Friday, June 18, 2010

David Hume Goes to Church: On Hypocrisy, Religious and Otherwise

There is an anecdote about the great Scottish philosopher and atheist David Hume concerning his regular attendance of church services conducted by a very orthodox minister. A friend suggested that perhaps Hume was being a little bit inconsistent in attending these services given his skepticism and atheism. Hume’s reply: “I don’t believe all he says, but he does, and once a week I like to hear a man who believes what he says.” This response contains all the Humean wit and charm that his admirers, such as (need I say?) myself, seek in his writings; but this response also, as his wit often does, cuts two ways and leaves us thinking long after our laughter has subsided.
The statement is funny because is makes light of the people’s general disingenuity: something we can all identify with. But it is also a rather subtle critique–Hume was a master of subtlety–of religion and the religious. It suggests, on the one hand, that the majority of Christians–which, in Hume’s time as still in ours (although this problem is receiving more amelioration every day now) meant almost everyone–were hypocrites, that they could not or would not bear the full weight of their convictions. But, on the other hand, it suggests that those who are the true believers, who actually bear the weight of their convictions, are fanatics. Hume must have attended these sermons to be reminded weekly of the true threat of religious fundamentalism. While the American population is still overwhelmingly Christian (78% according to a Pew Forum poll in 2007), the number of those that live by the book, so to speak, cannot be anywhere close to this number. As Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, you can go to the grocery store, or a restaurant, or any public place on Sunday morning and recognize immediately that 78% of the population is not at church. It seems to me that, while the majority of Americans seem to be, prima facie, Christians, the majority of this majority do not live that way in their day to day lives. Now, let me qualify this statement and make it very clear how I would define Christian–or a truly religious person.
The source of organized religion, in the case of the three monotheistic religions, is the holy books: the Talmud, the Bible, and the Quran. The majority of people in these religions today, I believe, no longer follow strictly the dictates of these books–and who could? Only a fanatic. Only a fanatic would stone a woman to death on the mere suspicion of premarital sex or infidelity, only a fanatic would seek to kill everyone on the planet that did not have the same belief system, only a fanatic would leave their family and everything they owned to follow a madman who believed the world was coming to an end, only a fanatic would kill his only son because an “angel” commanded him to. Only a fanatic, I say. Insofar as a person does not follow strictly the dictates of these evil books, to that extent are they not religious; to that extent have they become humanized and secularized; to that extent have they moved away from these barbaric Bronze Age religions. The truly religious are the suicide bombers, those killing abortion doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, those seeking to have pseudoscience taught alongside evolution, those giving a baby syphilis because they insist on following the old circumcision ritual of sucking the cut foreskin off of the bleeding, screaming baby, those cutting off the heads of their own female relatives in the name of “honor,” those who believe that the world is coming to an end soon–and in the depths of their being want it to. Organized religion is evil because the very source of its structure and organization is evil: the “holy” books. In every case they contain evil dictates that are supposedly from the mouth of a benevolent and loving God.
To be sure, it is a good thing that the majority of those who claim to be religious are in fact not that religious at all: indeed, if we are something of Jamesian pragmatists, we must in fact, I think, claim that they are de facto, in light of how they live–which is where people’s beliefs really show (a belief we all express frequently in the maxim “Actions speak louder than words,”)–not religious at all, or only slightly so. Now we need only bring their spoken beliefs into focus with their actions–that is to say, what they really believe. It doesn’t bother me that only 1.6% (again, the Pew Forum poll) claim to be atheists and 2.4% agnostics: people can tell the pollsters that they are religious–as long as they don’t act like they are religious. In a word, while many complain of religious hypocrisy, I encourage it. The bigger a religious hypocrite a person is, the less they are acting out the evils of organized religion, and that is a good thing. And for those of us like Hume that want to keep the threat of religious fanaticism–let us just start calling it “true religiosity” and forego the rhetoric suggesting in the word “fanaticism,” as though they are somehow a small faction that is on the fringe–reminded of the threat, then, of true religiosity, thanks to modern technology, we need not take upon ourselves the inconvenience of getting all dressed up to go out on Sunday morning, having to make mind-numbing small talk with sweet old Mrs. Jones or Robinson or Smith, and drink bad coffee for the sake of “fellowship,” no, we need not inconvenience ourselves: we need only watch international news to see the latest horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan, of Hamas in Gaza, of the Catholic church in the third world fighting contraceptives and abortion; we need only watch for a few moments the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world to renew our anti-religious, anti-theist fervor.

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