Friday, 23 November 2012

Reality Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias

The title of this post comes from (the brilliant comedian) Stephen Colbert.  For those who may not be familiar with the quote, it's something he said, back in 2006, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.  In speaking about President George W. Bush, Colbert remarked as follows...

"Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating.  But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls.  We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality.  And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

As with much of Colbert's work, the genius of this comment lies in how closely it aligns with the way conservatives actually see "reality".  For example, growing up, I was told repeatedly that the media has a "liberal bias".  It's something I still hear Christians say routinely today.  Heck, maybe the media does have a liberal bias.  Certainly it *could* be true, at least in theory, that people drawn to careers in journalism tend to lean to the left end of the political spectrum (or perhaps they move to the left over time).  It would be interesting to see some hard research on that issue.  At the same time, I do find it suspicious that many of these same people, who claim the media has a liberal bias, are unwilling to admit that Fox News has a conservative bias.  In their minds, Fox just tells it like it is.

Having said that, by way of setup, allow me to switch gears a little.  I've managed, thus far, to stay completely away from politics on this website.  I don't intend to change that now.  What I'd like to do instead, in what follows, is apply and discuss this concept in the context of "liberal" vs. "conservative" Christianity.  I've been thinking a lot lately about the differences between conservative and liberal versions of faith, and how they compare and contrast to my current atheism.  Could it be the case that, when it comes to Christianity, the truth (or "reality") has a liberal bias?  To put it a different way, are liberal Christians closer to the truth than conservative ones?  This might seem like an odd thing, for an atheist like me to be pondering on, but so be it.

Being that I grew up in a strongly evangelical household, liberal Christians have always been something of an enigma.  While I was a Christian, I pretty much just thought they were guilty of not taking the Bible seriously enough.  Incidentally, this is still essentially how a lot of conservative Christians view liberal believers.  Now that I've done more research, on the Bible itself, I can see that, at least in certain select cases, liberal Christianity is (surprisingly) the result of taking the Bible more seriously.  I think Thom Stark does an excellent job, of making this case, in his book "The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)".  Who would ever want to say, with a straight face, that Stark doesn't take the Bible "seriously"?  (Only people who haven't read the book.)  In my estimation, Stark understands the salient issues much better, than even many of his fellow scholars do, and his so called "liberal" theological views clearly stem directly from that deep familiarity.  By this same logic, one could easily (and, I think, fairly effectively) argue that conservative Christianity is often connected to a poor understanding of the problems inherent to the Biblical texts themselves (among other things).

So, that said, my answer to the aforementioned question, would be "yes".  The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that liberal Christians are indeed closer to the truth, about Christianity itself, than are conservative ones.  When I read Mark Driscoll I agree with very little of what he has to say.  When I read Rob Bell I agree with much more.  And when I read Thom Stark I agree with more still.  In other words, on a sliding scale of conservative vs. liberal, the extent to which I agree with Christian writers is positively correlated with their level of liberalism.

After I came to this realization, I began to actively seek out lines of evidence that would counter my conclusion.  Being as I'm now keenly aware of confirmation bias, I never again want to fall into the all too common trap of believing something to be true primarily because I would prefer it to be true.  I want my opinions to line up with empirical facts about the nature of reality, wherever and whenever possible.  And in those instances where such evidence cannot or has not been obtained, for whatever reason, I am personally committed to holding those particular opinions with a much larger grain of salt.

While I was still thinking on all of this I ran into a piece, over at Debunking Christianity, that would seem, at least on the face of it, to provide empirical evidence in support of my prior conclusions. The article was about two University professors, that I had never heard of before (Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne) and the stir they have created recently at Lincoln Christian University. Frankly, I have little interest in the finer details of their story, but the long and the short of it is they have apparently endorsed views that just weren't conservative enough to keep them out of trouble. Now, if you've been paying close attention, you may feel (as I did) that you've heard this all before. Why is it, I wondered, that University professors, and other eminent Bible scholars, keep getting themselves into so much hot water?  Didn't something similar happen to Mike Licona? And Peter Enns?  And now Christopher Rollston?  I realize that all of these incidents involve different Biblical issues, and I don't intend to obscure the numerous and important distinctions between the various cases.  But, in taking a step back, to look at the broader picture, I can't help but notice that there is a much larger point to be made here.  Namely, there is a trend toward liberalism, among Universities that pursue the best scholars to teach for them.  You might say that those Christian Universities, who want to attract the brightest, are playing with fire, if they also desire to remain acceptably conservative theologically speaking (perhaps within certain predetermined boundaries).

But the deeper question is why might such a trend, toward liberalism, exist in the first place?  I believe it's because the truth *about Christianity* has a liberal bias.  Loftus puts it this way, employing his usual combative style (but making an excellent point)...

"This is the trend folks, toward liberalism.  IT DOES NOT WORK IN REVERSE.  You never see a liberal college gradually become a conservative one.  It only happens by firings or starting new colleges.  The gradual trend over time is towards liberalism, which takes place naturally as scholars interact with other scholars.  Kick against the goads all you want to.  It's the trend.  The only way to stay conservative is to cut yourself off from the wider scholarship at large.  But then you'll just be talking to yourselves and be ignored by others.  Scholars cannot allow themselves to do this and still be recognized as scholars.  They must interact with the wider scholarly community.  So the choice is to either have scholars and risk upsetting your constituents thereby being forced to fire them, or basically be culturally irrelevant as a University.  But what University worthy of the name can stand for that?  None should."

It could also be noted that this makes sense of the fact that many formerly Christian Universities have become, over a long period of time, essentially secular institutions.  I suspect a move to the left happens quite organically, because that's where the evidence leads.  I still remember how surprised I was, as a teenager, when I found out that some of America's top Universities were initially founded as Christian institutions.  Think Yale or Harvard.  At the time it made me sad, because I thought they were straying from "the truth".  Looking back, I wonder why it never occurred to me that the exact opposite might be the case.  Maybe they strayed from their Christian roots because of their commitment to the truth.  It's funny how time & education can change your perspective on things.

Had I encountered the above information, while still a Christian, I probably would have either: a) denied it, b) brushed it off, or c) blamed it on the devil (and/or man's sinful nature).  After all, the Bible says that Satan is the "prince of the power of the air".  In other words, he supposedly controls a lot of things (and people) here on planet Earth.  Most unbelievers don't mean to help out the devil, they just don't realize that Jesus said "he who is not with me is against me".  Poor suckers.  They're in Satan's service and they don't even realize it.  One of my favorite Bible verses also used to be 1 Corinthians 1:25, which says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom...".  This struck me as profound, back then, even though it's really just saying that a god, assuming one exists in the first place, would naturally be smarter than us people are (seems kind of obvious now).

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  If you're a conservative (aka committed evangelical) Christian, I sincerely hope you won't make the same mistakes that I did.  I made them for 25 long years.  Please consider alternative viewpoints honestly and fully.  I might recommend starting with Stark's book.

At this point, you might be wondering why I consider myself an atheist, instead of a liberal Christian.  After all, I've said nary a critical word about them here.  It's a good question, and one that I'll endeavor to answer in my next post.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Faith, Doubt, And The Power Of Positive Thinking

A loose acquaintance of mine recently got into a bad traffic accident.  You might call him a "friend of a friend of a friend"; we don't really know each other, very well, but we travel in similar circles.

Unfortunately, it appears as if he may now be paralyzed.  Obviously, it's a tough situation but, from what I hear, he is maintaining an extremely positive (even cheery) attitude in the hospital. For the record, and lest I be accused of implying otherwise, I think this is downright awesome. There is a great wisdom in learning to accept those things, in life, that we cannot control.  It reminds me of a saying that my mother taught me, when I was younger;

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."

I now realize that this is what's known as the serenity prayer but, as a kid, it just seemed like another one of those deep things my mom said (she said a lot of those).  Of course, today, as an atheist, I no longer believe that it's god who grants serenity.  The truth is, it comes from within us.

A few days ago, I became privy to an update on this acquaintance of mine.  The message, in part, read as follows...

"...(he has) inspired many with his faith and total trust in the Lord as he seeks to honor Him while clawing his way back.  The most beautiful part of this is the fact that he knows the Lord has never changed in the midst of this."

As I was reading the update, and the above section in particular, it hit me that Christians routinely confuse the ideas of faith and positivity.  In the mind of the Christian, persistent faith and trust in god, even in the face of great tragedy, is equated with internal strength and fortitude.

In similar scenarios, you will often hear believers speak of how so and so has been a real "witness", to the doctors and nurses.  In other words, their positive attitude has caused the medical staff to wonder about (or even envy) their Christian faith.  This is part and parcel to being "salt and light", to "the world", a great source of pride for the believer.

But, let's suppose, for a moment, that you or I were to become suddenly paralyzed (or we received some other devastating medical diagnosis).  We would be faced with two basic cognitive choices, in the aftermath of such terrible news: a) believe that god has a plan and, as such, that we were paralyzed "for a reason", or b) believe that we were paralyzed simply due to a freak accident (no plan, no reason, it just sucks).

Now, which one of these things is easier to believe?  I'm not asking which one is better, or which one you personally believe, I'm asking which one is easier to believe.  (Go back, and read them again, before answering too quickly.)

It seems clear, when reflected upon in this way, that many would admit it's probably easier (at least for most people) to believe that their paralysis (or what have you) is all part of god's ultimate plan in some mysterious way.  If this is the case though, than why is maintaining faith in god viewed as a sign of strength in such situations?  Wouldn't losing your faith actually take more strength, according to this same logic?  After all, then you would have to fully admit that it's up to you, to make the best out of your really difficult situation.  No miraculous healing will come, and there is no grand plan from above.

At this point, one might be inclined to see the latter option as depressing.  Is it even realistic, to expect that someone could maintain a positive attitude, while viewing it in this way?

Yes.  I'm certainly not claiming it's easy, but many have proven that it can be done.

Allow me to offer up Christopher Reeve, as just one shining example.  I greatly admired (the late) Reeve, for displaying to the world a stellar attitude, despite his significant health challenges.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those who, like Reeve, steadfastly refuse to feel sorry for themselves. Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens handled himself with a similar grace, during his final days.  I think it's pretty clear that strength comes the inside, as I have claimed, and it actually has nothing to do with the supernatural at all.  Having said that, I do think that believing in god can make it much easier for someone to come to terms (internally) with such tragedies. I don't fault Christians for this.  I understand the appeal, of believing as they do, in particular since I once believed it myself.

All of this does imply, however, that religious belief acts as something of a crutch, or at least that it provides great emotional comfort, since it infuses meaning into things which would (otherwise) seem senseless and random (making them feel even more tragic). It's one of the factors that makes faith so prevalent, and difficult to shake off, especially for those experiencing a lot of hard knocks in life.  Staring reality square in the face can be pretty daunting. Incidentally, I've written a little already about how (I believe) faith acts as an emotional coping mechanism, right here, but it's a topic I will likely return to again and again.

For now, let's circle back to the question I started with; why do Christians equate faith with internal strength?  I think the answer is found by taking a step back to examine, more broadly, how Christians see the world from the outset.  When they trumpet the fact that so and so continued believing, even after something admittedly awful, what they're really saying is that he or she persisted in their faith despite evidence that might seem to suggest the contrary.  In other words, they're continuously affirming, to one another, that even though such and such may *seem* random (or meaningless), it's really not what it seems.  It's akin to saying, "our in-group believes that god has all things under his control, so we're going to esteem you verbally, for still believing in that, despite what you're going through right now".  It is for this same reason they will often admonish one another, with faith affirming platitudes such as "keep the faith!", as if doing so were just inherently a good thing.  This assumption, that religious faith is always good and right, by its very nature, is simply never challenged inside the Christian bubble.

My goal, in this post, has been to untangle the concepts of faith and positivity.  As it happens, I think the same sort of confusion exists, on the flip side, regarding the concepts of skepticism and negativity (or cynicism).  I consider myself to be a skeptic, and proud of it, but I am not a "negative person", nor am I cynical in any way (admittedly, I can be sarcastic sometimes :)). Doubt is not a bad thing, it's a sign of intellectual maturity, so a skeptic should never be accused of bringing negativity into a discussion (simply because they have introduced doubt into the given equation).