Tipping the Scales

It was a cold January afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of the Noor Islamic Center; the temperature gauge in my car was hovering at around 29-30 degrees. The moment I stepped outside, it felt a lot worse than that thanks to a bitterly frigid wind, otherwise known as the dreaded “wind chill,” which is always one of the unknown variables in Ohio’s winter weather. If I can count on anything, I can count on the good old “wind chill” to render my dashboard temperature gauge useless.

Pulling the hood of my coat over my head, I passed by a veritable sea of cars; the Mosque was rapidly filling up as it was almost time for Friday Prayers. Standing in the middle of the parking lot, I caught sight of Fr. Stephen Smith, an Episcopal priest and one of the leaders of the interfaith group called SAIL, of which I am also a member. He was surrounded by members of various Christian denominations as well as members of the local Jewish and Hindu communities. To a casual observer, it might have looked like we were at the wrong address.

But the moment I approached Fr. Stephen and the rest of the group, I overheard him telling a story that reinforced why we were all gathered there that day. He said he had been driving along in his car when he pulled up behind another vehicle that had a bumper sticker prominently displaying the words, “Guns Don’t Kill People, People with Gods Kill People.”

It was that kind of anti-religious sentiment that is becoming all too common in our society that brought this small group of Christians, Jews, and Hindus to the parking lot of the largest Mosque in Central Ohio. Just a few days prior, someone had threatened to blow it up. In the wake of the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, an enraged individual called them, promising to destroy the Mosque, at a time when the faithful gather for prayers and when the Center has hundreds of children there for their classes. You can read more on the story from our local newspaper here. Another Mosque in Cincinnati was also threatened.

Perhaps the caller would have shared the sentiment with the words on that bumper sticker. It seems many people do these days. Religious people are increasingly portrayed as enemies of progress, as threats to civil society, as whackos and fundamentalists devoid of reason, and as the source of all the conflicts around the world today. Many of the New Atheists and secularists would have us believe that the world would be better off without religion. Shortly after the Taliban massacre in Pakistan, Richard Dawkins tweeted “Very few faith-heads are as evil as Taliban or IS. Yet what else but faith is CAPABLE of making people do such evil?”[1] Does he have a point?

The Encyclopedia of World Religions states that violence and religion are “two realms that seem intricately related. Most religions share a history of bloody conflicts and holy wars, myths and epics that are filled with horrendous battles, and important symbols of violence such as the executioner’s cross in Christianity.”[2] And yet, the same Encyclopedia also states that many religions hold up nonviolence as an ideal; so which is it? Should we say that religions such as Islam and Christianity are violent or nonviolent?

The answer, I think, is not easy to accept for people of faith such as myself. Religion is ambivalent. We want to say that our belief systems are all peaceful, but aside from a few rare exceptions, if we take a long and hard look at ourselves, we know that this is not the case. Our belief systems have in them the capacity to wound or to heal, to build up or to tear down, and our sacred scriptures can be used to promote peace or violence. Thus, it could be said that all religion hangs in a delicate balance like carefully weighted scales.

But if religion is a part of our sickness, then it must also be a part of our cure. People like Richard Dawkins would have us throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, saying our world would be better off without religion, and yet it is religion that arguably offers us the most sound diagnosis for this illness. You see, the problem is not simply that religion is ambivalent; rather, human beings themselves are ambivalent. The tragedies and conflicts that we see all around the world are a part of human nature, and religion would have us take ownership of that. At the extreme ends of the naturalist worldview, one might look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it. By contrast, religion teaches us that there is a reason for all of this. While we may differ on the finer points of our theologies, the world’s religions almost universally state that something is wrong with the human condition. We are out of sorts with ourselves; we are not operating as we should. Richard Dawkins mistakes a symptom for the illness. The cure, then, must be found in the way that we tip the scales.

In some parts of the world, there is indeed violence and war perpetrated in the name of religion; but in other parts of the world, away from the eyes of the media, and below the cacophony of the voices of those who would criticize people of faith, there are movements toward unity, fellowship, and peace. When the Muslims of our local community were threatened, it was their Christian, Jewish and Hindu neighbors that mobilized and rallied alongside them in a powerful display of solidarity.

Our small gathering of people left the cold and stepped inside the Mosque just as the Call to Prayer began to ring out over the loudspeakers. Everyone fell silent at that moment, as I think that haunting sound reminded us, at least in part, of why we were there. Though we may read different holy books, though we may call God by different names, there is a deep sense of wonder and reverence when we actually experience the beautiful ways in which our various traditions approach the sacred, like the colors coming together in a kaleidoscope. Perhaps it is this kind of appreciation that can lead us towards a true kinship of faiths.

On a day that someone had threatened to bring destruction and harm to our Muslim brothers and sisters, tipping the scales towards violence, his actions ultimately had the reverse effect. He brought us together. If religion can be said to be ambivalent, one cold Friday in January proved otherwise; tipping the scales decisively in favor of peace. It is my constant prayer and hope that other faith communities will do the same.

Are our religions peaceful? I know that they can be if we seek to understand religions other than our own and if we work together.

  1. Cavan Sieczkowski, “Richard Dawkins Says ‘Religions Are NOT Equally Violent’ After Charlie Hebdo Attack,” The Huffington Post, January 1, 2015, accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/07/richard-dawkins-religion-charlie-hebdo_n_6430724.html
  1. Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1999), 1133.

Nemo Attribution via http://pixabay.com/en/scales-justice-weighing-tilted-307248/

 

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5 thoughts on “Tipping the Scales

  1. You say, “The naturalist can only look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it.” Really? I don’t know what Dawkins would say about this point, but it is certainly not an implication of naturalist premises. You should look at some of the deeper atheists, such as Sartre. Sartre stressed human freedom and our concomitant responsibility to make our world better. Since no god has made the world as it is, there is no reason we need to accept it in its “brokenness.” We can work to make it better.
    Religion helps many but it does lend itself to violence in many cases, because of the dogmatism that is tough to avoid when you think your teachings come from a Supreme Being.

  2. Hello, Derek, thank you very much for your reply. I appreciate your comments, and especially the fact that you took me to task on my perspective of naturalism. Thanks to you, I realized that my word choice there was in poor taste, and it may have come off like I was trying to make a blanket statement towards all naturalists and/or atheists. This was not my intent, but rather to highlight the extreme ends of such views. As such, I retract the previous statement, and have edited the language in the article accordingly. The sentence should now read, “At the extreme ends of the naturalist worldview, one might look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it.”

    That said, you brought up a lot of good points that are worthy of discussion. If I may, please allow me to engage in that conversation. Forgive me in advance for the length of this post, but there is a lot to talk about! You said, “Really? I don’t know what Dawkins would say about this point, but it is certainly not an implication of naturalist premises.” I find Richard Dawkins to be very interesting, so I’ve made it a point to read quite a bit of his work and to listen to his debates and lectures. While it is true that in his later work, he paints a much brighter picture of atheism and the naturalist position, advocating for an almost Utopian kind of idealism, I think it is fair to argue that he is trying to make the atheist/naturalist perspective more “attractive.” He’s trying to “sell” it; thus, he is an “evangelist” in his own right, if you ask me. You won’t always find such optimism in his earlier works. For example, in his book the River Out of Eden, on page 133 he writes “in a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” I would ask of my critics: how is this not an accurate summation of the extreme ends of the naturalist position?

    Moving along, you said “You should look at some of the deeper atheists, such as Sartre. Sartre stressed human freedom and our concomitant responsibility to make our world better.” Derek, you might be surprised to know that I was a philosophical atheist for many, many years. I have indeed read the “deeper” atheists, Nietzsche, Sartre, Epicurus, and my personal favorite of old, Bertrand Russell to name a few. With regards to Sartre in particular, one might contest your opinion. Granted, though, it depends on what particular work of his you’re reading. I remember some of his material was more optimistic in tone as you say, but certainly not all of it. I read his play “No Exit” when I was 19 and I can still recall the pessimism of his characters in that work. They were all caught in profoundly meaningless hells, where even ordinary or superficial interactions were seen as bleak and pointless. Sartre didn’t need a metaphysical hell; in “No Exit” our very lives are “hell.” Indeed, wasn’t it Sartre who once wrote of the “nausea” of human existence? Looking back, the way I would characterize someone like Sartre is that at his highest, he substituted the lack of absolutes with a blind existentialism; a kind of leap of faith as much as that of any theist. He never arrived at a concrete sense of meaning, nor a final sense of right and wrong; rather he grasped for such things, like those caught in the dark of Plato’s cave. And I would argue that his existentialism centered on the fact that we live in an “absurd universe,” this was a given; all we are left to do is to “authenticate” ourselves. Isn’t such a view arbitrary? Indeed, as long as I am “authenticating” myself, could I not tip the scales in one direction or the other?

    To continue, while I most certainly respect this statement, “Since no god has made the world as it is, there is no reason we need to accept it in its “brokenness”, as a former atheist, I cannot help but disagree with it. In my atheist days I would have argued that unless we accept the fact that we live in a blind and impersonal cosmos, we are in denial of reality. We must be willing to look into the abyss of our purposeless existence. To quote Bertrand Russell, “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.” Yes, we can work to make things better, but do we have absolute grounds for doing so? One could theoretically argue along the lines of Plato, that if there are no absolutes and no universals, then the particulars ultimately have no meaning.

    Finally, Derek, you said that “Religion helps many but it does lend itself to violence in many cases, because of the dogmatism that is tough to avoid when you think your teachings come from a Supreme Being” and here, I completely agree with you. You are quite correct. This is part of the point I was trying to make in my article; we as religious believers and/or theists are kidding ourselves if we do not admit the fact that religion is ambivalent. I am specializing my Master of Theological Studies in Historical Theology, so naturally I’m well versed in church history; and I am absolutely appalled at some of the things my own religion has done in the name of God throughout our 2,000 year history. But at the same time, just as I have to be careful of my own wording and erroneously making blanket statements, so too we must be careful how we use the word “dogmatism,” and I am not referring to you in particular. I say this because the “dogmatic argument” is a charge that is frequently levelled at theists such as myself and is used a blanket statement to denounce all religion when in reality the same could be said about any deeply held belief. In Bolshevik Russia, atheism was state policy and Marxism was enforced under the barrel of a gun. The Communists slaughtered countless numbers of their own people and placed the Russian Orthodox Church under violent persecution. Similarly, some have argued that what began with Chairman Mao in Tibet is a “cultural genocide.” One could go on and on with these atrocities. So extremism need not come from the dogma of religion, nor belief in any supreme being at all. It can come from any kind of idealism. Thus, I think it behooves naturalists such as yourself (if you are in fact one) and theists such as myself to work together and to be on guard against all forms of extremism, religious, secular, or otherwise, rather than simply laying the blame on one party or the other.

    Thank you again for the conversation and blessings to you!

    1. Thanks for the response. I appreciate the clarifications, and agree with your point about dogmatism and deeply held beliefs, including Marxism, etc. It is, ultimately, the attitude of mind that is at fault more so than the object of the belief.

  3. Thanks for a fascinating post E. Neil, as well as some interesting follow up comments with Derek. If I may, let me push back a little on your discussion of naturalism. In response to Derek’s point about your use of naturalism you suggested a revision to your original text: “At the extreme ends of the naturalist worldview, one might look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it.”

    I want to suggest that this is still too simplistic and problematic. Even this rephrasing, as well as your later comments on Dawkins, more or less continue to collapse belief in naturalism into belief in atheism, as if one naturally led to the other, or at least they share a common central premise. But this is not in fact the case.

    There are many religious traditions and spiritual practices rooted in some form of animistic beliefs or Earth-centered traditions which are deeply naturalistic but not remotely atheistic. In fact, atheism does not even make sense from this perspective, since we cannot separate ourselves from nature, and thus there is no outside, or (a), to subtract from (a)theism. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, and some of the larger Asian faith traditions, many animistic beliefs are tied into the land and natural world, rather than a supernatural world. Spirits and beings of all sorts exist in the physical world, not a supernatural one, even if we can’t see or interact with them as we are used to thinking. And as such, the theological–in the Abrahamic sense–is also the natural, they are not distinct realms.

    From this perspective, there is no reason we should assume: “At the extreme ends of the naturalist worldview, one might look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it.” Rather, one could just as easily say that the brokenness and suffering of the human condition is a sign that we are living out of balance with the natural spirit world, and thus our spirituality is also unbalanced–a relationship wholly of our own making, rather than something arbitrarily or randomly chosen for us externally. There is no reason naturalism requires either that we give up agency (human or non-human) or reduce the world of spirits to mere superstition or a supernatural source. A great way to think of this process can be seen in the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, where a demon boar and other chaotic creatures are symptoms of the unbalanced human relationship with the surrounding forest, and linked to the destruction cause by Irontown.

    You may not have come across this, but Bron Taylor, in his work Dark Green Religion (2010), offers a useful way to think about these questions with a four-fold classification of these ideas. Imagine the following laid out in a 3×3 table, with the top as two variants of Earth-centered beliefs, and left as the two main philosophies informing the top set of categories:

    ————————————————————————
    | Animism | Gaian Earth Religion
    ————————————————————————
    Supernaturalism | Spiritual Animism | Gaian Spirituality
    ————————————————————————
    Naturalism | Naturalistic Animism | Gaian Nauralism
    ————————————————————————

    I only point this out as I see so many debates about religion and atheism reduced to this naturalism vs religion binary which excludes a large number of cosmological worldviews from consideration a priori. There is no good reason to cede naturalistic arguments to atheism as the sole claimant.

    But as to your other later point about dogmatism, I think you are right. I might extend it a bit further and say that every ideology, no matter its source, has the potential to become corrupted with power. This is doubly true when an ideology has a large infrastructure built around it, such as the major religious traditions or economic systems today. So maybe rather than dogmatism per se, ideology and power is a more useful way to approach the issue.

    Either way, thanks for a good post and food for thought!

    chris

  4. Hello Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to reply. I actually agree with you certain animistic or pantheistic religions could in fact be classified as a kind of “Naturalism,” but my agreement, perhaps, comes from the fact that I am a theist, and I don’t believe that we live in a closed system. But on the flip side, I have to wonder if naturalist thinkers such as Bertrand Russell, Corliss Lamont, and even someone like Richard Dawkins would agree with this classification. They might see a statement like “many animistic beliefs are tied into the land and natural world, rather than a supernatural world. Spirits and beings of all sorts exist in the physical world, not a supernatural one, even if we can’t see or interact with them as we are used to thinking” as being problematic for the simple reason that none of this is empirically verifiable. Thus, one could argue that a “naturalistic pantheism” (for lack of a better term) does not appreciate the material world as it actually is, and instead reinterprets and inserts an indemonstrable “higher meaning” to the material world.

    It must be stressed, once again, that in the article, I am directly speaking of those who argue that religion is a holdover from primitive, bronze-age beliefs, is the source of what is wrong in our world, and that the world would be better off without religion. This is why I referenced Richard Dawkins (whom I do respect) specifically. And those who make such arguments would likely dismiss animistic systems on the same grounds as well. Drawing from your own very helpful illustrations, there most certainly are Naturalists who would categorize the physical universe as such:

    Nothing | Nature (the physical universe) | Nothing

    That said, as a theist and as a life-long student of comparative religion, I have a deep respect for such belief systems, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading experts in the field, such as Mircea Eliade. I like your statement “Rather, one could just as easily say that the brokenness and suffering of the human condition is a sign that we are living out of balance with the natural spirit world, and thus our spirituality is also unbalanced–a relationship wholly of our own making, rather than something arbitrarily or randomly chosen for us externally” a lot, and even as a Christian, I am very inclined to agree with it. I think in a way, it highlights a point I was making in my original piece…the fact that one could argue that so many of our great religions, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or pantheist, state that on some level; human beings are “out of sorts” or as you say, “out of balance.” I think this is something that so many of us share in common, and the importance of this fact cannot be understated!

    For that and other reasons, Chris, I sincerely appreciate your work and your contributions to State of Formation. Like you, I also feel that many of the great cosmological worldviews are often ignored or underappreciated, so I like how you have been drawing attention to them in your articles. As always, I look forward to reading more from you!

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