Religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so pervasive in all aspects of people’s lives, that imagining life without it is very difficult. It is like asking an American teenager to imagine life without their cell phone. Not only are people extremely resistant to giving up the idea of god, they also resist giving up qualities they ascribe to god even if those qualities cause severe logical difficulties.
But if we think that belief in god violates reason, should religion be actively undermined? This question, raised by Corbin Covault in his guest post, is not simple to answer. Even if there is no evidence for god, does religion still play a useful role or have some value that makes it a worthwhile belief to support or at least not seek to actively undermine? Or is there something to be gained from actively working to discredit the idea of god, as has been the aim of current best-selling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens? Or should atheists treat religion with benign indifference, the way we treat children’s beliefs in fairies, as harmless illusions, not worth wasting time over, except in those instances where it actively does harm?
I can think of four arguments for the continuance of god and religion:
- God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
- God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
- Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
- Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.
Let me start out by saying that I think only the first reason is sufficient cause for keeping religion. If there is no empirical evidence for god, then we should unequivocally say so and work towards the elimination of such beliefs, just as we dismiss the claims of astrology and belief in ghosts and other similar phenomena. As soon as you start saying that some evidence-free beliefs need to be sheltered from criticism, you lay yourself wide open to special pleading by every charlatan, such as crystal-ball gazers, card readers, faith healers, spoon benders and others who take advantage of the shelter provided by the privileges accorded to religion to ply their trade. They too can say they provide services to meet the emotional and psychological needs of people, such as getting people in contact with their dead loved ones. If you are a person who believes in god, then I am not sure on what basis you can criticize these other groups since the kinds of evidence they invoke is of the same kind that religious people use.
Of course, people should be free to believe anything they want. But I am saying that believers should not feel that they occupy some privileged place in the space of public discourse where only genteel and mild criticisms can be made. I am not suggesting, of course, that such beliefs and the people who hold them should be subject to verbal abuse. What I am saying is that the only standard that applies to them is the same that we apply to any other beliefs, and religious beliefs, especially mainstream one, should not be granted immunity from very close scrutiny and sharply-worded criticisms. So if it is acceptable in public discourse to dismiss the beliefs of flat-Earthers as ridiculous, then it should be acceptable to do so for beliefs in god as well. If it is legitimate to campaign to discourage people from believing in astrology and astrologers, it is just as legitimate to discourage them from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the like.
A curious thing, given the supposedly small numbers of atheists in this country, is the huge popularity of the recently released books that advocate atheism,. I suspect that many more people than we realize have serious doubts about god and religion but have been cowed into not saying anything against religion and god precisely because of this sense that to speak against religion is rude. The arrival of these books and the publicly declared atheism of many people must come as a relief.
What about the tone of the criticisms? It is argued that harsh criticisms are not effective in persuading people to change their minds, that one can ‘catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’. It is often pointed out, for example, that Martin Luther King was effective in winning over many people because he did not speak in strong terms. Actually he did express strong views but his language was very measured and his example is often used to argue that tempered language is more effective than harsh.
As I have said before, this depends on whether one is discussing in the private sphere or the public sphere. In the private sphere (in the classroom or in social settings), I tend to not argue in strong terms and in fact do not actively raise the issues at all. During the dinner party discussion I wrote about earlier, I took a soft line, seeking only to explain why I was perfectly satisfied being an atheist. I did not subject my dinner companions’ religious beliefs to a cross-examination.
But in the public sphere, one can make the case that opening up beliefs that have no evidence to harsh criticisms can be a very effective way of getting rid of them. For example, we know that most people’s belief in Santa Claus does not survive past early childhood. Many are gently weaned away from it by their parents. But for those children determined to hold on to it, it would be an interesting study to see what effect the ridicule of their childhood peers has in getting them to abandon their belief in it.
There is another argument to be made in favor of having at least some people speak out harshly against religion. Take the case again of Martin Luther King, who is often invoked as someone who was successful because he was not abrasive. It must be remembered that King was not speaking and acting in a vacuum. At the same time Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and other radical elements were making very strong attacks in very harsh language on the institutions of racism, and strongly criticizing the non-violent methods of King. King’s moderate tone may have been effective with the white community precisely because they could contrast it with what King’s rivals for influence in the black community were saying. Since he was seen as less threatening, they could thus warm to it.
In public sphere debates on contentious issues, the labels ‘extremist’ and moderate’ are not absolutes but relative. When the range of opinions expressed is broadened, those who were once thought to be on the fringe now become mainstream. So subjecting belief in god and religion to critical scrutiny by some opinionated anti-theists (the ‘extremists’) may actually be very effective in widening the range of discussions. Such people are providing an opportunity for those (the ‘moderates’) who prefer to speak in more tempered terms to emerge from their silence and have a dialogue with religious believers. In the absence of the strong anti-theists, it is these so-called moderates who would have been the ones portrayed as ‘extremists’, and thus been cowed.
So Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are actually playing a positive role. By getting rid of a lot of the sacred cows prevalent in discussing science-religion issues, they are opening up the field for a whole lot of people to speak more openly about their own disbelief in god.
Next: What about that belief in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and thus has value?
POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.
They will be speaking at 7:00pm TODAY (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Case’s Hallinan Center for Peace and Justice.
I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.
You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.