An essay donated by Nick Coghlan
"What matters more to you:
being right or staying friends"
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
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.
- For the record, it was www.stardestroyer.net
Originally posted on 2011-JAN-10
Latest update on: 2011-JAN-10
Written by Nick Coghlan