Ethics, Doubt, and the Expression of Disbelief

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In recent months I’ve read various comments and conversations about both the existence, and the discussion of religious doubt in the information age. This is a topic of special interest to me given that I, myself, have experienced — and continue to experience — the ups and downs of being tightly connected with a specific religious ideal, tradition and community and then experiencing doubt in some of the fundamental beliefs or claims of that tradition.

Reaching the conclusion that long- and/or strongly-held beliefs and perspectives are not what we had previously imagined can produce, broadly speaking, three reactions. Depending on our affinity for those beliefs or perhaps what those beliefs represent, we may find great relief or great pain. Or perhaps we may not effected one way or the other.

For some — and perhaps most — simply setting aside old beliefs and ideas and choosing to explore new ideas and possibilities without looking back is the most appropriate and satisfying response. Others may wrestle with feelings of anger and frustration at having been misled or perhaps they may feel foolish for once holding beliefs they now view negatively. Still others may formulate and adopt new ideas and perspectives by blending the old with the new.

It should be obvious that the assumption of of any of the positions described above is a morally neutral choice. There is no moral good nor bad within the positions themselves. However, how one chooses to act within the context of any given position is precisely and primarily a question of ethics. The reason for this is quite simple. Religious belief does not exist in a vacuum. It sits at the foundation of many communities, nations, and cultures. Therefore, our response to changes in belief impact not just ourselves, but those around us. Often close family and friends. An awareness of our impact on others is requisite to fully consider the ethics of doubt and the expression of disbelief. Of course, we must also be mindful of how our chosen behavior impacts our own well-being.

For purposes here I will focus on those who wrestle with anger and frustration and, out of concern for current believers or those who may become believers, may choose to speak out against their former allegiances. I will also consider those who retain allegiances; albeit with modified views. What follows are broad generalizations

It is not uncommon for those raised within relatively conservative religious traditions to feel a sense of anger and even betrayal after a change in faith. I think that many people who encounter this feeling may, after a while, simply walk away from the old and embrace the new. Others may feel it is important to oppose their former beliefs and openly advocate against them as a form of public service. In recent years, some former Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists have participated in efforts to “expose” the problems with belief systems and the institutions that support those systems.

Certainly those believers who remain committed to both their beliefs and show allegiance to religious institutions will view such efforts as an affront. An immoral insult to be expected from those who have rejected the true faith. In reality, these former members may serve a very valuable and I would argue, positive moral, purpose. Outside critics are abhorred by institutions but in reality, these institutions benefit from their critical efforts.

However, any effort to “expose the truth” to either outsiders or current insiders by means of dishonesty and deception are inherently immoral and misguided. If we stand in opposition to former beliefs or institutions, then we should make our position clear. To do otherwise is to enrich our own sense of ego at the expense of believers. I imagine that someone may critique this view by arguing that the only way to reach believers is to deceive them into reading/viewing critical material. Putting aside the paternalistic arrogance of such a position, there are two significant problems here. First, if the critic was able to discover new information and form new conclusions independently or through existing material, then why can’t a current believer do the same without the deceptive “aid” of a biased outsider? And why would we deny the believer the opportunity to explore these matters without the undue influence of deception? Second, dishonesty and deception intended to expose the dishonesty or deception of other’s beliefs or allegiances is both morally inconsistent and self-contradictory. We can’t oppose immoral deception by employing it ourselves.

For those who adjust belief but remain loyal to their religious community, both a sense of honesty and propriety should govern moral behavior. If we assume heterodox or heteroprax positions, we should be upfront about our views, when appropriate. There may be a desire to “evangelize” others to our particular way of thinking. If so, it is important to be upfront about our intentions. Also, we should be judicious about how, when, and where these ideas are discussed and/or promoted. For example, if a group of believers gathers for the purpose of worship and fellowship, it would be inappropriate to raise controversial issues within this context. We must respect the beliefs and desires of believers if we want to remain a part of the community. Part of that respect is knowing when it is appropriate to share heterodox views and when it is not. Again, we must avoid serving our own egos when others have simply come to worship and pray.

It may be tempting to view such context-aware engagement as an infringement on free speech. I simply call it being polite. Of course, it should be clear that “free speech” simply doesn’t exist within private organizations. If, for example, I started a blog outlining all of the complaints I have about my employer, I would be fired — and quite quickly. Has my speech been silenced? No. I can still blog all I want. But It would be unrealistic to expect that I could openly criticize my private employer or other private organizations with which I have association and retain employment or membership.

But shouldn’t religion be different? Shouldn’t doubters be given more latitude when it comes to expressing doubt and disbelief within the context of their chosen religious institution? In my view, religions do make accommodations for doubt. But with the expectation that such questions, doubts, disbelief, and concerns be expressed in a way that will not disrupt the worship of others within the tradition. Perhaps one could counter that this is a purely Western idea and that more compassionate and open religions — like Buddhism — provide such latitude.

For point of reference, let’s take a look at the Bodhisattva Precepts of Mahayana Buddhism. These vows — in one form or another – are always taken by monks. But in some schools, similar vows are taken by lay people as well. Among these is a vow:

Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) or the Sangha (Buddhist religious community members) or encourage others to do so

The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are considered the “Three Jewels” and in Soto Zen Buddhism, practitioners vow to:

… not defile the Three Treasures

So we can see that even in the most open and “liberal” traditions, speaking ill of the founder, the teachings, or members of the community is considered a serious violation of previous vows. Of course, if one rejects those vows, then there is no obligation. However, to act the part of devoted religionist committed to community and cause while, in reality, seeking to undermine the tradition and the faith of believers, is not only dishonest, but indecent for anyone who pursues the moral life.

In most Buddhist Sanghas — as with other religious communities — there are appropriate and explicitly outlined ways to raise concerns and questions without disrespecting the community. But this may not always be the case in situations where the religious institution or its doctrine is overly-authoritarian and actively suppresses the expression of doubt by not providing appropriate venues in which to openly explore questions and ideas. In such cases, those who choose to remain members have a moral obligation to improve conditions and to work towards an environment that maintains its doctrines and norms, but also allows for the respectful expression of doubt without fear of negative repercussions. It would naive to suggest, however, that such a dialogue is always possible. Indeed, in some cases such improvements cannot be made and authoritarian dogmatism is left the norm. In my view, this type of harmful dogmatism should be examined critically and discussed openly. And yet, the bad behavior — or perhaps more simply, behavior that we strongly disagree with — cannot be overcome through deception or egoism.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  • Romans 12:17-21

Apologists Behaving Badly: Dan Story Part Two

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I have previously written about some of the problems I see with Dan Story’s overall apologetic approach. As I stated in my first post on this subject:

…while I appreciate Story’s sincerity and faith, I have been disappointed with some of his specific arguments/claims made in regard to 1) the exclusivity of Christian truth and 2) criticism of other religions and/or philosophies.

In this post I hope to expand on some of my earlier criticisms and also highlight several areas in which I think Story’s lack of engagement with non-Christian religions is apparent.

All book quotations are taken from:

Story, Dan. Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Early in his book Story makes the following statement:

The Christian worldview, like any other worldview, stands or falls according to its own internal and external consistency—not on the fallacious nature of other worldviews. Consequently, the ideal way to defeat conflicting worldviews is not to strike them down one by one but to show the veracity of Christianity with regard to how it corresponds to reality and passes the truth-tests outlined in the previous (sic) chapters.

Here then, Story tells us that the way to establish the truth of Christian faith is not to demonstrate the “fallacious nature” of other worldviews. He follows this up with several chapters attempting to demonstrate the “fallacious nature” of other worldviews.

Also, I believe Story does his Christian readers a disservice by stating:

In the following chapters, I will compare Christianity with its chief competitors, not just to show the bogus nature of the non-Christian views, but to verify the Christian position by demonstrating that it alone is internally and externally consistent and corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out.

Story insults his readers twice in this paragraph. First, he sets up the absurd idea that he, Story, is capable of showing that Christian faith “alone is internally and externally consistent and corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out.” This statement is pure nonsense. If what Story claims were true, then there would be no need for faith in Christianity. As Kierkegaard argued, we maintain our Christian faith because it is absurd and certainly not because it is a demonstrable representation of reality.

Second, is his dismissive and arrogant statement about the “bogus nature of the non-Christian views.” I imagine that readers of Story are faithful Christians seeking to grow in their faith and understanding of not only their own religion, but opposing views as well. But rather than engage in a useful and productive examination of competing — but often very similar – views, Story denies his readers the opportunity for real understanding. He leaves them unprepared for any realistic engagement with competing views.

The errors in this book are so voluminous that it would be impossible to list them all. Story condemns:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Secular Humanism
  • Mormonism
  • Naturalism
  • Pantheism
  • Postmodernism

In each case Story clearly shows his surface understanding of these faiths/philosophies and proceeds to present caricatures of each. For purposes here I will briefly discuss Story’s misrepresentation of Pantheism.

Pantheism is the view that God and the Universe are one and the same and that any differentiation made between two objects is subjective and arbitrary. In relation to humankind, Pantheism asserts that there is no distinction made between an individual and the universe itself. The individual is, as Carl Sagan once observed, the Universe becoming conscious of itself.

Very few would claim Pantheism explicitly. Rather, pantheistic ideas underly many schools of Buddhist thought, Chinese philosophy, and is at the root of the oldest religious literature we possess, the Hindu Upanishads. (Although it should be noted that Spinoza offers up a compelling Western argument for a pantheistic view in his Ethics.)

To this, Story claims:

One of the significance results of this view, and one that forever separates pantheism from Christianity, is that God is not sovereign over the lives of people. He does not intervene in human affairs through miracles and answered prayer. We are left alone to deal with the struggles of life and to work out our own salvation.

First off, to discuss Pantheism while employing the Christian “He” to describe God, Story has already gone off the rails. If you approached a Japanese Zen Buddhist in 1250 AD and started talking about 1) God and 2) how “He” is sovereign, you would very likely receive a reply akin to: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Story makes no effort here to discuss Pantheism on its own terms. No attempt to establish understanding before launching into an incoherent critique. How can God “intervene in human affairs” when the pantheistic view is that there is no differentiation between, well, anything? These ideas are generally — and widely — discussed in terms of “dual” or “non-dual” and the various religions underpinned by some form of pantheistic outlook have discussed these ideas for centuries. The terms “dualism”, “non-dual” or similar variants are not to be found in Story’s book. Odd, given that even the most basic and introductory literature on pantheistic religions discuss these ideas early and often.

Of course, Story is also incorrect in claiming that pantheists “are left alone to deal with the struggles of life and to work out our own salvation.” Not only do pantheistic religions have no concept of “salvation” in the Christian sense but also, pantheistic religions do NOT believe we are “left alone” to go through this life without divine help and compassion. This claim is patently false. I am left to wonder what primary sources Story relied on in writing his book. It seems that he must have only used secondary sources; and bad ones at that.

Story continues:

The goal of humanity is to recognize this. Our lives should be spent focusing on becoming united with God, not on the joys of living and serving God in the here and now. This is done by meditation and purging the body of all earthly cravings. We do not need to be concerned about our own welfare or, for that matter, the welfare of other people. After all, pain and suffering and material things are maya.

I would like to know what pantheistic religion teaches anything that even remotely resembles this statement. By using the phrase “becoming united with God” Story demonstrates his ignorance of the difference between Pantheism and Panenthism. In Pantheism, there is no ultimate differentiation; the Universe is God. Panentheism is the belief that God exists within everything in the Universe. This is an incredibly important distinction — with massive implications in Eastern thought — and for Story to make such an elementary mistake is simply another demonstration of the contempt he has for his readers.

I also have to wonder if Story has ever met a Buddhist or a Hindu. By writing: “we do not need to be concerned about our own welfare or, for that matter, the welfare of other people” — Story once again demonstrates his understanding of pantheistic religions is hopelessly faulty. Does Story really expect other Christians to take his work seriously when he shows such little regard for accuracy? Story is too busy showing Pantheism to be “bogus” that he can’t be bothered by how it is actually understood and practiced by those who accept the view.

And of course we can’t ignore the fact that Story uses the term maya. This is very much a Hindu-specific term and idea (although it is accepted by some Buddhists) and so to apply it Pantheism generally — and without serious qualification — the term simply doesn’t make any sense.

There is much more that could be said about Story’s presentation of Pantheism but we’ll conclude with:

Pantheism offers no verification for its truth-claims other than philosophical subjectivism—personal opinion.

As Pantheism could be termed as materialistic idealism it is, perhaps, one spiritual outlook that is in harmony with demonstrable science. Can the same be said of some Biblical truth claims or even the very existence of a transcendent personal God?

And lest we forget, Story expects us to accept the following claim as demonstrable and self-evident:

The evidence for the authenticity, reliability, and authority of the Bible is overwhelming. In fact, the Bible alone among the world’s religious documents can verify its truth-claims with concrete, verifiable evidence.

This is absolute nonsense. The central metaphysical truth-claims of the Bible are non-demonstrable. If Christianity were self-evident faith wouldn’t be required. And yet, faith is the very essence of Christianity.

Christians deserve better than this. Story’s brand of apologetics is 1) overconfident, 2) poorly researched, 3) disingenuous and 4) more likely to harm Christian faith than to help it.

Anything short of real engagement with non-Christian views isn’t apologetics. It is simply rhetorical word games.


Detached Engagment

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When I first began studying Buddhism I had a very difficult time understanding the concept of non-attachment.  I could easily see how attachment to wealth, power, status, etc. all lead to ultimate frustration because all things are impermanent.  There is nothing permanent in the world that we can latch onto. Our futile efforts to do so lead us to false views as we cling to that which will eventually be no more.  At the same time, however, it is equally clear that certain attachments bring us happiness.  Our family relationships.  Our interest in philosophy.  A scientific curiosity about how the world works.  Was the Buddha suggesting that we eschew *all* attachments; even our attachment to the very concepts of happiness or peace itself?

Over the past several years, due to my experience with lay Buddhist practitioners, speaking with various monks and nuns, and by participating in Buddhist services, I have come to realize that my understanding of attachment was deeply flawed.  The Buddha was not advocating a Sangha wherein monks, nuns, and laypersons purged all sense perceptions or feelings of happiness and sadness.  Nor did he teach that personal relationships be sterile and unfeeling.  Rather, the Buddha understood and acknowledged the reality of the human condition.  We feel.  We form relationships.  We ultimately pass on.  So detachment is not to eschew the very nature of the human condition — as if somehow this abject reality could be overcome.  Rather, detachment means to fully engage life pursuing wisdom as outlined in the Noble Eight-fold Path.  All the while understanding that all is impermanent.  That nothing we do can prevent the realities of misfortune, poverty, sickness, and death.  

Such a view is not fatalistic.  It is liberating and reinforces the notion that today — this very moment — is an opportunity to experience the joys and sorrows of living.  We can do so unwillingly of course; kicking and screaming along the way in an attempt to make permanent that which ultimately fades away.  But, even our attempts to prolong moments of great joy will eventually prove futile; creating within us a sense of disappointment and frustration.  Rather than cling to that which cannot be held, grasped, or put under our control, we should engage the world in wisdom.  With an understanding that it is possible to embrace the realities of human experience — both good and bad — while remaining detached from any notion of control.