Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Conundrum of Progressive Belief

Since I just read a Greta Christina article which touched on the controversy over whether or not liberal/progressive belief enables extremism, it is apropos that a (religious) friend of mine posted the following to Facebook today:

"Is it working? Your belief system, that is. Is it really working? God's intention all along has been for the believer's life to work." Beth Moore

(On a side note, this Beth Moore does not actually appear to be all that progressive of a believer -- though still progressive enough to piss off other evangelicals I guess -- and is strongly anti-gay among other nasty things.)

Anyway, this is an interesting little quote, because on the one hand it is all wrong from a logical/epistemologial perspective, and if taken literally it could even be potentially dangerous; while on the other hand, for the target audience I think the message is generally a positive one. That pretty much sums up the conundrum of progressive theism right there, so let's dissect this one.

First, the bad: For starters, there is a hidden circularity here which renders it somewhat of an empty statement. If your criteria for determining what you believe is, "Does it work for me?", then logically the only basis you have for asserting anything about "God's intention" is whether or not that belief works for you. It's a tautology. Moore is basically saying, "I believe whatever works for me, and that includes believing that you should believe whatever works for you." It's pretty hollow when you think about it.

Worse yet, there is at least a theoretical danger in any untethered epistemology. If we take this statement literally, I might say, "Well, I feel bad that I shoplifted, but it's nice to have this free stuff. Wait a minute... if I just tell myself that God wants me to shoplift, then I don't feel bad about it anymore. Works for me!"

That's perhaps an unrealistic example, but there could be others. For instance, the process of examining one's own unconscious prejudices can be a painful one, and if you can just get yourself to believe that God shares your prejudice, then you can go on comfortably ignoring it. How many people have short-circuited a logical examination of their reasons for opposing marriage equality by just hiding behind religious belief? That is starting to sound like more than just a theoretical problem.

On the other hand, the message the target audience is going to receive from this assertion is probably a positive one: If a particular piece of dogma is not working for you, if it just seems terribly wrong to you, well maybe you ought to discard it. Moore's justification is wrong and perhaps even dangerous, but the conclusion is right.

I think the following is probably a bad example, since from what I can find it appears Moore toes the Evangelical line on homosexuality, i.e. she is dead fucking wrong and screwing up people's lives, but it's the only example I can think of, so let's go with it: Imagine a gay Christian teen who is struggling to come to terms with the contradiction between her identity and her beliefs. While I, and presumably most readers of this blog, would much rather see her discard the bonds of theism altogether, that can be a supremely difficult thing for people to do, especially as they may be struggling with other deeply emotional issues. Furthermore, as Richard Wade has eloquently pointed out, many young people still living at home may find that the security of their most basic needs is tied to belief, or at least the facade of belief. Better than nothing is if this hypothetical teen were able to say to herself, "Hey, this silly dogma about homosexuality is just not working for me. God couldn't possibly want me to feel so awful in this way. That has to be a mistake, and I'm not going to believe that crap anymore."

Again, Moore unfortunately fails to take this philosophy all the way and still clings to Evangelical beliefs that are downright hateful. But the quote on its own has some merit for believers -- if they're going to stick with belief that is. And that's always the conundrum, isn't it?

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