Lately, I have had a couple in-depth conversations with friends of mine who are believers about belief in God. To their credit, the debates were mature, without so much of the self-victimization and underhanded straw men that believers often use. But, some were still evident, so I thought I’d write about some of the faithist memes and myths that have been quite prevalent in society lately and my thoughts on them. These are all “points” that are used to defend and protect religious beliefs. (For the record, YES, these are generalizations, and if you don’t subscribe to the meme, then I’m not talking about you, and if you do, then YES, I am!)
“It’s true because I believe it.” – The “Truth” Meme.
This might sound like a simple everyday understanding, but it’s definitely a faithist meme. It’s a suspension of reality. It’s saying, “It doesn’t matter what else is true, this will always be true because I choose to call it truth.” Yeah, I said choose. Belief is a choice. You choose what you believe, and by the power of this meme, you get to choose your truth. You see it used as a defense over every social issue. Fundamentalists say they know what traditional marriage is (even though marriage has changed many times over its history), they know when life begins (even though there is no actual way of objectively determining such a thing), etc. But they don’t know, there is no truth or fact, they just believe.
What’s really scary about the power of this meme is that it can be used to justify ANYTHING that happens as God’s will. Hemant wrote this week about the study that concluded intercessory prayer (prayer for others) has no positive effect (and may have even had some negative effect). Christianity Today twisted this result by claiming:
God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers…True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.
In other words, even though prayer didn’t work, they twisted it to support their own belief.
This meme even appears in the new film Angels & Demons. Plotwise, there is nothing supernatural that takes place—it can all be explained by science (the film’s version) and human behavior. Still, at the very end, the new Carmalengo says “God sent you to save us.”
Dawkins explains the idea of the cliff and the need to explain that which seems to be unexplainable (taking a leap of faith). This meme encourages taking those leaps just to justify one’s beliefs, when in fact, there is absolutely nothing miraculous or unexplainable about the events. The fact that prayer doesn’t work is not further evidence of God, unless of course you believe it is. And of course we respect those beliefs because they’re your beliefs. In fact, let’s do that one next.
“These are my beliefs, so you need to respect them.” The “Respect” Meme.
No, I don’t. I respect your right to have them, but just because you say they’re your beliefs does not mean I am going to kowtow to them. This is, of course, what Dawkins referred to as “undeserved respect.” I call it religious privilege. The true nature of this meme is the immunity that beliefs have from debate. Beliefs don’t stand up to debate, because they aren’t substantiated. If you start to unpack this meme, you unpack the “Truth” meme simultaneously. Why are they your beliefs? Why do you choose to hold those beliefs? What are your REASONS to hold those beliefs?
This leads into what I call Biblical Circular Reasoning. (Of course, any religion and religious text can be substituted.) It looks like this:
1. “I believe in God.”
2. “I believe the Bible is the word of God.”
3. “I believe Christianity is the teaching of God.”
1. + 2. “I believe in God because the Bible says I should.”
2. + 1. “I believe in the Bible because I believe in God.”
1. + 3. “I believe in God because I’m a Christian.”
3. + 1. “I’m Christian because that is the only way I can know God.”
2. + 3. “I believe in the Bible because I’m a Christian.”
3. + 2. “I’m a Christian because the Bible tells me I should be.”
It’s perfectly impenetrable to the believer and yet totally without reason. It’s a pretty easy way to see that there really is not an intellectual foundation to belief in God. That should be open for debate. If people are going to use their beliefs to effect social change or make political decisions that put people’s lives in danger, then belief is NOT good enough. If belief were not so privileged in society, so many issues could have easily be avoided.
I do not need to respect what a person believes. And many people who claim as such don’t follow it as such, because there are plenty of beliefs different from their own they don’t pay any heed to. People just want their own beliefs to be respected so that they don’t have to actually think about them and they can just feel good about themselves. This leads us to the next meme, which is quite popular in the media these days!
“If my beliefs are not being respected, I’m the victim.” – The “Victim” Meme.
This is just a blatant abuse of privilege. It’s crying foul and resisting any sort of intellectual debate. It’s pitiful and pathetic.
Our good friends over at the National Organization for Marriage are infamous for this. Maggie Gallagher is on some talk show every week spewing this garbage. Carrie Prejean, that joke of a “role model,” is the latest public face of this privileged position:
I am not perfect, and I will never claim to be. But these attacks on me and others who speak in defense of traditional marriage are intolerant and offensive. While we may not agree on every issue, we should show respect for others’ opinions and not try to silence them through vicious and mean-spirited attacks.
That’s right. According to the followers of this meme, by challenging their points, it’s offending their beliefs. Thus, they’re the victims. So, obviously, they should just have their way and that way no one will be offended! That’s convenient.
Actually, when you say things like, “In my country, and in my family… I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman,” it doesn’t matter how many times you say “No offense,” you’re QUITE offensive. You are offending countless people and countless families! You are furthering the bigotry that the LGBT community experiences by validating the idea that they are less than. If you think for one second I’m going to respect that belief, you are sadly mistaken. And furthermore, if you can’t defend your belief, that doesn’t make you the victim, it just makes you dumb. Stand up for your point of view, articulate it, debate it, substantiate it. If you can’t do that without falling back on “Truth” and “Respect” memes, then you basically have no argument at all.
Christians, in this country, are not victims. They have so much more power and privilege than they know what to do with. They do not all abuse it like in the examples I’ve provided, but they all have it, and I think they all have a responsibility to work out that privilege. If you choose to subscribe to a set of beliefs, fine. I will always support free will and free thought. If you expect me to respect what you believe, well, sorry, but I don’t think so. You have to earn that respect.
“Oh yeah, well you only care about your own point of view!”
“Atheists are ego-worshippers/self-centered/selfish/etc.“ The “Selfish Atheist” Meme
In one of the conversations I had recently, I found it to be the complete opposite. In fact, I would argue that atheists (and more specifically, skeptics) are the least selfish people when it comes to worldviews.
I don’t believe anything. I don’t have any proof of anything supernatural. I have no reason to support any one belief. I am equally open and critical of all ideas. My focus is on human life. What do I understand about the human experience? What can I do to make the most of our existence on this planet? How can I serve all of humanity?
Isn’t that so much more open and giving than subscribing to a religious belief? How much time is wasted by trying to search for one’s faith, when the notion of faith is self-fabricated to begin with? I search for meaning in my life too, but I’m not going to be granted it by some supernatural force. I’m going to learn to better understand myself so that I can better serve others. And I am never going to be so boxed into a belief that I am not capable of learning and growing from it.
Isn’t it the people that believe with such conviction that are the egotistical ones? The ones that “know the truth”? The ones that cannot be swayed and can never consider other ideas or beliefs? Are they not the ones who are quite dramatically selfish? Honestly, if you think about the previous three memes, it’s the believer who is most self-centered: “My belief is the truth, my belief deserves respect, and if it doesn’t get it, I’m the victim.”
I don’t pretend to know anything. I have no beliefs that demand respect. I kind of sometimes feel like the victim, but only because I’m subjected to people’s beliefs who are not on the same intellectual footing as mine. They sure like to think so though.
“We can’t prove there is a God. You can’t prove there isn’t. So neither of us is right or wrong!” – The “Stalemate” Meme.
Actually, that’s not how debate or science work. In fact, if you think about it, I can never be wrong. I’m positing nothing. I’m not trying to prove there is not a God. I’m just saying, “We don’t know and we can’t know and it’s foolish to assume otherwise.” That’s pretty safe footing. That’s how science works. We don’t draw conclusions until we have tested, retested, and all come to agreement on the conclusions from the evidence.
Believers posit a lot of ideas, with no evidence. Many will admit that they can’t prove God, but they believe and that’s enough for them (the “Truth” meme). I can easily prove we don’t know, because, well, we don’t. And the funny thing is, I hear people use this argument to defend only the God they believe in, as if it is substantiated and none of the others are. I always like the idea of “We are all atheists, but some make exceptions.” I often find myself asking, “Why do you believe in that God and not some other god or gods?” And of course, they can only answer with more memes: the “Respect” meme and this one:
“Well, since we can never know, it’s better to just believe, just in case.” – The “Just Because” Meme
Ah, Pascal’s Wager. I really could debate this, but the Wikipedia article explains it pretty well, with a Dawkins quote and all.
I’ll just call this meme what it is: desperation. When faced with the choice of cognitive dissonance and blissful ignorance, this is the meme that allows blissful ignorance to continue. It’s committing oneself to never see outside of the Matrix, and thus humoring the idea that there could be no such thing as the Matrix (if you’ll humor my metaphor).
While this meme seems harmless enough, I still worry about the effect it has on humanity’s intellectual development. Skepticism leaves room for all possibilities and skeptics can explore them all. Belief limits understanding to only one possibility and commits to only searching for meaning in that one. We really cannot even humor this paltry meme, because it still supports religious privilege and limitations to our exploration and scope of knowledge.
So, there are the faithist memes as I have been able to identify them. I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most prevalent ones. Just a quick review:
“Truth” – It’s true because I believe it.
“Respect” – These are my beliefs, so you need to respect them.
“Victim” – If my beliefs are not being respected, I’m the victim.
“Selfish Atheist” – Atheists are ego-worshippers/self-centered/selfish/etc.
“Stalemate” – We can’t prove there is a God. You can’t prove there isn’t. So neither of us is right or wrong!
“Just Because” – Well, since we can never know, it’s better to just believe, just in case.
Now, a special note to my readers. You may read this blog entry and find it offensive. You may feel generalized (though you shouldn’t), you may feel disrespected, and you may have other emotional responses. Great. Let’s hear them. We’ll either have some engaging dialogue or you’ll simply prove my points (or both). I would love some engaging dialogue though, so please comment! And let me know if you have other ideas!