Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Intolerance is the New Old Toleration (Or, the Resurrection of Harry Houdini and Carl Sagan

I had a long instant-message session with my friend Karl from Texas tonight. I have been chatting with him since long before I had my current job, long before I worked at my last job for four years, before my job before that of 4 years, and my 4+ years of college. I was 17 when I first started chatting with him in an old #U2 chat room. I think he was 16, which is the current age of my own brother. I built a web page for that IRC chat channel. It was the first time I tried to teach myself how to do that kind of stuff, and then I learned PERL and CGI programming to give some interactivity.

A lot can change in twelve years. I now have a career programming interactive information systems after those humble beginning. The entire world now communicates via the internet. We were among the tail end of the early adopters back then, but now we're nearly thirty, and tonight's conversation was not about which U2 album is best or which lyrics are the most meaningful. Instead, both of us now own our own residences, have full-time employment, and are furthering our educations, he with a master's degree, and myself with a technical certification.

Tonight's conversation matched with equal proportion the expansion of our own worlds of personal responsibility our concern over world events and the future of that world. There are a great many things about which he and I can agree that need not be mentioned except for one.

We are both grateful that we live in a country wherein our rights for free expression are explicitly protected in our laws. This enables us to disagree about our definitions of "religion", "god", and what have you. He argues that "atheism" is a form of religion and cites a court ruling that agrees. I argue that the lack of belief in a supernatural deity does not constitute a religion. The distinction is probably not all that important to world events is it?

But, we can discuss it freely, thankfully. The same cannot be said for many Muslims living under the laws of their countries. We are both extremely concerned about militant Islamic fundamentalists that brutalize their own people and westerners, and intimidate the followers of moderate, progressive strands of Islamic teachings. Interestingly, Salman Rushdie will be coming to Atlanta and teaching and speaking at Emory University near where I used to work. His speaking events will be worth attending.

What I finally attempted to argue for was a form of intolerance that Sam Harris has called for in public discourse. In fact, what he is calling for is no different from the current intolerance we already practice in every single strand of public discourse except when it comes to religious beliefs.

Here is a short list of things we are correct to refuse to tolerate.

1) We are right to be intolerant of a surgeon who claim to be qualified to operate on you with only an undergraduate degree in chemistry and no medical degree to justify his belief, and that of his peers, in his abilities.
2) We are right to be intolerant of a car mechanic who refuses to show us diagnostic readings or other instrument print-outs that explain how he justifies his belief that your car needs $2,000 worth of repairs when all you did was bring it in for an oil-change and an alignment.
3) We are right to be intolerant of a man who would claim that it's not his fault when he rear-ends you while talking on his cell-phone and you are waiting patiently at a red-light, simply minding your own business and waiting for the light to turn green so that you can be free to continue on to your destination.

Why then do so many Americans find it so hard to turn the very same intolerance of credulity on their religious beliefs?

The reason is that they have grown up believing their religion to be true, or approximately true, if not completely true. Certainly those who attend denominationalist churches tend to have a more reasoned, seasoned, approximate faith than those who cluster around most "non-denominational" churches.
However, at the core of all Christian religions is the unfathomable, inexplicable miracle of a physical Resurrection. This belief is paramount. Without this belief, as St. Paul attests, their belief is for naught. Of course, you can find Christian theologians or critical analysts who do not accept a literal, physical resurrection, but you cannot find a mainline Christian denomination, to my limited knowledge.

This, I believe, is to the detriment of Christians. They allow themselves the belief in physical miracles for their own religion, at least in principle and in theory, yet they disbelieve in the miracles of Hindu believers, or Islamic believers. On what grounds do they hold this intolerance toward other religions? The grounds, of course, vary from person to person. I was told by Chip Ingram that demons perform demonic manifestations in other religions. I have written elsewhere why I believe this is absurd, so I will not recount it here. Other Christians say they accept miracles in other religions. Others, usually older, will simply not enter the conversation.

But, entering this conversation is a must for Christians to engage with today's world. We live during a time in which lunatic Islamic adherents believe that their idea of the creator of the universe has instructed them to kill non-believers. Many of them also unfortunately believe we are waging a war against Islam as Christian crusade, thanks to George W. Bush's ill-fated speech after September 11th, 2001.

As Sam Harris has stated, many Americans don't really understand what it means to be prepared to die for their faith. They can't even comprehend taking their faith so seriously as to literally want to kill in the name of their God. Yet, the Old Testament states that God instructed the Israelites to stone their obstinate sons and daughters to death in the town square. Obviously, Christians don't believe in this kind of punishment for their teenage children. It is, quite frankly, disgusting and repulsive that anyone would think the creator of the universe would ever inspire a human being to inscribe this kind of law. A Christian apologist could argue that times were so uncivilized back then that this was the most civilized thing that could be done in the context of the society of that time. This claim would be a pure assertion, with absolutely no basis in fact. It would be just as absurd.

Since we do not adhere to the Old Testament laws letter-for-letter, since most Christians believe that Jesus ushered in a different kind of God-consciousness, one based upon love, forgiveness, and kindness, we ten d to take it for granted that our religious heritage of the last couple hundred years is more docile than militant Islam.

But, that doesn't get Christians off the hook for the elephant in their tea cup that is the belief in physical, literal miracles. David Hume's famous statement that no testimony to a miracle is sufficient unless believing that it was not a miracle would be even more miraculous is similar to Carl Sagan's statement that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". However, Sagan's statement actually asks too much. An extraordinary claim, such as the claim that many dead people came back to life when Jesus died and walked around Jerusalem when he came back life (Mattew 27:52) is not a claim that requires extraordinary evidence. It is a claim that requires simply evidence, period.

Yet, there is absolutely no evidence outside of apocryphal Christian texts that attest to this miracle. Christians, ask yourself this:
Is the resurrection of one man, seen by several at first, and then by about 500, more miraculous than the resurrection of many dead saints seen by many people?

Of course, we don't know what "many people" is in this context, but we do know that it is a plurality in both cases. We know that the Romans occupied Jerusalem at the time. We also know that no secular historian wrote anything about many dead people coming back to life and walking around Jerusalem.
Some would say I'm making too fine a point of contention here. But stop and ask is this really the case? Is it really too much to ask for some physical evidence of something that you simply would not believe today?

Imagine someone came into your house and told you he had seen a man get shot, die, get buried, and then come out of his tomb and ascend into heaven. You would think this person was a stark raving lunatic! Why then do you believe that it was even remotely possibly that something of the same physical nature occurred 2,000 years ago in a time when people didn't have cell phones, video phones, camcorders, basic photography, or any other recording devices? I contend that you believe it because you grew up believing it, but certainly not because you have any kind of verifiable knowledge. And, you certainly have no more grounds for believing this to be literally true than a Muslim has for believing that the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Mohammed in a cave.

I am open to the evidence. I always have been and always will be. I will never say that I am absolutely certain that the Resurrection didn't happen or even that Gabriel didn't reveal the Quran to Mohammed. But, what I will say is that I see absolutely no reason to believe that either event is literally true.

Finally, I leave this post with a thought experiment that I've written elsewhere.

Remember the story about God parting the Red Sea for Moses and the Hebrew slaves? We all know this story. Many of us believe that it literally happened. Others don't believe that. Well, how would God manifest his powers today?

Imagine that militant Islamic adherents kidnap some children of Christian parents and drop them off into a desert, far away from any communications networks. These children have their cell phones with them. They try to place calls, but it is no use. They begin to pray to Jesus for help. Suddenly, a cell-phone tower springs up out of the ground! The children make their calls and get through to someone who can help. The responders begin to trace the GPS position of the cell-phone tower and send rescue teams!

But, the militants, now in the distance beyond the sight of the children due to the earth's curvature, see the tip of the huge tower over the horizon. They begin to turn back, and quickly approach the tower, this time with murderous rage and indignation. The children begin to run for their lives. Suddenly, the cell phone tower crashes down on top of the militants, killing them and sparing the children.

Yahweh has saved his people through the power of modern technology.

If only you could believe it. The same intolerant, bewildering incredulity you have toward that absurd story is exactly how I see your religious miracles, Christians and Muslims. They are incredibly unlikely to have ever taken place, and the only sane response to that realization is to come to the table with humility, reason, and a mind that asks first for evidence before belief.

Some say there isn't a conflict between religion and science. If that's the case, it's only because somewhere in Plato's world of the forms they gave a war of ideas and nobody shared theirs. Ironically, in a war of ideas, those who choose to lay down their intellectual arms for the sake of conversational tolerance turn a blind eye to the militant around the corner who is picking up a real gun or strapping on a real bomb.

For these reasons, I believe we must be intolerant of credulity. We must look at all belief systems with Occam's razor and we must continually question our assumptions. When a Muslim says that he can die for Allah and reach heaven, we must ask him to give epistemological reasons and factual evidence for this claim. We must also ask the Christian who says that Jesus is God's only way to provide evidence.

It is only wishful thinking to state that I wish both Muslims and Christians would sit down and have a pray-off to demonstrate the power of their gods. This will never happen, but these criticism must be stated, over and over if need be.

God, if you're out there, resurrect Harry Houdini and Carl Sagan. We need Houdini to find a way to get us out of this mess and we need Carl Sagan to argue forcefully once more for intolerance of credulity and tolerance of science as he did in The Demon Haunted World.

Since I don't believe that's going to happen, I'm going to have to physically do the next most sensible thing, which is to try to carry on Sagan's efforts in whatever way I can through my own writings.

Any body want to play the part of Houdini? The last time he tried to come back from the dead, he failed.

No comments: