This post is a response to an email I received concerning an argument between two friends, both atheists. One of them is presenting the other’s claim that it’s not worthwhile to actively promote atheism, because even though religion may be false, it gives people comfort and motivates them to work towards worthwhile social causes. My response is below; first, the argument in full.
My friend who’s an atheist says that in many cases religious association (sometimes without belief) is very significant in people’s lives and that the burden of proof is on atheists to show in each case what the secular alternative is. If they can’t do that, and they have nothing to say to these people, then he thinks there’s little point in being an atheist activist of any kind, as these are the only cases that matter. The epistemological claims of atheists aren’t in question: all that is sound, he says. Rather, it’s these religious associations that he says atheists don’t have any replacement for, making atheism largely irrelevant.
He cites people from the Third World who have lived extremely horrible lives and have struggled through it thanks to religion, which gives them personal sustenance.Also many moderate Christian groups where nobody actually believes the supernatural claims, but rather it’s a source of community and so on. He also cites many activist groups that use religion to come together and sustain themselves during difficult struggles, such as the Civil Rights Movement, in which the black community in the South relied on religion to get them through the horrible treatment and oppression they faced (being badly beaten and sometimes killed and so on).
He says this is really where the “rubber hits the road” when it comes to religion and atheists really have very little to say on these cases that actually matter. Again, regarding the naturalism and rationality and epistemology he’s totally on board, as (he claims) are many religious people. He agrees that nonreligious people can be moral: that’s not in question, he says. But he says the real question is whether religion provides community, inspiration, comfort, solace, and so on for real people in the real world today. He says the answer is obviously, “Yes,” and provides many examples, adding that they can easily be extended. I also wonder what an atheist has to say for example to a grieving mother whose infant just died, and she believes that they’ll be reunited in heaven. Do atheists have anything to say to her? Obviously it would be cruel and pointless to lecture this woman about epistemology.
There are at least two different angles that the friend is arguing here. First: That religion, on balance, does more good than harm in the world. Second: That because of the first point, atheists should not make an open case against religious beliefs even if they are objectively false, in order to enable that good to continue. The second one is, effectively, Cypher’s position in The Matrix, right?
And yes, I absolutely realize that Matrix analogies are overplayed and horribly cliche by now. I also realize that people of all political stripes who harbor all kinds of wacky theories of the world use the red pill/blue pill thing to condescend to opposition whom they consider to be ignorant fools who are blind to the truth. But I’m not the one bringing the condescension here; you are. You’ve presumed the atheist position to be the correct one (“The epistemological claims of atheists aren’t in question: all that is sound”), but you’re stating that, for the good of other people’s peace of mind, it’s up to you to decide to shield them to the truth. You see religion as a comforting lie, and you want it to be your job to help maintain that comfort.
Well, I reject that position. It is my opinion that, all else being equal, it is better to believe something true than something false. Given the conscious option to believe a lie that would make me feel better, I would prefer to believe something that is true. But more to the point, I believe that other people have the right to make that choice on their own. It is simply not my call, or yours, to hide information that you consider true from people, in order to force them to act the way that you want.
In the second place, I dispute your assumption that religion is a net influence exclusively for good in the world. You’ve cherry picked a few examples of religious groups doing good things in the world: Third world citizens whose religion makes them feel better about their terrible lives; religious groups providing community; religious leaders fighting for civil rights. While all those are real phenomena, your position glosses over the harm that’s done by religions every day. You only need to browse a few articles at whatstheharm.net to get a sense of the kind of genuine damage religion inflicts on societies around the world.
Did Christians campaign for civil rights? Yes, of course… and plenty of Christians used their interpretation of the Bible to fight against civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan was itself a Christian organization. It is explicitly a Protestant organization, and the burning cross is a deliberate invocation of Christianity. Earlier still, many Christian demagogues opposed the abolition of slavery, citing Biblical principles, as I explained at great length in this post.
My point here is not to blame Christianity for slavery, or for the suppression of civil rights. But you are giving a rose colored picture of the influence of religion. If you wish to give religion credit for those individuals who fought for good things, you have to equally well give religion blame for the individuals who fought for bad things.
Regardless, however much people may believe that they were inspired by God, you and I reject that. People take on projects and causes based on their own personal convictions, and some of those convictions are (falsely, in my view) bolstered by a belief that an all-powerful being approves of your actions. But religion is not the sole cause of noble acts. Atheists fought for civil rights. Unbelievers like Abner Kneeland also fought against slavery.
A quote from the atheist Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg is relevant here: ”With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.” Religion doesn’t make people good; based on the morality laid out in the Bible itself, it should be expressly clear that it is often muddled and morally neutral at best.
It’s difficult to prove whether religion genuinely makes people happier or not in the bigger picture. In some cases, believing something untrue MIGHT make you feel happier, much like if you believed that you won the lottery, you’d feel better about your financial situation. …That is, until you went on a celebration spending spree, which you discovered you couldn’t cover.
Atheist activism is simply telling people what we believe to be factually accurate. It’s not out of the question that we could be wrong; however, I don’t think we’re wrong and evidently neither do you. I repeat what I said earlier: all else being equal, it is better to believe something true than something false. The truth may not make you personally more happy than a comforting lie would, but you can make better decisions with accurate information.
People should be good to each other based on shared humanity, and an understanding of the consequences that ensue when people in other parts of the world are starving and oppressed. When I consider the potential for people to do some additional good based on unsupported assumptions about what an invisible man wants, and I weight that against the downside of people doing terrible things in the name of religion, I don’t find it worth the tradeoffs to keep silence. I do not accept the abuses of power, the unearned respect by shysters, the abuse of kids, and the xenophobia against other cultures, as acceptable prices to pay in order to maintain the status quo.