No flag at the summit

In working on an earlier post, a particular observation suddenly leapt out at me, making me wonder if skeptics and critical-thinkers need to put a little more emphasis on a different approach. Whether it is sufficient to increase the number of people reached will remain to be seen.

Some of us mix it up on forums, websites, bulletin boards, and whatever, addressing the various flaws of religious belief (and religion in general.) Not surprisingly, this does lead to some defensiveness, regardless of the approach, and even results in accusations of being mean, shrill and strident from those supposedly working towards the same goals. Yet, there’s a difference in perspective that I suspect is rarely realized.

Here’s the deal: religion, to many, is worn proudly, almost a title. It’s a conspicuous indication of their status which is, in a word, “good” – witness the number of crucifixes you see worn, not to mention the bumper-stickers displayed. No one can reasonably believe that any god should need such armbands to identify the faithful – these are intended to send a message to other people. Further, religion is a bastion of ultimate authority, which means that their religiously-inspired views on subjects are backed by an unquestionably “correct” source. It’s god, it’s good, end of argument. Naturally, this leads to a certain level of elitism, and the attitude that their standpoint is sacrosanct. But there are also competing religions, which means people of radically different views are vying for the title of being “right.” For many aspects, there are no half-measures, no grey areas – it is all about absolutes. An action is either good or it isn’t, and while people can vary greatly, they can in theory be completely “good.”

Skeptics, however, maintain that no standpoint is free from examination, and thus no authority acceptable as “ultimate.” The definition of “good” is not deity-based, but revolves around actually being an improvement over both “bad” and “so-so” – it is defined by comparison, in other words. Absolutes are an abstraction, and not attainable, but we can still select actions that are further in that direction than others. Humans themselves do not gain infallibility either, regardless of the scripture invoked as support (most especially when that scripture is contradictory and does not coincide with physical reality.) So the authority of religious people, the moral high ground that they feel they occupy, does not exist. What, and who, is “better” must be demonstrated with actual improvement or useful information.

All too often, neither side (loathe as I am to assign two sides to such things, it serves a purpose here for the time being) recognizes the viewpoint of the other. Religious people whose authority is questioned or denied feel that they are yielding to some greater authority – that skeptics are challenging them for the title, in essence placing the religious below the skeptics. Skeptics, on the other hand, fail to see the reliance on position and class-consciousness in their opponents, since they are arguing from a standpoint of demonstrable benefit, and value from evidence. They do not hope to claim the title, only to see that no one has it, since it doesn’t actually exist. They are not stepping above the religious, only making them realize we are all at the same level.

To be sure, this does not characterize everyone in the arena, and couldn’t possibly. Some religious folk are very circumspect in the authority claimed for themselves; some skeptics really do consider themselves smarter and more capable than the religious. None of this is helped by the frequent confusion of the argument with the arguer, from either.

From a skeptics’ standpoint, it may be useful to remain aware of this. Treating religion, and by extension the religious, as “bad” is not only offensive, it’s not going to be accepted as an argument – religion is what defines “good.” Instead, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on demonstrations of the flaws and difficulties, most especially with scripture being a guide towards moral behavior? Anything seen as an attempt to take away or eradicate religion will often be seen as denying goodness itself. It is very likely to meet stronger resistance than questioning how one resolves the contradictions – and, for instance, the biblical stance on slavery and women’s rights (women’s whut?) Most especially, and this holds true for any debate, any approach that conveys a message, even subtly, that skeptics are smarter than the faithful is not going to go over well.

Carl Sagan demonstrated one of the best approaches in his book, The Demon-Haunted World. He rarely, if ever, provided a conclusion, but instead asked penetrating questions: “If A is true, shouldn’t we then expect B?” Couched in terms of logical puzzles, it avoided the aspect of assigning blame to anyone or expressing flaws directly, and without a target, there is essentially no victim.

Without careful attention paid to our approach, skeptics are as susceptible as anyone else to seeing discussions and debates in terms of an opponent, a competition on the personal level, rather than in terms of ideas. There are no winners nor losers, but simply the effective communication of our respective viewpoints. While there may certainly be issues that fit into the classifications of “right” and “wrong,” this shouldn’t be our goal; instead we need to illustrate how one approach is demonstrably better than another. The focus may be directed away from such goals, and it takes great diligence not to be dragged with it, or roped into emotional debates.

Sides are unavoidable in many situations, but finding common ground can often dodge this aspect. We are all human, after all, and primarily motivated by the same things. Someone may see following their scripture as good, while someone else defines doing the least harm to the greatest number of people as good… but both are seeking good. Regardless of whether we feel there is a top to the mountain or not, we agree that “up” is where we want to go. And while there can be many paths, some are more useful than others. The emphasis should remain on the path itself, however, and not on who found it.

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