I’ve received a few interesting links on the state of religion in America, so I’ll just dump a brief hodge-podge below the fold. The quick summary: one clueless twit, one poll, and one philosopher weigh in.
Let’s get the ugliness over, first. Andrew Sullivan is still an obnoxious fool. He gets some letters from atheists, and quotes a few: I thought this one was nice.
I, personally, as an atheist, find meaning in my own possibility and will to act in this world. I have the opportunity to interact with others and to create things. I have the chance to leave this world a bit better than when I came into it… for my children and for the rest of humanity. I don’t do this because a particular flying spaghetti monster ordained that I do it and will punish me with his noodly appendage if I don’t. I do it because I have the power and I believe that it is better for me if I help those around me. What else would give my life more meaning than that?
But why is that more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center?
Why is dedicating your life to Jesus more meaningful than killing yourself? Why is doing charity work more meaningful than killing lots of other people? He’s like a four-year-old replying to every explanation with another “Why?”. The answer is that we find meaning for ourselves in making the world a better place for us, our children, and the people we live with. These are values that improve life for everyone. Now I suppose you could question whether improving life is a justifiable, but I think on simple utilitarian grounds it beats the alternatives.
Oh, and nice touch, equating an atheist’s testimony about finding purpose in helping people to a terrorist’s decision to commit murder.
Just before the first inauguration of the second Bush, although a plurality (45%) thought that “organized religion” has about the right amount of influence over public life, those who wanted it to have more influence (30%) outnumbered those who wanted it to have less influence (22%).
But the rule of the Mayberry Machiavellis and their Congressional and clerical allies has reinvigorated the secularist vote. Now 32% want “less influence,” and only 27% want “more influence.”
That’s an increase of almost 50% in anti-clerical sentiment in six years.
The pessimistic way to look at it, though, is that less than a third want less religion in public life, less than a third want more, and over a third think it’s perfect as is. That’s a lot of self-satisfied apathy.
The other way to look at it, though, is that maybe GW Bush has done more to drive people away from God than any of the most vocal atheists in the country.
Finally, here’s a philosopher, Philip Kitcher, speaking out on religion, creationism, etc., and as usual when I read these guys, I agree very much with part of what they say, and think much of the rest is nonsense.
Some forms of religion — those that give up their stories as literal truths and see those stories as significant allegories — survive the scientific case, but for many devout people, those forms of religion have conceded far too much. Given this attitude, the resistance to Darwin is likely to continue, and is likely to be part of a sense of science as alien and threatening. Once that attitude becomes prevalent, we’re well on our way to the deep problem of a muddled society in which people give up on “objective expertise” and pick their news sources on the basis of comfort. They report, so that we can maintain our previous decisions.
How do we get beyond this impasse? Not by shouting at people about “the God delusion”. Religion is immensely important to people, and, although it’s easy to point to the ways in which religious belief has caused serious harm, it’s also necessary to appreciate its social and personal functions. Religious beliefs play an important role in people’s sense of their own lives, explaining why those lives matter. Religion also offers genuine community with others, providing spaces for joint ethical commitment and joint action. You don’t end this heated debate by simply telling folk to brace up — or to take their scientific medicine so that they’ll feel better in the morning. They won’t.
Too much apology for religion…why do people always declare that religion is soooo important? It isn’t, really; there are these aspects of social life that have been co-opted by religion, which then ties the excuses of “community” and “ethics” and “purpose” to the nonsensical pig-slop of their absurd and unjustifiable delusions about an afterlife or a drop-in personal deity or strangely archaic social conventions. Accepting superstition has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person in a social environment, but so many people like Kitcher, otherwise quite clever, fail to see the false connection and continue to perpetuate the myth that the only way you can function in a good way is by buying into an unrelated pack of myth and ritual.
He’s quite wrong about that, but quite right that we do need to build institutions that carry out those social and personal functions…but what we need to do is either kick the medieval grab-bags of crazy ideas to the curb and build anew, or gut the old institutions of the bad ideas and restructure them to new, enlightened ends. Either way is going to hurt in the short term, so we need to do some shouting at people about their delusions to convince them to rethink and restructure. Reassuring them that “Oh, yes, your precious beliefs about the divinity of the baby Jesus and Mohammed’s wonderful horsie ride are immensely important” is what doesn’t help.