Ask Richard: I Want to Stop My Nephew’s Interest in Religion

Hi,

Help. I’ve just discovered through his Facebook page that my distant nephew who I don’t know well is wasting his life and education apparently. His page says he’ll be studying Political Science and Theology in college.

I was afraid his parents reading him the Bible daily when he visited my parent’s home with them as a young child would cause harm, but I didn’t want to interfere. I now wish I had, although don’t know that it would have done any good. I tried to introduce him to some writings of Dawkins when he was older, and his mother gave me a paper on creationist nonsense.

At this point I’ve asked him what church or denomination he belongs to, and got the reply, “Well, not exactly an easy question to answer. Over the years I’ve developed an evangelical, charismatic and Catholic church background. (As no one really can say they’ve “got it all right” without being arrogant towards others and ignoring things important to others…)” He seems to go to church more than once a week for unknown reasons (to me).

Now, I’m not a particularly ‘friendly’ atheist, and not known for my tact, because I’ve felt discriminated against in 3-D and on the web for my anti-theist beliefs. I’d like to start a dialog that is overdue because of few chances and family discouragements. I don’t want to chase him away but yikes, is this kid related to me?!

I’m about to reply with: “In a nutshell, I think religion is: pernicious fraud and one of the chief causes of war and suffering in the world, indoctrination of vulnerable children s child abuse, and to profit from either immoral. To waste one’s time studying how to do those things is a darn shame and a waste of the one life we have doing harm to the world. The reasons I believe that are numerous and have steadily accumulated over the years as I’ve become interested and acquainted with them. I sure wish I’d been able to talk with you about this far sooner.”

Is there some reason I shouldn’t? Advice?

Defiant nonbeliever

Dear Defiant,

I think that you are overestimating the influence you could have on your nephew’s beliefs. You say the two of you are “distant,” and you don’t know him well. With a sparse relationship like that, you will not likely be able to overpower the training that his parents have been giving him all his life.

You said that you want to start a dialogue with him, and you don’t want to chase him away. Don’t start a dialogue with a diatribe. The remarks you’re considering saying to him I don’t think will be at all persuasive. He will simply shut you off, and you’ll have no further chance for a dialogue.

People often associate the validity of an idea with the personal demeanor and manners of the person who is presenting that idea. It is not a rational association, but people do it. If right from the start you sound disapproving, harsh, and antagonistic to his beliefs, he will most likely take that as your being disapproving, harsh and antagonistic directly to him. From his point of view, he has no reason to take any more of that.

You sound like the discrimination you have experienced has left you with some bitterness, anger and hurt. As justified as you might think those feelings are, he is not responsible for someone else’s mistreatment of you, and he might not approve at all of such mistreatment. Be careful not to target him in your desire to retaliate against those who were unkind to you.

From the quote you gave, your nephew sounds like a rather thoughtful young man. The parenthetical part of his statement has a very live-and-let-live flavor to it: “(As no one really can say they’ve ‘got it all right’ without being arrogant towards others and ignoring things important to others…)” That sounds like good advice for how you can establish a respectful interaction with him.

You say that you’re not known for your tact, but I think that is exactly what you need in order to have productive dialogues with anyone. I think that you can develop skills with tact if you also practice empathy. That means trying your best to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes, and accurately understanding what emotions they are feeling. Then you can choose your words for how they will emotionally affect the other person, rather than talking simply to satisfy your desire to express yourself.

Expressing yourself doesn’t require paying attention to how the other person is responding to what you say, or even if they’re listening at all.

Effectively communicating is very different. It requires you to speak according to how you will be heard. You speak with your ears, rather than with your mouth.

Defiant, if you care about your nephew, care about the whole person, not just saving him from what you have decided is a “waste of his life.” That assessment can only be made by the person living that life.

Ask yourself this: If you could establish a close and caring relationship with him that would be a positive thing for the both of you, but he would still be following his present path of beliefs, would you continue that relationship? In other words, can you rise above this disagreement you have with his views, and love and respect him as a person, regardless of his religion, as long as his personal conduct does not harm you or others?

If you could not do this, if your underlying primary motive for establishing a closer relationship would be to change his religious views, then back off and leave him alone. Atheists often complain that some Christians pretend to befriend a person with no strings attached, but are really only trying to make another salvation conquest. If you find that practice loathsome, be sure to not practice it yourself.

However, if you sincerely think that you can be his friend exactly as he is, then first work on establishing a genuinely caring and accepting relationship with him, based on topics and interests completely separate from theism and atheism. Just as there is more to you than your atheism, there is more to him than his religion. He’s still a person with all the needs and desires, hopes and fears as anyone else. He deserves respectful treatment even if you don’t respect his beliefs. and he will respond best to respectful treatment.

If you’re at all interested in doing this, it will require patience and time, and meanwhile he’ll probably continue in his educational plans. From your present relationship, I don’t think that’s something with which you should or even can interfere.

The real point here is that this is more of an opportunity for you to change yourself rather than him.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Wim

    Perfect advice. Back off if all you want to do is vent your frustrations or make him your deconversion experiment.

  • Gauldar

    Political Science and Theology? It’s unfortunate how hand-and-hand those subject have become. If he does require some form of Christian doctrine, I recommend you at least introduce him to the Quaker faith, or Unitarian (if he actually is interested in the whole world of Theology) as I’ve found those being the most tolerable. I haven’t had much experience with Episcopalian though, but the Evangelical and Catholic sects I have qualms with. But then again, you can just wait till his education kicks in and he has an existential crisis, then help pull his ass out of it, but keep in mind he will need to trust you if he does face such an experience.

  • http://agersomnia.blogspot.com Agersomnia

    Couldn’t have said that better.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    Many of us have been in the Defiant’s position. You don’t want to push your beliefs onto someone you care for, but you also don’t want to see him/her harmed by needless superstition. (And I would classify squandering one’s academic potential on Theology as a kind of “harm.” I still can’t believe academic institutions award degrees in such things as “Theology” and “Divinity.” Ugh.)

    I’m surprised Richard didn’t suggest approaching it from a strictly academic perspective. As in, “Look, you’ve got two areas you’re interested in studying, Poli-Sci and Theology. If you want my opinion, kid, one of those is far more worthwhile than the other. Why do I feel that way? Ten reasons, maybe fifteen. If you want, maybe we can have a pleasant discussion about beliefs sometime. But for now, I’m just going to urge you toward Poli-Sci, and maybe you can take up theology on the weekends, like a hobby.” That at least puts the ball in his court. If he wants to discuss it further, he can drop you a line. If not, fine. We can’t always “save” loved ones from superstition. But we can let them know that we’re available to discuss the subject in a non-threatening way.

  • L. Foster

    Excellent advice. Especially focusing on what it is that Defiant really wants: is it a relationship with his nephew, or is it for his nephew to do what he wants to do?

  • TychaBrahe

    I think Defiant needs to work on himself before he works on his nephew. As many people have said, the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. Secularism isn’t growing in Europe because people are actively trying to tear down the influence of religion. It’s happening because more and more people realize that they don’t need religion in their daily lives.

    Does anyone think that people like Richard Dawkins or Michael Shermer spend every minute of their waking day thinking about how awful religion is and how stupid the idea of God is? I’m betting that they think about that while writing or researching or preparing a lecture, but that when they get up from the desk they spend a lot of time thinking about if they’d rather go for a walk or to see a movie and what’s for dinner and what’s being done about the BP oil spill and whether they should buy a new cell phone. You know, like the rest of us.

    Standing on the street corner shouting about how there’s no God, you look as crazy as if you shouting about God’s vengeance. Go do something useful.

  • SickoftheUS

    The uncle didn’t mention what school his nephew was entering – if it’s Bob Jones University, then yeah, Theology is scary. But religion can certainly be studied as an academic discipline, without being a believer. I almost decided to minor or double-major in Religion to complement the Philosophy degree I pursued as an undergraduate, and I was certainly atheistic by college. This was at a good non-denominational liberal arts college, though.

    The study of religion is useful in the context of sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, if the student is interested. Perhaps the uncle can engage the student in enlightened conversations of religion, if he is able.

  • Chakolate

    According to this paper by Dan Dennett, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/Non-Believing-Clergy.pdf , there appears to be nothing like theology schools to create atheists.

    So perhaps Defiant should just establish a connection and be available when Gentle Cos begins to question.

  • JJR

    Defiant should recommend some Bart Ehrman and Robert Price titles to his nephew as food for thought…instead of going for the sledgehammer approach.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    The academic study of religion is a perfectly legitimate field of academic inquiry (Dr. Prothero notwithstanding), as it is essentially a branch of both sociology and anthropology . It is a very different field from theology or divinity. As Daniel Dennett says, we jolly-well should study the phenomena of religion in a serious manner. But theology and divinity are pure woo woo. I see it as the difference between a Classics professor who studies The Iliad and as a text that can help us understand the ancient Greeks, and another kind of “professor” who spends her time pondering exactly how we should best believe in Athena and Zeus. The distinction couldn’t be clearer.

  • John

    I think too often people don’t seek to convince anyone so much as vent frustration at them, delusionally thinking that it will be convincing to the receiver. You have to meet people where they are.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Sometimes the best you can do is just to let him know that you think every religion is a man-made institution, that all notions of heaven are just wishful thinking, and all notions of hell are just expedient inventions of said religions to gain converts.

    The key thing is just to lay your beliefs out without any derogatory language. The goal being to use yourself as a counter example to the often preached idea that non-religious people all fall into one of two groups:

    1. Those that have not been properly introduced to religion.

    2. Those that hate God (or his followers) for some reason and have turned away.

    Hopefully you can present yourself as representative of a third group as someone who is quite aware of religion but doesn’t believe in the various claims because your mind simply (unconsciously) withholds belief in things in which there is no evidence.

    It is just kind of the way you “were made” ;) (or the way your brain is wired).

    You could also mention that because of this wiring of your brain, you have had to withstand a certain amount of discrimination in your life. But hopefully, you can communicate the true causal reason for your disbelief and that it isn’t a reaction to the discrimination.

    If your nephew is entering a “divinity school” these thoughts might cause him to question some of the presuppositions he is taught characterizing the “unchurched” and how to effectivly reach (and convert) them.

    As opthers have said, though, if you nephew is entering into an academic study of theology, that is quite different from a divinity school to become a preacher, pastor, or priest. You may find that you two actually agree on quite a lot.

  • Richard Wade

    For clarification because some people are wondering about the nephew’s university:
    I deleted the university’s name to protect the nephew’s privacy, even though it is not likely that he’d be identified. It is a large university outside of the U.S. that offers degrees in science, history, education, language, the humanities, and many other fields. Political Science and Theology are just two of them.

  • SickoftheUS

    The academic study of religion is a perfectly legitimate field of academic inquiry (Dr. Prothero notwithstanding), as it is essentially a branch of both sociology and anthropology . It is a very different field from theology or divinity.

    Some schools have a combined “Department of Theology and Religion”, and courses are intermixed, and I don’t think all places make exactly the same bright, shining distinction. In general you’re right about the terminology, though.

    Still, studying theology in college allows more opportunities for skepticism and growth than, for example, attending a Catholic elementary or high school. I think a more crucial difference with the college is whether it’s a Bob Jones U. type of environment, or whether it’s a Harvard which just happens to have a divinity school.

  • Claudia

    Yikes, the uncle may have perfectly legitimate reasons to be (or at least “sound”) so angry and aggressive, but he’s going to go nowhere fast if he adopts that tone with a young adult, no matter what the religious perspective. To the uncle, think of yourself at 18. If a distant relative had come to you and tried to convince you of their worldview (the polar opposite of your own) in that tone, exactly how fast would you have told them to get lost?

    As a note of consolation, I would also tell the uncle that a college education, if its in a legitimate institution, is often a great cure for theism. Kids who go to college typically leave with lesser religious convictions than when they entered, if for no other reason that for many of the more sheltered kids, are suddenly thrust into a world where people have views different from their own. Also studying theology could have its upside. If its a rigorous program, you can be sure he’ll be exposed to the all-too-human origins of the Bible, its persistent contradictions and its tangled history of edits, translations, deletions and additions. From what I’ve read of Dennett a lot of seminary students lost their faith in theology class, when they were forced to go through the Bible critically to prepare them for apologetics. Hopefully the same will happen to your nephew.

  • Trace

    Is there some reason I shouldn’t?

    Yes. Although I think your heart is in the right place, your “message” is both condescending and arrogant.

    Follow Richard’s advice and tone down the rhetoric. That would be a good start.

    Good luck building a relationship with your distant nephew.

  • Jay

    I hear so often that atheists don’t want to impose their beliefs on others. They just want to be free to explore their own unbelief. Is this really true? Reading this letter and some comments has made me question the motive on many atheists. So please can you tell me your own feelings on this?

  • matt

    The best cure for religious belief is to study politics and theology. Relax.

  • Aj

    I think the email implies the nephew was as a child heavily indoctrinated by creationist bible thumpers, and is now pursuing an “education” in such nonsense, identifying with the crazier side of Christianity such as “charismatic” and “evangelical”. I think such a person would have probably built up awe inspiring defences to reason and ability to deny reality or cope with cognitive dissonance. Even if one was able to argue through all the rationalizations someone who’s enthusiastically religious learns or can easily acquire, someone like this obviously has been building up a massive emotional connection to their religious beliefs. If the uncle hasn’t built up a relationship of love and respect, the nephew will probably not even hear any arguments, let alone consider them. It’s most certainly a giant waste of time, and probably not a good experience for the both of them.

    Even the most devout and crazy Christians can have a “crisis of faith”, especially if something emotionally profound happens. In those cases Christians offer themselves pounce to “help” and guide people back to Christianity. However, at this point someone would be receptive to hearing arguments against faith without having their emotions fight against their reason, they may even be actively seeking different points of view to try to understand. Most atheists are against harassment that is typical of some religions, or taking advantage of a distressed person, but I doubt many would be against making it clear before hand that there’s an available alternative view from a practised doubter for anyone seeking understanding.

    Richard Wade

    Defiant, if you care about your nephew, care about the whole person, not just saving him from what you have decided is a “waste of his life.” That assessment can only be made by the person living that life.

    That’s a pile of crap. People have the right to waste their lives, but they don’t get to decide whether it’s a waste or not. Relativist nonsense. Clearly some pursuits are based on premises that are not true, making them a waste. I doubt literally anyone has completely wasted their entire life, I assume that’s a hyperbolic figure of speech.

  • prospera

    Aj

    People have the right to waste their lives, but they don’t get to decide whether it’s a waste or not.

    I don’t understand this statement. If one doesn’t get to say what their own life means to them, who does? For example, if I think the time you spent writing this is a waste of time, does that make it so?

  • Scootah

    Imagine a distant Aunt felt that you were wasting your life and education by studying science and approached you with a diatribe to try and save you from the malevolent influence of the parents who read you books about science as a child. Imagine that Aunt’s shrieking diatribe about the need to find christ while your life was still worth something.

    I’m just saying, that distant Aunt evangelising her own beliefs and demonizing yours would be pretty obnoxious. I think we’d all sympathize with you breaking off contact with the old biddy and blocking her calls and emails rather than dealing with that sort of abuse. How dare she not respect your right to your own beliefs?

    Pot meet Kettle.

  • Aj

    prospera,

    I don’t understand this statement. If one doesn’t get to say what their own life means to them, who does? For example, if I think the time you spent writing this is a waste of time, does that make it so?

    That’s not the statement I was responding to, this was:

    That assessment can only be made by the person living that life.

    That’s not saying that they get to decide what their life means to them, it’s saying that they’re the only one who can say what it means to anyone.

  • Gibbon

    There’s a simple answer to this:

    Live and let live.

    I can not fathom how some people, staunch anti-theistic atheists included, can believe that they have the right to dictate to others, particularly another person’s child, what should or should not be studied. If the nephew wants to take up a degree in theology let him, it’s his own choice, and a relative who has no legal guardianship over him has no right to deter him from it.

    For those who say that the kid is wasting his life, that is purely your opinion. It may not be a waste to the nephew, in fact he may end up learning something or benefiting from it. As the saying goes:

    One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Aj, good to see you again.

    I suppose my phrasing might have been “hyperbolic” since of course Defiant is entitled to his/her opinion about the nephew’s life, but I think the person who is living that life has an opinion worth considering because it’s their opinion more than any other that will determine what important decisions they will make to either redirect their life, or to continue on its course.

    I do not presume to know better what makes another person’s life worthwhile or wasted, and then to imperiously pass disapproving judgment on it. That would require god-like knowledge. None of us possess that; we have to go by our biases. But we should acknowledge that they are our biases.

    Each of us have our criteria for a worthwhile or wasted life, and they are our biases. For instance, you said,

    Clearly some pursuits are based on premises that are not true, making them a waste.

    Making them a waste according to you. You favor “true premises” as a big part of your criteria, and that is fine. That is a big part of my criteria, too. But I acknowledge that that is my bias. To say or to imply that your and my criteria is the absolute or ultimate or the only valid one is a statement that will only be accepted by folks who have a bias similar to ours.

    Someone else might assert that a life filled with happiness and contentment, regardless of the verity of their assumptions is a worthwhile life. Then someone else might disagree and insist that a life filled with sensual pleasure and material gain is the most valid criteria. Another person would emphasize gaining knowledge, and would eschew contentment, pleasure or wealth. Yet another could argue that dedication to a cause beyond himself or service to others is what makes it not all in vain. (That’s a big one for me, too.)

    There are many other sets of standards for worthwhile or waste, and I do not have whatever it takes to say that one is the “right” set and the others are “wrong.” I’ve met a lot of people who seem to think that they have the one and only right way to live, but oddly, I don’t envy their lives.

    Each of these people could simply follow their own criteria and path, share their ideas respectfully, and accept that others have different criteria and paths, or they could try to insist that they’ve got it all right, and everybody else has it wrong, and in heavy-handed ways try to get others to conform to them.

    I won’t do that, and I won’t encourage that. That kind of self-centered chauvinism causes a great deal of suffering.

    So I hope that clarifies what I was saying to Defiant in that little hyperbolic statement.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Jay,
    Your question nearly got lost in the shuffle, so I hope you are able to read this. You asked,

    I hear so often that atheists don’t want to impose their beliefs on others. They just want to be free to explore their own unbelief. Is this really true? Reading this letter and some comments has made me question the motive on many atheists. So please can you tell me your own feelings on this?

    The thing to avoid is to lump atheists into any monolithic group.

    Most of those I know are very live-and-let-live, as Gibbon has clearly expressed and as several other commenters here have also shown. But those are among the atheists I know. I don’t know them all, and they can change over time.

    Some I’ve met are interested in convincing other people to see things their way, whether about gods, or politics, or social issues, or science. Some of them are gentle and patient in their style, some are strident and urgent, some are a mix, but they still know that the background of freedom of thought must be maintained and protected for everyone, including those who disagree with them.

    I’ve only met a very few who really want to impose their beliefs on others. Generally they get their asses handed to them by other atheists, because the hypocrisy is so blatant.

    So are the atheists I have met a representative sample? I don’t know. My sample is getting bigger all the time and the portions of these types seems to be remaining steady, so that is encouraging to me.

    Keep adding to the size of your sample of atheists you have gotten to know well, and avoid jumping to a conclusion too soon. Hopefully, you will see something similar to what I’m seeing.

  • ash

    Richard Wade, I think I love you ;)

    P.s. happy birthday you genial bloke of awesome.

  • Justin

    Believe it or not, Political Science and Theology are not wastes of education. What the petitioner may learn from the whole situation is that if he just leaves his nephew the hell alone, the more he learns, the more he may distance himself from his beliefs. Then, if he decides to stick with Theology, he could turn out better equipped to help theists understand atheism.

    One of the biggest hurdles atheism has still to jump is the stigma that we’re antagonistic know-it-alls. I’d appreciate it if Defiant didn’t raise the bar.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    Every atheist should study theology.

    What the hell ever happened to letting people believe what they want without being harassed by a bunch of assholes? Isn’t that one of the things atheists have always been wanting for themselves.

  • defiantnonbeliever

    counting to 10 a few times before responding

  • http://sassyseminarian.blogspot.com Julie

    I hopped over here from StuffChristiansLike, and I think you actually have a really good blog going here. I’ll just put this out there: I am a seminary student, getting a Master of the Arts in Youth & Young Adult Ministry. I graduated from a small, private (but accredited and highly nationally ranked by US News & World Report) Christian college with a degree in Youth Ministry. I’m what some would consider “liberal” (whatever that means), both theologically and politically/socially. Take that for what it’s worth, I guess.

    Richard, I think your response is excellent. In Christian circles, I also have a strong negative reaction to “friendship evangelism,” where someone only befriends another in order to convert them. Where I take issue is with several of the comments here deriding theological education. For those of us preparing to serve in full-time ministry, we want to be as well-educated as we can in what the Bible and theology say, as well as best ministry practices. We need to learn how to manage a budget, speak publicly, fill out tax forms, and do all of the other things that people in “other jobs” do too. We usually just learn it as it pertains to churches and non-profit organizations. I promise, it’s not just warm and fuzzy camp fires and worship services.

    While I have serious questions about institutions like Bob Jones University and even Liberty University, and the one-sided theology they present, that does not by any means represent ALL theological education. In my undergrad, the majority of my Bible and theology classes were taught from the perspective of “here are a bunch of the beliefs out there, what do you think?” In seminary, we compare what was written in the original language of the Bible with historical facts to understand how what was written was a product of the writer’s own bias and context. You would be hard pressed to find a person at the seminary who believes the creation story to be a literal truth as it is written; personally, I see it as a parable, much like the ones Jesus told. It contains a biblical truth about how much God cares for the world and all those in it, but the means by which it is told is fictional. We also encourage interfaith dialogue and social justice, including providing social services and advocacy for ALL who are denied basic human rights. Not all Christian institutions teach biblical inerrancy or ignorance of cultural realities.

    I apologize for this being so long, but I really want to drive home the point that not all Christians who are studying theology (or ministry, or divinity, or whatever) are close-minded, Bible-thumping, neo-conservative, uninformed atheist-haters!

  • Aj

    Richard Wade,

    I don’t think the religious disregard the truth, they’re just mistaken. People who study theology, the study of the divine, are there to learn about something they think is real, they’re just in error. These people can’t judge for themselves the value of truth, they’re outside the truth, trapped in a fantasy. I don’t think many people believe in comforting lies for themselves, people don’t condone others creating fantasies to deceive them attempting to protect them from reality.

    If these people don’t care about the truth, I would lose all trust and sympathy for humanity. I think these are generally good people misled, giving in to fear, paranoia, and authority. It would be dreadful if it turned out it was actually a clusterfuck, involving gross abuses of power and sadism. What’s the right thing to do has everything to do with the truth. If you don’t care what’s true, then you don’t care what happens to others as that’s part of the truth.

  • Claudia

    Hi Julie, thanks for stopping by! With regards to the expressed distate for theology many have, I’d just like to explain its origins:

    1. In atheist circles, we often deal with the crazier Christians, who tend to believe in the Earth being 6000 years old, or that homosexuality is an abomination (but not shellfish, for some reason) or that their loving god will condemn all us unbelievers to everlasting torture in hell. So theology is often associated strongly with Biblical literalism and treated accordingly.
    2. Most atheists don’t actually believe that many of the stories of the Bible ever happened at all and much less that they were dictated or even inspired by a god. Hence the notion of studying theology brings to mind images of discussing the “contextual meaning” of what the unending part of Leviticus ordering animal sacrifice is, causes considerable disdain to many.
    3. Though not all, atheists tend to be a decidedly science leaning bunch. That makes for a fairly pratically minded group. I’ve met a not insignificant number of atheists who don’t have much patience for philosophy, let alone theology.

    Personally if I thought for a second that it would be taught even-handedly without injecting bias I would favor making comparative religion obligatory for children and teenagers. Biblical literacy is essential for the appreciation of a great deal of art. Knowledge of world religions is essential if we are to understand our neighbors. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I think comparative religion would do away with theism in a fair number of people.

  • Aj

    Julie,

    In my undergrad, the majority of my Bible and theology classes were taught from the perspective of “here are a bunch of the beliefs out there, what do you think?”

    We know, we’re not idiots. I’ve actually seen video of theology classes. Since there’s no supporting evidence or reason to believe in the divine, it’s either submission to authority or wish thinking. This is theology, the study of nothing, why do you think it is derided?

    In seminary, we compare what was written in the original language of the Bible with historical facts to understand how what was written was a product of the writer’s own bias and context. You would be hard pressed to find a person at the seminary who believes the creation story to be a literal truth as it is written; personally, I see it as a parable, much like the ones Jesus told. It contains a biblical truth about how much God cares for the world and all those in it, but the means by which it is told is fictional.

    How does this refute the comments being made about theology? Knowing that it makes claims that aren’t logically or factually true, and having a personal commitment to the Bible being true on some level, you wish it to be, if not literally true, then “biblically” true (what I think you mean is allegorically). Not that ignorant, illiterate, ancient people could get the physics of light, the origin of species, or the age of the Earth wrong not to mention believe in talking snakes. A parable is a fictitious story with probable people and events, that illustrates a lesson for a different context. If the creation myth was meant to be fictitious it would be a fable, they contain improbable characters and events, including talking animals.

    Why do you believe the writers were intentionally writing fiction? Why must the writers opinion about God weigh more than anyone else’s? Why does the Bible have to be true in any sense? The answers to these questions is why theology is derided. Do not think you are better than the literalists because your irrational beliefs are better and right compared to their irrational beliefs.

  • Claudia

    Do not think you are better than the literalists because your irrational beliefs are better and right compared to their irrational beliefs.

    I object to that. This BS about all religious people being the same is as tired and untrue as all religions being the same. Jainism is not Islam and a convuslion-having young Earth dominionist is not a deacon of the United Church of Christ. A moderate Christian who takes much of the Bible as “allegory”, ignores the nastier bits and accepts science is better than a biblical literalist, both in the practical effect they have in the world and in their rationality. There are gradations of rationality. There are atheists who are presumably rational about the supernatural but are still truthers, or believe in homeopathy. Likewise Julie holds a (to my mind) irrational faith in a god, but to pretend she’s just as off the wall as a young earther is silly.

    Yes I know the arguments about religious moderates and I especially see the taking of faith as a virture as deeply flawed and potentially very dangerous, but treating relatively benign and friendly theists like shit strikes me as anything but the right way of going about things, and its friggen rude besides.

  • http://sassyseminarian.blogspot.com Julie

    Claudia, thanks for your explanation, it is very helpful. I agree about the importance of comparative religion, but not being able to have it taught objectively. I wish I had some ground-breaking insights on how to do so!

    Aj, I apologize if at any time it sounded like I was calling anyone here an idiot. I attempted to comment with the utmost respect for those with different beliefs, so it was unintentional if it came across otherwise. Maybe this is far too illogical or unscientific, but the supportive evidence and reason that I believe in God and the inspiration of the Bible is based on my own experiences. I don’t expect you to set aside the reasons that you *don’t* believe in God just because that hasn’t been my experience, so I am confused as to why you would expect that of someone else. Maybe that’s too postmodern, but I think it’s fair to allow each person to have his or her own experience of God or not God.

    When you say “submission to authority,” what authority do you speak of? I’m not being patronizing or sarcastic, I really don’t know if you’re referencing God, the Christian church, pastors, parents, etc. And as theology is the study of religious/spiritual faith and practice, it may be the study of nothing for you, if you do not identify with a religious or spiritual faith or practice, but that is not my experience. Again with postmodernism, I know.

    In regard to your second comment, I know it must sound illogical to you, but it is a faith issue for me. (And as a side note, thank you, “allegorically” is a much better word for what I meant, but the word wasn’t coming to me.) I don’t believe in the inerrancy of the original text, but I believe that it tells Christians much more about what God intended for humanity and creation than the KJV implies. My faith is based on reading what the Bible says and matching that up with what I feel like God is saying to us now. This is done in community, with fellow Christians, and based on basic principles many of us believe are the core of the Gospel (like grace, compassion, justice, love of neighbor and inclusion). Again, this is all a faith issue, something I don’t expect everyone in the world to claim.

    Just like you have many reasons NOT to believe in God, I have many reasons to do so. I’ve had many conversations with friends who are atheist or agnostic, and they have yet to present me with sufficient proof to suspend or expel my belief in God. Similarly, I have yet to present them with sufficient proof to adopt such beliefs. But we coexist, because we love one another for who we are, and that’s good enough for us.

    Again, I apologize for the length of this comment. Aj, I find it a little disrespectful that you would put words in my mouth (I never said that I was better than anyone, and I’m sorry if that is what you have distilled from my comments). I know that you are not the creator of this blog, but maybe we could stay within the bounds of the title by being friendly even in the midst of disagreements?

  • Aj

    Claudia,

    I don’t think that religions are equally harmful. I don’t think all religious people are the same. I’m well aware of the differences between the religions. There are atheists who have irrational beliefs. I don’t think it’s right to treat benign and friendly theists like shit, nor biblical literalists for that matter. I’ll criticize their arguments and beliefs all day fucking long. You’re right that their protection and promotion of faith is irrational and extremely dangerous.

    I don’t accept that what they believe is more rational. They both believe that the Bible is true, apart from the bits they don’t like, because God inspired the authors.

    Obviously they operate differently, but I’d hardly call it more rational. If a part contradicts facts it must be allegorical because while what it says may not be true, what it means must be true. Lets not forget that they still believe in a supernatural being, outside of time and space, with incredible intelligence and complexity, that has a plan and is concerned about humans, and sometimes interferes with the universe with miracles or inspiring ignorant illiterate ancient people. Many still believe in hell, or have to make up some daft explanations (as daft as the devil planted fossils) for what’s in scripture. I don’t find contorting the Bible to reality any more rational than contorting reality to the Bible.

  • prospera

    Julie,

    Welcome!:) It’s always a pleasure to have a theist’s perspective on the issues discussed here. I hope you will return regularly to contribute your thoughts.

    That said, Aj makes some good points. I know his tone can be a bit abrupt, but I found myself wanting to ask similar questions.

    In particular, I would like to hear your thoughts about the often-used phrase “biblical truth.” If, as you say, many of the stories in the Bible are fictitious, what is the basis on which the truth claim is made? In other words, if the book from which you obtained your “truth” is determined to be fiction, would it not make sense, then, to question the validity of that truth?

    Am I missing something?

  • Aj

    Julie,

    You’re right it is probably illogical and unscientific. It’s fair to allow people to have their own experience. It’s not fair to allow people their own truth. I don’t expect you to set aside your reasons for believing, I implore you to strive for the truth, through reason and evidence, which I very much doubt your “experiences” qualify as.

    You’ve given examples of authorities people submit to, church, pastors, parents, etc… How would I know which rung of the ladder you started on?

    Theology is the study of God and divine, the study of nothing. Comparative religion or anthropology is the study of religious/spiritual faith and practice, these definitely have something they can study.

    You embrace your irrationality, you call it faith, but it is clearly a combination of wish thinking and submission to authority. You “feel” (wish) like God is saying to us, and submit to basic principles of the Gospels (authority).

    I am not an atheist because I have proof to not believe. I am an atheist because I do not have proof to believe. If you cannot present sufficient proof to believe in a god, then you do not have sufficient proof to justify a belief in a god.

    In defence of your theology you use your difference with Biblical literalists. You also mention you have serious questions for them, and claim that they’re “one-sided”. I chose my words unwisely, since it is not necessarily true that you find rationality something to thrive for, thus better, so I should have wrote “more rational” instead. Sometimes it escapes me that people are uninterested in reason, such as many who call themselves postmodernists.

  • SickoftheUS

    Richard Wade wrote:

    There are many other sets of standards for worthwhile or waste, and I do not have whatever it takes to say that one is the “right” set and the others are “wrong.” I’ve met a lot of people who seem to think that they have the one and only right way to live, but oddly, I don’t envy their lives.

    Each of these people could simply follow their own criteria and path, share their ideas respectfully, and accept that others have different criteria and paths, or they could try to insist that they’ve got it all right, and everybody else has it wrong, and in heavy-handed ways try to get others to conform to them.

    I’m interested what Richard thinks about, for example, Dick Cheney. There’s a ton of evidence that Dick believes in things like pre-emptive war, torture, highly elevated executive power, the police-security state, etc. etc. He’s following his criteria and his path. Being Dick Cheney apparently “works” for Dick Cheney. Must we accept and allow him to follow his path, or should we try to correct him, by appealing to objective reality (the rule of international law, Geneva, the Constitution, etc.)?

    Maybe Richard would draw a distinction between belief and actions. But aren’t actions, in the end, what we’re concerned about as atheists, and what the uncle is concerned about in his nephew, ultimately? – not just that the nephew will have incorrect, irrational beliefs, but that having those beliefs will lead to choices and other actions which have a negative impact on the kid’s life?

    Isn’t that also why we purportedly have Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees – to suss out their belief systems, because their belief systems ultimately determine their rulings? Don’t people worry about other people’s beliefs all the time, often for good reason?

    Another argument might be that the kid should believe AND do as he wishes, as long as he isn’t hurting anyone else. But don’t the New Atheists counter-argue that, also? Belief in religion, even if only “moderate” belief, undergirds sort of a systemic loss in rational thinking throughout the believer’s life, which will often have consequences in various actions in direct or indirect ways.

    Relativism is a tough nut. It comes up in many contexts in life – seems equitable and fair, but on the other hand there’s usually an objective reality which can put it in a bigger context.

    (Yes, I realize we’ve missed the boat on Cheney already.)

  • Gibbon

    Being Dick Cheney apparently “works” for Dick Cheney. Must we accept and allow him to follow his path, or should we try to correct him, by appealing to objective reality (the rule of international law, Geneva, the Constitution, etc.)?

    Except that the path that Dick Cheney followed when he was in office was not for that of his personal life, but rather that of his professional life; in the job that was assigned to him by the people for the purpose of running the nation. Those beliefs that you described only impacted on his execution of the role of vice president. In fact those “beliefs” are better described as policies rather than beliefs, seeing as his personal beliefs on issues like same-sex marriage for example, were not the same as the policy of the government which he was a part of.

    Isn’t that also why we purportedly have Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees – to suss out their belief systems, because their belief systems ultimately determine their rulings?

    Actually, the senate hearings are supposed to assess whether the nominee is competent enough and has the capacity to serve as a Supreme Court judge.

    But don’t the New Atheists counter-argue that, also? Belief in religion, even if only “moderate” belief, undergirds sort of a systemic loss in rational thinking throughout the believer’s life, which will often have consequences in various actions in direct or indirect ways.

    But a lot of things external to the theology and the religion must also occur for the beliefs to transform the actions and their consequences from positive to negative, or vice versa. What I think you’re forgetting is that no one approaches the religious text or doctrine as a blank slate, no one interprets scripture without other factors in their life having already influenced how they will interpret that text.

    In the example of rational thinking that you gave, any systematic loss in that respect is never dictated solely by the acquisition of religion. There are always other factors in the person’s life that determine not only the form and shape of religion (e.g. liberal or conservative; moderate or extremist) that they adopt but also how it will influence other aspects of their life, such as how they exercise rational thinking.

    Aside from that, a change in a person’s beliefs does not have all that much of an impact on their actions, mostly due to the fact that it is much easier for people to change their beliefs rather than their behaviour. And I could simply point to the numerous instances throughout history where whole communities have adopted a foreign and new religion but at the same time tweaked the new beliefs to support many practices of the old religion that have continued despite the introduction of the new religion.

    When it comes down to belief or behaviour, the former should be less of a concern as it can change much easier than the latter.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    The best approach for Defiant nonbeliever is to encourage his nephew to read the Bible – all of the Bible, not just carefully selected portions.

    If, as you say, many of the stories in the Bible are fictitious, what is the basis on which the truth claim is made?

    I hear this alot from atheists. “How do you pick which parts of the Bible are allegory & which are fact?” Actually, the same way that historians tease fact from fiction in other historical studies (like, how much of the Illiad’s story of Troy is true?)
    Biblical, linguistic and historical scholarship for centuries has disputed many “facts” in the Bible. Theologians who accept their research (and many conservative theologians don’t) then view the stories as allegory and try to understand the point being made.
    Of course, the religious think the “points” are based on the will of God; we atheists think the points are manufactured by man & put into His mouth…..

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Aside from that, a change in a person’s beliefs does not have all that much of an impact on their actions, mostly due to the fact that it is much easier for people to change their beliefs rather than their behaviour. And I could simply point to the numerous instances throughout history where whole communities have adopted a foreign and new religion but at the same time tweaked the new beliefs to support many practices of the old religion that have continued despite the introduction of the new religion.

    I should mention to those unfamiliar that there’s a massive sleight of hand going on here. This assumes that those religious practices that are retained are not connected to any beliefs. If for instance the behaviour is animal sacrifice, then this person suggests that this in no way follows from any beliefs about gods and what they want. This means they exclude the possibility that the new beliefs were tweaked to support the old beliefs, thus suggesting beliefs can be just as hard to change as behaviour, if not harder.

  • Silent Service

    Defiant Nonbeliever,

    Leave the poor kid alone. You’re desire to save him from a wasted life of religion is no better than any christian trying to save you from eternal torment in hell. If you wanted to be friends with your nephew because you like him and think he’s a great guy that would be cool. But it sounds like the only reason you wish to develop a close relationship is to indoctrinate him in your way of thinking. That makes you exactly the same as every other evangelist that ever knocked on my door. Many of them were family too.

  • Gibbon

    Aj

    This assumes that those religious practices that are retained are not connected to any beliefs. If for instance the behaviour is animal sacrifice, then this person suggests that this in no way follows from any beliefs about gods and what they want. This means they exclude the possibility that the new beliefs were tweaked to support the old beliefs, thus suggesting beliefs can be just as hard to change as behaviour, if not harder.

    Of course you are assuming that where beliefs are directly associated with practices the latter can not persist without the former. The problem with this is that it is not true. It is entirely plausible, and has been known to happen, that even when beliefs are lost any practices directly connected to them can continue. Quoting from chapter six of ‘Other People’s Myths’ by Wendy Doniger:

    “Rituals cling more obsessively than myths do. The rituals of childhood may haunt even adults who deny the power of the myths of their childhood. People may still go on doing their old rituals in the same way they have always done but explain them differently if they chance to find new myths. Or they may go on doing the rituals without any myths at all to sustain them, or modify the rituals and create new myths to sustain them.”

    In the case of practices continuing without beliefs there was a perfect example posted on this blog back in March. A letter to Richard was posted where the correspondent described how despite being an atheist he still prayed, and he was perplexed as to why he did it as well.

    Atheist still prays to god after 24 years of not believing

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Of course you are assuming that where beliefs are directly associated with practices the latter can not persist without the former.

    No I am certainly not assuming that. My point was not that practices can’t continue without beliefs, but that you are making completely unsupported assertions: a) That beliefs are easier to change than behaviour, and b) the ridiculous claim that beliefs have little to do with actions.

    Do the changing beliefs but continuation of ritual support that beliefs are easier to change than behaviour? Syncretic religions such as Vaudou, seek to reconcile old beliefs with new ones. Does that mean that those beliefs are equally hard to change as the rituals? New religions borrow heavily from old religions, religions have much in common, meaning beliefs overlap. Rituals can be co-opted by new religions, but so can beliefs, prophets, saints, scripture, ideas, places, and buildings. The cost of continuing beliefs may be more than the cost of continuing rituals, religion was often spread by the sword, and afterwards by theocratic dictatorships that coercively controlled communities that allowed rituals but not beliefs. What about the cases where rituals changed or discontinued?

    Does an atheist praying support the claim that beliefs are easier to change than behaviour? The argument: a) all beliefs are equally changeable, b) all behaviour is equally changeable, c) an atheist found it easier to change his belief than his behaviour. Therefore all behaviour is easier to change than all beliefs. Not only do I not accept your premises, for which you supply no evidence for, and which I think denies a great deal of study in psychology, but your projecting from a sample of one behaviour plus belief, from a sample of one human. It would be interesting to ask that atheist whether any of their other behaviours changed when they became an atheist, such as going to church, or reading the Bible.

    Cognitive dissonance theory, people are motivated to reduce dissonance of ideas they hold by changing their behaviour and beliefs. The belief that someone likes a person after doing them a favour changes, Jecker & Landy (1969), known as the Ben Franklin effect. Further, a person is more willing to comply with a large request, if they have already complied with a small request Freedman & Fraser (1966), known as the Foot-in-the-door technique. In the book When Prophecy Fails (1956) by social psychologist Leon Festinger Ph.D, psychologists infiltrate UFO cult, failed doomsday prophecy doesn’t lead to discarding beliefs because of too much investment. Children given different threats of punishment, will rationalize their compliance with modified behaviour in regards to toy preference, Aronson and Carlsmith (1963). Subjects in a study, Munro (2010), after finding out scientific research contradicts their prejudiced beliefs, will conclude that science cannot answer that specific question, while finding out scientific research supports their prejudiced beliefs, will conclude that science can answer that specific question. Further, subjects opinions will change about science’s ability to ask many different unrelated questions.

    What does a philologist have to say about subjects that should concern anthropologists and psychologists? I see no citation of research or study to this opinion you have given from someone who is not an expert, or even a scientist. She seems to subscribe to Freud’s pseudo-science, psychoanalysis, which is thoroughly unsupported by empirical evidence and reason. Do you think I should accept this person’s opinion as an authority, like a prophet? Perhaps next you will quote a baker, a janitor, or an astrologer.

    Perhaps another time I will refute the second claim about beliefs and actions, but I feel it’ll take twice as long, you’re the only one reading this that actually thinks this way, and you will not be persuaded by reason.

    Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1963). Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(6), 584–588.

    Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S.C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

    Jecker, J. and Landy, D. (1969). Likin a person as function of doing him a favor. Human Relations, 22, 371-378

    Munro, Geoffrey D. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse:Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579-600

  • defiantnonbeliever

    Have any of you had a relative who was a skin head and been told to leave the poor kid alone, I don’t see the difference.
    I agree with the so called ‘new’ atheists, that the most benign religion is still woo woo and supports the ongoing horrors. To say nothing is absolutely irresponsible and many of you should be ashamed, I thank the rest who have made positive suggestions. I don’t know what I’ll do but something for sure.

    Study of theology is good in the sense that one should study smallpox, to believe that pathogenic stuff is to have a virulent disease.

    “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”-Christopher Hitchens

  • Justin

    Tell me to be ashamed when you can make a compelling moral argument, rather than trying to equivocate all religious belief with racial hatred and violence.

  • Justin

    Dammit, equate, not equivocate.

  • defiantnonbeliever

    Justin and the “live and let live” crowd,

    I don’t have to, it’s been done many times, uncensored history is enough on it’s own, and the multitude of arguments that have been made by those far smarter, knowledgeable and finessed than I are out there to read. Start with Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens, Russel, and move on to hundreds of others. I don’t need any of the passive, live and let live crap, talk to one religious person or group who’s persecuting another and committing genocide against another, or society at large, or innocents about that. Here in the US we came within a vote of Sara Palin who revers witch hunters, as vp, due to people’s failure to condemn religion as as the magical thinking bloody fraud it is. The threat of violence via religion inspired law around the world and in the US, shows the insipid defense of reason that liberal religions have made.

    To the others who have suggested tack and ignoring the subject to have a relationship with the ‘whole person’,

    I don’t have time nor the coaching to learn the one nor will I accept that the other doesn’t give passive approval. It seems neglectful of family to not try. I may have chased him away already, but now that I know explicitly he’s studying theology, I want to try something. People generally get one chance to go to a University, but the rest of their lives to regret what they studied or didn’t study.
    How about a bunch of links and a book list, that I’ve promised to send? The question is, will he bother to look into it. He’s got the summer off to read none course stuff, now’s the time.

  • Justin

    Oh, gosh! I’ve never heard of any of those guys. C’mon. I think they’re all smart and well-intentioned, but even atheists are susceptible to confirmation bias.

    I will continue to dismiss arguments that blame the weapons, that blame the justifications, and that blame the hobbies of aggressors, molesters, and despots until someone establishes some real causation.

  • LaRosita

    It seems to me that the uncle has his knickers in an unnecessary knot.

    1. The formal study of religion was what kicked me into atheism. That seems to be a common theme among people with enquiring minds.

    2. This young man has already shown that he is interested in seeming things from several points of view. That is what will intellectually save him.

    3. The university is _outside_ the U.S.A. The academic level of undergraduate training in other developed nations is less varied and generally two to four years ahead of the average U.S. College. It is extremely unlikely that he would get a Bob Jones level education.

    If Uncle wants to be a positive influence then it would be best if he at least appeared to go with the flow. If I were he I would sent the nephew a range of “pre-reading”: a really bad book of right wing Christian apologetics (Lee Stoble, for example), a more sophisticated right wing apologist (Dinesh, for example) and a good scholarly critique of biblical accuracy (The Historical Jesus, or Misquoting Jesus, for example.)
    The covering letter should remind his nephew that the most important part of an academic education is learning how to sift investigate and sift ideas from many different angles. Reading to confirm old beliefs is high school stuff that he will soon leave behind, if he hasn’t already done so. The aim of a first class education is to expand ones horizons and the depth of ones understanding by challenging old ideas to see if they stand regardless or whether they require modification in the light of new knowledge. Then I would ask him to let me know which of the three books he finds the most stimulating and mind expanding.

    I would ask him to let me know what books are on the syllabus.

    This could open up a useful discussion with one major proviso: always provide ultra-right wing stuff as a comparison but never blatantly criticize it. Just nudge the nephew in that direction by asking what the strengths and limitations are of each example. Let the nephew figure it out. Ask him what made him feel most comfortable and what disturbed him the most. Emphasize that most of life’s best lessons are learned from material that is disturbing or exiciting, not from material that is comforting and restful. The important point is that it is not the uncle that does the disturbing, it is the clash of ideas he has made available for comparison. The uncle should be there simply as a sympathetic sounding board.

    If the youth’s teachers are any good they will be telling him the same kind of thing anyway.

  • defiantnonbeliever

    Relativists, need to get real, and ‘so called atheists’ need to take responsibility for their namby pamby defense of the line between reality and and the toxic waste pathogenic disease that is religion. Differentiating between acceptable degrees of Bloody fucking Fraud, is irresponsible as those who look for the ‘missing link’ in evolution, holicost deniers, and stand by and watch lynchers. If you need a study of causality between ‘good’ and ‘genocidal magical thinking’ open your eyes(anecdotal evidence in abundance besides the point, search the causal links out if need more than those showing human caused climate change).

    I came here for advice on how to defend reality and science to an indoctrinated with toxic nonsense relative and received among any good advice that has been drown by relativistic critical vomit, leave it alone, you’re the flip side of evil, prove there’s a connection between accepting crap and accepting bigger piles of crap, nonsense. I guess I’ll have to go look somewhere else where relativists get less uncontested space to spread horseshit.

    Thanks to those who’ve offered sincere suggestions, whether I’ve lambasted them or not, I’ll have to digest what I can and go to a science defending forum for defense of enlightenment help.


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