Thursday, September 24, 2009

E. J. Dionne report

As promised, I attended a lecture by E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, at a Baptist church tonight. Dionne was there under the auspices of the Texas Freedom Network, promoting his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right. Here's what the incredibly gaudy church background looked like.

Everything Else Atheist was also with me, and she might write up her own reactions later.

The lecture was about what I expected, which is to say, promising but ultimately disappointing. Dionne believes that religion has a solid place in public discourse, and it has been shanghai'd by the religious right unfairly. He told a joke in which a Republican asks a Democrat what the Democrat would do if Jesus ran as a Republican. The Democrat replies "Why would Jesus change his affiliation after all these years?"

Dionne was full of praise for the importance of religion in people's lives, saying that religion grapples with mysteries that science and politics cannot address. (Well yes, in the first place, many of those issues are addressed by science and politics; in the second place, just because religion grapples with them does not mean that it successfully addresses any of them.) He also leveled a great deal of criticism against what he perceives as the unfairly dismissive attitude toward religion by many liberals, saying liberals assume that all religious people are "busybodies obsessed with sex" based on the prevailing opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Dionne did make a good point about the way that "moral values" tend to be framed in politics. He cited a clearly slanted 2004 exit poll which asked voters what issues most strongly influenced their vote. The options included such things as "moral values," "education," "the Iraq war," etc. Dionne rightly pointed out that if you describe either of the latter two as your most important concerns, then you are implicitly agreeing that moral values are less important to you. In reality, as he then pointed out, if neither education nor war is regarded as a moral concern, then there is something seriously wrong with our thinking. On the other hand, I of course believe that it is a mistake to attempt to unduly equate moral values with religious beliefs.

In the end Dionne suggests that it's important for Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to embrace their faith and accept it in public life.

There was a Q&A period where people walked up to microphones. Unfortunately I was not very nimble and wound up sixth in line, with answers to the first five questions taking up a good 5-10 minutes or so each. Luckily he still had time to answer my question, but after I went up he asked the remaining people in line to limit themselves to a brief, unanswered comment. I will try to reconstruct my statement/question from memory, and then summarize his response.

"Mr. Dionne, thank you for coming here tonight. My name is Russell Glasser, my father and I are long time fans of your column. I am also a member of the Atheist Community of Austin." [Dionne jokingly interjected "God bless you" to which I simply replied "Thank you."]

"Speaking as someone from the 15% of voters who do not claim any personal god, I feel that unbelievers are often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to selecting a political party. I believe that somewhere around 80% of us voted for both Kerry and Obama. [Dionne nodded, indicating he was familiar with this.] Many atheists might be there by default, because frankly the Republican party is full of lunatics. I personally know only one atheist Republican, while most atheists who lean conservative gravitate toward the libertarian party.

"I think the reason separation of church and state is so important is not simply because it panders to people like me, but because religion is a deeply personal issue to many people. When political figures interject a religion into the dialogue, they are implicitly excluding other religions. As you pointed out, the religious right say that religious values are focused around gay marriage and abortion, which is different from the beliefs of many of the people in this church now.

"What I'm wondering is: Aren't you concerned that by encouraging politicians on the left to use more religious language, you are buying in to the notion that this sort of exclusion has a place in politics? It seems to me that even this much is conceding too much to the right regarding their perspective about the appropriate role of religion?"

I got a smattering of applause for this remark. Dionne answered that he understands my concerns, and mentions that he always says to believers that they ought to seek out conversations with atheists, because they should be prepared to defend their beliefs. Not quite the answer I was looking for, since I am more interested in wanting to engage with atheists at least partly out of recognition that there is no need to believe in God as a prerequisite to work towards shared social goals.

He then went on to say that it is possible to talk about religion without being disrespectful to nonbelievers, and it is important to do so. Finally, he added encouragingly that he would bet atheists are probably under reported by polling, since fewer people will admit to it.

After talk I saw a few familiar faces. Dr. James Dee popped up in the last set of people interjecting comments and made a comment about needing to read the Bible in the original languages. A regular commenter on this blog came up to me in the lobby and introduced himself, adding that he'll be joining us on the bat cruise this weekend.

In conclusion, I understand what Dionne is trying to do, but I still come away deeply unconvinced by the argument that the solution to religion in politics is more religion in politics. While I agree that it would be a mistake to ignore the role of religion in history, I see no compelling reason to believe that religion is a necessary or sufficient motivator to bring about positive changes. To give credit to God for human achievements is, in my opinion, an insult to human spirit. And considering the potential that religion always has to divide people, I really feel like Democrats should be especially wary of trying to use it for short term gain.


  1. just because religion grapples with them does not mean that it successfully addresses any of them

    Or that they even exist.

  2. "(Well yes, in the first place, many of those issues are addressed by science and politics; in the second place, just because religion grapples with them does not mean that it successfully addresses any of them.)"

    Did you forget that they sometimes invent issues to grapple with and then foist those issues on the rest of us?

  3. > To give credit to God for human achievements is, in my opinion, an insult to human spirit.

    It's also disingenuous to do this while blaming human beings for all the not-so-good things they do. I get credit for all the harm I do, I get no credit for anything remotely positive I accomplish. Seems odd. And I called it actually a "blasphemy" against humanity on another post.

    I never know how to react to religious moderates. On the one hand, certainly the world would be a nicer place if fundamentalist Christians would stop following the Bible and actually just do what they think is kind and nice--like their moderate brethren.

    But then they'd be hypocrites--like their moderate brethren.

    I mean, it would be like joining the KKK, and saying, "Well, I'm mainly here for the social aspects. You know, we have a bake sale where we donate the money to the local food bank. I just don't subscribe to the racist parts. That's not what KKK means to me."

    I am lost as to why a person would subscribe to a god that is only identified and described in the Bible--as a truly monstrous being who, it's fair to say, at times had his gentler moments (when he wasn't mass killing or ordering others to mass kill). Why join up with that god and then just discount that the god is what is described?

    If someone told me, "Here's a book about god," and I get through the first book and he's already killed just about every living thing on the entire planet in his insane wrath, I'm gonna have to pass.

    Why would I say, "Oh yeah, I love this guy--but I bet he's really not as mean as these books say he is. I'm just gonna say that the descriptions are probably exagerated and make up that he's really a great guy. Then I describe myself as one of his followers and just explain to everyone that I made up my own definition of what He is and what He represents."


    The only improvement moderate Christians allow for is in hypocritically watering down the Bible message to make it more acceptable. They're sort of half in and half out. Ironically, while they don't run hot or cold, aren't they the "luke warm" food that Revelation claims god will naturally spit out?

    Revelation 3:
    15.I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!
    16. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

    In Sunday school we always were taught this was about following a doctrine half-hearted. But maybe that was just our take on it? But moderate Christians reject a good part of the Bible and its descriptions of their god, and accept a fraction of that doctrine and being, claiming they are "followers"--they aren't. They're simply doing whatever they like and taping a Christian label to their foreheads--while they reject most of the book as too ugly to be a real representation of their god.

  4. This reminds me of that ancient joke about the guy cleaning up after circus elephants who, when asked why he doesn't get a better job than shoveling crap, responds "What, and leave show business?"

    So many people take this line:

    "Ok, we don't buy the theology. We recognize the intellectual absurdity and moral repugnance of living a modern life according to a Bronze Age ethos. We've never had a supernatural or mystical moment in our lives. We've seen the way religion sanctions and even celebrates unreasoning fear, violence and prejudice.

    We acknowledge the worth of empiricism, humanism and science and how even the benefits of religion - morality, social cohesion, etc. - do not REQUIRE religion to achieve.

    Still, you don't expect us to just dump the whole thing and... and become ATHEISTS or something do you? I mean, isn't that a bit much? ATHEISM?!"

    ...and leave show business?

  5. To mimic what I said on EEA. The realization that the right has as much religious justification for me as I did for my morals was a major moment for me. I can specifically remember the point when I posted some comment on a forum about Jesus being about peace and a right winger religious guy countering about Jesus bringing the sword.

    I was sold...he was 100% right. So I conceded the point, Jesus is/was how he saw him, and got out of the religion.

  6. Thanks for reporting on this Russell, I was curious as to how this would turn out. As an atheist lefty I am always interested in working better with religious progressives.

    I think we probably all have some issues with Dionne's position, and you and Tracie have laid out the big ones already.

    However, I noticed something very interesting and promising about Dionne's response to your question. It was very respectful and tolerant of your atheism, and he recognized you (and all atheists) as political compatriots. This is something I frequently see from progressives in mainstream religions.

    This is in contrast to the behavior of progressives with other woo woo beliefs. I find that liberal homeopaths, pagans, druids, wiccans, and other "spirit folk" often have angry and intolerant reactions to liberal atheists. They seem unable to accept that atheists, or anyone skeptical of their dowsing or psychic powers, can be their political allies.

    In some conversations I have seen progressive Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims defend atheists as good people and genuine progressives against the intolerance of New Age liberals.

    It's interesting to see another example of mature political dialogue from a progressive in a mainstream religion.

    I don't know if my experience is typical or not. Do either of you find that within progressive communities there is more conflict between atheists and woo woo practitioners, than between atheists and mainstream religionists?

    - Fantasmo

  7. It seems to me that [encouraging more faith in politics] is conceding too much to the right regarding their perspective about the appropriate role of religion

    That is what I think too (put in a far softer light). I really think there are two overlapping, yet independent, dialectics at work which confuse people over this issue of religion's role in society. There is the smaller one of liberal- vs. fundamental- Christians, and then there is the larger one of atheist vs. anyone of faith, which often gets little attention. (you may refer to this difference, I think, as an issue of "framing" -- I prefer looking at dialectics instead). People conflate the two dialectics into one continuum-- but they are really separate issues and the former, smaller dialect I think shouldn't concern any non-theist in the least (including Dionne).

    I think Dionne, like many non-theistic people, is stuck in the little dialectic thinking that that is where the "real" social battle is at. He clearly thinks the world would become a much better place if fundamentalism, religious and atheist alike, ended and religious moderates were all that their were. A silly notion, since the term "moderate" is entirely relative, and was chosen only to distinguish them from the fundies. In the greater scheme of outlooks one can adopt in this world, however, I think we all agree there is nothing moderate about any religious position (as, I think, Tracie implies above).

    When I look at the change created by the "New Atheists" I often see it as the moment when the atheist movement finally realized the meaningless of this little dialectic between Christians, and finally turned their focus to the big dialectic in our society -- the one between rational thinking and magical thinking. This is a dialectic that rightfully places all religion together in the same basket along with astrology, numerology, and all the other forms of divination. It is also a difference that I think intellectuals like Mr. Dionne, as well as Michael Ruse, will never understand. While I admire both thinkers on other topics, their blabbering on this subject, for me, is no better than the politics of Vichy was for France in WWII.

  8. To expand on my previous comment, I think this blog post from Greta Christina on the difficulty of being an atheist in the LGBT community highlights what I'm trying to say.

    I think the progressive LGBT individuals she conflicts with have some of the same non-mainstream New Age god beliefs that cause the kind of conflict I was describing.

    - Fantasmo

    P.S. My captcha started with "derp" LOL

  9. @Donovan:

    Regarding the diference between the Abrahamic followers, and new-age woo woo believers; I've found the same.

    Although numerically fewer, I've heard more pointed de-humanising and vitriolic comments directed at atheists (and materialists) from non-theistsic 'spiritual' followers than I have heard from the mainstream religions.

    Anyone have any thoughts on why? They seem to be quite convinced that they are more open-minded than traditional religious followers; so perhaps this plays a role?

  10. @Pombolo

    Just my two cents, but there is an afflictions among many people to believe that they are triangulating between two extremes, and therefore they are above the fray. They see extremists on one side, and opposition to the extremists, and they conclude that the opposition is another side to the same coin.

    This is sometimes referred to as a false equivalence fallacy. It assumes that two opposite sides must have equal weight, but does not acknowledge that one side may simply be *wrong* while the other is not. But once they get it into their heads, they convince themselves that taking any stance that is clearly on one side would be closed minded of them.

  11. @Kazim: Yes, I think I've heard of that referred to as the Golden Mean Fallacy.

    I don't know why I didn't credit it with supernaturalist believers being so polarised.

    It strikes me that they seem to confuse feelings for conclusions: thinking that because I do not reach the end result they do; I cannot therefore have the same intensity of feeling which led them to that result.

  12. Perhaps Steven Weinberg summed it up best:

    "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

  13. Donovan,

    I am curious, is your experience with the these people of woo mostly in on-line interactions?

    I ask because my experience with people who are woo-oriented is as one who lives in a heavily woo-dominated community (Marin County, CA) - and my experience is much the opposite of yours. Atheism here, for the most part, is just another faith here.

    Perhaps this tolerance I see is merely the product of something else in my community, but, unlike Abrahamic faiths -- which have dogma condemning us, a built in hatred of us in their culture, and a long history of persecuting atheists -- the new-age people here have absolutely none of the "baby-eating atheist" fear that I have experienced in Christian dominated communities elsewhere. In my experience, when the woo'ers dislike atheism, they have a real reason for it. It may be irrational or misinformed, but it's not based on some irrational fear of Evil that was hammered into their heads since birth. For me, at least, this lack of fear makes the difference between living in a truly tolerant community and one that merely feigns tolerance. Just my two-cents worth. Good question. It never occurred to me that the woo-bots elsewhere in the nation might be vastly different than those in my community.

  14. There are two problems with "religion has a solid place in public discourse”.

    People believe strongly about their beliefs. To identify someone as holding different beliefs prejudges your estimation of them as “not thinking like me” (and by inference, other people like me; that is, normal people). It’s an easy bit of self-delusion to twist this into “they think the reverse of what I think” on things that matter; they aren’t normal. So telling people to strongly identify with their religious beliefs is a polarizing position; rather than thinking about the issue at hand, it immediately puts people into categorizing people into “us versus them” categories.

    The other problem is that most religions have an inbuilt view that it is the religion that provides you with your morality. By inference, atheists are immoral, because they don’t subscribe to religion. It’s a dishonest mechanism to start any discussion on morality claiming the high ground. Reaching a level playing field requires extreme care and work on the atheists' part (don’t mention crusades, inquisition, witch burnings, etc) before you even get to the matter at hand.

    And all of this assumes that you aren’t dealing with someone who will make appeal after appeal to godly authority, and think that settles the discussion.

    In short, there’s a reason why religion generally isn’t talked about, and that reason goes doubly so in politics.


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