Reason is the New Reason for the Season

According to King 5 News, there is a controversy over this year’s religious displays at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has mounted a sign declaring,

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

This is the same organization that placed this billboard in downtown Seattle over the summer:

"Imagine No Religion." Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard, 2008.

OK.  There are quite a few assumptions to unpack here.  First of all, despite King 5’s sensationalist handling of the story, the controversy seems to be largely manufactured. In fact, Ron Wesselius, a Tumwater real estate agent who sued the state in 2006 to get a tacky plastic nativity scene installed in the nave adjacent to the one where the atheist sign is now (which housed a menorah at the time), says he’s in favor of the FFRF’s freedom of speech, though he disagrees with the sign’s message.  Good. This is America, after all.

Naturally, I also agree wholeheartedly with the FFRF’s right to put the sign in the capitol.  I do have some issues with the sign’s content, however my dissent is not based on my having an opposing opinion or viewpoint. My problem is the internal contradiction in the sign itself—namely, that a plea for the use of reason is followed by three separate statements that defy logic.  Let’s go through it step by step.

1) At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail.

So far so good. You’ve got me looking forward to a reasonable argument!

2) There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.

Oh boy. I’m not even going to get into the complex neurological and cultural origins of these concepts, although plenty of research in this area has been done by mainstream secular scientists.  Assuming there is absolutely no physical evidence of gods, devils and the rest—which I don’t doubt—the statement itself is still blatantly unscientific.  As any good scientist will tell you, a lack of evidence for something does not equal proof of the non-existence of that thing.  To make this statement logically and scientifically sound, therefore, it would need to say something like There is no evidence to support a literal belief in gods, devils, angels, heaven or hell.

3) There is only our natural world.

Same fallacy. To be made logically defensible, this should be changed to Therefore we have no reason to assume there is any reality beyond that of our natural world.

4) Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

Ouch. I take it the author is probably referring to the vicious pseudo-Christian consumo-fascist jingoism that passes for religion in America today and not, say, Tibetan Buddhism, which guides its practitioners in an ego-releasing acceptance of death as a natural part of life. Or the native religions of the American Plains, perhaps, which taught the original inhabitants of this continent that their survival was dependent on their cautious reverence for the delicate ecosystem in which they lived. Or the liberation theology wing within Christianity that seeks to emphasize the triumph of the human spirit over even the most devastating hardships.  Built into this statement is also the tacit assumption that “myth” means negative or useless. Am I to believe the mind that conceived this sign has never been moved by a poem, painting or Hollywood blockbuster rooted in the transformative power of myth?

“Myth” is not synonymous with “falsehood.” It is the attempt to codify complex relationships between ideas in a symbolic vocabulary that transcends language. And “religion” is not some monolithic institution as many atheists would have us believe. It is a broad category of human behaviors and cultural realities. The real offender is not religion, per se. It is religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is what warps the deeply symbolic allegories of the mythic realm into rigid and destructive literalist worldviews. It is also, incidentally, what motivated the FFRF to overlook logic, rationality and truthfulness in composing the text for their sign.  As neuropsychologist Stephen Larsen points out in The Fundamentalist Mind, we are all subject to bouts of fundamentalism, be they religious or secular. I have discussed this entire issue at length elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll just say this:

ATTENTION FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION: Thank you for standing up for the rights of non-religionists. Your conviction is commendable.  But unfortunately you are not winning any converts with this stunt.  Yes, contemporary evangelical Christianity—I’m talking about the mean-spirited kind that helped Bush get elected twice—is arguably the most vulgar, divisive and destructive assault on decency ever conceived by the human mind. But it does not exist in a vacuum.  It is an endemic cultural affliction and any attempt to eradicate it must be aimed at the root, not the hydra-like heads (which grow back faster than you can sever them). The root is the rigid, brittle conviction that anyone, anywhere can possibly hold the monopoly on truth. Science is based on the humble willingness to stand and face the eternal mysteries of the cosmos and say “I don’t know.”  When science pretends to have discovered some ultimate truth, it ceases to be science. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, “If you think you got God figured out…it ain’t God.”

P.S. Please feel free to email me if you want me to write your sign for you next year.

~ by emilypothast on December 2, 2008.

8 Responses to “Reason is the New Reason for the Season”

  1. “the statement itself is still blatantly unscientific.”

    I agree. But when dealing with a simple sign that is meant to be a promotion of any sort, to use scientific language would be seen as soft. And when responding to billboards that testify “If you don’t believe in Christ you’ll burn in Hell!”, it just plain feels nice to respond with certainty.

    4.) “Ouch.”

    Again, I agree. It probably should include “can” or “has often” in the statement.

    “But unfortunately you are not winning any converts with this stunt.”

    Actually, they are. Not a lot. And certainly not the true-blue believers. But when a fence-sitter, like I myself once was, sees statements that are so bold and brazen, no matter how scientifically inaccurate, they get one to start giving sincere thought to the issue of religion and god.

    I won’t be so arrogant to say that sincere thought always leads towards atheism. But it did for me, and if it is even as low as a 50/50 split, that means that the FFRF’s methods are, in fact, getting converts.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you have such an open and thoughtful reaction to what I have to say.

    You’re absolutely right: the forceful language does drive home the point better than a more carefully worded sign would.

    When I was in high school in Wichita Falls, Texas I saw lots and lots of those billboards like the one you cite. (I also remember having to bow my head and pray at pep rallies that I wasn’t allowed to skip.) I remember feeling angry and helpless, and one day discovering the FFRF’s website and thinking, “Wow awesome! I can really get into this.” I even entered and lost an essay contest to win some sort of atheist scholarship they were sponsoring.

    Now I live in Seattle, which is (according to that King 5 article linked to in my post) at the heart of the least religious region of the US. It is from this privileged, distanced perch that I am afforded the opportunity of studying religion and mythology from a largely dispassionate perspective.

    In that Stephen Larsen book “The Fundamentalist Mind,” he talks a lot about the way emotion influences perception. If the brain is in “panic” mode because of fear, stress or anger, information will actually bypass the higher routes of the cerebral cortex and be processed by the “lower brain.” If you’ve ever wondered how the hell two different people can be exposed to the exact same information and interpret it so differently, this book really sheds a light on the role emotional conditioning plays. Children who have been conditioned to believe in and fear Hell (the cruelest fiction of all!) have a much more difficult time processing information rationally than their peers.

    I think the trap that the FFRF (and guys like Richard Dawkins) fall into all too easily is allowing their emotional disdain for the worst forms of religion to seep into their work in the form of reactionary hostility, which does nothing to clear out the cobwebs of anger and fear conditioning. I am actually all in favor of a widespread movement toward questioning and challenging our cultural assumptions. I just want the people leading it to be thoughtful and self-reflective. Declaring that religions should go away because you don’t like them is a little like hurtling insults at the moon. Religions are apparently a very natural result of brains and societies doin’ their thing. They have played a huge role in our evolution as a species. A more scientific approach would be to try to understand why.

  3. we may come to different conclusions about the nature of the universe, but i love the way you THINK. the so-called divide between faith and reason is, as i see it, a misunderstanding of the history of western thought. the scientific method as we know it was largely built by friars and monks, for goodness sake (being, as they were, the most educated people of their time). the building blocks of contemporary philosophy, our university system, and wide-spread literacy can also be traced, in large part, to the church. just one of the reasons i’m so excited about our president elect is that he’s a picture of a faithful man who uses impeccable reason. a relief from the highly caricatured slant that w’s language has encouraged…

  4. p.s. a concurrent development of “modern” logic and reason can also be traced to religious and non-religious figures of the east… my plea is only that we acknowledge the complex tangle of conceptual roots from which we spring!

  5. ok– i know i’m a total nerd for posting three times, but… east-west: read: globally. you know…

  6. Thanks, Gala. Everyone’s bound to have differences of subjective experience, and my hope is that Americans can get to the point where we are able to communicate openly and rationally about them without getting into pissing contests or calling anyone “stupid” or “evil.” I have much more of an affinity with thoughtful people of faith than I do with atheists who think they have everything figured out.

    At a certain point, distinctions between “theism,” “atheism” and “agnosticism” can be reduced to semantics. I personally strive to cultivate a reverence for the mysterious source and underlying matrix of existence and experience. I am not at all averse to calling that source “god.” I really don’t care what other people call it as long as it works for them. And by working, I mean fulfilling the positive roles that religion has to offer:

    – Instilling a sense of awe and wonder—and with it, a profound sense of humility.

    – Fostering an awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living and non-living things.

    – Allowing your life to become an instrument for a meaning and purpose that transcends the individual human ego and will.

    I could say much more about this, but basically I find this conception of god too big, too holy, and too ineffable to fit neatly into any sort of box or book crafted by humans, no matter how inspired. Religions are useful insofar as they point us in the general direction of god, but as in the Zen saying about pointing at the moon, we must be careful to turn our attention to the moon, not at the finger doing the pointing.

    To be sure, the Christian church has produced much to be proud of, particularly in the learned minds of its friars and monks. It has also, from time to time, burned at the stake those of its own orders whose minds, like Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), had grown too holy for the establishment. More tragically, it has all too often fostered among its adherents a sense of divine entitlement and infantile self-righteousness, providing a banner under which the equally rich and precious cultures of countless people around the world may be suppressed and destroyed with impunity.

    I am interested in looking at all sides of this issue with honesty and sensitivity. Unlike the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I do not see the various failings of Christians throughout history as wholesale indictments against religion. I see them as instances where Christians (or even Christianity) has failed at its own core mission to foster the universal values of humility and connectedness among its followers. These problems may only be addressed from within, which is why like you, I am inspired to have a president-elect with a rich and nuanced spirituality who is comfortable speaking in Christian religious terms about the kinds of values I find to be moral imperatives.

    I look forward to talking with you more in person and as always, appreciate your thoughtful comments!

  7. This is probably my favorite post of yours ever.

    ‘“Myth” is not synonymous with “falsehood.”’

    ‘To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, “If you think you got God figured out…it ain’t God.”’

    Reason is not an existential necessity. Logic is not a priori.

    (Okay, I actually don’t have sufficient background in philosophy to make those assertions. But I’m pretty sure I can defend them.)

  8. Thanks. I hadn’t read it for awhile, but I like it too. =)

    I think you’re on to something about logic, and I’m pretty sure the defense for your assertions may be extrapolated from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Or better yet, intuited from the human condition. (This is why Spock’s internal struggle between his human and Vulcan sides makes for such good storytelling, right?)

    Logic is a tool that works great as long as we don’t make the mistake of ascribing transcendence to it. I feel like the worst disservice that has been done to Christianity has come from its post-enlightenment adherents feeling the need to force mythopoetic information into a literal, historical framework. (This is something Karen Armstrong often talks about).

    Like the soul that it serves, myth needs lots of room to breathe and grow. The cold chisels of logic could not be more useless here.

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