Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dealing With Religion Lite

I think every atheist has been in this situation: they’re discussing some problem with religion, when a religious person appears and says, “That’s not what I do.”

Sometimes, it’s a fair remark. I hate when atheists try to claim things like… that religion causes all wars, or that religion makes people rape children. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not the atheist norm, but when it’s said, it’s wrong and should be argued. I’m not talking about religious people objecting to this ridiculousness, that I understand.

No, I’m talking about those times when you are criticizing religion for something it actually preaches. Christianity teaches that atheists are going to hell, for example. It’s also pretty clearly against abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, not worshping God… there’s basically a whole laundry list of things Christianity is against. And even beyond that, there are things Christianity encourages which someone might take objection with, like how Christianity demands that followers recruit, or “share the good news.”

These are true of Christianity, but there are Christians who disagree. I’m not sure if these Christians don’t read the Bible, if they don’t care what it says, or what, but the fact remains that there are Christians who are barely even Christian. I’m sure even religious people notice this phenomenon, that there is a spectrum of religiosity, and there are those who barely fit the bill as being a believer.

I have mixed feelings about these people. On the one hand, they’re usually some of the more sensible, tolerant, forward-thinking, educated, and intelligent believers. On the other, they’re often either very slippery or very irritating to talk to. Still, they’re my favorite believers, just not my favorite to talk religion with.

I think every atheist is out to tackle the problems of religion (or at least those who are actively atheist are). People who subscribe to Religion Lite pride themselves on not supporting most (or any) of the intrusions of Original Recipe Religion. In many ways, our “job” as atheists is already done with these folks, but in some significant ways, people who are only slightly religious can be the hardest to deal with.

They are often confused as to why I don’t believe like they do. I mean… we often share nearly all the same values. They sense that we aren’t all that different. They seem almost shocked that I’m turned off by religion. I liken it to this one time, I hung out with the older brother of a bully in my school. He seemed shocked that his younger brother was a jerk to kids in my grade, because at home he was perfectly normal. While I never experienced it, I imagine it’s also similar to how when the parents of a killer are interviewed and they can’t believe what happened.

It’s not uncommon for you to give the benefit of the doubt to someone or something you’re close to, and it’s a big step to break ties with a group you have come to love, even when it does awful things.

While I would like more people to subscribe to Religion Lite from a social standpoint, I hate talking to these people about the merits of religion itself. It’s hard to explain to someone that even though they may be a great person, it has nothing to do with their religion, and that even though they’re a great person individually, they’re a part of something awful. It seems simple, but it’s not.

Everyone wants to be seen as an individual, not a nameless part of a group. The problem is, we are stuck being both, regardless of how hard we try. I’m part of the atheist community, whether I like it or not. I’m a Southerner, whether I like it or not. I’m an American, whether it’s been embarrassing to be so for the last 12 years or not.

Those are all communities I am a part of, not because of decisions that aren’t based on who I would like to be associated with, but because of other, unrelated issues. Just as I am tacitly guilty for the crimes of America by virtue of all the taxes I have paid and my decision to stay, all religious people are accountable for the organizations they support. But even here, you have a problem when dealing with Religion Lite.

If a person claims to be religious, they attend religious services, and they live their lives… they aren’t really doing anything wrong. When you start donating money to religious organizations or you let religious dogma dictate your political leanings, you become a small part of the larger problem, but plenty of religious people are passively practicing their faith in word alone.

This is what makes talking to these people about religion so frustrating. They make silly claims about me, like that I am erecting a “strawman argument,” or that I’m misinterpreting their religion.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I give religion a pretty fair shake. However, since I have to look at religion as a whole and I am focused on the problems, I will never see religion the same way a believer does, especially if that believer is on the religious liberal fringe.

Frankly, I try not to address Religion Lite, because I think those people get enough shit from the religious. Why should I attack them for being nearly agnostics when their fellow believers are probably doing the same thing, only from the other side? I see believers of this kind as not only being less of a threat to me and my freedom, but also on the verge of being driven out of their faith by fellow believers. Why bother the natural process?

Well, there’s one reason. Their ideas may seem appealing to some reasonable people who are on the fence. I sometimes wonder how many otherwise good people led impressionable individuals into the trap of religion. It sort of reminds me of an idea I read about in a Chuck Palahniuk book.

Cattle are basically dumb, but it’s not easy to get them to move sometimes. One thing they will do, supposedly, is follow. So, ranchers train one cow to walk up the incline from the holding pen outside so that other cows will file in behind it. Then, they take the trained cow out of line and the other cows continue onto a conveyor belt to be slaughtered.

This trained cow is supposedly called “the Judas cow.” I never thought this was fair, though. Judas’ betrayal only killed one person. The Biblical figure who leads the flock into peril isn’t Judas, it’s Jesus.

While I don’t see this as very flattering (though they might), these practitioners of Religion Lite are undoubtedly the Christians who are most like Jesus and who are the best advertising campaign for their faith. They make for great religious PR people. Unfortunately, like all advertising and PR… they’re ultimately full of shit.

I don’t think being religious takes away from the good things a person does, but just because someone does good things doesn’t mean they know the first thing about… well… anything.


  1. I hate the way "doing good" has somehow become synonymous with "religious".

    I was raised Catholic, got the hell out when they made a big thing about the complexities of baptizing my daughter (born when I was 17 and unmarried), and have since come to the conclusion that I believe in ... something ... but it hasn't been captured in a book. It's hard to explain.

    1. Maybe you're some sort of philosophical theist (a theist without religion who does not believe in supernatural revelation and holy books). By "something" I can't discern if you mean something beyond the material world, but some do have a sense that there is something else, something "more".

      I once fell into that myself for a long time after leaving Christianity, but I think I've gotten over it.

  2. Then, they take the trained cow out of line and the other cows continue onto a conveyor belt to be slaughtered.

    It pays to have a marketable skill.

  3. I'd like to add here that scripture may not be the best measure for adherence to a religion. There are people (like the 20% of evangelicals who don't believe that all unbelievers go to hell) who just want to cherry-pick, but there are also rich traditions where people follow someone else who cherry-picked. But I think, particularly in the case of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, that there are cases where the strength of the tradition outweighs or neglects scripture entirely. I've had Orthodox priests tell me the Bible is meant to inspire and could be entirely metaphor...except for the resurrection. Catholics refuse to take many things in the Bible literally and openly say this.

    So what sets apart people who refuse to believe things that make them uncomfortable because they do view them as implicitly immoral, and people who join traditions for that same reason? If you want an example, universalism is probably the largest. Over 1/6th of Christians in the US were universalists at one point in history.

  4. But here's the thing. I am not out there proclaiming my beliefs. I do not tell anyone else I don't believe in the God of religion. I don't tell them I feel sorry for them because they do believe. But I constantly have to listen to people tell me about God and about miracles and about how they are sorry for me because I do not understand how "awesome" their God is. I don't care what they do or do not believe. It is just tiring to be bombarded with it all the time.


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