Yesterday morning, Margaret pointed me to the comments in David Weinberger’s post about Daniel Dennett. I had read the post and skipped the comments, because I heard David to be making a point to which I generally assented, with reference to a gesture — the “all religious people are deluded” gesture — about which I usually keep silent. When I turned to the comments and saw a vigorous back-and-forth involving Dave and Frank and Tripp, I was moved to speak up.
I usually keep silent for various reasons. Most important, I try not to enter discussions where one loud participant already knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot. I find that such discussions usually take up a great deal of time and care on my part, with no apparent benefit to either participant (except, perhaps, a mild inflation of my interlocutor’s estimate of their own intelligence — but that was already sufficiently high, in most cases). Plus, these conversations guarantee that one more person in the world thinks I’m an idiot, which outcome I prefer to avoid.
I also avoid these discussions because I have friends who tend to endorse the anti-religious side of them, and this topic brings their outlook into a less pleasant light. If people whom I otherwise like (and who seem to like me) want to persist in a way of thinking that categorizes me as a fool, an oppressor, a judgmental ideologue, a deceiver, I’d rather not take part in a discussion that triggers their inclination to dismiss me that way. (There might be some discursive value to challenging them to think of the guy they know and whom they profess to respect as the deluded ogre their rhetoric would imply, but for all I know they like deluded ogres, or they don’t mind the dissonance.) Someone who would write off all “religious” people as fools only reveals their own superficiality, and I would rather not put my friends in a position that invites them to affirm their enthusiastic triviality in this matter.
I venture to say that “someone who would write off all ‘religious’ people as fools only reveals their own superficiality” not because I believe that the soundness of religious belief is self-evident (far from it!), but because I observe that some extraordinarily intelligent people find it possible to manage their lives with no trace of religious faith, and other extraordinarily intelligent people profess (and exemplify) very deep faith. “Religiousness” has never shown itself a useful predictor of folly, so far as I’ve been able to tell (nor has irreligion proved a sign of intelligence).
Moreover, I don’t see useful distinctions between “spirituality” and “religion” or between “organized (or ‘institutional’) religion” and more fluid manifestations of faith, at least not as symptoms of more commendable intellectual standing. My ideological inclination probably colors my sense that Roman Catholics or highly-observant Jews are not stupider than more free-church-y, or “spiritual-not-religious” people, but though I be predisposed to favor such an assessment, I don’t think it’s groundless. I may be wrong — there may be a graduated scale of intelligence on which adherents of “organized” religions are lower, while adherents of religious practices with less explicit structure and dogma are higher. If that’s the case, I’m too low on the scale to be able to tell.
Within my limited capacities and experience, a theory of intellectual rigor proves its worth by how it deals with apparent contradictions. When someone’s theory of irreligion confronts someone who appears to be quite brilliant, but who goes to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, by saying that such a person must be foolish, I tend to doubt the theory (rather than dismiss the apparent wisdom of the subject). When an explicitly irreligious person shows painstaking attention to the nuances of theological affirmations, taking seriously the patterns of difference and convergence to which David Weinberger’s original post pointed, I regard that person’s observations quite highly; their religious skepticism doesn’t oblige me to disregard or deride them.
Put more simply, any troll can say that “everyone who doesn’t think my way is an idiot.” It provides a mild opiate to assuage the anxieties that sometimes follow from attention to complications. It takes someone with integrity and intellectual substance — someone like David, for instance — to say, “I don’t share this understanding of life, but I can’t gainsay the depth and rigor of the intelligence and wisdom that have articulated it.”