Monday, January 23, 2006

But can I still be smart?

An interesting thing happened earlier this week that made me realize how susceptible to peer pressure I am in this religious quest of mine. I was at a playgroup, chatting with the mother next to me about politics and world events, and she casually threw out the statement, "obviously we all know that the Bible is a bunch of made up stories, not to be taken seriously."

My first reaction was almost a sense of guilt that I'd been gullible enough to believe these silly fairy tales -- I KNEW these Christians were full of it! This reaction was totally ridiculous on a couple of levels:

1) I have now done enough reading and research into the historical accuracy of the Bible (in particular the New Testament) that I feel pretty confident that I could take almost anyone to the mat who says it's not a reliable resource. 2) This is a woman who I've known for a while now and who I do not think of as being very intelligent. I've heard her ramble on enough occasions that I'd formed an opinion of her as an illogical thinker with a limited intellect. It's amazing that someone who I had such little respect for intellectually could make me feel insecure with a flippant, poorly-though-out comment (I am 100% sure that she's never put any critical thought into that statement and could not defend her position for a minute if questioned.)

On the way home I thought about why I'd reacted the way I did. Had she touched a nerve? Did I secretly think that all this Jesus/God stuff was totally baseless? It wasn't exactly that. I do have major doubts that still linger but I honestly find Christianity to be very compelling. I thought some more and realized that what bothered me is that I had no interest in standing up for my opinions and arguing with her for fear of seeming stupid.

In our culture (at least in certain non-religious circles), atheism is shorthand for being smart. Rolling your eyes at God and people who go to church is a great way to show everyone how scientific (i.e. smart) you are; and using God's name in vain and making profane jokes about Jesus gets you the extra bonus points of showing that you're *such* a logical thinker that you don't harbor secret superstitions about divine retribution. "No irrational fears here! I base my beliefs on science and logic only because I'm educated and intelligent."

And in this materialist environment it's easy to appear to intellectually one-up any Christian who you might be arguing with since atheism has the crutch of "proof" to fall back on -- because they limit their beliefs to that which can be measured by human-created instruments, atheists have the impressive-sounding credentials of being able to prove many of their beliefs on paper. Though Christians can make compelling, fact-based arguments of their own, at some point it does come down to the fact that their lives revolve around an entity that cannot be seen or measured.

I think this is one of the bigger intellectual blocks I face. Many Christian writers have posited that atheists have mental blocks against Christianity because they don't want to change their lifestyle or they're afraid of God's judgment or something. I don't think that's the real problem, at least it wasn't for me. The big problem is letting go of the "atheism = intelligence; Christianity = superstitious, weak intellect" mindset.

Those of you who run in mostly Christian circles may find this hard to believe, but anyone who knows many atheists will most likely agree that the emotional attachment atheists have to their beliefs is the feeling it gives them of being smart.

I think this is the big fight Christians have to face in the mass media: to break down the stereotype that atheists are just so logical and intelligent and emotionally strong that they don't need silly crutches like God to make them feel better.

5 Comments:

At January 24, 2006 12:25 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Interesting post. Even though I was raised a Christian and am still a Christian, I strongly relate to what you say about the fear of foolishness. Sometimes it's not only the fear of appearing foolish to others, but the juggernaught of fear that we may, in fact, be foolish.

At the end of the day, we cannot allow fear to make the decision for us. To so is to resign ourselves to a simple stimulous-response cycle most often associated with lower-order organisms. One cannot begin to address the question of God's existence until that fear is put aside, that is to say, not allowed to dictate our conclusions.

You've got a great blog here. I've only begun to read it, and already I love it. Keep writing, stay as honest as you are, and may God bless you.

 
At January 24, 2006 3:52 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

My first reaction was almost a sense of guilt that I'd been gullible enough to believe these silly fairy tales -- I KNEW these Christians were full of it! This reaction was totally ridiculous on a couple of levels:

It's amazing that someone who I had such little respect for intellectually could make me feel insecure with a flippant, poorly-though-out comment (I am 100% sure that she's never put any critical thought into that statement and could not defend her position for a minute if questioned.)


……….

I do have major doubts that still linger but I honestly find Christianity to be very compelling. I thought some more and realized that what bothered me is that I had no interest in standing up for my opinions and arguing with her for fear of seeming stupid.

I don’t think this is so uncommon or surprising. It seems to me to be rather a gut level reaction based on the totally normal desire to want to belong. You are still in the process of ‘falling in love’ and in fact you’ve admitted that you ARE insecure in some regards (which I think is very understandable given your background and where you are in your journey). I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself for sure.

Imagine that instead of being about religion this was about a relationship you had just started with a man (obviously before you were married). ;-) Now this guy is smart as a whip, he’s kind, loving, treats you well, is faithful, etc. Suffice it to say that as you’re getting to know this guy, you are finding out what a wonderful guy he is. But maybe this guy isn’t the handsomest guy in the world, or maybe he’s shy and quiet, whatever, you get the point.

Now you are around a bunch of other women (maybe they don’t know you are dating this guy) and someone says, ‘Did you see John? That guy is ugly, huh?’ or ‘That guy John, he’s such a nerd.’ Now your still in the process of getting to know this guy, so it seems that on one hand you might wonder if they are seeing something that you aren’t. You might even think, ‘yeah, he is kinda nerdy, and not all that much of a looker?’ That seems a pretty natural reaction.

But after the gut reaction, you might begin to reflect and think, nah, she doesn’t know John at all. She doesn’t get to see him one on one. She doesn’t know him the way I am getting to know him. Besides, I know Sue, she’s so freaking shallow. She’s always after the guy with the big biceps and the tight buns. She wouldn’t know a good catch if it bit her on the ass. ;-)

Until you’ve REALLY learned the faith, come to totally accept it, and be comfortable with it (i.e. married it), I would be surprised if you have this totally normal reaction.

Just in the way you’d react far differently to Sue if the comments were about your husband of 10 years, rather than to a man you’d only been dating a few months.

In any event, don’t sweat this in the least.

I don't think that's the real problem, at least it wasn't for me. The big problem is letting go of the "atheism = intelligence; Christianity = superstitious, weak intellect" mindset.

I don’t think that anything but time and experience can heal that. I’ll only suggest that you continue to read, and correspond with people who are thoughtful, intellectual type believers (which is clearly your own bent). I think you’ve already to seen enough to know that believing does not mean checking one’s brain at the door of the Church.

I think instead this is similar to what you have identified regarding not ‘feeling it in your gut’ regarding God. The more I think about the source of that, I think it’s little more than the result of living with a paradigm for such a long time that it’s formed some ‘instincts’ regarding these things. What will happen over time is that the new paradigm will begin to reform those instincts as the old instincts are proven incorrect (i.e. every intelligent thoughtful believer you encounter will chip away at that old edifice a bit at a time).

Those of you who run in mostly Christian circles may find this hard to believe, but anyone who knows many atheists will most likely agree that the emotional attachment atheists have to their beliefs is the feeling it gives them of being smart.

You only need to spend a few weeks in the forums over at a place like the Raving Atheist to know this is true. :-)

I think this is the big fight Christians have to face in the mass media: to break down the stereotype that atheists are just so logical and intelligent and emotionally strong that they don't need silly crutches like God to make them feel better.

I think your analysis is totally on in that the atheist needs the emotional crutch (if that’s what religion is) as much as the believer and have simply substituted the feeling of superiority for themselves.

However, as far as how we deal with the mass media, I am not sure we can break down that stereotype (and frankly and unfortunately some believers I’ve encountered make the stereotype seem all to real), or that we should be concerned with breaking it down.

Instead, I think we should be focused on living lives of selfless love as best we can and let our testimony to the culture be the love we have for one another, and the love we have even for those who aren’t ‘us’.

The only thing that seems to truly transform people is love. There are good arguments for both sides, and people can find those arguments and use them for support regardless of the side they chose. The real difference is not one of intellect, but of love.

An early Christian writer named Tertullian (around AD 200) quotes a heathen of his time as saying…

"See how they love one another . . . see how they are ready even to die for one another."

…and the ‘heathen’ believed this was a great factor in causing people to believe in Jesus Christ.

Non-believers believe we are stupid because the WANT to believe it (it makes it easier). No PR campaign will change that. But if we show them the truth in our very lives, and maybe their hearts change, then they might WANT to not believe the stereotype.

Let’s all of us believers focus on building up the kingdom of God, right here, right now, in our little corner of the world, in our families and friendships. If we can make even the most modest strides in that effort, we’ll have to power to change the world just a bit at a time.

 
At January 24, 2006 9:00 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

Oh Jennifer. How joyful your discovery of the incredible heritage of the Catholic intellectual tradition will be! You have no idea how vast the riches of this heritage are. I was going to try to write a message but a better idea, I think, is to give you some links to lists that will give you an idea.

First: In the realm of history and theology and philosophy:

http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ65.HTM

I actually disagree with some that he buried in the “also worthy of note”.

Father Coppleston is a major figure in philosophy.

Hans Urs von Balthasar is so major a figure that it is impossible to overstate the case. He is a theologian who died fairly recently and is becoming every more famous.

For fiction, see

http://www.catholicauthors.com/a_g.html

Just peruse the names in the author index (on the left). Many you will know, already.

Wikipedia has a very interesting list of both Catholic and Protestant writers. As always, maintain a slight scepticism but what I saw looked pretty solid:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_authors

I probably don’t have to mention composers like Palestrina, et al. But if you want a list, I will find you one or put it together myself.

What about other fields? Well, there is Mary Anne Glendon, a formidable intellect and Harvard professor of law. With Alito (spelling?) I think it is now 4 or 5 of our Supreme court justices who are Catholic. If we branch out this message will never end... and it must.

The sheer number of major intellects should give you certainty that you don't have to park your brain in the closet to be a believer.

 
At January 27, 2006 2:19 PM, Blogger Lioness said...

"I think this is the big fight Christians have to face in the mass media: to break down the stereotype that atheists are just so logical and intelligent and emotionally strong that they don't need silly crutches like God to make them feel better."

*snort* Oh yea of little dichotomies. What makes you think it's just Christians and atheists? The impulse to denigrate the Unbeliever (of whatever religion, politcs, culture et al) is deeply embedded in the human psyche.

When I was in high school I got it from both sides of your imaginary line. I grew up in the early 80s and my religious experience was denigrated by both Christians AND atheists. From my experiences and my research I had concluded that there was definately some Divine Being out there, but it didn't seem content on playing the rules laid down in the Christian church I attended. The atheists would have liked to have called me unintelligent, but with an IQ score of 165 on my paperwork they couldn't quite make it stick. They settled for calling me clinically insane instead.

The Christians had an easier time finding a label. They just called me a Satanic devil-worshipper and left it at that.

This was the early 80s. It would be another decade before I heard the term "Pagan". During that time I had all the insecurity issues you have right now and no one to share them with.

Experience has taught me that while you can fight ignorance with logic, you can't fight intolerance with logic. The ignorant can be taught, but the positions of the intolerant have calcified, just like those in this recently-published study: http://www.livescience.com/othernews/060124_political_decisions.html

In the end you must live your life by the tenants you accept and not worry about what other people think.

 
At January 28, 2006 12:08 PM, Blogger Jennifer F. said...

Lioness - I never said that only Christians and atheists engage in religious debate. I was just pointing out there there's a tendency in pop culture to glorify as extra-smart those people who do not believe in God. (It also seems to be important for them to establish that image for themselves.)

And I don't think the line between atheists and Christians is imaginary. Of course there are others who are "none of the above," but there is a clear difference between those who think God exists and those who say there is no God. Since those are two of the most vocal and visible groups right now in our society, and since I am currently straddling the two belief systems, I choose to focus on them.

And, yeah, I got the "Satanic devil-worshipper" label a LOT growing up atheist in the Bible belt. Know how that goes.

You can't fight intolerance with logic.

Very true, and very universal to all belief systems.

 

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