Over at Scott Walters’ Theatre Ideas, I got into some snippy comment action with Scott and Nick of Rat Sass. At issue is the Daisey Affair: the mass exodus from Daisey’s Invincible Summer at ART in Boston, which some at first thought was a kind of Christian-right protest-disruption. It was a group of 87 spectators, most of whom were high-school students from Norco, CA. Now, it turns out that while there may have been persons in that party of a delicate Christian sensibility, it is inaccurate to tar the group evangelical or right-wing. Not fully recognizing the facts, I dashed off an anti-religious post here. Scott took me to task for my hasty judgment. He seems to imply that I hurt a bunch of teens and am an intolerant elitist snob. So herewith, if any teen who was in the group read my post and was insulted, offended, etc, then I am sorry to have misrepresented you. (I personally doubt that I could mortify them more than their teachers and chaperones already have.) As for being elitist or snobby, partially guilty! I’m a paid critic. Sometimes my job is to be a snob.
It’s their shrill charge of intolerance that’s supposed to stick.
Scott & Nick seem offended by my unwillingness to make some show of respect to people who worship gods and cling to supernatural beliefs impervious to verification by reason or science. My insistence on criticizing, ridiculing and generally disrespecting persons of faith is, they cry, fundamentalism. By that logic, if you were to tell me that a beautiful fairy came to you in a dream and said that I must wear a polka-dot unitard every day or I’ll burn in hellfire, and I laughed in your face, I could be accused of bigotry. Persecution, perhaps. People of faith (POFs) are therefore to be seen as a despised, embattled minority and they need our support and deferential respect.
Scott & Nick are staking out an interesting, somewhat paradoxical position: extremist moderation! Believers can't prove that God exists. I can't prove that God doesn't exist. So we're both wrong. The only thing that Scott & Nick can be sure of is: They know that we don't know, but also that we don't know that we don't know. Anyone who says he knows, actually doesn't really know, because, y'know, Scott & Nick know.
Thus there is no difference between me and a fundamentalist POF who believes that all unbelievers are hellbound. Actually, I would argue that the POFs already are in hell. To me, religious conviction in this day and age is a form of intellectual damnation.
But still: Am I fundamentalist?
I don’t believe in God. To me, the non-existence of God is a natural fact and I’ve never seen or heard or even sensed anything to sway me otherwise. It’s an easy default state. I go about my life—thinking, loving, eating, writing, enjoying art and sunny days—sans worry what an invisible, anthropomorphized omni-plenipotentiary thinks about that extra scoop of ice cream or that lustful fleeting fancy in my mind.
On the other hand, the anthropological, political and social usefulness of religion has been clear to me from childhood. It is extremely convenient, and has been for millennia, for a great many people to believe, and for a tiny number of clerics to direct the energies and actions of the flock. Religion is a form of social control by (mostly) men, a byproduct of adaptive processes in developing humans, and a historically fascinating form of social organization that has outlived its primary use: keeping your tribe alive while wiping out the other tribe.
Yes, there is a great deal of difference between a Western Unitarian model of worship, which says something like:
“I am sorry you don’t share my belief in a benevolent, loving Mother-Father Supreme Being who embraces the entire human race regardless of age, race, sex, creed, nationality or even whether you believe. But I love you and cherish your individuality--yet also your non-individuality--in that we are all points of light in the great luminous tapestry of Universal Oneness that Mother-Father-God created.”
And the plucky credo of the expunging zealot:
“By persisting in your infidel ways, you allow me to cut your throat, rape your wife and spit your babies on my sword over a raging fire that consumes your screaming parents.”
After a few close readings, you'll notice a difference in style. To lump those polite, modest POFs in with the fanatical killers—unfair, no? Well, sure, I lose less sleep over marauding Unitarian hordes. But I don’t take their claims any more seriously. And I’d still be loathe to vote them into office. Even for dogcatcher.
If I were a fundamentalist atheist, I would want to herd all POFs into a camp, to quarantine their insanity from the rest of the population. I would never do such a thing, even if I had a magic wand. But religion will never get a pass from me. To me, a fundamentalist is, among other things, an individual whose beliefs lead him to inhumane action, regardless of the harm they cause to others or how they contradict the tenets of his belief (“Thou shalt not kill…except...”) Terrorism is the extreme form. Speech acts and writing can sting, I know, but if your Word of God cannot protect you from the occasional barb or sneer on a blog, then heaven help you. Perhaps, like Brothers Scott & Nick, you want to shame staunch atheists into towing a morally bankrupt agnostic line in which it’s OK to believe in God ("...just please don’t bomb me...") They can go to hell.