Saturday, June 1, 2013

Pluralism ≈ Disney Movies (Cute but Impossible)

Tolerance is often touted as a great virtue. Indeed, it’s kinda necessary for a world of diverse people with diverse cultures and diverse beliefs to share the planet without killing each other. For much of human history, killing “the other” was pretty much standard, but society has mostly (though by no means completely) evolved beyond that. I would consider myself a fan of not killing people, so on the whole I have to say that I support the idea of tolerance and, specifically, religious tolerance. However, while I approve of the “live and let live” approach that most religious people have taken, the complacent stance of accepting other religions as valid puzzles me.

This idea is encapsulated in the popular “Coexist” bumper stickers, the owners of which are basically saying “I don’t agree with your beliefs, and you probably don’t agree with mine, but let’s get along anyway.” It’s a practical sentiment to hold...but it doesn’t strike me as terribly logical from a religious standpoint. As Sam Harris said, ”Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.” If you really and truly believe in all the tenets of your religion (and your religion involves Heaven and Hell), you should do everything in your power to convince everyone you care about that your particular set of religious beliefs is correct because, presumably, you want these people to go to Heaven. Most people don’t do this as it’s not convenient and, I would argue, most people don’t truly believe their religion is entirely correct. Certainly, religiously hardcore people will go through the effort of proselytizing and trying to convert others (or, alternatively, waging war on those insidious infidels), but most people don’t bother to go to such lengths.

Another interpretation of those bumper stickers takes the idea of tolerance a step further and actually allows for different religions to be simultaneously valid; this is the inherently absurd idea of “religious pluralism.” I’m sure there are some really nice people who buy into this idea...but really? You think it’s somehow possible for all these different religions to be correct? Really? Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship one god...but it is most certainly not the same god. You can’t make the case that it’s the same god. You just can’t. It’s like saying that baseball, basketball, and Baseketball are all the same sport. The Bible, Torah, and Koran are disparate books with disparate tenets and disparate messages. Jesus and Muhammad were not homeboys, so it’s rather hard to reconcile their respective existences and accept both Christianity and Islam as viable pathways to Heaven. Islam recognizes Jesus as having existed, but he’s just another dude; Christianity doesn’t even care about Muhammad. They can’t both be right. Polytheistic religions, obviously, are an entirely different beast (like an elephant, perhaps). No matter how powerful a given god may be, he cannot do the impossible and make both a monotheistic religion and a polytheistic religion correct.

In fact, that statement applies to virtually any combination of religions. So why do people pretend that it’s possible when it clearly isn’t? If there truly was a loving god in existence (who genuinely wanted everyone to praise him, follow his rules, and eventually end up joining him in Heaven), he would not allow so many people who are willing to accept the idea of a deity, accept the concept of intelligent design, and accept the idea that they need to devote their lives to the “one true God” to blindly follow the wrong set of rules. That’s not loving; that’s sadistic.

This may be another example where one might try to invoke the old “God works in mysterious ways” or “we are incapable of understanding His plan” bullshit. There is simply no way to reconcile the propositions of all the different religions on this planet, each with their own sizable following. It is not possible for all of those religions to be correct, which means that either one of them is correct or none of them are correct. Multiple versions being correct is not an option. If you believe that the only way to get to Heaven is by accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you cannot also believe that people who do not accept Jesus Christ can go to Heaven. This is a tenet of Christianity. Jews and Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as their Savior; therefore, if you’re a Christian, you must believe that they’re going to hell. There’s no wiggle room here (unless you believe in predestination, in which case you might as well worship Santa). Either you believe Jesus Christ died for your sins, or you don’t. There are either zero gods, one god, or many gods. Working on the Sabbath is either a mortal sin or it isn’t.

So, let’s say that rather than no religions being correct, one of them turns out to be spot on. Let’s say it’s Christianity, and you’re in the camp that believes in Jesus. You’re saved, and that’s great for you. But what about the rest of the world? There are billions of people in this world who are willing to buy into a religion and worship one god, but it is impossible for all of these people to be saved since, regardless of which religion is correct, the majority of the world is wrong. Do you think that God is so callous that He will allow everyone else to go to Hell for eternity just because they were born in the wrong part of the world and they grew up with the wrong parents who bought into the wrong book? And you consider this to be a loving god? Really?! Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but condemning the majority of the world to eternal damnation for something that they have no control over (where they are born and what their parents believe) would make such a god a complete and total jerk. I hate to keep bringing this point up, but there’s no getting around it: people who subscribe to a monotheistic religion worship an asshole.

Back to everyone’s favorite uncomfortable topic: proselytizing. If you truly believed that your religion was the correct one, shouldn’t you be trying to convert the followers of other religions to save them from eternal torment rather than accepting their differences and tolerating them under some kind of religious “separate but equal” loophole? So what causes people to buy “Coexist” bumper stickers and proudly display them? I can only imagine this is because these people are tired of seeing violence and hatred in the name of religion. Which is admirable, at face value: violence and hatred in the name of religion is senseless, especially when so many religions claim to preach love. But then there’s the fact that most religions also preach their own superiority, and it’s hard to be loving and tolerant when you hold The Truth.

Getting into scripture further precludes tolerance, regardless of which monotheistic religion one adheres to:

”Be very careful never to make treaties with the people in the land where you are going. If you do, you soon will be following their evil ways. Instead, you must break down their pagan altars, smash the sacred pillars they worship, and cut down their carved images. You must worship no other gods, but only the Lord, for he is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you. Do not make treaties of any kind with the people living in the land. They are spiritual prostitutes, committing adultery against me by sacrificing to their gods. If you make peace with them, they will invite you to go with them to worship their gods, and you are likely to do it. And you will accept their daughters, who worship other gods, as wives for your sons. Then they will cause your sons to commit adultery against me by worshiping other gods.” (Exodus 34:12-16)

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

“[Jesus] said, ‘Indeed, I am the servant of Allah . He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.’ That is Jesus, the son of Mary - the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not [befitting] for Allah to take a son; exalted is He! When He decrees an affair, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is. [Jesus said], ‘And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.’ Then the factions differed [concerning Jesus] from among them, so woe to those who disbelieved - from the scene of a tremendous Day. How [clearly] they will hear and see the Day they come to Us, but the wrongdoers today are in clear error. And warn them, [O Muhammad], of the Day of Regret, when the matter will be concluded; and [yet], they are in [a state of] heedlessness, and they do not believe. Indeed, it is We who will inherit the earth and whoever is on it, and to Us they will be returned.” (Koran 19: 30-40)

Sorry about the lack of readability in that Koran quote--I didn’t enjoy it, either, but it makes my point: religions do not allow for other religions. The books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not play nice with each other; it’s mildly shocking that so many of their adherents have managed to do so. Obviously, there are many cases of extremists who do not, but most people find a way to reconcile their religious beliefs with the fact that not everyone shares them.

My sister recently posted a link to this article addressing religious pluralism from one Christian’s point of view (reading it might make your head hurt if you think about it too much, so do so at your own risk). I appreciate the fact that the author believes strongly enough in Christianity to denounce the absurd idea that religious pluralism has any merit whatsoever, and he even has a few good points: some religions are objectively harmful, they don’t all teach some version of essentially the same thing, and there is simply no way that they can all be right (making the point that monotheism and polytheism are inherently at odds with each other).

Unfortunately, the dude suffers from some wickedly severe cognitive dissonance. Even taking into account the fact that I’m likely to view any theological arguments with an atheist tint, this post struck me as borderline idiotic. First of all, the fact that some religions are more harmful than others says absolutely nothing about their validity. There’s nothing preventing the creator of the universe from having a fetish for human sacrifices. Just because a religion is inherently “bad” does not mean it is inherently false. If genital mutilation actually was required to get into heaven then those actions would be justified. A loving god is much easier for moral people to worship, but there’s no reason to think that any creator of the universe is loving. Would a loving god cause half the human population to bleed for a few days every month? Or allow George Bush to get elected twice? Or allow The Spice Girls to break up? No, I think not. No being that allows Posh and Sporty Spice to separate and stop making the greatest music the world has ever heard could conceivably be said to be “loving.”

The author, who I’ll call Dan (because that’s his name), writes:

“In most areas of human knowledge, when you encounter contradictory views you don't throw up your hands and concede, ‘they're both true.’ No, you study hard, make an informed choice, then remain open to further insight. Note, too, how this Christian view is far more tolerant and liberal than atheism. Whereas pluralism claims all religions are true, atheism claims all religions are false; Christians reject both of those positions in favor of a middle ground.”

So...atheists don’t study hard, make informed choices, or remain open to further insights? I don’t mean to sully this cultured conversation I’ve started here with profanity, but are you fucking serious? To be brought up with monotheism and later convert to atheism absolutely requires one to take all three of those actions and, further, to be open-minded enough to actually change those long-held beliefs that one was indoctrinated with. But no, Dan, you’re right--Christians who adhere to the dogma they’ve been brought up with their whole lives are totally more liberal than us heathens who have actually bothered to think through the logistics of your ridiculously illogical religion. Further, given some actual evidence that your god existed, I could actually change my mind again. As it is pretty much impossible to disprove the existence of a god, is it even possible for you to be open-minded enough to change your mind? Congratulations on your “middle ground” of irrationality. Very tolerant of you to accept one more religion than I do.

Here’s another fun quote: “There are many things in the Bible that I don't understand, but I have absolute confidence that God will treat every person with perfect love and justice (Job 34:10).” First of all, how can you have absolute confidence about anything relating to God when there are many things in the Bible you don’t understand? Second, how in the hell could you possibly come to that conclusion? What world do you live in where ever person is treated with love and justice? Because of that Bible verse, which says “Listen to me, you who have understanding. Everyone knows that God doesn’t sin! The Almighty can do no wrong?” Holy-fucking-batshit-crazy wishful thinking, Batman! I’ve been a middle-class white male my entire life so I have no right to legitimately complain about anything, but I’ve got the sense to realize that not everyone leads such an easy life. You yourself complained about Aztec human sacrifice, Hindu widow burning, and female infanticide--were those victims treated with love and justice? What an absurd thing to be absolutely confident about.

Veering away from pluralism for a bit, he admonished Thomas Jefferson for picking and choosing verses of the Bible that actually make Christianity seem reasonable...and then proceeded to pick and choose verses to support his view of Christianity. How delightful! Alanis Morrisette and I really enjoyed that part, and I’m not even sure if she’s figured out what irony is yet. I honestly don’t think he even realized what a terribly illogical argument he made; he basically said “You can’t throw out the parts of the Bible you don’t like, you just have to remember that this is what the entire Bible is about: the parts that I like.” Very sound reasoning, good sir.

Then, to prove that he’s not the only apologist capable of holy-fucking-batshit-crazy wishful thinking (again, sorry about the profanity, but I’m not sure how to accurately describe the level of delusion without it), he offers a quote from CS Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, among a bunch of other books):

"Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

Well, how about that? Being the crazy person that I am, I’ve always thought that was the single most damning argument against Christianity: their god is supposedly an unconditional lover, yet he only allows those who accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior into Heaven, sending the rest of humanity to suffer eternal damnation in Hell. Welp, I guess we can just assume that he’s got some other plan in place for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into Christianity. Problem solved. I guess religion is optional. Because, you know, that sounds totally plausible.

Sadly, this seems to be a legitimate explanation to most Christians who struggle with the idea that people are sent to Hell by no fault of their own: “Oh, it’s OK. God won’t punish them because He’s a nice guy. I mean, I still accept Jesus as my savior, of course, but I’m sure the other two-thirds of the world will be just fine even though they have no chance of accepting Jesus as their savior.” Does this sound insane to anyone else? Can you think of a more prevalent example of wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance? These two ideas are completely at odds with each other: 1) the only way to Heaven is through Jesus and 2) people who have never heard of Jesus can still go to Heaven. Does. Not. Compute.

To summarize: religious pluralism is an incredibly ridiculous proposition and I’m not entirely sure how any sane person can legitimately believe in it. I don’t think many people buy into it as they consider their religion of choice to ultimately be the only “true” religion...but all moral people still struggle with the idea that so many innocent people could be sent to Hell over something they could not reasonably be expected to control. Solutions include hoping for loopholes, different requirements for different people, God being an asshole, and just outright ignoring the problem because it’s terribly depressing to think about. Needless to say, none of those trains of thought are very satisfying. Of course, satisfaction can be had by believing what is by far the most logical answer to this moral quandary: there is no god, all religions are incorrect, and no one needlessly suffers eternal damnation because Hell does not exist. Atheists may not get the comfort that comes from believing they’ll go to Heaven when they die, but we also don’t have to deal with the distress of believing that most people go to Hell when they die. Isn’t it nice when the morally superior stance and the most logical stance are one in the same?