Unholy Rollers

People who are religious typically take their religion quite seriously. Some of them simply bask in the glow of their beliefs, whatever those happen to be. I have no problem with that. People who are secure in their beliefs can be quite broad-minded about other people’s belief or non-belief; it doesn’t threaten them. But there’s also a large contingent of believers who feel it necessary to defend their beliefs against what they perceive as encroachment. Encroachment by non-believers seems especially to incite their ire.

Today Facebook served up a lovely quote from Bertrand Russell. I don’t know why my Facebook feed has so much Russell in it; maybe their algorithm knows me. Anyway, here’s the quote:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

I was rather taken with this, so I posted it to my own timeline, with the headline, “A parable for Holy Week.” Because, why not? There’s a visible connection between the quote and the calendar, and I’m smart enough to notice it.

A couple of my friends found it necessary to upbraid me. The more gently remonstrative of the two, as it happens, is a committed Christian. The more intemperate is a sort of new age spiritual type, or something. I don’t know what she believes, and I don’t much want to know. Both of them were clearly upset by the quotation, by my headline, or both.

For my part, I try earnestly to avoid commenting on Facebook when my Christian friends post messages about whatever it is they’re celebrating. One of my friends (not one of these two) will reliably post, next week, in Latin, the message, “Behold! He is risen!” He does it every year. Another friend (again, not one of these two) plays music in a Catholic church and sometimes posts photos of himself at the altar, or whatever they call it.

Oh, wait — here’s one now. He posted this image this morning. I didn’t respond to it in any way, nor would I do so. I’ve obscured his identity, because it isn’t important. What’s important is that believers and unbelievers enjoy equal rights on Facebook — or should.

If I respond at all to religious posts, I make it a point to be respectful. I might engage in a discussion about Biblical scholarship, for example, but strictly as an academic matter. I would never respond, “Who the fuck do you think is risen? The guy has been dead for 2,000 years! Dead!” I may think that; well, in fact I do think that; but I would never say it, not on a friend’s Facebook post and not in person.

But somehow, when I post a message in support of an atheist view of the world, some religious believers get their knickers all in a twist. I’m not sure what’s behind this. I’m tempted to say it’s a Jungian projection of their unconscious shadow onto me. They’re suppressing their own doubts about their beliefs by projecting the doubts onto me, so as to remain secure (on a conscious level).

But I’m reluctant to use Jungian analysis on people who aren’t in the room. There may be some other explanation. Maybe some people think “God” needs to be defended because he’s weak. No, that doesn’t make much sense. Or maybe they’re hoping to convert me to their way of thinking so I won’t end up in Hell. That’s a slightly better explanation, but I’m not sure it would apply to my new age vaguely pagan friend. It’s very doubtful she believes in Hell.

My Christian friend misunderstood Russell’s statement as an attack on Biblical literalism. It’s nothing of the sort. Russell referred to “ancient books” only as affirming the existence of “God.” That hardly requires Biblical literalism. I mean, the whole of the Bible is pretty much drenched with the Lord from top to bottom. Clearly the people who wrote those texts meant the word to refer to something quite specific, even if neither they nor modern worshipers necessarily agree what sort of something they’re talking about. Russell is bringing the whole variety of beliefs in a higher power under a large umbrella.

I’m inclined to look at it this way: When irrational belief takes root in a person’s brain, the ability to think logically about that belief flies out the window. The believer may be faultlessly logical about other things — but not about the substance of their belief. For that reason, believers are simply not capable of understanding what Russell is saying. They’re forced to confabulate something that they imagine he’s saying, after which they respond to their own imaginings.

His logic is quite clear. His teapot analogy could be read, of course, as rather condescending or insulting, but only if you enter into a purely intellectual discussion with the intention of being insulted. In comparing the supposedly large (that is, “God”) with something insanely trivial, he was aiming to take religion down a notch — or perhaps to ratchet it down quite a number of notches. His point was not merely that there is no logical underpinning to the “God” idea but, beyond that, that this “God” is no more important, morally or any other way, than a teapot.

If this be heresy, make the most of it.

He also suggested that in a society of believers, being a non-believer can be dangerous. History makes this obvious — and oddly, neither of my friends felt a need to dispute it. You could even stretch a point to suggest that they were confirming it.

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