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I wanted to post this as a response to the "Religious debate is pointless, the best cure is prevention" thread, but I was not quick enough.  I would like to politely ask all respondents to address the substantive issues and refrain from resuming the "slapping contest" that got that thread locked.

Religious debate is pointless:

Count me among the roll call of those who were cured of the Christian god-virus by means of atheist argumentation.  Debate does work, at least on a certain subset of believers.  However, there is a wide spectrum between "Pointless" and "Maximally Effective."  Debate works, just not very well--otherwise we would have won a long time ago.

Religious people are "insane" and "should be in an asylum:"

The problem we face here is that our language is fuzzy when it comes to these issues.  See also, "Religious people are delusional."  The distinction to be made here is between the clinical sort of "insanity" that refers to cognitive impairment caused by physical malfunctions in the brain that the victim can't fix by applying techniques of critical thinking (e.g., schizophrenia, clinical depression, eating disorders), and voluntarily-adopted cognitive impairment derived from sloppy thinking (e.g., religion, conspiracy theories, superstitions, over-active agency detection, cryptozoology, homeopathy, general anti-science biases, etc.).  The former is the sort of "insanity" that requires psychological and medical treatment, and should be addressed with compassion, rather than mockery.  The latter is the sort for which mockery may be appropriate, but medical approaches (drugs, forced commitment to an asylum, etc.) are not appropriate, at least not if we want to live in a free society. 

There are numerous problems with conflating the two, not the least of which is the perpetuation of a stigma on (genuine, clinical) mental illness.  It is "OK" in our society to have diabetes or cancer, but if you have a mental illness like schizophrenia or clinical depression, then you're "nuts" or "crazy," and the stigma associated with that can be a disincentive for afflicted people to seek the medical treatment they need.  While I think the kind of crappy "thinking" processes we associate with someone like Michelle Bachman or a dogmatic faith-head like this forum's own Bible Student deserves to be marginalized, especially when aspiring to political power or otherwise attempting to guide the course of society, a clear conceptual line has to be drawn between that and mental illness.  The former is a voluntarily adopted impairment that can be cured by adopting proper epistemic hygiene practices (and thus social pressure should be applied in that direction); the latter is not voluntarily adopted, requires professional treatment, and should not be stigmatized or conflated with voluntary crappy thinking. 

Religion is harmful/religious people are harmful:

I think that religion is harmful to the extent that it impedes the practice of rationality in thinking and in life.  Most religions attempt to rope off certain ideas, doctrines, organizations, leaders, etc. into a Reality-Free Zone.  When it comes to these special ideas, all of the mental vigilance/epistemic hygiene techniques we would normally apply to, say, used car salesmen or ads for diet pills, are supposed to be switched off in favor of "faith" "the heart" "higher knowledge" or some other form of "just knowing."  This causes harm in several ways.

1) Rejection of reality: The purpose of the Methods of Rationality is to orient human cognition and action to reality as much as possible.  That is, to conform our mental models of reality to reality itself, and orient our actions toward maximum efficacy.  Creating a Reality-Free Zone in our heads sabotages this process, especially when individual or social decisions are made on the basis of ideas that are "above" criticism, reality-testing, or re-evaluation.  Since reality always bats last, and it is indifferent to whatever levels of wannabelieve humans may wish to apply to the contents of their mental Reality-Free Zones, those "sacred" beliefs and decisions represent a kind of Russian roulette where the bullets are unpleasant consequences that can occur at any time.

2) Failure of quarantine: Most people with Reality-Free Zones in their heads are more or less able to function normally, most of the time.  They may claim a belief that the personal Creator of the Cosmos listens to their entreaties and alters the generalized principles of physics on their behalf (sometimes), but when it comes to modeling the anticipated behavior of reality and acting accordingly, they live in the same godless Universe we do.  If they need money, they seek employment rather than trying to catch a fish, expecting a gold coin to fall out of its mouth.  If their child is sick, they take them to a hospital, rather than to the elders of the church (James 5:14-15).  The problem here is that maintaining the quarantine is incredibly difficult, especially since the believer cannot openly acknowledge that they're doing it.  To do so would be to admit that their cherished beliefs are incompatible with reality, and they know it. 

Just as a lie can only be defended by a bodyguard of other lies (which must themselves be defended, and so on), a false belief must be defended by other false beliefs and deliberate impairment of accurate thinking.  If a person wants to place "The Earth was created ~10,000 years ago" into their Reality-Free Zone, they have to deny scientific cosmology and evolution.  Which means they have to deny all the evidence for scientific cosmology and evolution.  Which is pretty much everything to be found in any science textbook or museum.  Denying the evidence requires denying the method used to collect, analyze, and draw conclusions from that evidence.  So now they've rejected everything humans have ever discovered about how reality works, and the only demonstrably workable method of discovering how reality works.  How then, can they be capable of making valid voting decisions about things like stem cell research, nuclear power, nanotechnology, or climate change?  Similar error-propagation problems arise from placing things like "homeopathy" and "Secret"-style mind-over matter in a Reality-Free Zone.

3) The Usual Nasties: Most religions are (or claim to be) ancient, and their "holy books," "traditions," ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc. tend to reflect and perpetuate ancient biases, bigotries, taboos, and hegemonic privilege systems (e.g. patriarchy) that are neither ethically valid nor applicable in reality.  Most of us know it would be incredibly foolish to continue to live by ancient medical knowledge, sanitation practices, or governance systems (e.g. absolutist monarchy).  It is equally foolish to halo-wrap the moral systems, taboos, and biases of ancient barbarian warriors as "sacred teachings" and apply them to our lives today, even in watered-down, partial form.

Liberal believers:

In the other thread, Traveler raised the issue of liberal believers who support rational attitudes toward political issues, sex, homosexual rights, etc..  One of my favorite examples of the type is liberal Evangelical Fred Clark of Slacktivist, along with many of his regular commentators.  Fred staunchly opposes the malign tendencies of Evangelical fundamentalism, and is rightly famed for his magnificent ongoing page-by-page deconstruction of the Left Behind series.  His commentariat is a mixture of liberal Christians of various sorts, Pagans, atheists, etc., and they generally get along quite well.  The believers openly oppose anti-atheist bigotry, reject the notion that non-Christians go to Hell (and generally, the notion of Hell altogether), and support the separation of church and state.  The atheists don't clobber the believers with how delusional they are, and the Pagans coexist peacefully with both.  LGBTQ people are also welcomed and accepted there.  I think America would be a much nicer place if it was a macrocosm of Fred Clark's blog community.

The main difficulty I have with liberal Christians relates to the "Reality-Free Zone"/"Failure of quarantine" issues discussed above.  Even the very liberal Christians all the way over in Spong-land have to maintain some degree of reverence for the Bible.  Bishop Spong has written a book called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  I haven't read that book[1] but judging from the title, I think he has it exactly backwards.  His sort of non-theistic "Christianity" (as well as any other Christian variant aiming to promote an accepting, secular, humanistic approach) needs to be rescued from the Bible, rather than try to rescue it.  The Bible does promote "fundamentalist" attitudes, persecution of other belief systems, subjugation of women, slavery, genocide, and the notion of a brutal, wrathful god.  While there are passages that liberals can legitimately appeal to in support of their positions, the most extreme fundamentalists have at least as much Biblical support. 

Liberal Christians do provide cover for fundamentalists even if they don't intend to, i.e., "See?  Christianity isn't all bad!  Shouldn't we embrace people like Fred Clark instead of ridiculing their beliefs?"  Liberal Christianity perpetuates the notion that the Bible is "the Good Book," that churches and Sunday Schools are a good place to go for morals, and so on.  It's like a dormant or benign form of a virus that still contains the DNA for the more harmful/virulent strain.  Children of liberal Christians who grow up accepting the haloed veneer of goodness around Jesus and the Bible may, upon further reading, decide to take it seriously and uphold the fundamentalist/conservative passages.  At the very least, Christian "civil religion" (swearing on Bibles in court, Presidents needing to end every speech with "God bless America," etc.) receives cover because liberals help perpetuate the idea that Christianity is a benevolent faith.

Which wouldn't be so bad if it really was.  The problem is, liberal Christians get their liberalism from the advances of secular, Enlightenment culture and retcon them onto the Bible, not the other way around.  When Christians had unquestioned dominance in society, they fiercely opposed the advance of freedom, scientific inquiry, the rights of women, etc..  It was only after the churches suffered decisive defeat that Christians started trying to adapt themselves to the Enlightenment by moving in the direction of open-minded liberalism.  As long as they have the Bible and all of its atavistic barbarian attitudes hung around their necks (and the burden of SPAG and anti-cognitive defense of Reality-Free Zones that comes with it), they will always be struggling to tread water. 

I think liberal Christians would be better off if they could shake off the Bible altogether.  From a Protestant perspective, there is no reason that rejection of the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic Church cannot extend to rejection of its authority to "canonize" certain ancient texts as "the Word of God."  IOW, a liberal Christian church would be just as much at liberty to de-"canonize" the Bible as it is to reject the authority of the Catholic Church on things like contraception and abortion or "ex cathedra" pronouncements of Popes.  They could "canonize" more enlightened ancient texts like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, or better yet, no texts at all, and derive their "Christianity" from philosophical theology and/or mystical experience/gnosis of "Christ."  They'd still have a Reality-Free Zone and the problems that entails, but at least it would be smaller, and they wouldn't have to ignore/defend/allegorize/make excuses for things like the Book of Joshua or Noah's Flood.  If they did this, they could be allies in an effort to marginalize the Bible and its teachings.

My opinion on how atheists should act toward liberal Christians: save them for last.  Use our argumentative firepower and ridicule to marginalize the Bible and belief in it.  Drive a wedge between liberal Christians and the Bible.  They've already abandoned the idea that it's inerrant or historically accurate, and they don't really use it as the source code for their beliefs.[2]  They just need to go one more step to free themselves from it entirely, and increase their rationality quotient from there.

One more problem liberal Christians cause: the Sophisticated Theology Double-Bind.  If we focus our attacks on fundamentalism, they chide us for failing to address the "sophisticated" theology their beliefs are ostensibly based on.  If we attack that, we're accused of alienating potential allies or lumping all religious people together.  It's a setup designed to spare Christianity from criticism, rather than get at the most accurate possible understanding of reality.

Raising the Rationality Waterline:

Religion is only a symptom of a larger problem: Humanity's rationality waterline is ridiculously low.  It is only one manifestation of a generally acceptable level of irrationality that permits things like anti-science attitudes, denial of climate change and peak oil, belief in homeopathy and other alternative "medicine" that doesn't work, etc..  A person may be persuaded to reject Christianity, UFO's, psi, and other "woo" but still lack the ability to identify and counter the effects of cognitive biases, manipulative advertizing, propaganda, etc., rationally analyze political, economic, and environmental policies, and consistently make life decisions that advance their goals and happiness.  While religion is a direct problem, and some efforts should be directed against it, eliminating religion would only represent the most basic of steps toward a rational society.  On the other hand, if we could find ways to teach the Methods of Rationality more broadly, while refining and improving them in a manner comparable to the way martial arts disciplines refine and improve methods of physical combat, so that there is a greater general expectation of rational, critical thought and action in society, a raised Rationality Waterline would submerge and drown most religion, woo, and cognitive failure.
 1. I have read some of his other works, so I have a general idea of his theological perspective.
 2. It's more like a piece of malware running in the background, using up computing cycles and subtly hampering their thought processes.
Changed Change Reason Date
kaziglu bey Brilliant! As usual! December 29, 2011, 03:50:22 AM
Samothec very eloquent and rational December 28, 2011, 11:05:51 PM
jaimehlers Very apt. November 28, 2011, 10:27:09 AM
screwtape great post November 27, 2011, 11:09:00 PM
Traveler well put. I esp. like your thoughts on the bible November 27, 2011, 12:54:40 PM
JL Good post, thank you :) Cute avatar too November 27, 2011, 12:08:55 PM
curiousgirl nice post November 27, 2011, 11:14:36 AM