Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If God, Then stupid

This morning, lying in bed, I read an article in Newsweek about scientists who are not godless and the uphill battle they face in some universities and schools. Namely, that because they believe evolution is real, the boards of these schools deny them the right to teach it. Nevermind that the scientists in question are usually devout Christians.

That many institutional Christians reject any academic study of evolution or any other study which might defy their narrow belief system is not surprising. People rather expect it. But something that I've only caught whiffs of in the last few years is the idea that to believe in God, you must be ignorant.

The article didn't directly address that prejudice, but it brushed up against it and moved back toward the predictable bigotry of the fundamentalists. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about it.

A few years ago, my father, a protestant minister, was honored to be chosen to attend an intensive week-long theology course at Oxford. The topic of the study was science. Living in Texas, he's used to fundamentalists blocking enlightened discussion about science, so when he got to Oxford, he said he was all geared up to pick on the fundamentalists who so prejudicely deride science in the public realm. However, his instructor told him that in England, it is he who is derided immensely. His instructor, an Episcopal priest and professor of theology as well as a practicing scientist, is the leader of a group of scientists who are also ordained ministers. He does not question evolution or any other law or established theory. But because he believes, worships and promotes God, he is subject to ridicule by the scientific and academic establishment in England.

About a year ago, I picked up a coworker of mine from the airport and drove her to the office after her honeymoon on safari. As I relished all the details of her adventure, she was telling me about how great their guide was. He was so well educated, so smart, but he was really religious. A lot of the guides on their tour were really religious but they were well-educated. "It was really strange," she told me.

Then one night I was listening to a book talk on C-Span radio. It was Julia Sweeney reading from and talking about her book about her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. It was of course funny and poignant. Then an audience member asked her a question which I forget but to which she answered essentially that her mom was still a Christian because she didn't have the insight and introspection that Julia did. I don't know Julia Sweeney's mom. Maybe she isn't that introspective, but it seemed really presumptuous. Kind of like how I once told a good friend of mine I was going through a crisis in faith and she just shrugged and said I'd some day realize there wasn't a god because all smart people do eventually.

So that's where we are in this society? That if you're a believer, then you must be ignorant? Isn't that just as bigotted as believing an atheist has no soul or nothing to contribute to your own spiritual growth?

What bothers me about this is that this prejudice does not come from traditionally uneducated people. Fundamentalist groups in this country tend to appeal to people who may not have had that broad a formal or life education. They appeal to groups who know others mostly like them and who have not been in broad contact with people whose experiences differ. But the "you can't be smart and faithful" folks tend to come from more ethnically heterogeneous areas or, in the case of critics like Dawkins, places of high education. These tend to be the same folks who are much more socially tolerant. And yet, I can only suspect two things which would contribute to this prejudice:

1) Like my coworker who's Catholic in name only, they've lived in societies that are so secularized that to even talk about faith openly puts you in a weird light (places like Vermont - c'mon Dean; nobody in VT talks about religion, that's why your sudden openness rings hollow in the South). So they only thing they know of open discussion is what they see in the media which only focuses on book-burning scandals. You'd never hear about the church I helped charter in Texas, led by a gay man. Nor of the illegal refugees my church gave shelter to during an emergency. Kind of like how if you live in an all-white area of the country, you may be prone to fear blacks because guess how the media portrays them.

2) Maybe no matter how heterogeneous one's environs, this actually just goes to show we really only surround ourselves with like-minded people. Though I spent a large chunk of my childhood in the very Baptist Texas Panhandle, my parents encouraged me to seek other points of view and didn't fret when I asked questions. And though the majority of my friends in the past have been white of Christian background, I've always felt very comfortable getting to know people of other faiths and heritages as well as friends who reject the notion of God. If someone can't fathom that a person could be both genuinely faithful and genuinely intelligent and introspective, to me that not only shows a lack of imagination on the part of that person, it shows they've never really stepped outside their tight circle of experience to get to know someone of a differing viewpoint.

I have always been angry at Christians who stand in the way of education. Not only does it paint a negative picture of us with which others can easily (and often rightly) attack us, it shows great distrust in God. It tells me they want to keep God in a box; that they don't believe God could still be speaking to us, that new scientific revelations don't have to be soulless, but rather, can reveal the utter beauty of God's handiwork. Still, the tendency I feel like I have been sniffing - to believe that faith is a sure sign of idiocy - is just as offensive as the prejudice of the fundamentalist. It's essentially the same prejudice in my mind: you are less than desirable; I have nothing to learn from you; I must save you and society from yourself.

How haughty both sides of the fence are. I'm so glad I sit precariously on the top and sneer down at them both! teehee! What is it that pride comes before, again ...? ;)


Virginia Gal said...

first I hope your 9/11 wasn't too bad, yes I did think of you - this being the first time since it happened that it again fell on a Tuesday...thankfully it started raining down here in Richmond by afternoon, so the day wasn't so similar to that fateful day. I hope you are doing ok.

As for this post, we have had this discussion before, no?? Very interesting about what your dad encountered in England. My English friends have a saying over there for the amount of times people attend church, its bred, wed and dead. Three times only.

mommanator said...

what an insiteful post, good reading!

Darla D said...

Very thoughtful post, Molly. Hard to believe someone with your religious beliefs could write something so deep and insightful. :-)

But really, whatever happened to respecting people's beliefs? I guess I do get my back up when people shove their beliefs in my face in inappropriate situations, but that has less to do with what they believe than with how they behave.

It is dangerous and lazy to embrace assumptions. It is unsettling to question one's own beliefs, and to attempt to do that honestly. I guess that's why it is easy to fall into the trap of making judgments about other people without really thinking about it.

Can I join you up on the fence? Can we drop stuff on people from up there?

Molly Malone said...

hey darla, i believe in a very broad fence. please join me up here! and yes, bring the water balloons!

Pearl said...

I remember a particularly delightful professor at my (British, very secular) university who referred to Chrsitianity as 'that disease'. Can you imagine that in the States? Gah!