Hey, did you know that when I try to persuade people that religion is probably mistaken and atheism is probably correct, I’m “reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans”?
I don’t have time today to do a line-by-line fisking of Be Scofield’s latest screed in Tikkun against the so-called “New Atheists.” Which is irritating, since the piece targets me by name and at some length. (Or rather, it tries to target me and misses by a significant margin, since most of what it says about my opinions is wildly off-base.) Ophelia Benson has already ripped it about sixteen different new assholes, especially on the whole “New atheism = racist cultural oppression” front, so I’m mostly going to direct you to her.
But there are a few things here that leaped out of the screen and lodged into my brain like a grain of sand, and I won’t be able to rest until I can coat them with the pearls of my wit and wisdom, and get them the frack out of my system.
Okay. First of all.
When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.”
I am not saying that I know what’s best for you.
I am saying that, on this particular question, I think I’m correct, and you’re mistaken.
As I’ve said approximately 864,756 times: Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, in part or in full (depending on the specific religion), because of supernatural entities and/or forces acting on the natural world.
And I think this hypothesis is mistaken.
This is the crux that Scofield and others consistently miss. For me, and for most other so-called New Atheists, the question of whether religion is mostly helpful or harmful, while important and interesting, is largely a secondary concern. My primary objection to religion is not that it’s harmful. My primary objection is that it’s wrong.
I do think (along with many other atheists) that this wrongness is inherently tied to the harm that religion often causes. If for no other reason, mistaken assumptions lead people to make bad decisions. (If you think prayer will cure your pneumonia, for instance, you’re less likely to seek medical treatment.) And I do think (along with many other atheists) that the inherently unfalsifiable nature of religion does make it more likely to lead to extremes of harm — since there’s no reality check on it.
But that question, while important and interesting, is secondary. The primary question is this: Does God exist? Is there a supernatural world? I think the answer is No. There are no gods. There are no supernatural entities or forces. There is only the a natural, physical world, with no gods.
So why shouldn’t I try to persuade others of this? In a free society, we try to persuade other people that we’re correct, and that others are mistaken, all the freaking time. That is the messy glory of the marketplace of ideas. If we think we’re right about something — about science, sociology, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, public policy, who had the best Red Carpet look at the Golden Globes — and if we think we have better evidence or a better argument for it, we make that case.
So why — alone among all other ideas — should religion get a free ride? Why is it okay to try to persuade people that they’re mistaken about global climate change, or abstinence- only sex education, or the effect of an unrestricted free market on the economy, or the safety and efficacy of vaccines… but it’s somehow a terrible, oppressive form of cultural imperialism, comparable to the genocide of Native Americans, to try to persuade people that there are no gods and no supernatural world? Why should we be encouraged to critique every other kind of idea people have come up with… but this one idea has to be left alone? As I wrote in Atheism and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” Arguments: In the marketplace of ideas, why should religion get to drive its wares to the market in an armored car? And sell those wares behind a curtain? And insist that people stay politely quiet when the teakettles they bought at the religion booth don’t hold water?
I have asked this question more times than I can remember, of more people than I can count. And I have yet to see anything that resembles a satisfying answer. In fact, I’ve just about never seen any answer at all. The only answer I ever got to this question was basically, “Religious debates and disagreements have historically led to violent conflicts, so it’s best to just not engage in them.” Which, in my opinion pretty much proves my point and not theirs. If Mr. Scofield has an answer to this question, I would be very interested to hear it.
So. Moving on:
This is the crux of the problem with the New Atheists. They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side.
I am not saying that religion is the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives. I’m saying that it is one oppressive factor in people’s lives.
This is one of the biggest problems with Scofield’s piece. It presents an extreme, absolutist version of so-called “New Atheism” that I’ve almost never seen advocated.
Yes. We understand that not all religious believers become martyrs, and that ideas/ identities other than religion can lead to martyrdom. (I even say this in one of the pieces Scofield quotes from… which his readers might know if he’d had the standard courtesy to link to the writing that he’s quoting.) Yes, we understand that many people get comfort and community and other good things from religion. We just think that religion isn’t, you know, true. And we think — many of us, anyway, that, on the whole, on balance, for more people than not, in more instances than not, it does more harm than good.
If you’re going to argue, can you please argue with what I/ we are actually saying? (Oh, right. No. Because what we’re saying is actually reasonable and accurate.)
And finally (for today, anyway):
If many of the New Atheists want to hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful…
I do not hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful, always and all the time and for everyone. And neither does any other atheist writer I know.
I hold to the position that religion, on the whole, is harmful. I hold to the position that religion, on the whole, does more harm than good. And I hold to the position that the benefits that religion confers, the comfort and community and so on can be achieved without it.
You want research to back this up? Fine. Myself and others have written at length about the terrible harms caused by religion, and I’m sure you’re familiar with these writings and don’t need to be directed there again. So how about this: According to an extensive, years-long analysis of different societies around the world, societies with high rates of atheism also have a strong tendency to be societies that score at the very top of the “happiness index,” and that have high levels of social functioning: low rates of violent crime, low levels of corruption, excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, and so on. (Citation: Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman.)
Does this prove that atheism causes high rates of happiness and social functioning? No. It’s almost certainly the other way around. What it does show is that religion is not necessary for happiness and social functioning. What it shows is that all these wonderful benefits that Scofield ascribes to religion are attainable without it.
Are there problems with racism, sexism, privilege, cultural blindness, etc. in the atheist communities and the atheist movement? Yes, For damn sure. Many of us are intensely aware of these problems, and are working hard on them.
But the mere fact that we think we’re right? The mere fact that we’re trying to persuade others that we’re right? That’s not among them.