Saturday, June 30, 2012

“Month of Religion”: Behold These Ten Codas

1. In a recent batch of tweets, I sounded a bit harsh in my skeptical reaction to a talk by Joseph Loconte, author of The Searchers.  Warm as the book might be – delving into history’s darkest episodes but showing that people keep looking for paths back to the light – it is a reminder that it doesn’t take much to wow the religious mind.  There’s no kinder way to put that without being inaccurate.

I mean, in a world wrestling with some very complex questions of economics, math, science, psychology, philosophy, and politics, it seems as though you can still get a big round of applause from a church-going audience by painstakingly explaining, over the course of an hour-long lecture or hundreds of printed pages in the blandest possible language, that, say, “We sometimes worry about things, and then other things reassure us” or “If you need assistance, it’s nice when a friend helps you out” (I am not here quoting Loconte’s book).

Then, for the coup de grace, religious people – even ostensibly smart ones – wait for you to question the profundity of such observations and then they pounce, claiming that you must actually reject the observations.  You must be some sort of jerk who dislikes reassurance and does not want friends to help out!

Religion has been tiresome for thousands of years.  By now all intelligent people should also be tired of the high school debate tactics that constitute typical mass-audience apologetics.  Stop, please.

2. Nonetheless, there are people who move from atheism to religious belief due to such tactics, and among them I’d have to count Leah Libresco, who got some press attention this month for being a “prominent atheist blogger” now turned believer – and, incidentally, a friend of Helen Rittelmeyer, both of them from the same partly Yale-centered cabal of what we might call Catholic nihilists (I really don’t think I’m being unkind or displaying an ongoing grudge if I sum up their averaged-together attitude as approximately: “I don’t believe in nuthin no more – I’m going to law school, er, I mean church!”).

Maybe they’re all ultimately harmless – not my job to worry about it anymore – but this much is certain: In cases like Leah, they tended not to be moved by the kind of reasoning that leads to atheism even when they were atheists.  As a result, I had never much counted on young Leah to remain onboard, sadly.  She was, after all, mostly blogging about what sort of emotional impact conversion might have on her relationship with her boyfriend and how religious belief might affect her moral behavior.  This is not exactly the stuff out of which scientific impartiality and sound judgments about the nature of the cosmos are built.  Instead, it’s the kind of self-absorption that leads to religion.

Thinking that Ganesh exists might also cause you to bond with your Hindu wife more solidly or think twice before robbing a bank, but, y’know what, that doesn’t mean Ganesh exists.  But then, if you needed to read that sentence to understand that very simple point, it’s unlikely any rational thing I say will penetrate the clouds of faith that fog your, admittedly, it’s not clear why I bother trying.

Similarly, every once in a while I encounter some ardent religious believer, making the latest in life’s endless series of pointless conversion pitches, telling me about how he used to be an atheist, and at some point the formulation “I used to be just like you” (intended to be reassuring) is deployed – and then what follows is a description of reasoning that is not in fact like anything that has ever gone on inside my head.  Look, I really hate to sound arrogant, but it’s all facts and evidence and logic and genuine intellectual caution inside here, people, not thoughts like “I do not want to be beholden to any standards!  I am the center of the cosmos!  Life has no meaning, so I can do what I want!!” 

Those are barely coherent sentences, to my mind, and they have little to do with deciding an important objective question like whether some intelligent force created the universe or someone rose from the dead two thousand years ago. 

But, hey, now I know the sorts of myopic, self-absorbed, emotivist thoughts religious believers tended to have before they alighted, in their emotion-driven, vapid, irrational way, upon a new set of arbitrary beliefs.

3. Still, I will probably enjoy my scheduled lunchtime conversation with David Mills, editor of the religious magazine First Things, who was nice enough to attend my onstage dialogue with Catholic writer Dawn Eden this month at the Dionysium – and showed an admirable willingness to talk further.  If I ever really figure out how to monetize “having an interesting day,” I will be rolling in it.

4. The Dionysium, it appears, will next turn its attention to the cinematically-timely question “Who Would Win a Fight Between Spider-Man and Batman?” – with a pair of very-professionally-relevant debaters on that topic to be announced shortly.  That, combined with an impending pre-Independence Day blog entry on Madison and Monroe, makes July a sort of “Month of Heroes” on this blog, I think.  Mostly, my message now is simply that you must attend the Dionysium.

5. One person who’s gotten more skeptical over the years is my fellow libertarian Austin Petersen, which led to him condemning conspiracy theorists – and in turn being condemned by frothing, conspiracy-fearing, libertarian radio/online-video host Alex Jones, in one of the greatest pieces of PR a skeptic could ask for. 

6. With the libertarian movement now turning its
presidential hopes from the frustrated Ron Paul to the comparatively sedate Gary Johnson, I’d say it’s a fine time to ditch the crazy – not that craziness was ever prominent enough to outweigh all the good in the Ron Paul phase of the movement.  Like Spider-Man and Batman, and in some ways arguably more than Madison, Ron Paul remains a hero.  Actually, now that the U.S. is a social democracy with mandatory healthcare plans, it may be time for me to ditch writing about politics altogether – unless someone pays me, of course.  New things percolating on that front, but more options are always welcome.

7. And let me add that despite my skepticism, noted above, about supernatural claims, I also admire much of what Dawn Eden does, so if you want to know how religion might be used to cope with psychological trauma from things like child molestation, do check out her book My Peace I Give You.

8. The more troubling thing about Dawn, who used to be a rock reporter and mentioned music a couple times at the Dionysium, is that she apparently likes this 1967 song by the duo Elmo and Almo.  I call this disturbing not because it raises questions about her taste but because the song may be evidence that Elmo from Sesame Street can time travel – and that in turn raises questions about whether it really was just mental illness that caused him to rant in Central Park the other day or whether Elmo knows something about the future we don’t.

9. Speaking of time travel, this month brought some weird glimpses of history and pseudo-history, including that Teddy Roosevelt play The Moose That Roared (where I was joined by a recent Brown alum, just to make time seem even more strangely fluid) and that Lincoln vs. vampires movie – which was not as entertaining or as historically accurate as this Electric Six video from a few years ago (as one associate of Jack Hunter has noted) and has bombed at the box office, thank goodness. 

Again, would that I had written the TR vs. vampires script I had planned instead (TR really knew Bram Stoker, you know – fascinating tale).

10. I apologize again for the delay in my planned “Month of Religion” review of Walker Percy’s acclaimed Catholicism-influenced novel The Moviegoer.  If there really were time travel, I’d warn myself not to lose that copy I left on the subway.  Next week, most likely.  Until then: prep for the July Dionysium by seeing The Amazing Spider-Man in IMAX 3D.  As Percy fan Read Schuchardt likes to say, the theatre is the new church.


Nathan T. Freeman said...

Todd, reading these kinds of mental backlogs from you is entertaining beyond belief. It's like meeting for a half-hungover breakfast in the village, when we're not so much searching for conversation as struggling to muster the will to describe the most surreal moments of the recent past.

"Oh, you'll never believe THIS gem... I actually walked into a bar with a priest and a rabbi!..."

No one makes me miss New York as much as you do. :-)

Todd Seavey said...

Thanks! That is a positive enough thought to arm me against numerous negative ones, should they occur.

Anonymous said...

Although I have met plenty of people in the nonprofit world who have caused me to wonder "How on earth did this person manage to convince someone else that his thoughts were worth institutional support?", no one else has caused that thought to occur to me with as much force, comprehensiveness, and frequency as Joe Loconte.

Anonymous said...

A better debate is who would win in a fight Joan Jett or Lita Ford.