One of the elements of the current public dialogue between theists and anti-theists that I find the most fascinating (when I’m in my Vulcan persona) and frustrating (when I’m in Klingon mode) is the number of times I have had someone reduce my commitment to the principles of my faith to a pathology and suggest that there is a “religious mindset” that is weak, suggestible, lazy, emotional, irrational, and safety-seeking.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that non-believers have none of these questionable attributes. (But that’s a different blog.)
In one such dialogue, my correspondent voiced another idea I have often heard advanced: believers are incapable of changing in fundamental ways.
I was raised in a Christian family, had been taught to question human interpretations of religion, and had ultimately rejected church dogma and even the binary exclusivity it bestowed on Christ for the Bahá’í Faith’s doctrine of human and religious unity. Because of this life trajectory, I knew I had changed in very fundamental ways. I explained as much to my correspondent (if in somewhat more detail).
What ensued was a discussion of the word “fundamental” and all the ways it did not apply to me and the changes in my world view—regardless of how fundamentally different and wrenching they seemed to me. The discussion—which had started with the question of whether there were good elements of faith and religion that we might wish to preserve while peeling away the destructive manmade dogma—became about my psychological profile as a believer. The discussion wasn’t about religion from then on, but about my pathology—what was wrong with me as an individual and what was wrong with “religious people” as a category.
This patently false idea—that all “religious people” have the same particular psychology—has a negative impact on any discourse. It becomes a conversation of unequals. One party plays the psychologist, the other is forced into the role of patient. Every word the religious person says is passed through this “category filter” so, in the end, the believer ceases to be a person, but rather just a religious “type.”
And this is why I think my atheist friend felt the need to define “fundamental” so narrowly that it could not apply to my experience as a religious person. Religious types don’t change their minds in the face of evidence that challenges their deeply held beliefs, and they don’t approach their faith rationally, therefore, we must redefine “fundamental change” (among other terms) so this person’s experience fits neatly into the category.
This is a terrible thing to do to another human being. Even one we perceive as being “less than” we are in some way (less rational, less capable of independent thought, less intelligent, etc.)
Whatever the subject and however strongly held our own beliefs about it, we do no one a service when we attempt to reduce their position to a pathology so we don’t have to grapple with the ideas they raise. Grappling with these ideas honestly and consciously is how we learn and grow as individuals and as a species. These are ideas we should be eager to think deeply about, not simply affix a label to and file away.
Next time: More on the pathology of faith.