Wednesday, September 13, 2006

For the love of God, Montressor

All this global jihad, all this conservative Christianity... so bogus. These days the media's focus is on Islamic extremism because of Iraq and the 9/11 anniversary. As a side note, ABC recently aired a docudrama about 9/11 that raised hackles over some right-leaning inaccruacies, as noted by Defective Yeti. But the show apparently sucked in other ways and no one watched it. American Christian fundamentalism is no longer big news (remember Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and "God hates fags"?).

In the eyes of today’s Islamic hard-liners, all Americans, Jews, etc. are infidels, of course, but The War for Islam in the Boston Globe discusses the intra-Muslim struggle that’s also happening. The article notes that the "Islamic Reformation" is fueled by growing literacy and ease of access to the Koran, and varying interpretations thereof -- including the old-style puritanical views by bin Laden et al. Thanks partly to the Internet and widespread translation of the Koran, there are now violent struggles over whether the traditional clerical establishment or the modern and more enlightened individual defines the faith, and how they choose to do so, much like the earlier Christian Reformation. This makes sense: look what happened when they started doing Jewish and Catholic services in the local tongue, as opposed to only Hebrew or Latin, Nothin' but trouble. Better for the religious establishment to have an ignorant flock.

Though an atheist myself, I certainly don't begrudge anyone observing their religious beliefs (and I think France has gone too far in banning religious headgear in public). The problem, as always, is when religious observance gets all in other people's faces, like when religious people think God wants them to kill other people. Although most of them also say that God is all about love and comfort and compassion and rules of moral conduct. All together now: cognitive dissonance! People like to be told what to do. The 9/11 bombers had very specific instructions on how to think and behave in ways that would please God during their final hours. Frontline, by the way, also has a really good interview with Ian McEwan about his reaction as an atheist to 9/11.

Zealots of all types tend to have tunnel vision that excludes much of the world outside their particular "thing." But religious extremism has this element of coercion -- forcing others to adopt your rules of conduct. They think it’s their job to make others do what they think is right, and to make them refrain from what is ostensibly wrong. It’s weird. There are people who are obsessive about running or math, but they don't spend their time figuring out how to force everyone else to become runners or mathematicians.

Religion even in its milder forms exists because people are terrified of doubt, the antithesis of faith. I can see that – for example, it's truly terrifying to doubt yourself (like when you've just started a college course and you realize you're in way over your head). For some people it's also scary, in a chaotic and often painful world, to doubt that there's some benevolent being with the power of comfort and perhaps even the power to guide actions and events in some sensible way that we probably can't comprehend.

This is the point at which atheists and people of faith part ways, but I haven't figured out why. Are atheists are intrinsically more intelligent or more courageous in the face of adversity? I don’t think so. Or is it all just inescapable indoctrination from childhood? Richard Feynman said, "God was invented to explain mystery, to explain those things that you do not understand... I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me... I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Why is this sentiment "normal" for some people and intolerable to others?

Put another way, faith is incompatible with randomness, or the notion that things happen for no reason at all. For some reason there’s a human trait called magical thinking that favors seeing patterns, coincidences, and unproven cause-and-effect relationships. Yet you could also argue that magical thinking stems frlom the same impulse as faith: a drive to seek explanations of how and why things work, even if that explanation happens to be “it’s unknowable – we can’t understand God’s ways.” The Wikipedia article notes that "people tend to seek confirmation of their hypotheses, rather than seeking refutation as in the scientific method." And confirmation is a religious term as well. It’s all very confusing. I think I’ll watch a Red Sox game instead.

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