Saturday, February 26, 2011

Comfortable Accommodations

     As I mentioned in my last post, I recently sent a post to a site calling for submissions. The site in question is the site of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation). They rejected it (although they did ask me to send other articles in the future) because they said they were looking for a fresh perspective on the accommodationist/confrontationalist debate as a whole,rather than a piece that advocates for one side or the other. As I said in my reply e-mail to them, I'm not sure how any post on the debate isn't going to come down on one side or the other. Anyway, since they decided they didn't they want it, I'm posting it here.

     There are two major factions among atheists. One side thinks a confrontational approach towards religion is needed. It isn't enough to get religious individuals to accept things like evolution while holding onto their religious beliefs. These "New Atheists" think it's necessary to destroy those beliefs, to get everyone to accept that there is no God. They say and write things that indicate that anyone who holds any sort of belief in a supreme being or an afterlife is an idiot. On the other side are the "accommodationists". They're ok with people having religious beliefs as long as they don't try to impose those beliefs on others or try to impede scientific progress and education because of their beliefs.
          I'm an agnostic. I'm also an accommodationist. I'm so accommodating, in fact, that I married a Christian Scientist.
          Let's be clear about a couple of things :
          1) Christian Scientists are not these extreme fundamentalist Christians who you've read the horrible stories about, stories where a child dies a slow, painful death from say, an easily treated ear infection, while the parents refuse medical treatment in favor of prayer. Based on my personal experience, they're more like the typical male, religious or not. They don't go to doctors for regular check-ups, but they won't hesitate to dial 911 if someone's in distress. I have visited Christian Scientists in the hospital and there isn't a Christian Scientist I've met who I believe would see a child suffering and do nothing but pray.
          2) While I won't say that there is definitely no God, I will definitely say that I think if God exists, he/she/it definitely isn't the God envisioned by Christian Science (if there is a God, I think the best case scenario based on the evidence is the Deist view of God expressed by many of the Founding Fathers that God made the Universe and then stepped out of the picture) and if I have a bad cold, I use Nyquil to get a good night's sleep, not prayer.
          My wife knows my thoughts on God in general and Christian Science in particular, yet it causes no problems. My in-laws, who are also Christian Scientists, know as well and they have no problem with it. In fact, my mother-in-law treats me like I'm her own son. And all of the Christian Scientists I've met at her church have accepted me even though they know I'm not a believer. Yes, I go to church with her. She likes having me go with her, it's not that early in the morning and I often get a nice little nap out of it. If you have a problem with that, well, I think you'd be amazed at how little I care.
          I realize that a non-religious person marrying a religious person isn't a unique situation, even if one of those people is an agnostic, skeptical cynic who wanted to be a doctor when he was a kid and the other is a member of a religion that believes the physical world is an illusion and that sickness can be healed through prayer.
          I also know that when it comes to religious people, Christian Scientists (at least in my experience) don't compare to Christian fundamentalists when it comes to ignorance (willful or otherwise) and intolerance. They don't seem to have any problem with the Big Bang, the age of the universe and Earth, evolution, etc. Where science is concerned, their only blind spot seems to be in the area of medicine. They don't aggressively proselytize. They won't tell you that if you don't believe what they do, you'll go to Hell for all eternity. They don't believe in Hell. And they are not hard-headed when it comes to science. A while back, I overheard a friend of my wife's family who's a Christian Scientist talking to my mother-in-law about seeing a TV appearance by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey where they were spewing their anti-vax nonsense. When she saw me rolling my eyes, she asked for my input. I told her that I wouldn't be inclined to take medical advice from a woman who's famous for getting naked and a man whose breakout film role involved him making his butt pretend to talk. A few days later, I offered her an article from Skeptic magazine about the anti-vax movement and how it was based on fraudulent, unethical "research" conducted by someone who was hoping to push their own alternative vaccine. She eagerly accepted it. I confess, I never asked her what effect it had on her opinion about it, but at least she was willing to look at it with an open mind.
          Still, we are talking about people who have what would probably be considered wacky beliefs by your average Christian. Even Creationists go to the doctor. When I was dating my wife and I found out about her beliefs, I could have just said "You're crazy, lady!" and ended it. That would have been a huge mistake. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me. We have a happy home where the mailman delivers the Christian Science Sentinel and the Christian Science Journal along with Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. Granted, there are no kids in the picture yet and even though we discussed how we would handle religion with them before we were married, I'm sure issues will still come up, but I'm also sure we'll be able to handle them.
          If we can make our marriage work, I think non-religious people can make things work with those who have religious beliefs. It means being willing to be tolerant of those beliefs (within certain limits). It means not thinking that everyone who's religious is stupid. My wife isn't stupid. Her family isn't stupid and her friends at church aren't stupid. Constantly belittling the religious isn't going to allow you to make much progress in changing their minds about things. Not only are people not going to listen to someone who insults them, but people tend to be stubborn about these things. If you constantly tell someone that a long held, cherished belief is totally wrong, they're just going to hold on to that belief even stronger. You may say, "So what, I don't care if I change their minds as long as I'm able to make sure religion stays out of the schools, doesn't shape public policy, etc." The problem is, as with pretty much any other issue, you're always going to have people who are somewhere in the middle whose help you're going to need to accomplish your goals and they're not going to be very sympathetic towards you if you act like a complete asshole. If you're one of these hardcore, religion must be destroyed atheists, I really think you should consider changing your tactics and following the example of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (of which I'm a member) and reach out to the religious moderates. Being willing to be just a little accommodating could yield some pretty big benefits. It has for me.

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