Visiting With The Enemy

24 09 2009

I’ve been busy with an experiment these past couple of months  – exploring the mind of the religious fundamentalists who constitute our bitter opposition. We are advised to “know thy enemy” and yet we seldom actually do. The opposing sides in America’s “culture War” launch frequent fusilades at each other but rarely engage in personal dialog. We don’t see each other except on TV. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods or frequent the same haunts. We may well work side by side but modern rules of engagement prohibit arguing politics or religion in the workplace. There are no rabid fundies among my family or friends.

In view of this deficiency, I decided to spend some time on the USA Today Faith And Reason Forum (easily googleable) Signing on as “tobyg” and also as “ghost of tobyg” I had the experience of arguing daily with a choice selection of  narrow minded nut jobs and Christian fundamentalists. The forum attracts a small but diverse collection of posters ranging from the aforementioned fundies through liberal Christians, atheists and agnostics, deists, a couple of fellow Wiccans, a Hindu, one or two Buddhists, some Unitarians and a few hard-shell Mormons. Curiously, no Muslims that I noticed. The arguments are lively and often personal.

My experiment came to and end when I was suspended from the forum – probably for breaking the rules by calling the most frequent fundie poster an asshole when he claimed AIDS was the result of the depraved gay lifestyle. I don’t regret my plain-speaking. The guy is, indeed, a major asshole and could only benefit from having it pointed out to him. Also, after about three months of daily exchanges, it was time to call it a day and draw some conclusions.

There are two kinds of people – those who act on the basis of faith and those who act on the basis of evidence. This is not to imply that either kind has an absolute monopoly on truth. Columbus had faith – but little real evidence – that the world was round. Likewise, for hundreds of years it was thought that the clearly observable evidence showed maggots to be spontaneously generated by decaying meat. Those who presume that Creation consists only of what they can observe and classify with our limited human senses are as intellectually and spiritually impoverished as our fundie opponents. The evolved mind is that which is always open to the possibilities; that takes no dogma, whether of science or religion, as ultimate truth and understands that finally, there is no answer to “why” – only to “how.”

There were a number of evolved minds posting on the forum and they were invariably the wittiest. It was however, the minds of the fundies and Mormons that interested me. The two main Mormon posters were enormously erudite regarding their complex and inbred theology. They delighted in long posts detailing obscure aspects and debating minor points. This is not a new evolution in religion by any means. Their mind-set reminded me quite precisely of the medieval scholastics who could argue for a lifetime about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or the clerics of Byzantium with their Iconoclast controversy. To me as the outside observer, it seemed quite clear they were lost in a self sustaining swamp of circular logic and apriori reasoning. Mormonism is, after all, a completely made-up “religion,” created by a failed novelist named Joseph Smith, who was either a con-artist par excellance or who was suffering from the sort of “voices” and hallucinations that would today result in serious medication. This kind of  religious phenomenon is not uncommon. Every generation produces its share of gurus and prophets who proclaim a new revelation. History affords ample proof that no lunacy is too extreme to be embraced by at least a small group of wandering souls. Often it ends badly – as at Jonestown or in the case of the flying saucer cult in California. Sometimes it merely adds local color as in the case of the self-appointed, store front preacher who proclaimed himself Pope of Trenton a few years ago. However, when – as in the case of the Mormons – it survives over a span of generations, it becomes “the faith of our fathers,” regardless of how nonsensical. When it becomes enshrined in noble edifices, such as the Salt Lake city Temple, and possessed of mystical traditions such as Mormonism’s famous golden tablets (which no one is ever allowed to actually see) it achieves a level of reality that transcends the ludicrous nature of its theology and the con-artist basis of its origins. Whole libraries of phony, circularly reasoned  “scholarship” are spun out of  the original “revelation,” lending an apparent substance to the faith. The mere existence of all this material – the libraries – the buildings – the structure of authority – serves to make real the faith for the ordinary follower. The pedestrian layman, time taken up by the mundane cares of work and family, has no time or credentials to evaluate all of this supportive substance. That it exists and that it has existed for generations before him, is enough to satisfy any doubts he might entertain. And what, ultimately, is the justification for it all? It always comes down to “it’s true because God said so.” For reasons evidently known only to himself, God never makes these pronouncements via the general media or in a thunderous voice heard all over the planet. He (and I use the male pronoun only because of tradition and the absence of a good, non-gender specific alternative in the English language) seems to prefer speaking to badly dressed social outcasts of questionably hygiene, business failures and persons inclined to froth at the mouth. Such was Joseph Smith.

Then we have the common-or-garden Christian fundie – a creature whose limited intellect consists of a set of filters. These highly effective filters prevent any facts or points of view at variance with his preconceptions from ever reaching the brain. The fundie is mentally handicapped and can no more entertain conflicting evidence than a man with no legs can win the decathlon. The essential equipment simply is not there.

The most interesting specimens of this type revealed themselves to be persons of third rate education (mid-west Bible colleges figured here) and no serious scholastic training. In the course of many long arguments and hundreds of postings, it became obvious that facts simply did not matter to their mindset. All evidence conflicting with their preconceptions was simply ignored as though it did not exist. To their medieval world-view, there could be no argument against the essential notions that the world is about 6,000 yeas old, evolution does not occur, God is pure love but none the less will consign all gays to eternal torture in a lake of fire (it will hurt Him more than it does us but  darn it all, he just HAS to do it.) Further, that their views should be the absolute law of the land, applicable to all people whether Christian or not, is not open to question. After all, “God” told them all these absolutes and that’s the end of it. In the immortal words of Barney Frank, you might as well argue with the dining room table.

From this experiment on the USA Today forum, I deduce that rational discourse with our hard core religious enemies is useless.  accommodating them by trying to tailor our own lives to appear more conventional and “straight” is worse than useless. Such accommodation is both ineffective and a betrayal of our right to be as different as we want to be. We will not win by appeasement but by the constant assertion of our right to be different, to be flamboyant, to be obviously sexual- to be unreservedly GAY at all times and places.

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