Here’s a redacted set of outtakes from my side of religion Facebook arguments I’ve been having. Of course they’re inspired by the tragedy in France. I’d really like to be done with this, but as soon as I’m out, they pull me right back in. Enjoy!
Science has increasingly wrested epistemology from religion, at least where the so-called natural world is concerned, but it does not replace foundational values nor help us order and negotiate them. Western culture is in dialog with Christianity. It’s probably no mistake that Christianity and secularism have risen together, nor that despite a long, bloody negotiation we’ve increasingly valued free speech. Consider that, according to the story, the founder of Christianity could have retaliated against those who tortured him, mocked him, and spit on him but didn’t — that he thereby proved his strength, not his weakness. Take it as just a story if you must, but you have to acknowledge the strong value of free speech therein implied.
We each have our own system of values that we need to align with those of others. That process of alignment is ongoing, ultimately irrational, and takes work and massive energy investment. We know what a society is like if it creates a state religion or expunges itself of religion through coercion. Its practice of values is narrow and despotic. So far, our Founding Fathers seem to have engineered a good compromise. Of course, free speech is vital to that compromise. I do have misgivings that some major religions will need to either reform or go.
People don’t just make up religious stories. They negotiate them. In evolutionary terms, these stories are the semi-coherent noise produced by a range of phenotypes struggling to propagate among various environments — and, in the case of the Abrahamic religions, especially arid environments (and deserts are a powerful universal symbol, wherever you grow up). The stories are a pattern, not a narrative set down by a discrete auteur. One can’t pretend that literary criticism neatly applies. If it did, a literary genius could simply create a tidy religion and be done. It doesn’t work that way. And saying so is not being an apologist for the grim spectacle of religion; it’s simply stating a fact.
Literalist, dogmatic religion is a cultural artifact that I hope we can outgrow. Religion itself? Very unlikely. And those secular humanists who don’t acknowledge that undermine the very project of reason and fairness they hope to support.
There are Christians and other religious people who embrace scientific epistemology and aren’t enemies of progress, and it’s counterproductive to pretend such religious people don’t exist and to mock those on the fence while trying to encourage them to be rational.