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Secularists are often wrongly accused of trying to purge religious ideals from public discourse. We simply want to deny them public sponsorship.
Religions, of course, have their own demanding intellectual traditions, as Jesuits and Talmudic scholars might attest.... But, in its less rigorous, popular forms, religion is about as intellectually challenging as the average self-help book. (Like personal development literature, mass market books about spirituality and religion celebrate emotionalism and denigrate reason. They elevate the "truths" of myths and parables over empiricism.) In its more authoritarian forms, religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility. Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it.
Like heterosexuality, faith in immaterial realities is popularly considered essential to individual morality.
In this climate -- with belief in guardian angels and creationism becoming commonplace -- making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall.
If I were to mock religious belief as childish, if I were to suggest that worshiping a supernatural deity, convinced that it cares about your welfare, is like worrying about monsters in the closet who find you tasty enough to eat, if I were to describe God as our creation, likening him to a mechanical gorilla, I'd violate the norms of civility and religious correctness. I'd be excoriated as an example of the cynical, liberal elite responsible for America's moral decline. I'd be pitied for my spiritual blindness; some people would try to enlighten and convert me. I'd receive hate mail. Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling.
An op-ed piece on popular spirituality that I wrote for The New York Times this past summer was carefully cleansed by my editors of any irreverence toward established religion (although I was invited to mock New Age). I was not allowed to observe that, while Hillary Clinton was criticized for conversing with Eleanor Roosevelt, millions of Americans regularly talk to Jesus, long deceased.... Nor was I permitted to point out that, to an atheist, the sacraments are as silly as a seance. These remarks and others were excised because they were deemed "offensive."
"Spirituality," a term frequently used to describe the vaguest intimations of supernatural realities, is popularly considered a mark of virtue and is as hostile to atheism as religious belief. Spirituality, after all, is simply religion deinstitutionalized and shorn of any exclusionary doctrines. In a pluralistic marketplace, it has considerable appeal....
America's pluralistic ideal does not protect atheism; public support for different belief systems is matched by intolerance of disbelief. According to surveys published in the early 1980s, before today's pre-millennial religious revivalism, nearly 70 percent of all Americans agreed that the freedom to worship "applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are"; but only 26 percent agreed that the freedom of atheists to make fun of God and religion "should be legally protected no matter who might be offended." Seventy-one percent held that atheists "who preach against God and religion" should not be permitted to use civic auditoriums. Intolerance for atheism was stronger even than intolerance of homosexuality.
It is the inevitable effect of religion on public policy that makes it a matter of public concern. Advocates of religiosity extol the virtues or moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages.
I don't spend much time thinking about whether God exists. I don't consider that a relevant question. It's unanswerable and irrelevant to my life, so I put it in the category of things I can't worry about.
When the inner child finds a guardian angel, publishers are in heaven.
Spirituality authors, who are generally forgiving of most human foibles ... take a hard line on intellectualism.... Skepticism they view with contempt, as the refuge of the unenlightened.
It's easy to sell good news like this, and the authors confidently rely on classic fallacious arguments. They argue by declaration, which is what makes the books so amusing. In matter-of-fact, authoritative tones, the authors tell us how plants and human beings exchange energy -- or they describe what angels look like, whether or how they're sexed, how they communicate with human beings, and how they differ from ghosts. Readers might be expected to wonder, How do they know?
What makes fantastic declarations believable is, in part, the vehemence with which they're proffered. Again, in the world of spirituality as well as of pop psychology, intensity of personal belief is evidence of truth. It is considered very bad form -- even abuse -- to challenge the veracity of any personal testimony that might be offered in a twelve-step group or on a talk show, unless the testimony itself is equivocal.... Whatever sells, whatever many people believe strongly, must be true.
There are, however, exceptions to this reliance on feelings as evidence of truth: if, for instance, your feelings lead to disbelief instead of belief, they're apt to be dismissed as some form of denial. This is not a common problem. Usually intellectualism, not "feeling reality," is blamed for disbelief. But, some angel experts suggest, there may be emotional as well as intellectual barriers to belief: unwillingness to believe in angels can reflect low self-esteem.
The Subtle Fulmination of the Encircled Sea
Please Feel Free
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