Monday, 30 May 2011

Approaching Mockery from Atheists

The tiny part of the atheist blogosphere that I read has in the last few months been abuzz on the topic of mockery: (when/how) should atheists mock religious people's beliefs? I refer specifically to Leah's posts (here and here to get started) at Daylight Atheism, but Leah has taken a look at in on her own blog and it seems to be a topic that recurs in other forums. In light of this, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the matter as a Christian who responds to such mockery. Namely, how might a Christian respond to offensive atheist comments constructively?

My immediate response to comments designed to mock my religious beliefs is to feel hurt and exposed. This undergoes a rapid transformation into defensiveness; at least in my head, I try to demonstrate why this mockery is misplaced and misleading, why it is not a valid threat to my beliefs. Often it's easy to do, since most mockery is not especially well informed or actually threatens a specific view that I, in my very mere Christianity, do not hold. Sometimes it's more difficult, but it has always been possible. Sometimes, but not often, I get quite angry. This is usually in response to the worst kinds of attack, like desecration or threats.

For my part, at least, this mockery does not "shock" me from my complacency, get me to think, or make me realize that I can question religious authority. I am not complacent, I am already thinking, and I've known for some time that you can get away with questioning religious authority. The net effect of these comments has usually been to make me sad or to make me despair of peace in this world. (I tend to melodrama.)

As a result I tend to think of these commenters as angry, irrational, arrogant, disrespectful, and destructive. Angry because I can only imagine that such a wilful desire to hurt is born from some anger, either an open flash or a deep grudge. Irrational because the obvious emotion behind the comment undermines any claims to reasoned argument. The frequently obvious fallacies in the mockery support this assumption. (Some comments are not obviously off the mark, and this is important to acknowledge). Arrogant because the commenters often don't see that they are committing exactly the sorts of intellectual or relational snobbery that they mock in Christians. Disrespectful because the hurt they inflict seems obvious to me and they therefore seem to want to do nothing but hurt others. (I realize, upon reading the comments on Leah's guest posts at Daylight Atheism, that they have a list of reasons to mock; I am not quite sold that these are anything but rationalizations of a strictly emotional response, but let's take these as valid reasons for the moment. I'm not claiming these are disrespectful of Christian people but rather I'm claiming that I feel they are so when I first respond to them.) And destructive because the commenters are obviously not contributing to cooperation between Christians and atheists but rather creating rifts, a destructive act.

I think this is a fairly standard litany of Christian (or otherwise religious) responses to atheist mockery of religion. The next step, usually, is to respond in kind: ordinarily when we react to mockery we are at least one of angry, irrational, arrogant, disrespectful, and destrutcive, and visibly so. Sadly, this not only prevents us from actually addressing the mockery at hand, but also leads us to fail as Christians. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was not, after all, a lesson in polemics (though Jesus did have some fairly strong invectives for unforgiving religious leaders). The move from our own hurt and our own ad hominem assessment of the commenter to a counter-attack is, I think, misguided. Rather, I think we need to spend some time getting past the adjectives I just laid out.

In my experience (limited, I admit, to twenty and some years as just one person, mainly in Canadian academia), this kind of mockery does not merely produce hurt but comes from hurt. That is, people act angrily and irrationally when they feel under attack somehow. I'm not saying that all atheist criticism of religion is emotionally driven; to do so would be to undermine some very fair critiques. I do, however, suggest that a lot of mockery is to some extent a result of real or perceived greivances that the commenters hold. As a result, I think that when we experience mockery of our practices, beliefs, and selves, we ought to consider what wounds this anger might come from. We should also consider whether we helped inflict those wounds. I have (after far too long) come to realize that in some parts of the world it is very unpleasant to be an atheist; seclusion in Canadian universities, where atheism seems to be the norm and is sometimes openly supported by professors, has blinded me to the fact that atheists receive real discrimnation in much of the world, including those centres which seem to produce lots of contemporary media (the southern US, for instance). It was not until I came to recognize the wounds which fuel much of the mockery that I realized this.

Addressing the content of the mockery is trickier. Sometimes it is unrelated to those wounds, where the commenter is angry at all of religion and lashes out at whatever is closest to hand. (And even in these cases, the content of the mockery might still be accurate.) Sometimes, though, it is directly related to past greivances. (So, for instance, someone making jokes about the Rapture probably wasn't hurt by Rapture-related beliefs. Someone making getting angry about oppression of LGTB peoples might have been hurt by the related religious beliefs and practices.) Discerning this distinction is probably impossible, but it's something to think over. If you figure out what those wounds are, however, one of the best responses I can think of is how to prevent further unnecessary hurt.

A few further thoughts:

1) Don't join mockery. This should be obvious, but if a group of people are mocking Mormons, don't jump on board. Recognize how you react when atheists (or whoever) mock you. Just because you think you're right doesn't give you license to act like a snob. All snobs, even the wrong ones, think that they're right. (Here's a good talk to listen to when you're sure you're right.) And full disclosure: I'm not always good at this. I might sometimes pick on the Raƫlians. Some time I decided not to, and so far it's going well.

2) I imagine that some atheists reading this (if there are any) might take this as an encouragement to continue mocking as a means of calling attention to their own greivances. I want to be clear: I am not condoning mockery. I think it's entirely unhelpful and morally wrong. But I will observe that it took a lot of mockery before I realized that mockery can reveal legitimate greivances that I must address. This means that so long as we continue hurting others, mockery may have some utility. Let's, as Christians, listen well enough that in future atheists do not need to resort to mockery to be heard. Some of us are already starting to do that; as expected, Dr. Richard Beck is who I'll link to, specifically this article (you'll need to read through to near the end to see him discuss poor Christian PR).

3) There are contextual isses that I should address. Mockery from friends is often different from mockery on-line. You'll notice reading through that I assume mockery from on-line sources. The benefit to this is that it allows some access to more distant regions and demographics. The trouble, however, is the callousness that Internet anonymity allows. Mockery from friends (or family or coworkers or classmates) is personal: it has potentially more painful barbs, but knowledge of the person and their intentions allows you to understand their mockery and discuss it with them more knowledgably. I have trouble with both, but the personal form is more difficult for me to manage and I find it more personally damaging. (I'll link again to Dr. Beck.)

Summer Reading List

An Account of my Absence

I realize that the last post I wrote here was one promising activity. It was written about a month ago. I can explain.

In early May I returned to Fort McMurray to visit friends and family. I've been here since then and will be here a little while longer before returning to the beautiful British Columbia. While here I have been treating reading and writing like a full-time job, putting in eight hours a day, five days a week. At first I wrote an early draft of an article for a journal which I have sent to a professor for feedback, and since then I've worked on creative writing. For the first little while I journalled and wrote letters on top of these eight hours, but after a while I realized that I could not physically take it: my eyes and knuckles were in pain by the end of the day. Since then I have absorbed journal- and letter-writing into this schedule.

Needless to say, with all of this writing my blogging has suffered drastically. While I have continued reading blogs and commenting periodically, I have not felt interested in or even capable of producing posts of my own. For this reason I will henceforth include blogging in those eight hours, so long as I do not exceed one day per week.

Because I cannot share what I have been writing, I will instead give you my reading list so far.

1. "Against Literary Darwinism" (Jonathan Kramnick, Winter 2011)
Because I doubt many of my readers care about literary theory, I'll try for brevity: Kramnick is arguing that a particular school of literary analysis which calls itself Literary Darwinism is bunk. LD claims to be trying to draw literary analysis out of relativist irrelevance and into hard, stable science. Sadly, says Kramnick, the science they are using as a base is an older form of evolutionary psychology which is far from universally accepted in the current scientific academy (it suggests that all traits are selected for rather than merely selected, failing to recognize the possibility of byproducts, or spandrels). Further, it fails on the literary end, since it is unable to isolate the universal formal traits of literature which it seeks to identify, instead slipping into universal themes of love and triumph which, the LDs say, rehearse evolutionary pressures. Universal themes are not universal forms and so they fail to provide what they claim to provide. It's an interesting article, but because it's written mainly for a literary analytical audience it doesn't go into what's wrong with universal themes (since any literary analyst worth her salt already knows why), so if you aren't immersed in this discipline's theory you might wonder why that isn't addressed.

2. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (Wade Davis)
One River details the travels of the author and his colleague Tim Plowman (an ethnobotanist) through the Amazong rain forest in search of the origin of coca, the plant used to make cocaine (and Coca-Cola); it also details the botanical biography of their mentor Richard Schultes and his own journeys in Oklahoma, Mexico, and the Amazon rain forest (I realize I'm jumbling catgories there; all I can say is that it reflects how Schultes travelled, not how I conceptualize these places). I spent a lot of time with this book; its seeming endlessness may unintentionally replicate the Amazon itself. Despite what the title suggests, it does not seem to be especially about one river. Each time Davis announced that someone will embark on an exploration of yet another uncharted river, I would reflect on the irony of this title. This book is not for the faint of heart. And, yet, it was absolutely worth it, not just because I learned a lot about psychoactive and medicinal plants in the Amazon basin or about the rubber trade during the Second World War (which is incredibly fascinating, by the way) or about the customs and contact histories of numerous aboriginal peoples, but because I learned a lot about knowledge production itself. One River is about, among other things, an enormous taxonomical enterprise, in which the description and classification of plants make their discovery. That is, it is only when you can describe a plant and then place it in a larger categorical web (taxonomy, bionomial nomenclature, genetic lineages) that you can claim that such a plant is known and further work on it can begin. In a sense, One River helped me understand how taxonomy, the part of biology I liked most in high school and was least respected by biology and biochemical student friends in undergraduate, is integral to the very basis of biology and is also that point which most reveals how the field is organized. But this book is also about the weakennesses of western, post-enlightenment science (anyone mind if I stop capitalizing "enlightenment" as a historical event?) next to the botany of the aboriginal peoples of the Amazon, the numerous inheritors of Incan science. While Schultes changed botany, Davis has changed ethnobotany: some of his encounters suggest that the vast pharmaceutical knowledge of the South American peoples was generated after the Spanish arrived on the continent. That is, this is not ancient wisdom passed down after millenia of slow growth, but a (relatively) rapid generation of new empirical knowledge in response to the new diseases that the conquistadores brought with them, a knowledge reflecting social conditions and resources. This casts the indigenous peoples not as passive recipients of inflexible tradition but active creators of working medicinal practices. This is an important distinction to make.
Anyway, I could keep going on about this book: I could launch a substantial argument that it is an ethnobotanical epic just as the Iliad is a Greek national epic and The Faerie Queen is an English national epic, or I could discuss homosociality and the gendering of science as it appears in the chapter entitled "The Blue Orchid," but I'll forbear. If you want to see other books by Wade Davis I've discussed, you can look at this post where I talk about The Wayfinders or this post where I talk about The Serpent and the Rainbow.

3. The Problem of Pain (C S Lewis)
I see that Leah has recently read this as well. I always feel calmer after reading Lewis, but I presume Lewis only has this effect on Christians, and even then only on those of a certain bent. I'm not sure I think that this is quite sufficient as far as theodicy goes (note: theodicy is the branch of theology which accounts for evil and/or suffering in the world), especially as I'm not willing to follow Lewis down particular paths. (I always have trouble when he starts talking about drives and instincts because, quite frankly, I can easily postulate models which overcome his objections--mere hierarchy of drives usually does it--and I'm sure cognitive psychology can do the trick quite fine and with more empirical clout than my postulated models have.) This being said, Lewis' book does have a lot of value in the observations and discussions that he develops alongside his theodicy. For instance, I was fascinated with his idea of the necessity of an impersonal, causal world outside of human control and not subject to frequent miracles; we require separation from the other to recognize the other as something outside of oneself. If we were all so perfectly psychic as to immediately experience our neighbour's thoughts, we would not recongize those thoughts as someone else's. This, I think, is fascinating. I also find it fascinating that in this book Lewis clearly comes down on the side of evolution (though he has a twist of divine intervention in his story which I suspect Pullman borrowed and inverted in his Dark Materials trilogy).

4. Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)
In Howl's Moving Castle, the young protagonist Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Wastes so that she appears to be an elderly woman and, in order to be free of the curse, must seek the help of the wizard Howl, owner of a moving castle and eater of young girls' hearts. What this book may lack in deep insights about human character and social ills is amply made up for in the inclusion of unique main characters: the female lead, while nominally young like in most young adult books, appears to be and acts as if she were elderly for most of the book; the male lead, a powerful and older but nonetheless young- and handsome-looking wizard, frequently emasculates himself and gets through the book primarily through dashing cowardice. Also included in the novel are Sophie's sisters who for the time being go by the same name and appearance, a dog which seems to have once been a human being, a very determined scarecrow, a petulant fire demon living in a fire place, and a young apprentice (about the only generically recognizable character outside the Witch of the Wastes). Given the similarity of many YA and fantasy protagonists, especially when compared within gender lines, these characters offer refreshing alternatives. If you want something that plays a lot with generic conventions while somehow fulfilling them, you may want to look at this book.

5. An Acceptable Time (Medeleine L'Engle)
Polly O'Keefe is visiting her grandparents in a house recognizable to readers of the Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters), when Zachary Gray appears. With him seems to come a time portal, drawing Polly into the New England of 1000 BCE, where she interacts with the People of the Wind, an aboriginal group who have absorbed two exiles from Britain and their druidic teachings. Like all L'Engle books, Polly attempts to negotiate through a world both intellectual and relational, linking science, religion, literature, hope, and forgiveness. I quite enjoyed this book (notwithstanding the fact that my apparent taste in female-oriented YA continues to erode any sense of my own masculinty), though I am really starting to question L'Engle's protagonists' tastes in guys. I was a little uncomfortable in two places, though: first, the book tends towards a romanticization of indigenous peoples, though it's far better than many of its alternatives; second, Polly on occasion is taken for a goddess, and as uncomfortable as she says this makes her, she seems willing to use it to serve her goals. I'm not too keen on such behaviour.

6. Disappearing Moon Cafe (SKY Lee)
Before I begin, I want to state that I'm not sure why the author insists on capitalizing all of the letters in her first name. But she does, so I'll follow suit. (The Wikipedia page is not as accomodating.)
The professor I had for my Asian Canadian Studies class first semester recommended Disappearing Moon Cafe when we complained that there was no literature on the curriculum. I bought it at the end of that semester but did not get much past the prologue until last week. It explores four generations of the Wong family, Asian Canadians located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, proprietors of the eponymous cafe. The narrative skips around time periods, structured not chronologically but rather revelationally, attempting to hold back the secrets which continue to trouble the narrator, Kae Wong of the fourth and last generation of the Wong clan's Vancouver branch. Only as the novel progresses do you discover the disturbing occurances lurking in the Wong family's past. It's a good book, if written in a perhaps over-ornamented style replete with modifiers. Some people like that sort of thing, of course. It's a little preoccupied with incest, however, so if that bothers you, you might want to pass. This is not an "easy" book either in prose or content, dealing as it does with feminist and Asian Canadian issues, and employing a lot of Asian Canadian colloquial language.

7. "Discourse in the Novel" (Mikhail Bakhtin)
I've started this but not finished it. It's the next installment in my literary analytical readings.
Bakhtin is an important and brilliant if sometimes underrepresentated and misunderstood literary theorist. His ideas about carnivalesque and heteroglossia have strongly impacted the English department but (at least according to my colleagues in my Reported Speech course) nonetheless remain poorly understood, having been twisted somewhat to fit the agendas or frameworks of contemporary theorists. As such, I have decided to become more familiar with this thinker. (I was also supposed to have read this for class and failed; further, I realize I lack the theoretical backing that many of my peers can profess and I think Bakhtin might be a good, more unique investment.) "Discourse in the Novel" outlines how a more dialogic understanding of the novel is necessary; this genre is situated perfectly, thinks Bakhtin, to reflect and use the contrasting unitary and heteroglossic forces in language and the perpetual fact of literature as located amongst other utterances. (If this seems rather technical, that's because it is.)

*sigh* You should never get me started on books, because then I tend to go on. I had planned to write more posts today but am running out of time. With luck I will get a few done.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Summer and Intentions

I would like to assure you all that I am alive and do intend to become an active blogger again. It might not happen until next week is the thing. I have posts just waiting to be written: I want to finish the series about bodies and identity that I started once upon a time; I have things to say about Christian unity; I have things to say about doubt, certainty, dogmatism, and postmodernism; I have movie reviews. I haven't written so far in part because I've been burnt out from school and in part because I've been a bit busy at times. I will have a productive summer, I hope, but in that I do intend to produce some work for here. I will update you soon. Also, I may add photos I took of the Vancouver area this spring.
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