July 16, 2003

A Very Sad Case, II

What is brighter than the sun? yet the light thereof faileth; and flesh and blood will imagine evil.

-- Ecclesiasticus 17:31


ONE COULD SUBMIT that the intense reaction to Dr Daniel Dennett's recent commentary about "brights" in The New York Times is evidence that the Republic is not yet lost. For Dr Dennett's supporters and detractors have largely produced excellent work defending their theological beliefs.

Let us examine but a small portion of these opinions:

Andrea Harris has argued the operating phrase for "brights" ought to truly be "smugs." Dean Esmay has proclaimed he is still a "bright," and in such a way that I think he ought to have written instead of Dennett on the Gray Lady's pages.

Meanwhile, Telford Work offers his own opinion; as does Kieran Healy and Charles Murtaugh. Four of the five preceeding articles were noted over at Camassia; while Camassia kindly also links my work.

Brian Linse offers up a very well-written and erudite post on the "bright" movement and his own atheism, which you should all read. (Full disclosure: Mr Linse was quite complimentary to my own first post on the subject). Finally, Geoff Brown has a post on a related matter, with which I do not agree; but perhaps another time for that.

My position on the matter has not changed. However, I would like to address the comments which readers have addressed here at The Rant, as I feel it is important that I do so.

First off, Mr Esmay remarks that it would be nice if brights had a symbol to go with their newly-appropriated word. On a temporal level, I must agree with this, as he makes the logical point that having such a symbol could quiet the militants who insist religious displays must be banished.

You know, Mr Esmay's comment got me to thinking, and I thought up an adequate symbol for the "bright" movement -- one I think they probably would have truly liked. But after giving the idea a lot of thought, I decided against sharing it. It is not my place to suggest a symbol. The least of my reasons is that I am not one of them. On a spiritual level, though, I must also admit that in my heart, I would prefer that atheists had no symbol. One cannot force a man to believe in God, and I certainly have no quarrel with those who do not. But my fear, to be honest about it, is that it might strengthen a movement of which a minority of adherents are openly hostile to religion. Religion, I would argue, is a positive force in life; it is painful to see some people's openly negative reactions to it. Not, I hasten to add, that Mr Esmay is such a person; not at all. Go read his essay and you shall see that he does not mind even folks like me.

OK -- moving on! (You would not believe how much time I spent wrestling with that; how I detest my own pusillanimy sometimes).

Some commenters -- SFT was the first -- took issue with my witticism regarding Dr Dennett's first sentence and its reference to "us brights." I partially accept blame for this. I made the mistake of reading "us" as the subject, instead of the correct subject ("The time"). "Us" is clearly the direct object and as such the sentence is correct.

That said, it was a badly-composed opening sentence and Dr Dennett should have done much better in writing it! Gad! "Us brights" indeed; good way to create a trip-up right there. The second sentence wasn't much better, either. One ought not use rhetorical questions when writing.

I know that is being overly harsh; I admit it. But come on, though! I have to save some face here :-D.

Geoff, you have your link in the above reference. You're very welcome, and keep on blogging.

I would also like to say that I very much appreciate Kevin White's thoughtful and gracious response to my post. It is a very reasonable, rational and kind-hearted composition.

Finally, Max Power numbered his complaints for me in point-by-point form. I must say I appreciate that as it makes it easy for me to respond. Here is that response:

1. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. What can I say? Nobody's perfect :-D.

2. When Dr Dennett or anyone else compares belief in God to belief in the physical existence of the Easter Bunny, The Rabbit from the Trix Commercials, or the Tooth Fairy, it is quite insulting to religious people. That's because we do not believe in the existence of these things either; we all agree these are childish figments of the imagination or marketing concepts. So to compare theism with a four-year-old's outlook on life is necessarily arrogant and an insult.

Now, if an atheist and a theist are having coffee after a nice dinner and they get into a nice discussion on theology, we would not be offended by your first statement that you believe God is man's creation. That truly represents a difference of opinion. However, folks like Dr Dennett do not confine themselves to such statements: they go a bit further. I don't doubt you honestly believe that Dr Dennett's essay was not rude or offensive; but then you are in the choir to which he is preaching.

Naturally, this also means your original question is flawed. There are many religious believers who do place an emphasis on hellfire and brimstone; but the mere statement that "I am a Christian" merely conveys the fact that I happen to hold to a particular world-view. It is not a glove thrown in the face, and neither is saying, "I am an atheist." Such things are badges of identity and nothing more.

I don't know you, so I don't know whether you don't care for organized religion or if you are merely playing -- ha, ha -- devil's advocate. But your statement that if a man identifies himself as a follower to Religion X, he is automatically condemning Group of People Y doesn't compute. Not a bit.

There are two reasons why it is next to impossible for a "bright" to take part in public discourse. The first is that in the grand scheme of things, not many others share his viewpoint, and as such that viewpoint receives little serious attention. The second (and more important) is that public "brights" (O'Hair, Newdow, Dennett) have absolutely no tact.

"Brights" will not be taken seriously as a movement unless the tactful ones drive out the people who feel oppressed because the phrase "under God" is in the Pledge of Allegiance. Until the vast majority of Americans think that "brights" are willing to take their beliefs seriously, "brights" will not be given the time of day.

3. I am sure Dr Dennett's books are fascinating. But, if by naturalistic views of free will, you mean the concept of Free Will Without God Entering Into the Picture, then that's something that doesn't interest me. As a Christian, I consider such a premise flawed from the get-go.

As for Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I'll be honest -- I care little about the controversy over it. Whether Man came about via evolution, creationism, or intelligent design matters nothing to me. These and other things are subordinate concerns to what really matters, which is this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

You see, that's what's Christianity is all about -- right there, in that one sentence. That through His sacrifice, Christ died on the Cross and Redeemed a fallen world. That is the rock upon which I stand. That is the message to which I subscribe.

Now, do I believe there is a Hell? Yes -- because the concept of the Redemption, in my mind, warrants it.

Ah -- wait a minute, now. Just wait. You are opening your mouth in protest and getting ready to fire off an angry response -- but read this first. Then fire away.

The message in John 3:16 is a message of hope; of faith; and of love. It is overwhelmingly positive. It offers men a wonderful thing. It offers men the chance to have their sins and their wickedness washed away; the chance to leave temporal things behind for something so much better.

Now, the question of whether other monotheist believers will not share in this is a question for the theologians. Personally, though, I would find it very, very difficult to believe that any good man who believed in God would not find himself in Heaven when all was said and done. Let's be clear: I don't believe that. Nor do I believe that good men who do not believe in God would find themselves suffering in fire and brimstone. Let me explain that.

Regular readers of The Rant know that I have a thing for Dante: he is perhaps my favorite author. In fact, he's the fellow in the first image up on the banner. My favorite work of Dante's, naturally, is The Divine Comedy. Some commentators have called it "The Fifth Gospel," and I think with good reason.

What I like about the structure of the afterlife in Dante's work is that to me it makes sense. It is ordered. It is logical. It is both terrible and beautiful. But it also raises a lot of questions for anyone interested in theology, and Christianity in particular. Now, the structure and meaning of Dante's Paradiso and Purgatorio are subjects for another time.

It is the Inferno which really draws all our interest, anyway, isn't it?

The Inferno's Plan is based on one fundamental concept: that, as Dante wrote, there are degrees of sin which displease God more than others. This is why Satan is at Hell's center, and why lustful souls must merely suffer getting blown about on the dark winds. In between, of course, the tortures of the damned are varied and often awful to even read.

But all is not agony and torture in that Hell; there is also sadness, and just sadness in many cases. There is no punishment except a sense of longing to be with a Presence which they did not accept in life. To me, that concept of Hell is very real as the concept of fire and brimstone. Can both exist simultaneously? Of course they can: there is nothing that would prevent a just God from punishing the wicked, while at the same time differentiating otherwise good people who merely didn't believe in Him.

What the reality is, we will all eventually find out someday. But I have digressed for too long. The crux of the matter is that we all have to make our own choices in terms of religious belief. And once militant atheists accept that theists' views aren't meant as constant slaps in their face, and accept that people will continue to believe in God, then perhaps we can have some progress.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 16, 2003 12:09 AM | TrackBack

Thanks for the link. :-)

My problem isn't so much that your beliefs are a slap in my face, per se. As I've said on many occasions, I do belive in God, and I believe in one's right to one's belief in one's own deity (or lack thereof). I don't however, feel that everyone should be subjected to one mode of belief or another by the government. There's no place, and no purpose. Keeping all mention of God and religion does NOTHING to harm one's ability to worship as one pleases. Having the opposite be true fosters an environement where one gets an email that advocates silencing the religious minorty in this country. Everyone should feel free to worship the way one chooses, and everyone should be free from having others' beliefs crammed down their throats.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at July 16, 2003 12:22 AM

See, now that's funny Geoff, I do consider myself a bright, I still like the meme, and am even in contact with the-brights.com folks to help them revise their FAQ to help them address the many criticisms I've seen--and yet, I have not the least bit of fear of government mentioning God or religion, and am rather offended by efforts of people to force them to stop.

Funny how people are, eh?

Posted by: Dean Esmay at July 16, 2003 12:30 AM

Dean and Geoff:

I agree with both of you! As an atheist, I'd just as soon not see the government appear to endorse one spiritual belief over another, and there are clearly cases where the courts have rightly prohibited such efforts.

But the fact remains, and this is FACT, that western civilization is built on monotheistic ideologies and traditions. No person in western society can be considered to be well educated without a functioning knowledge of the bible and the cultural impact of Judaism and Christianity. So to suggest that this vital aspect of our heritage should be expunged from civic discourse is, for me, anti-intellectual.

Should the phrase "under God" be deleted from the Pledge? Technically,I believe it should, but only because it was not part of the original wording, and because the history of it's addition demonstrates an unacceptable infusion of a specific religious ideology. Had it been a part of the Pledge from the start, and thus a significant reference to historical identity, I believe that there would be no case at all for removing it.

Practically, however, the Pledge in it's "under God" form has come to represent, for most citizens, part of the theistic heritage of our nation. Seen as a reflection of that monotheistic history, it doesn't particularly annoy me on a personal level. I would not sue to protect my child from it. I would simply explain to them the reasons that it is included, and instruct them to skip those words if they so desired. But, were they to come under pressure from school officials to speak the words that they didn't believe in, I'd go to war with the school district with everything I had. Peer pressure is irrelevent in this case, as it is beyond the responsibility of the government to control the behavior of school children.

Of course, not all monotheists are as evolved (wink wink) as our young scholar Mr. Kepple is, and there exists an intolerance from the religious Right in this country that is just as ignorant and arrogant as the efforts of the Brights. And since the majority of our citizens are monotheists, it is the responsibility of our government and it's laws to respect and protect the minority. History shows that our courts are usually up to this challenge, but if the rhetoric of our political and religious leaders were more tolerant, perhaps there would be no perceived need for such as the Brights.

Posted by: Brian Linse at July 16, 2003 01:08 AM

Very much so. I guess fear isn't so much the word, as the days when Catholics (a group to which I formerly belonged) were violently discriminated against passed along with my grandparents' childhoods. I have no problem with PEOPLE advancing government, but I do have a problem with government doing so. One need look not much further than certain nations in the Middle East to see why that might be.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at July 16, 2003 01:09 AM

What ever your relationship is with God, just make sure it's yours. I work really hard at my own personal relationship with God. It ain't easy. I tend to get all demanding, pissy and bratty. Usually, God is patient and loving, let's me carry on, then swats me on the rear enough to get my attention.
As to whether I need to be a literal reader of the Bible, well, sorry, ain't going to happen. Am I going to look for the wisdom of God in the Bible. Yes. I will look wherever there is God's work. For in that work will be God's wisdom. Since all on this planet are of God's work, there I will look, no matter how unlikely a place it may seem.

Posted by: Rook at July 17, 2003 12:29 AM

I have always prefered the gnostic view of hell. You're in it right now. If you do your best and work hard at becoming closer to God you become part of the godhead when you die. If not you get to stay on earth and try again until you get it right.

The horrific vision of hell came from Zorastrianism and was included in dogma after the establishment of the church to scare people to be pious (and give money natch).

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at July 17, 2003 01:31 PM

I don't know that anyone's still reading this, but I do want to make something clear:

I like "bright" because I think it's cute, and funny. I still also see it as an opportunity for one group of non-theists to come to grips with the fact that there are other theists who do not share their fear or hostility toward the faithful. I'm very much in agreement with Brian Linse.

I guess this is why I've been so charmed about this thing from the start, and why I'm so disappointed at the fiercely negative reactions by so many--including so many non-theistic persons.

I suppose Dennett and Dawkins are mostly to blame for being so confounded arrogant. Then again, I've shared my concerns with the people at the-brights.net and they have been extremely positive about it. So far, anyway.

We'll see what comes.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at July 19, 2003 08:31 AM

Good to hear that the folks over at The Brights are open to the criticisms. But I think, in the end, that the name is gonna be the real problem. I've just realized another aspect of it that bothers me: it's cult-like. A hallmark of cult thinking is the appropriation of words that are then given new meaning. There is a creepy factor at work here beyond the implied insult to theists.

Let us know what you hear from them.

Posted by: Brian Linse at July 19, 2003 07:20 PM