Saturday, February 23, 2013

Humility, obedience, and Michelle DeRusha

My local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, publishes a monthly column by Michelle DeRusha about her Christian beliefs,... and I usually leave a comment in rebuttal. :)

OK, she sounds like a very pleasant young woman, but she sees everything - and I mean everything - through her god-goggles. And all my life, I've seen puff pieces like this in the newspaper, often written by reporters, not just guest columnists, without any critical thinking at all, let alone alternate viewpoints.

Now that these things are online, I just want to remind people that it's not a given, that some of us do see things differently and that we think we've got good reasons for doing so. I don't expect to change any minds, but I think it's important that we atheists become visible.

But I thought maybe I'd start posting replies here, too. I don't spend a lot of time on them, but all of this takes more time than you might think. And I guess I'm just interested in the topics she raises, since her thinking is so alien to my own.

Today, her column is Learning the practice of humility the hard way:
Humility, in a nutshell, is placing God first, often by placing others before ourselves.

Because Benedict knew practicing humility would challenge his monks, he broke the concept down into 12 steps, one of which is this: To believe in your heart that others are better than you. ...

This is what makes humility and obedience so tough. Benedict did mean everyone -- not just the saints and the heroes. Not just the people who think like us and believe the same things we do. He meant even the annoying people. The people who have wronged us. The ones with whom we disagree.

Right. Everyone is better than you are. Thieves, rapists, murderers - they're all better than you. You're just so humble, aren't you?

Is it just me, or is this false humility that offensive to everyone else, too? Christians like this brag about their humility. They compete on how humble they are. And they don't mean one word of it. (They shouldn't, either. There are some really nasty people in the world. Trust me, you are better than them.)

But this is part of the Christian narrative about how arrogant atheists are, compared to humble, Christ-like believers. Oh, in reality, atheists actually know that there's a god - the Christian God, naturally - but they don't want to admit it, because they're just too arrogant to serve in Heaven. Better to reign in Hell, eh?

But here's the deal: Christians think that the entire universe was created just for them, and that the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of the universe watches over them every minute, desperately concerned about each one, right down to the details about their sex life. And every Christian soldier is fighting for the most important thing ever. Each is a critical component of God's plan.

Does that sound humble to you? Compare that to the atheist view that we're just another species of ape, an animal which evolved on a small planet around a nondescript star lost in a vast galaxy, which is itself lost in the immensity of the universe. Our entire biosphere is like the scum on one grain of sand on the world's largest beach.

But that's OK. I don't place a lot of value on humility, anyway. Human beings are important. And I'm always going to be important to myself, if not necessarily the most important person in my life. (All of us know people we'd die for, I suspect.) I'm certainly a better person than some people in the world!

If that makes me arrogant, so be it. I think of it as being honest. And, you know, honesty tends to be an important value to us atheists.

DeRusha, as Christians tend to do, links humility with obedience. Humble believers obey God. And when you understand what a miserable little worm you are, you can see how questioning God is so ridiculous. Who are you, after all, to question his glory and his majesty?

That kind of talk makes me nauseous, and I'm not sure if it's better or worse that they don't actually believe it. (As I say, this is false humility, at best.) Who am I? I'm a human being with a brain, and I'm going to use that brain the best I can. I might get it wrong, but so what? How does that make us any different?

This reminds me of evangelist Eric Hovind, who tries to argue that, because we don't know everything, we can't know anything, and so we must rely on a God who does know everything. But even an 11-year-old kid can spot the flaw in that. If you can't trust your reason, how can you trust your belief in a god? How do you know your omniscient God actually exists?

When you talk about obedience, it's not obedience to God, but obedience to what other people - usually men - have said your god wants. It's men who wrote the Bible. It's men who taught you about the Christian god. (If they'd taught you about the Muslim god, instead, you'd believe in that one.) It's men who interpret the Bible, explaining how it doesn't really mean what it says.

God doesn't tell you what he wants - or if he does, it's not anything you can clearly distinguish from delusion. After all, people have done some truly horrid things because they thought that God was telling them to do it. If you really want to be humble, then think about that! You could be delusional.

No, we all rely on our brains for these kinds of decisions. Some of us just use our brains better than others. Oh, I'm sorry, did that sound arrogant? Am I not being humble enough? Yes, I think I'm right. Yes, I think I've got good reasons for my beliefs - and my disbelief, too.

Admittedly, I could be wrong. Yes, I freely admit that. Isn't that humble enough for you? But if you think I am wrong, you'd better have a good argument.

I'm humble enough that I welcome contrary arguments. If I'm wrong, I want to know it, so I can change my mind. But obedience? I obey the law - usually - even when I disagree with it. We're social animals, and we have laws so we can live together in peace.

But before I'd obey God's laws, I'd have to be convinced that (1) your particular god exists, (2) your god really does want us to follow a particular law, and (3) it's a good law. (Alternately, instead of that last condition, you could convince me that God would punish me for disobeying his law, and I might obey it even if I thought it was a bad law. But not without protest.)

So far, though, no believer has come close to showing me why I should believe his god even exists, so I'm not going to lose any sleep worrying about the rest of it.


Gregg Garthright said...

I saw that column today. I started to read it, but nodded off before getting too far.

It really looked like nonsense to me - I agree with your point about false humility.

Jeff said...

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful." --Seneca the Younger (attributed)

"All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher." - Lucretius (94 BC - 49 BC)