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An essay donated by Nick Coghlan

"What matters more to you:
being right or staying friends"

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Which matters more to you: being right or staying friends?

The role of faith in my life has been a varied one. My parents are Roman Catholics (albeit ones with more than a few issues with the way the Church hierarchy run the show), and so I grew up doing the traditional Roman Catholic thing - convent primary school (although there were no teaching nuns by the time I came through) followed by a Christian Brothers high school (although again, one with mostly lay teachers). Church on Sunday was a weekly family ritual, and after drifting away into the typical agnosticism of the Australian teenager, I rediscovered my faith through the National Evangelization Teams program. Enthused about my faith again, I started actually studying it - reading the Bible, looking at church teachings, that kind of thing. But something strange happened - the more I studied, the more hollow it all seemed. I *didn't* agree with everything the Bible said, or everything the Church taught, and neither did my parents. Clearly I was using something else as the basis for my moral decisions in which Church teachings I chose to agree with and which I chose to reject, but what was it?

A Star Wars fan website 1 (of all things) led me to encounter the phrase "secular humanism". Reading up on that, I found it agreed perfectly with the criteria I had been applying in picking and choosing amongst the teachings of the Catholic Church. I was happy to have found a term for my beliefs that focused on what I believed in, rather than simply highlighting one thing I had chosen to reject (i.e. "atheism"). One cognitive science degree and a whole lot of reading later (including the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hofstadter, Pinker and Sagan), and I was even happier with the idea of a world where we create our own meaning rather than having it passed down to us from on high.

The journey from childhood faith, through teenage agnosticism to adult faith and my eventual deliberate choice of a naturalistic world view was something that involved a lot of thought and introspection, that I was fortunate enough to have the time for. However, it left me with a problem. Many of my family are still devout (or not-so-devout) Catholics and my friends embrace a variety of religious traditions. How could I align what I had discovered for myself with their different points of view, without coming off (to myself or to others) as a condescending twit making allowances for the "less enlightened"?

The militant atheists (such as Dawkins) often come across as wanting to see the religious baby thrown out with the fundamentalist bath water. Others (such as Dennett) are able to put forward a more nuanced view, that attempts to better understand the whole of religion, so that we can more effectively harness the positive aspects while reducing the negative effects. Having been a believer as an adult, and having suffered no significant negative experiences through my faith, I have a much easier time seeing the good side of religious belief than many atheists, so Dennett's line of rapprochement seemed far more appealing to me.

Eventually, I was able to distil my personal ethos down into a belief that the pillars of ethical and moral living consist of just 5 basic concepts: honesty, compassion, justice, freedom and hope. As I see it, we have to believe in something, otherwise nihilism wins and there is no point in getting out of bed in the morning. For myself, and humanists like me, I see those five things as products of evolution. I see them as glorious, beautiful things in their own right, the most profound creations of the human race. It is up to each of us to honor and steward each of the principles as best we can. Others choose to see those 5 principles as something that was gifted to us by a higher power, rather than something we created collectively ourselves over the course of time. I don't agree with such beliefs, but that is only because I see them as unnecessary. In practice, if the outcome is a personal faith that accepts and promotes the same 5 principles I believe in, then I don't really care all that much as to why somebody agrees they're important.

Where I start to have an issue is when groups and individuals either consciously or inadvertently start to disrespect those ideals. Whether the offenders are governments, organized religions, corporations, or specific individuals, malicious deceit, discounting of the feelings of others, inequitable treatment, unnecessary coercive restraints and excessive pessimism and fatalism are all concepts I have fundamental problems with. Of course, balancing all of those principles means that there are many situations encountered in the real world that have no right answers, only less bad wrong ones, which is why reasonable people may disagree on the correct courses of action. Simply "getting rid of religion" doesn't magically make the underlying issues go away.

The dangerous religions are the ones that create a priestly caste and then say to everyone else "It's complicated, it's a mystery, don't worry your pretty little head about it". By convincing people to shut down their capacity for critical thinking, they are trampling over a number of those principles I value (especially honesty and freedom). Religious traditions that instead encourage their believers to adopt an attitude of constant questioning are far more compatible with the humanist point of view, as it allows members of that faith to make their own judgments based on universal ethical principles in addition to the teachings of that specific tradition.

This separation of beliefs from consequences (similar to the distinction made between beliefs and actions here at OCRT) and individual believers from religious organizations was the insight I needed to realize that it was possible to be religiously tolerant without feeling (or being) condescending about it.

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Reference used:

  1. For the record, it was www.stardestroyer.net
 
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Originally posted on 2011-JAN-10
Latest update on: 2011-JAN-10
Written by
Nick Coghlan
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