by Alison Smith
I was talking with a friend recently about the uphill battle that is critical thinking activism. As so many conversations on skepticism do, this one circled around to the most prevalent and documented paranormal belief in the world – religion. We pondered, in part, why religion is so prevalent in the first place, and what it offers that the skeptical movement cannot.
Since entering the critical thinking community, I have come in contact with many skeptics whose main focus is disproving religion’s stories: Why there couldn’t have been an ark that could hold all the animals; irrefutable evidence of an evolutionary path that was never mentioned in the Bible; misunderstandings of how even the solar system works – which a true God would have known. Astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry; in all the sciences there lies a new way to dissect and refute religious texts.
Yet for all their efforts, very few (if any) atheists I know have been able, in either a formal or informal setting, to convince even one religious person that their beliefs were wrong. In fact, out of the atheists I currently know, I cannot think of one who strayed from God based upon a direct conversation with another person. Instead, they arrived at atheism by reading books, examining their own beliefs, or by learning about science and the true ways of the universe.
What is it about religion that is so compelling? A common belief is that the need for religion stems from a need for the afterlife – maybe because this life offers so few recognition for their virtues; or that we wish to damn those who would injure us for all time rather than the brief time they are here. One idea is that the number of believers correlates to the quality of life in various countries; meaning that in countries where people are generally happy, the need for religion falls away. It could be as simple as never wanting to say goodbye to those we love; maintaining hope that we will arrive at a place with no struggle, no pain; no worry about paychecks or illnesses. We will arrive, after our long journey at our true home – and a fire will be burning in the hearth as we hang our coats and hats and greet our families. Finally, we will have the time to focus on love, and languish in eternal comfort.
Perhaps it is that simple. Reading my own words, I long for such a place as well. I think, however, that the answer runs deeper, or at least in lockstep with another reason. It is not only the next life the religious are concerned with – it is this one.
Statistics on church attendance aren’t terribly reliable. This is because, when left to self-reporting, survey respondents have a tendency to lie about how often they are in attendance of religious services. I have to wonder why the populace would care what a random surveyor thinks of their devotion to God, but my belief is that being a churchgoer means belonging to an exclusive club. You are the chosen. You have a network of people who are on your side. Someone who identifies as a Baptist can walk into a Baptist church and find immediate acceptance. Churches offer free child care, financial help for those in need, clothes, food, jobs; a congregation full of people who want to help you, and who hold you in their thoughts whether you are “important” or not.
Church by this description is, in fact, much like the picture painted of the afterlife.
The success of the community aspect of church relies upon dogma. This congregation of unlike individuals can come together peacefully because there is this one thing – this one conversational topic – that doesn’t step on anyone’s toes. You can go to a barbecue and talk about Jesus, go to Bible study and talk about Jesus, go to choir practice and sing about Jesus. The variation of opinion on religion in any one church is so small as to be nonexistent – and not only that, though your only topic of conversation might be Jesus, the people you engage in these activities with are friends. You share something essential to your being in common. And, if you find your beliefs to be too far out of line with your denomination, there is another church down the street with a slightly different set of beliefs that might be better suited.
Skeptics face the difficulty of creating a like environment. In matters of critical thinking, skeptics vary wildly in degree of application. There is the crowd inspired by Phil Plait’s catchphrase – ‘Don’t Be A Dick’. Some segments, on the other hand, believe in foisting critical thinking onto every conversation. No matter how casual the conversation may be, if a person says something that is “wrong”, it must be addressed immediately and with fervor. Even in our own community, we are divided as there is no dogmatic umbrella under which we all entirely fall.
The skeptical groups with the most ardent followers have discovered this fact – and used it to their advantage. The “militant atheists” have very strict guidelines for inclusion to their group. These guidelines are not written anywhere, but try going to an atheist function as a deist. Prepare to defend an assault on your belief system – a belief system that is based solely upon belief itself; a belief system that harms no one. What, dare I ask, is the functional difference between a deist and an atheist? And yet if you dare to claim deism, a pox be upon you.
An even better example, and one I am reticent to give, is Skepchick – quite possibly the most dogmatic faction of all critical thinkers. They certainly claim to have a wide variation of opinion amongst them, but it is the church version of variation – so miniscule that for all practical application it doesn’t exist. Feel free to test this by commenting on a blog entry when you find yourself in disagreement with the statements being presented. All rabble-rousers will find themselves summarily ridiculed, banned, and lumped into the misogynist category with nary a peep from the congregation of the righteous.
I do not begrudge these groups their dogma. In-group/Out-group mentality is, no doubt, an effective platform. However, I personally value conversation without implicit conclusion.
I became a part of the critical thinking community to explore possibilities, not to subscribe to dogma – and yet that seems to be where we are headed. The most vocal and extreme become the leaders – and the average skeptic, the one driven by curiosity, is left out in the cold by their own community.
So, what is the answer? Where do we go from here? I pose the question because I have no idea what the answer is. I am open to ideas; ways to bring conversation, curiosity, and exploration to the forefront of the critical thinking movement, and leave behind those who would feign authority where there is none. We are better united. Now – how do we unite?