As a non-theist and card-carrying member of the reality-based community, I have found myself using the term arrogant with increasing frequency these past several years. It just seems so descriptive of all those right-wing ideologues who blatantly distort and deny established facts while promoting their self-serving interests. My prime target has been Christian fundagelicals, who can be recognized by their pious certitude and their meddling in affairs that all people of good will consider personal choices. Those fundies with their theocratic agenda represent arrogant ideology at its most menacing. And to think that with so little to go on they actually fancy themselves gifted with knowledge of nothing less than the ultimate truth – the truth about life’s meaning and purpose, the existence and nature of an afterlife; souls, free will, morality, sexual conduct, gender roles, all of it. And of course they claim to get it all directly from The Source, the Big Guy in the Sky, their creepy version of Almighty God. Boldly displaying their signature arrogance, they yearn to replace our Constitutionally protected rights with their “Biblical Law,” as several past and present Republican presidential candidates have affirmed. Never mind that there is no real evidence outside their own minds to support their bizarre fantasies, which makes them just about the last people on earth who have the right to call anyone arrogant.
Still, a devoutly religious acquaintance recently took offense at some critical comments I wrote about the religious righteous, accusing me, among other things, of being arrogant and condescending. I conceded that he had “about two-fifths of a point,” but I emphatically denied the accusation of arrogance. I suggested he might be misconstruing justifiable indignation – outrage, really – at the religious right’s habitual, menacing violation of all the canons of rational discourse and mutual respect.
I told him of my lifelong commitment to the primacy of evidence and reason, citing David Hume’s dictum, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” That commitment, if honored consistently, virtually rules out arrogance. How, I asked, can a blanket willingness to abide by evidence be called arrogant? I reminded him that arrogance is defined as “an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” If I gave him that impression, I said, it was probably due to careless writing on my part or poor reading on his, because I know this much about myself: I value evidence as much as anyone and have devoted a good portion of my life, including a college class in Bayesian statistics, to trying to understand how to evaluate evidence. And not only out of interest but because, in tandem with reason, sound evidence is the foundation of everything I accept as likely to be true. So if we’re going to debate who’s arrogant, let’s talk about devious denial of all scientific findings that conflict with believers’ Bronze Age dogma. That, to me, is close to the epitome of exaggerated self-importance.
I also pointed out that I feel as strongly about my reason-and-evidence-based world view and morality as he and his fellow believers feel about their religious intuitions and institutions. Despite using the nice word, intuitions, and not the mean word, delusions, I haven’t heard from him since. Oh, well. I’m not writing for true believers who are inoculated against well-established facts such as, say, evolution happened.
Anyway, about the only thing I care to communicate to fundagelicals is this:
Well-informed people here and all over the world understand that you’re deluded. You need to get a proper education and broaden your horizons if you hope to contribute something useful to 21st century dialog.
So yes, I am guilty of condescension – more accurately, contempt – toward many on the religious right, not because of my self-importance but because they are so blatantly and belligerently ignorant. For a very long time, Biblical literalism has been known to be so ridiculous that it’s not even wrong. So I’m responding to them the same way I would if a seemingly competent adult were stubbornly arguing for the existence of elves or fairies. Or alien abductions, or holocaust denial, or homeopathy (remember, it’s just water!). Or if they asked me, in all seriousness, “If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” Or if they claimed that the Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow enjoys an advantage on the field because of his close relationship with a “Lord and Savior”? (I had to get that in . . . Go, Patriots!) At some point it is no longer rude to point out that the emperor is naked. I used this quote from Thomas Jefferson in an earlier column, but it bears repeating here:
“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
Now I don’t generally condone or enjoy gratuitous contempt (or ridicule). It must be used appropriately, as a last resort; the target has to deserve it, otherwise it is unfair, insensitive, mean-spirited – Republican, if you will. So I try, not always successfully, to conduct my discourse based on the principle that every individual deserves the benefit of the doubt, until they demonstrate otherwise. Of course benefit of the doubt has a very short shelf life for ideologues who immediately start waving red flags in your face; but not every fundie is willfully ignorant and judgmental. Some, perhaps most, are victims of childhood indoctrination by trusted adults. On that I’ll go along with Richard Dawkins, who says childhood religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse.
So I guess the take-home is this: There will always be political strife in a free and diverse society. But if we’re going to survive as a viable constitutional democracy, we must all make an effort to coexist in some semblance of peace and harmony. The willingness to consider good evidence and to accept overwhelming evidence would seem to be a minimal requirement. Regrettably, there are far too many individuals and groups in the U.S. who fail to meet that standard, and I see no signs of improvement on the horizon. On the contrary, any faint beacons of hope appear to be receding out of sight.
One final point about the fundies among us: I would’t give a damn about the nonsense they believe if they didn’t wield such excessive political power, if they didn’t pose a serious threat to our freedoms. I’d feel more like we teenagers did back in the day when the holy rollers did their hooting and hollering in tents on the edge of town and we joked about them. These days they have long since folded their tents and flocked to the televangelists and megachurches, from whence they have gone mainstream-political in a big way. And the harm they have caused here and in other countries (e.g, with their heavy-handed opposition to contraception and birth control) is incalculable. All because their leaders have convinced them that they know the mind of some vengeful, Old Testament God.
Next time, chapter and verse on the sins of the religious right. In the meantime, I urge you to purchase and read Sean Faircloth’s revealing book, “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It.” It will disabuse you of any apathy or lingering sympathy you may have for the religious righteous among us.