than the standard "God controls everything and we cannot understand His ways" religious line. [...] Thus the negative reviews here from fundamentalist Christians, who [...] are unable to consider the thought of a more abstract god because their entire intellectual and spiritual house of cards would collapse. This sort of "God-is-my-protective-daddy" view inevitably forces people of this mindset into a state of denial, obfuscation, and pretzel logic when they try to explain or defend their faith--even to themselves.
Perhaps the reviewer gave it three stars precisely so it might get highlighted as the "most helpful" critical review, rather than some other review that attacks the book. I've seen such laudatory "critical" reviews for other books too.
Loren, as you always do, you make the complex fathomable. I'm sharing with my family on Facebook. Thanks.
Ask your friend why Jesus allows so many people to die before a cure is found for their illness? Why does he allow Big Pharma to work so hard to cure psoriasis but not Lou Gehrig disease. What does he do that is so sinful Jesus won't cure him of his blindness during his own lifetime, when He cured many blind people in the Booble?
We have actually talked about some of this. He doesn't think God punishes people with blindness. He understands that it was damage to the optic nerve in utero. Though it was probably because his dimwitted mother drank during pregnancy. So in some literal, factual sense, he has indeed been punished with blindness for the sins of his mother. I suspect his answer to why Jesus hasn't cured him yet is because he just hasn't gotten around to it. Seriously. Or that he hasn't prayed hard enough, or asked correctly enough, or something. My friend is always very quick to blame himself first before ever considering the idea that it's religion that's the problem.
So I had a heart-to-heart with my friend.
I can't say it was pleasant. I mean, we're still friends. But I leveled with him and told him that if we're going to keep doing the podcast, I can't just kid-gloves it with religion. It's not honest. And moreover, I feel like he doesn't really appreciate the depth of my atheism. That if we're going to continue to be close friends, he needs to understand how much this matters to me.
He took that well enough. He maintained that we are not that far apart because we both believe in an evidence-based view of the world. He simply believes the Bible is actually evidence-based. I told him that we have very different standards of evidence. I know he's always pointed to fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy as his "evidence."
Him: I mean, nails through his hands and feet. That's pretty specific. That can't be coincidence.
Me: But you don't understand. *I don't even believe Jesus existed.* If I were in charge of a 2nd Century nation-state and I wanted to have my people follow a religion, I would create my myth in accordance with prophesy to give credibility to the new religion.
Him: Yeah, but 300 different prophesies. You can't just create a myth from that.
Me: Oh, I'm a pretty creative guy. Don't underestimate me. If I wanted to create a new religion out of whole cloth in order to maintain my power base and keep people in line, I would be very careful to tailor-make my myth so that it checks off as many of those prophesies as possible.
Him: So you're telling me people would die for a lie?
Me: Who do you mean?
Him: The apostles and other early Christian martyrs of the 1st and 2nd Centuries that refused to renounce Christianity under penalty of death. You're saying they'd die just to maintain the power of their nation-states?
Me: Two things. First, sure. Suicide bombers aren't just motivated by religion. Look at the Japanese kamikaze pilots. They were motivated to suicide in order to try to maintain Japanese supremacy in the war effort. The Palestinian suicide bombers are motivated to try to support their nation-state as much as they are motivated by religion. But the second thing is this: you'd still have to prove to me that these early Christian martyrs also existed, outside of evidence in the Bible itself.
Him: Even if I brought you the writers who have written about it, you'd just dismiss it by saying, well, of course, they're Christian writers.
Me: Yes, exactly! I would want objective, scholarly, peer-reviewed literature saying these people lived, and died renouncing Christianity.
Him: I'll have to get back to you on that.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: I don't know any sources outside of the Bible right now.
Me: (Absolutely stunned; did not see this coming) Okay. I'm not trying to be a smart-ass when I ask this, I really promise. But I've actually known this is a line of reasoning of yours for awhile now--- that you believe that early Christian martyrs would not have died for a lie, and that proves the veracity of the Bible's account of Jesus's life. Your telling me that you've never seen any writing about these martyrs *other than in the Bible itself*? That you don't know any extra-Biblical sources?
Him: Like I said, I'll have to get back to you.
[About ten minutes of awkward silence]
Him: I always seem to debate people out of my league.
Me: You're not out of your league. Your as smart as I am. The problem is, is that you picked the wrong horse to jump on. It's your source material that's letting you down, not your native intelligence. This really breaks my heart. I've seen you beat yourself up over and over, saying you're not good enough, you're not faithful enough, etc., but you never entertain the possibility that it's the religion itself that's the problem. That maybe it's the religion that's full of holes, that doesn't make sense.
Him: I'm not beating myself up, I'm just trying to be a better Christian. Anyway, even if I don't find any extra-Biblical sources for the story it's not going to change my mind about faith.
And there you have it. In the end, that's the bottom line. No amount of evidence matters. Faith makes me happy, ergo, faith.
He also tried to challenge me on evolution--- how could life arise from nothing given nothing more than enough time for it to happen? I told him that was an easy one and he answered his own question; yes, given enough time, life arises and it's simply that the human imagination cannot contemplate the vastness of time in which life arose, which is why we tend to disbelieve the evidence, but the evidence is the evidence. Just because we can't fathom the billions and billions of years that the universe has existed doesn't mean those billions and billions of years didn't exist and provided enough time for life to coalesce. More awkward silence.
He tried to tell me life is meaningless without God. I told him that I wish theists would understand how much of an insult that is to us. Are you telling me my life is meaningless? Meaning is what we make it. He modified: I was just speaking for myself. *My* life is meaningless without God. I said, I think you're selling yourself short.
The reason that God doesn't heal amputees is that there has never been an amputee who has had sufficient faith. Also, Stephen King once said that he had known an amputee whose appendage grew back. I said I'd need to see evidence in a medical journal. Also, I asked, does it make sense that amputees are a special class of person that, writ large, lacks faith? More awkward silence.
That's how it went. On the way home, I think he was crying a little. Lots of awkward silence. But, knowing him, he'll take the conversation as *his* failure, not the failure of his source material to provide him with facile answers to my challenges. But, on the upside, we're at least still friends. He maintains that he doesn't think it's his job to make me "see the light" but rather God's. Okay, that's good enough.
If it doesn't matter what the facts are, then it doesn't matter what the truth is.
The reason why god has never healed an amputee is that the very concept of miraculous healing is patent bullshit. People can make claims about god healing their lumbago or arthritis, and maybe he did and maybe he didn't. In the case of a limb, the problem is that there is currently no means of methodologically regenerating that considerable a structure on the human anatomy. Were such an event to happen, it would amount to boldface proof that something outside the realm of medical science was involved in that process. Many other things are a he-said/she-said issue in the absence of rigorous scientific / medical investigation, whereas limb regeneration would amount to a slap in the face.
As a result, people can claim miraculous cures either because there was insufficient study of the circumstances both before and after and more than likely, what happened was that their body's own immune and reparative systems finally stepped up to the plate ... EXCEPT as it comes to major, obvious normalization of a blatant abnormality, such as a missing or severed limb. Such an event has never happened and I suspect never WILL happen under any form of supernatural aegis.
From where I sit, your friend cares neither about facts nor truth, but just what he wants to believe. As for me:
I don't want to believe; I want to KNOW.
-- Carl Sagan
I pointed that out to him. He maintains that God is going to restore his sight as an advertisement for God's glory. I told him that if his blindness were "miraculously" cured, one could still say that somehow, something jarred his optic nerve back into place inside his head. Wouldn't growing back a limb be much more obvious and impressive than giving someone blind his sight back? That's when he said, well, I guess there hasn't been an amputee who has had enough faith.
Yes, obviously my friend does not care about facts or truth. But I still have compassion for him, as he has had a profoundly difficult life. Seems to me that the shittiness of his life would be the first line of evidence against a loving, caring God, but he won't be dissuaded by having even this pointed out to him.
Like I said, religion could be no more obviously a crutch for him. But I wonder--- should we allow really needy people their crutch? Even if they are still part of the vast problem that is religion?
Crutches are for people who can't stand on their own two feet.
Long ago when I first read the Playboy Interview of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, one thing she said was that religion was a crutch and that part of her purpose in life was to kick away those crutches and have people learn to rely on themselves, their own devices and their own resources.
While I doubt that the above would make much of an impression on your friend, you could tell him this: Helen Keller was an atheist, and she was probably tougher than you and me combined.
There is much in the Bible against which every instinct of my being rebels, so much that I regret the necessity which has compelled me to read it through from beginning to end. I do not think that the knowledge which I have gained of its history and sources compensates me for the unpleasant details it has forced upon my attention.
-- Helen Keller
Helen Keller is a very loaded person to bring up to bring up to anyone with a disability. She is often put on a pedestal which makes the ordinary person with a disability feel 'less than'.
It's sort of like holding up Einstein or Hawking up to a high school science teacher and saying, why aren't you more like him?
If I knew of any other blind atheists, I would have cited them. So sue me.
The fact still remains that some people bitch about having lemons while others make whisky sours. And while I'm thinking about why god has a mad on about amputees, I have a very good friend who was, indeed, born without arms. She is as alive a person as I know of, VERY functional (worked for the IRS, as it happens!), and in all the time I've known her (over 20 years) I haven't heard her bemoan HER disability so much as once, nor has she said anything about Yahweh restoring her arms some fine day.
If god owes your friend some working eyes, then he has a whole bunch of other IOUs outstanding, and you couldn't convince me that he's squared ANY of those deals. Then again, it's rather difficult to square anything when you don't exist.
The fact remains that this reality behaves extraordinarily as though there were no god running it, and if your friend ever gets his sight back, it will far more than likely be the work of some dedicated doctors, nurses, and researchers than some arcane deity.
I don't know your friend, and you don't know my friend, and I would put $100 on him to win a Life Sucking Contest with just about anyone in the First World.
The thing to understand here is the disabled people don't *owe it to us* to be cheerful or inspirational about their disability. Your friend is cheerful and doesn't complain? (Or, at any rate, not to you she doesn't--- I wonder if she does to her therapist, actual relatives or clergy. Your limited assessment of her attitude toward her disability is, after all, anecdotal evidence.) Good for her, but she is not the same person as my friend. She doesn't have the same background as my friend. She doesn't have the same abusive, negligent parents my friend did. She didn't fall down a well at the age of four because she was unsupervised, only to be discovered *four hours later* screaming and screaming, and to suffer lifelong headaches as a result of the head injury. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Disabled people are not cardboard cutouts. They're actual people with actual backgrounds. Your good friend sees the world one way, my friend sees the world another--- based on his background. He doesn't owe it to you, me or anyone to be in the whisky sour business. He was never given the whisky-sour-making machinery by his parents and the ridiculously provincial milieu in which the two of us grew up.
On a larger note, I was talking to my wife (also an atheist) about this, and she pointed out that religion isn't just a belief system, it's also an identity system. We have to remember what we're actually asking people to do, and evaluate how reasonable it actually is. So many people have their identities wrapped up in religion. We think we're merely asking them to see the world through the lens of reason. To them, we're asking them to commit existential suicide. After I got done debunking every single one of my friend's arguments, with him unable to refute a single one of them, I was worried that he was going to commit actual suicide (he didn't thankfully). That's how serious this is.
I think there's some merit to the argument that we should let the crutch-users have their crutches and instead work to see that each succeeding generation is less religious than the last.