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If your religious harmony simply scapegoats atheists…

November 15, 2009

…then your religious harmony isn’t harmonious at all.

My religious discussion group has been trying to temper out a way to seek religious harmony. I’ve been a bit skeptical of the efforts, because the mentor of the group (who is the one with this lofty goal) doesn’t realize that his own religious views are not so harmonious with others’.

The mentor believes that people have a “god within them,” that grows and progresses as the individual grows and progresses. This “god within,” (which he claims is called different things by different religions but is indicative of a similar idea)…actually doesn’t seem like much of a god at all. It is not perfect, not omniscient, not omnipotent, omnipresent, or omnibenevolent, but simply represents an individual at a stage in time.

But, despite the oddness (and dubious theism) of this definition of god, the real issue is that it doesn’t mesh well with what others do project in gods.

A god within does not mesh well with the externally existing god that most theists propose. A god within that is only as powerful, as virtuous, as enlightened as the person who listens to it is quite foreign from the omnibenevolent, potent, and knowing classical formulations of god. To reduce the classical formulations of god to these anemic “gods within” doesn’t promote harmony — it actually is a certain deal-breaker for most theists.

The externally existing gods that people have classically proposed seem to have a lot of “deal breakers” and “non-negotiable” aspects. For example, if someone believes that only through believing in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice can someone be saved, then this is usually believed to be a non-negotiable, universal concept. When people believe such a thing, they don’t believe it’s just from the “god within,” but is from a “god without” who makes the laws for the entire universe. No matter what other common ground they can broker with the other religions, at the end of the day, the Christian leaves the discussion thinking, “But…they don’t believe in Jesus.”

Even tolerance doesn’t quite get us to harmony. Because even though we may agree to disagree, when we have non-negotiable beliefs at the table, our “agreement to disagree” is hollow. If the Christian and non-Christian were to claim to agree to tolerate each other’s heresies…it wouldn’t change the fact that both sides would believe the other to be heretics.

I couldn’t figure out a way to express this to my mentor…because he just kept retreating to his idea of “god within the mind,” even though I tried to explain that many religious people would not accept this idea…Many Christians wouldn’t relegate their belief in Jesus as Savior as a construct within the mind.

…but…somewhat accidentally, I think I found an in.

See, my mentor, despite his dubiously theistic descriptions (after all, his “god in the mind” sounded more like evolutionarily derived consciousness and conscience than anything “divine”), wanted strongly to promote theism and religion. He ignored and waved away all the “non-negotiable” differences between religions by saying, “They all are referring to the same thing but in different terms,” but somehow…he couldn’t handle atheists. Religious harmony is possible because all the religious folks share common ground on something they call “God,” but since atheists do not share this common ground, how can they contribute?

He asked, “But what do we do about these people…atheists…who do not believe in the god of the mind…how can they be moral and fit in with our idea of religious harmony?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Your god of the mind is not a god, and does not need to be defined as such. Your continued use of such a term is a divider that you have created. It is religious disharmony that you have created.” Because his “god of the mind” formulation sounded like a mere “conscience,” I had to point out that he couldn’t suggest that atheists don’t believe in consciences. Atheists simply are unconvinced that we need to attribute it to anything divine.

He tried to counter, “Atheism is just a defense mechanism…so atheists can do whatever they want….” (and other related claims)

Again, I pointed out that he was simply scapegoating atheism, misconstruing it and demonizing it in the same way he chastised religious people for doing to people of other religions. And if his religious harmony could only survive by transferring the blame formerly placed on non-Christians (or non-Jews, or non-Muslims, or anyone outside of the personally espoused religious group) to nontheists…then really, his religious harmony was not harmonious at all.

This is interesting though…it provides us with a real challenge for our discussion group…because now that he is aware of this division that prevents harmony, we can now begin to ask: how do we get past this division?


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  1. Even tolerance doesn’t quite get us to harmony. Because even though we may agree to disagree, when we have non-negotiable beliefs at the table, our “agreement to disagree” is hollow. If the Christian and non-Christian were to claim to agree to tolerate each other’s heresies…it wouldn’t change the fact that both sides would believe the other to be heretics.

    So, what does it mean to have religious harmony? And why is it desirable? I’m intrigued. I am a big fan of tolerance, but I am not sure that there can be much more than that (?), without religions having to change fundamental core beliefs (that they are right, and others are wrong)…

  2. (I tried to get that first paragraph to show that it was a quote from your post, but apparently it didn’t work)

  3. FireTag permalink

    I don’t know what the problem is with you people! Just give it up and believe what I believe. It’ll be so harmonious! 😀

    • And don’t you see…if we could just do this, we would indeed have harmony.

      The problem is we cannot…because we do have certain non-negotiable issues that we cannot just flip the switch.

      So instead, it turns out that getting people to “believe what I believe” (or what you believe, or what anyone believes) is not giving up on either person’s part…it is instead persuasion and communication in its rawest form.

      Tolerance, ironically, is giving it up. And it doesn’t achieve harmony, except in overt actions.

  4. I think on wordpresss, you have to use “blockquote” as a tag…normally, I forget, and just use “quote,” which does nothing.

    If we want religious harmony (or harmony anywhere, for that matter), then the goal is to reduce the “non-negotiable” issues that are artificial. We either must agree…or we must make our disagreements be in “negotiable” areas.

    Quite simply, religions *must* change fundamental core beliefs, in one way or another. We will never ever have harmony as long as someone believes, non-negotiably, that non-Christians go to Hell. Even if this Christian tolerates non-Christians, he doesn’t *accept* the non-Christian as valid. He accepts the non-Christian as someone who is wrong, someone to be pitied (because he will eventually go to hell whereas the Christian anticipates going to heaven.) Tolerance just changes *actions*. But it doesn’t change beliefs, feelings, and thoughts. Tolerance might make people not *act* on their non-negotiable differences, but it certainly doesn’t prevent people from *thinking* about these differences.

    So, what would be a way to achieve harmony? Well, one side would have to agree with the other. Either the non-Christian would have to agree that Christ is the savior of all…or the Christian would have to agree that Christ is not the savior of all. Both of these options are not reasonable or expectable in the short run.

    Alternatively, if there must be a disagreement, it must cease to be “non-negotiable” or a “deal breaker.” For example, someone’s eternal soul being at risk is a deal breaker. But if someone doesn’t like the same dessert as you, then this is no big deal. However, it would require some serious theological upheaval to make salvation be more like dessert preference…it’s also not feasible in the short run.

    Why would this harmony be desirable? I think it’s because we long for it (OK, I know that’s a copout answer…it begs the question)…and mere tolerance is not a good enough substitute.

    How do I say this? I think we want to be understood and validated. Tolerance cannot satisfy these. Rather, tolerance is a “giving up.” Our hope is that when we are understood, people will see that our reasoning, our hopes, our dreams, our wants, are reasonable and desirable for them too…our hope is for agreement. This agreement, whenever we can have it, validates us. We could be wrong as two left feet, but we are wrong together, which is important for us.

    Tolerance is a “giving up” on this idea. Instead of struggling to come to agreement, we decide that the struggle isn’t worth it (or that the struggle is futile). So we close off the chance for understanding and validation.

    How do I say it? Let’s look at civil rights. When we have civil rights issues, both sides do have non-negotiable issues…tolerance doesn’t resolve this. Now, with civil rights, we don’t want to turn our civil rights into “negotiable issues.” We don’t want to make our civil rights like dessert preferences. Instead, we *do* want understanding. We don’t want people to “tolerate” our having rights…we want people to agree that we should have those rights, and strive with us to support these rights. Tolerance “gives up” on that, either from cynicism (that we will never come to a common ground), lack of care, or something else.

  5. FireTag permalink

    How does the lion lay down with the lamb — and still be the lion God and/or evolution made it to be?

    Could it be that the longing for harmony, for acceptance and understanding is ONLY one of those nasty little brain chemicals rather than a universal goal of humans?

    Granted, too little of that brain chemical makes you one or another kind of sociopath. But is it not sufficient that there be both room for individuality and conformity within a larger notion of harmony and community? (Choose community building and community differentiation as the complementary terms if you prefer).

    Without someone to understand us, we primates are lost. But perhaps if everyone understands us, we are also lost.


  6. FireTag:

    Of course longing for harmony, for acceptance and understanding is only one of those nasty little brain chemicals.

    The issue is that without universal goals, we make them up on our own, based on numerous things…but including (nasty little) brain chemicals.

    So, there can be both room for individuality and conformity…the only issue is when we have “non-negotiable” “deal breakers,” then that brain chemical will always nag at us and let us know.

  7. FireTag permalink

    Either you are missing my point or I’m missing yours.

    Why is “harmony” a goal of the discussion group in the first place? The desire is not confined to or even primarily defined by religion as far as I can tell. The same thing occurs here in DC when we talk about bi-partisanship. Both red and blue have non-negotiable issues that cut to the core of our identity. Same thing with a marriage.

  8. Disharmony = bad emotions = pain.

    Harmony = good emotions = pleasure.

    We seek pleasure and avoid pain…what’s difficult about that?

  9. FireTag permalink

    Well, the pain/pleasure principle is clear to me, but it is the lion’s pleasure to eat the lamb, and the lamb’s pain to be eaten. I’m not sure where that gets us toward harmony (or at least more than one of us toward harmony).

    Got to call it a night. I’ll catch up tomorrow afternoon.


  10. I guess you’ll see this tomorrow, but the idea is that at some point, people (well, at least, many people) realize that we aren’t playing a zero-sum game. While, yes, a lion can eat a lamb, netting a positive against the lamb’s negative…humans have realize that through some ingenuity we can often realize double positives (or, if we aren’t careful, double negatives).

  11. FireTag permalink

    Evolution plays some games that are double positive (up to and including symbiosis), some that ARE zero sum, and some that are double-negative (up to and including parasites that wipe out their hosts — but only once).

    I think it is a very open question what category human cultures play with each other, or at least how much of the time we spend in each category.

    I think an “interior solution” is more likely to be the optimal one than even the pleasurable extreme. The health of my body is maintained in part by conflicts of elements within it. I don’t necessarily assume that the health of the “kingdom” will be maintained by extinguishing all conflicts among its elements.

    “There must need be opposition in all things” is a scripture that can speak to a pantheist as well as a theist.

  12. FireTag:

    But haven’t you read the research that suggests that even viruses and parasites, over time, evolve to become less virulent (precisely *because* killing your host is not a good way to survive)?

    I think that’s particularly interesting. Were it not for that (and to be honest, the research isn’t final)…I would be on the same point as you.

    Quite simply though, the purpose of opposition is to make us realize the true value of positives. So, I don’t think an “interior solution” is more likely to be optimal over the pleasurable extreme…it’s just that the interior solution allows us to regard the pleasurable extreme more highly and seek it more thoroughly.

  13. FireTag permalink

    I think that the evolution of viruses is precisely an example of why the solution is interior. Evolution selects for pleaure as a means for survival — not as an end in itself. In a pantheistic description of reality where lack of survival for reality is probably not a possibility, what is selected for?

    I suspect it’s complexity. But if you want to say complexity is God/nature’s pleasure principle, then maybe we’d be on the same page.

  14. I don’t quite know. I kinda lost you there.

  15. FireTag permalink

    I guess what I’m asking is why should either an atheist (who I am assuming accepts an evolutionary paradign) or a pantheist (who equates God to “ultimate reality” as I’ve said in other threads) EXPECT that there is a win-win solution which gives all humans maximum pleasure?

    Evolution “produces” whatever survives — that’s a given. Pleasure has evolved (in some species) to promote survival. Whenever it becomes disadvantageous to survival, I would expect it to “evolve toward a lesser intensity, just as viral virulence does.

    Since most of nature doesn’t have endorphins, I don’t see pleasure as a fundamental feature of universal design. The universe seems to minimize energy, maximize entropy, but not to care much about whether humans have pleasure, so I’m not sure I have any basis for assuming everyone has pleasure — unless I put other properties in the nature of the universe to play the same role as “survival”.

    Any clearer what I mean?

  16. Oh, I see where we’ve gotten off track.

    No, this isn’t about “evolutionary paradigm.” Though an evolutionary paradigm has produced us and given us our existence, nope, we are not confined to it. The really big problem I saw was that you kept talking about “survival.” Humans don’t live to survive…humans live to thrive

    Let’s take an existentialist model. Existence precedes essence. That’s all evolution means to us. Evolution is the existence. We are here. We are here in a certain way (e.g., wired that certain things feel good and certain things don’t). We are here in an environment that is a certain way (physical laws, etc.,)

    But our existence…our being here…says *nothing* about our essence. So, “universal design” is irrelevant. It smacks so much of “intrinsic meaning” that we don’t even care about — even if it exists or even if it does not.

    So, your second paragraph is irrelevant. Since we are both freed from (and bound to) evolution.

    What really gets us this? Consciousness. So, to be sure, we still have to recognize where this consciousness’s existence came from — evolution or whatever else one wants to say — but that doesn’t say anything about the essence of it. From here, we can (and have) used this tool in any way that we want…to define “cool” and “cruel” and redefine it as we wanted…and then to seek it. Now, to be sure, just because the “essence” of cool and cruel aren’t confined and constrained to “evolutionary processes,” they do owe something to the evolution which gave them existence…for example, to be authentic, we would have to note that we *are* wired in a way that some things feel pleasurable and some thing feel painful…and we cannot just “will” what does or doesn’t. But we can will that instead of doing something that gives us pleasure and gives someone else pain (zero sum) to do something that gives both of us pleasure (positive sum)…or…occasionally, to do things that pain both of us (negative sum). Zero-sum may be the minimum needed to “survive,” but “positive sum” is for “thriving.”

    So really, the universe doesn’t matter. I hope this doesn’t break a pantheist model or anything, but really, I just see too much reliance on the universe over there. But you’re right…the universe doesn’t care. WE do. So, we should focus on people a bit more than we’ve been focusing on the universe, right?

    • FireTag permalink

      OK, so I see now more where we’re coming from — its more a scientist vs. philosopher axis we differ on here.

      I am very interested in what the “essence” of consciousness is — in a scientific worldview. I still am unconvinced that existence for humans has unfolded in such a way that there always EXIST positive sum choices in which we can all thrive unless there is further cultural speciation among us (up to and including extreme separation in some cases).

      I’m not even sure free will exists except in the sense that the choices we are compelled to make are so in tune to our essence that we would discard any other choices if we actually had free will, making the free-will/no-free-will descriptions indistinguishable.

      • Yeah, for me, all of the science stuff goes into the “existence” stuff. It doesn’t go into the “essence” stuff…when people try to make science go into the essence stuff, they come up with very weird scientismic (as opposed to scientific) philosophies. It’s a confusion of “is” with “ought.”

        Relating to your second paragraph, I’m not sure if we must disallow the possibility of further cultural speciation…if I understand what you’re trying to say with the concept, I think that that will have to happen too. It’s just that this cultural speciation is determined by what we do, because increasingly, we are the biggest impact on our environments (thus determining how we adapt to those environments).

        Obviously, the internet, for example, has drastically changed the environment all of us grow up on. It has had great impacts on our development, creating novel problems and opportunities that we must adapt to…and yet, this environment was fully engineered by *us*.

        I don’t think free will has to exist for us to *perceive* it. So, talking about free will as it actually exists or doesn’t exist is the wrong question (in the same way, say, talking about God as it actually exists or doesn’t exist is the wrong question.) Instead, the question is if we have reason to perceive…or reason to believe…in these concepts.

        I think that for God, many of us do not. Many of us do. I think that for free will, quite a substantial number of us have reason to believe in free will — regardless of if it is simply illusory.

  17. FireTag permalink

    My, this conversation has taken an unexpected turn. I am sure existentialism has better answers than I know about in regard to the questions I am inclined to ask — since I have never had enough interest in studying the approach to criticize it intelligently.

    My amateurist bent on philosophy, however, leads me to believe that “ought” is a terribly ill-defined concept, even when limited to human beings. I’ve had entirely too much experience defending people from and cleaning up after sociopaths in even my limited experience.

    There may be good reasons for many people not to believe in God. However, there still seem to be a lot of people who think they’re qualified to have His job. 😀

  18. Well, that’s the thing…that’s because “ought” is defined by people. Since people are terribly ill-defined, we get “oughts” that are also terribly ill-defined.

    Traditionally, people have sought to elevate their system of oughts by claiming they come from an ultimate source (e.g., God). So, instead of testing and retesting, adjusting, changing, editing their “oughts,” they go boldly without measuring. I guess it’s because it’s no fun to believe that your code of ethics is just something you have derived…rather, many want to believe that their code of ethics is universally justified and signified…and what greater signifier is there but God?

    This can happen, of course, even with other claims to “ultimate source.” For example, if we say that science is an ultimate source, then we may be tempted to make “oughts” that are also disastrous.

    So, existentialism (and also existentialism and nihilism) are umbrellas of ideas that make us admit that “oughts” are ill-defined. I guess these things alone don’t solve the problem, so if you’re looking for solutions, then it’ll be disappointing (or rather, it will bring despair and angst in existentialist terms). Instead, we have to admit that there is no thing holding us back from us. Not God. Not Satan. Not our genes. Not our environment. Only US, our FREEDOM (perceived), our SELVES.

  19. FireTag permalink

    Perhaps, if you replace “us” with “each other” we come closer to agreement. However, each other (alone) is a pretty large barrier, which brings us back to the “non-negotiables” discussed earlier in the thread.

  20. I think “each other” is clearer to what I was trying to say.

    And you’re right; it is exactly a large barrier. Which is the big deal.

  21. WOW!!!

    I just realized I hadn’t checked back for a response to my comment (thanks for the blockquote tip Andrew) and found I’ve been missing out on this entire conversation! You two are super deep, I’m impressed. I think I need to learn more about existentialism.

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