Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Does religion make us dumber?

I don't mean to offend with such a provocative title, but I'm really curious about this phenomena. It seems every time I encounter someone citing the Bible or using their religion as justification for their actions and opinions, I am struck at how simplistic their arguments seem to be. On top of that, they often leave no room for humor or critique. This does not apply to everyone who practices a religion, but I've noticed it a lot lately from the religious folk I know.

Recently, I've participated in a couple of debates online on various issues. Each of them involved others' religion in some way. And each of the discussions broke down in their own way due to those beliefs. It's as if any intellectual discussion ended as soon as someone pulled the God card.

The first happened as a friend posted a piece he wrote on his blog concerning gay marriage. My friend is pretty moderate with left-leaning tendencies. He proposed a somewhat benign option of creating civil unions that provide the same rights as marriage, keeping religion out of it. While the discussion barely went anywhere on his blog, the response on Facebook was a whole other issue. Friends commented nearly 100 times on the topic. Not all the comments were directed at gay marriage, but most of them were.

One guy, let's just call him "French," took it upon himself to represent the crazy wingnut, ultra-conservative, religious viewpoint. He basically went with the "Bible says it's wrong, so it's wrong" argument. When my friend's mom, who happens to be in the clergy, refuted French's assertions of biblical gay bashing, French was nowhere to be found.

Later, that same night, a woman from my hometown, we'll call her "Marla," posted a blog post of her own, giving away t-shirts that proclaimed "Baby Hugger/Love the People Then Trees" pitting anti-choicers versus environmentalists. The comments were all simple and supportive of the cause. When I threw in some dissent, Marla left an angry comment on my blog, not really addressing the message within my comment. I was commenting on the lack of compassion shown for the living while fighting for the "rights" of the unborn. Of course, due to my own crudeness, I came across as cruel and my message was lost in the shuffle.

Either way, Marla is a published author and not a dumb person. However, I can't help but wonder how she missed the subtext of my argument. I've read some of Marla's posts before and they are overly simplified takes on marriage, motherhood, and zoos. And the comments...Don't get me started on her readers' comments. There is rarely open and honest dialogue on Marla's blog and there certainly is no parting from the company line. It's all "Great post, Marla!" and "What a wonderful thought!" and
"And Jesus said unto them ..." It's as if Jesus pulled the backbones and original thought from their good Christian bodies.

My third example was a much tamer one. An older brother of a high school buddy, let's call him "Michael," posted a question wondering what should be done about so many young people leaving the church after they leave their parents' homes. I suggested that they take a more constructivist approach to teaching religion and that the main goal is to simply hope your kids are happy. The tone of the conversation was of mutual respect and intellect, until...The discussion then turned to quotations as Micheal threw some Bible words at me, stating that basically, we can't be happy without God. Meh. I responded with some thoughts from His Holiness the Dalai Lama about happiness and compassion, pointing out that we were not so different in our views.

His response? Crickets.

A day later, he changed his status to include a Bible verse, another very popular tactic of my Facebook friends from the Godville in which I was raised. They love to update their statuses with long-winded words from King James and his revisionists. If I want to know what the Bible said, I'll read it myself. I'd rather know what's on your mind.

Why does open, honest debate end with a Bible quote? Why won't people address real and important issues by hiding behind their religion? Where is religion's sense of humor or room for critique?

I don't mean to only pick on Christians. Other religions do their share of dumbing things down. Take some Zionists for example. I don't honestly know where I stand on the Israel/Palestine situation. I do know that it's a mess of biblical proportions, making it a rather complex issue. However, my experience is that those of the Jewish faith who claim to be Zionist have a difficult time objectively discussing Israel/Palestine. Sure, there is a ton of history and even more emotion involved, but there is still a little room left for debate. I'd love for a Zionist to address this issue in my comments, but I doubt there will be much of a debate. More than likely, I will only offend them.

Another, more severe example is Islamic extremism. Here you have people who have suspended rational thought in order to give their lives for their religion. It's one thing to give your life to your god metaphorically as many good Muslims have done, but it's a whole other deal to take other lives in the name of that same god. I don't mean to associate extremists with peaceful practitioners, but the lack of intelligent thought in all these groups is disappointing. Besides, there are plenty of examples of extremists from other religious backgrounds. That's not my point. The point is that there's a lack of rational, intellectual thought and discussion when religion is involved.

I am regularly disappointed by those in the limelight who suspend discussion with a Bible verse. Athletes can only praise god when they win championships, but they could share a lot of insight as to the struggles for a ring. Politicians might even be worse as they cut off social discourse with their religious beliefs. Even our own president, whom I consider to be one of the smartest men of our time, closes discussion with his religion. President Obama is somewhat limited in the debates over gay marriage and abortion due to his faith. (That's Christianity, not Islam in case you missed that last fall.)

What's most disappointing is that religion should be a highly intellectual practice. Religions are philosophies and histories of humankind that deserve more critique, debate, and dialogue than they are currently receiving outside the seminary. This might have a lot to do with why I don't practice any religion. I don't know whether there is a higher power or not. I turned from religion when I witnessed its hypocrisy left unchecked.

I really don't mean to offend, but I understand if you're offended. Instead of ignoring this post or un-friending me on Facebook, engage this conversation. Prove me wrong. I want to hear proof that your religion does not preclude you from this debate. Am I way off base? Do you have examples of why I'm wrong?

Or, do you agree with me? Do you know of examples like the ones I described above that prove my point? Share.

I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments. I am open to debate. I am willing to see other perspectives. Are you?


The Snarky Wench said...

Zac, Zac, Zac....... at least you are aware that you have taken a big 'ol pee in a lot of peoples' Wheaties with this post! :)

There ARE dumb Christians. Dumb Catholics, Jewish, Muslim, Taoist, too. But there are also dumb athiests as well. Seems to me that there is plenty of Stupid to go around.

I have a friend who happily asserts that there is no higher power, no afterlife, no nothing, and I have heard her be as stupid as the next person.

We DID grow up in Godville, but here is the thing..... those who are posting Jesus-speak every other day are not necessarily dumb. They simply take their solace and their happiness from a source different than yours.

I don't think as a group that religious people are dumb. I think that humans as a group are dumb, and sometimes those who yell the loudest prove their stupidity more eloquently than the quiet ones. That's all.

Now say an "Our Father" and a "Hail Mary", go forth, and sin no more :D

comoprozac said...

Snarky Wench, Snarky Wench, Snarky Wench...nice metaphor with the pissing in people's Wheaties thing there. Very classy.

Excellent point about all the dumb people. We have no one else to blame but our education system for that. And George W Bush.

I'm pretty sure that I did not say people were dumb for being religious (aside from the post's title). My point is that intelligent and objective conversation is almost impossible when religion is involved.

It's as if you can have a great debate over welfare or abortion or something of the like. Suddenly, the conversation stops when somebody says something like "Well, I don't know, but the Bible says..." He plays the trump card known as the Bible. There's no more thinking to be done. The good book has done it for us (or at least his congregation's pastor).

I want to be clear. People who follow a religion are not dumb. However, religion often causes people to stop thinking. That's all I'm saying.

KR said...

This is most definitely not a shtupid post.

Thanks for broaching the topic. Coming out of Godville West, I know it's one of the most difficult. But I have many of the same qualms with religion, particularly when dealing with its separation from state, education, and science.

I've heard more than a few times that as soon as someone pulls the Hitler card in a debate, they automatically lose. In much the same way, I feel like when someone pulls the God card (which they often perceive as the trump card), the whole debate is lost. Because this inevitably happens /every/ time, I simply feel like trying to engage the profoundly religious is like trying to engage a brick wall. No one gets anywhere. Except all up in a Bible. And I've read it. I'm not excited to hear it again.

Recently, Obama nominated Francis Collins as the new head of the NIH. The uproar around UPenn was astounding. Collins has had a long history of framing science with Christianity, and forcing his religious views in arguments. Imagine how this will go over when he's leading a demographic which is ~85% atheist. There is a lot of concern about the directions the NIH will take now that he's at the helm. Will we be losing some of our permissions to engage in cutting edge, real-time, deeply probing research, because the methodology is morally questionable on Christian grounds? Let me stress that again: a LOT of concern.

We have systems like IACUC and internal review boards for a reason: to scrutinize the morality of animal research protocols, and clinical trials. These boards rely on logic, usually outlined in a proof-like linear train of thought, to yea or nay requests from the community. And we, as members of the community, have the right to appeal or to alter our proposals for review. Trying to work together to get it right.

We're now concerned that there will be an added layer of religious ideals stacked on top, and that there may be an issue with disallowing the practice of appealing a decision, if the decision was based on Christian standards.

What we might be seeing in the near future is the first federal institution bound and gag by Christian standards. And that will be a loss for all.

While these are all only crazy, nervous speculations, which may or may not come to pass, scientists at least in my neck of the woods are all coming to the same conclusion over their cups of coffee: The hazards of allowing people to exercise personal beliefs in /exchange/ for logic, in lieu of rationale, are always too costly when your job or passion is the pursuit of truth. Because, contrary to what the churches say, belief and truth are not always one and the same.

Huey said...

I feel like I have nothing to add after reading the comments. Each one was strong. Maybe instead of dumb, we should ask the question, are religious folk more close minded? As you said, they keep falling back on the Bible when they have little left to contribute and there's your "brick wall." They can't seem to open up beyond the Bible. No one told French to deny his allegiance to the Good Book, we just said we were trying to make decisions without it. He couldn't do it. Even with a minister joining in on the Bible angle, he still had nothing else to contribute. He couldn't even look openly within the Bible either. It was Leviticus or bust. Word for word. So I just wonder if many people who claim to be religious anyway, just aren't open to things more than just dumb.

jmenter said...

There is an evolutionary benefit in believing something is true even if it may be false. There is less evolutionary advantage in hedging your bets and being agnostic.

We are genetically predisposed to belief.

I think a better question than "Does religion make us dumber?" is something like: Does being certain about something make you less inclined to engage in rational, critical, and intelligent inquiry about that thing?

I think so.

comoprozac said...

Yes, but that question isn't nearly as provocative, is it?

rawbacon said...

What it comes down to is faith vs. facts. The Bible seems to be a catch-all against anything "evil." But there's no real documentation. It's all faith.

I don't have that kind of faith. I need to see actual proof of things. I believe in science and it's tendency to continually discover NEW things.

The Snarky Wench said...

Ah, Bible Schmible. For every argument that one can make using the Bible, you can find a contradictory argument within the same pages.

Take, for example, "turn the other cheek". Lovely sentiment, found in, well, some book of the Bible. But in another book of the same Bible, it says "an eye for an eye".

The Bible is not the be-all, end-all. It is like..... Aseop's Fables without the talking animals. (Yeah, there is a talking snake or two in there, but you get the point.)

Those who throw up the Bible defense are simply at a loss to come up with any other relevant argument. And they do NOT represent all of us who believe in something bigger than ourselves.

Stupid (or Schtupid :) ) is as stupid does.

Oh, and the "pissing in the Wheaties" comment came from a certain American History teacher back in HS. I assumed that you would recognize it and get a giggle from it.

Pizza Cottontail said...

I think grasping for control makes people dumber. Religion is fine when it has nothing to gain or lose. Religious folks become unpleasant to be around once an issue gets politicized (abortion, gay rights, etc.)

In religious folks' defense, people on the left tend to get pretty unpleasant to be around re: the same issues.

Elizabeth Hornbeck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Hornbeck said...

Zac, I really enjoyed this essay on religion - I couldn't agree with you more. But I couldn't help noticing your plea to your readers - "don't unfriend me on Facebook! have some real dialogue instead!" - which is ironic given that you unfriended ME on FB, evidently because I take issue with some of the comments you make on your blog.

comoprozac said...

No, I unfriended you because I didn't feel like I had to defend my position on every blog post. You used to comment once in a while, but lately you were taking issue with everything I wrote. It's fine to disagree or debate, but your comments were constantly to prove me wrong.

It's OK that you like Columbia and Missouri. It's also OK that I don't.