Monday, October 08, 2007

Believing Nothing vs. Believing Anything

All too often one idealogue or another will misattribute to "Chesterton" (one assumes G.K., not A.K., although they probably don't know the difference) a "quote" to the effect of,
“When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything."
Given that the typical proponent of this quote has no apparent devotion to any particular religion (beyond, perhaps, self-worship), it is difficult to take them seriously even if you don't recognize the misattribution. Yet except perhaps for the most vapid or most mendacious of that bunch, were they to actually think about the quote it is difficult to believe that they would insult Chesterton by trying to insert such an inane thought into his mouth.

At one end, the misquote is used to try to claim that religion somehow acts as a check against man's base nature, and thus that a man who believes in God will be constrained in his actions by the rules of his faith, while a man who does not can convince himself that any variety of evil is in fact a good, or that without the fear of eternal damnation the only constraint on his actions will be secular consequences (if any) of "getting caught". The latter theory presupposes that every religion incorporates some form of eternal damnation, which is simply not the case. (And even where it is, as with Puritanism, if the acts you commit during your life won't affect whether or not you reach heaven, where's the constraint? Only in "getting caught" and punished by man.)

Further, there's something a bit off-putting about the notion that somebody is more morally developed if they refrain from acting only because they fear an external consequence, as opposed to because they have developed an internal moral compass. When somebody behaves only because God may be watching, it becomes necessary to preach that God is all-seeing, because otherwise you would have to watch your back every time you stepped into the shadows.

As for the former argument, that believing in God will necessarily entail your accepting an ethical framework which will constrain your actions, whereas a nonbeliever will (presumably) act on self-will, that's not borne out either by the teachings of religion or by the acts of man and secuarl society. Whether or not you accept Kohlberg's stages of moral development, they do illustrate how a sense of ethics can develop toward a set of "universal ethical principles" even in the absence of religion. And religions are far from uniform. While Icelandic blood feuds may well have followed the model set by interactions among the pantheon of Norse Gods, few would now argue that it is a superior model to the secular U.S. court system merely because it was founded in religion.

In terms of religion preventing you from "believing anything", while I appreciate that some people truly believe that had they been devout, tyrants like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot would not have engaged in hostile warfare and genocide. I discredit Bill Maher's frequent retort that this type of leader and his followers are tantamount to religion. While perhaps a charismatic tyrant can inspire a fervor among his followers that is similar to that of a religion, a part of religious belief is accepting a framework created by the church. While giving due deference to the fact that some of history's worst genocides have been committed by secular leaders, in no small part that results from industrialization and the rise of secular society. That's not conceding the argument - but "lesser" genocides of the historic past might have eclipsed those of the modern world had similar technology been available. And let's not forget how thorough some historic genocides have been - look at the Spanish Conquest, or the absence of a Native population from Newfoundland. At least in my opinion, the treatment of citizens by a typical European government is markedly better in the present than it was during the reins of its various historic kings, queens and princes, even when they sincerely believed themselves to have been placed on their thrones by God.

Where religion does stop you from "believing anything", it is often because the competing thought is deemed contrary to church teaching. Even when that fact was scientifically provable, undeniably true, and completely vindicated by history, the consequence of disputing church teaching could be exceptionally harsh. (In this same vein, many people who are unquestionably devout in their own faith express incredulity at the teachings of other faiths - how can they believe that.) This continues into the present through the blather of people like Ann Coulter, who argues that global warming is a "religion" to the left - because religion is a bad thing? (Or is that just a talking point she borrowed from her friend, Bill Maher.)
Because we can't prove them wrong for a thousand years, and I think the other thing about it is, it goes back to Chesterton’s statement: that when people stop believing in God, the problem isn't that they believe in nothing, it's that they'll believe anything. And that's what you constantly see with people who don't believe in God: They're always imitating the most ridiculous, primitive religions. And it is like a primitive religion, thinking if we just change these lightbulbs, we can change the temperature of the ocean. It's the craziest thing! Even primitive people wouldn't believe something that silly.
Coulter implicitly claims that she "has religion" (although she demonstrates no sign of faith, beyond perhaps worship of money and excessive consumption) and thus apparently believes herself beyond such mundane tasks as fact-checking or sourcing her claims. Those darn secular folks with their science and facts - force them to recant, then (just to be safe) keep them under house arrest.

Global warming is not being addressed in a responsible manner in our society, not because of religion or secularism, but because some powerful corporate interests have worked very hard to convolute the message received by the public, and because they and other powerful corporate interests have lobbied very hard to stop or slow any regulation which might increase their costs. Contrary to Coulter's claims, many religions have accepted global warming as a reality, including the Catholic Church. So, typical of a proponent of the Chesterton misquote, she's wrong on the facts, wrong on the science, and wrong on religion.

Although global warming is simply an example I use in this larger discussion of the Chesterton misquote, I will nonetheless close by quoting one of those nutters who argues that we can fight global warming by changing light bulbs:
EPA and the Bush Administration take seriously the challenge of global climate change, and we are discussing actions to meet the Supreme Court’s decision. I appreciate your willingness to be part of the solution. Environmental responsibility is everyone’s responsibility, even in the case of climate change.

Earth Day is a good opportunity to remind each and every one of us of our own ability to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit in our daily activities – commonly referred to as our “carbon footprint.” And some of these actions may be easier than you think.

The next time you are shopping for a new computer, television, or even a light bulb, consider the advantages of buying an ENERGY STAR product. By purchasing an energy-efficient model, you’ll not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in order to power your appliance, you’ll save money on your electric bills.
Perhaps next time, before implying that the President an irreligious primitive, Coulter will Ask The White House.

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