I’ll take a leaf from Chris Ho-Stuart’s book and urge you to read this post on Positive Liberty before I tackle his post. Jonathan Rowe is making the useful point that we have an interest in shaping religions, even religions with which we do not agree, to make them compatible with a civil, democratic society. He points out that the US founding fathers put an Enlightenment twist on the Christianity they favored, rejecting old notions of exclusivity and intolerance to promote a more benign form of religion — without actually establishing a state religion, they at least exemplified some broader-minded principles against which other religions had to compete, and it had the result of at least temporarily softening the hard-liners.
That’s excellent, and I’ll agree with it—barring the complete eradication of religion, we need to change it to accommodate the modern world. I’ll add, though, that other countries did set up state religions, and then seem to have modified that institution into similarly benign forms that have had a more lasting effect. The unofficial position of America’s founding fathers may have been wonderfully positive in the beginning, but we can see now that they flopped mightily at building enduring institutions that would maintain any kind of religious rationalism. I tend to think that if they had, for instance, declared Unitarianism the official US religion (with the same strong statements that religion was not to be a prerequisite for holding office, etc., and that it was not a declaration of exclusivity) we’d be better off today. There’d at least be one officially sanctioned brake on the excesses of our wildly proliferating looney-tunes churches.
Rowe quotes the goals of this Jeffersonian view of enlightened religion as “inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter,” which is all well and good as a desirable end of a government that wants to promote civil harmony. One issue is that even this view of religion doesn’t seem to be implemented well in this country; another, though, and one I’m more interested in, is how we can expand that enlightened view to also encompass the needs of a more scientific society.
These are hard problems.
I’d have to say that a science-compatible religion would have to reject miracles and myth, superstition and the supernatural, and would have to be open to constant self-criticism and readjustment of its beliefs. It would have to refuse to try and squeeze god into quantum minutia or into the preconditions of the Big Bang. It would have to be intensely suspicious of hypothesized meddling spirits in our past history, and of the transmogrification of brains made of meat into ethereal invisible unworldly souls in our future. It’s not impossible — I’m looking at you, Spong, and you, Dalai Lama, as at least going in the right direction — but we’re deluding ourselves if we think modern religion, especially modern American religion, is anywhere near that point. If anything, it seems to be drifting the other way, towards ennobling dogma yet more and treating magic as a credible strategy for coping with the real world. And this is where I part company with Chris Ho-Stuart.
Chris advocates a conciliatory approach, and also tosses out a new label, “tolerant atheist,” to describe it.
The conciliatory approach — mine — is that religion itself is consistent with science; though of course there are individual believers (creationists, for example) who hold views that are unambiguously falsified by the findings of scientists. But we tend to say that science is a process for finding things out, and that it can’t find out everything. We tend not to think of science as requiring a belief in metaphysical naturalism, even though most of us actually do seem to be metaphysical naturalists — disbelievers in God and in the supernatural. No matter; we admit that some of our scientific colleagues may have radically different metaphysical perspectives; and as long as they don’t try to bring in the supernatural as a way of distorting the actual methods of scientific investigation, we don’t mind what they believe. If you really can form your beliefs in such a way as to avoid being directly falsified by a line of empirical evidence, then you can be consistent with science.
Now there’s something to be said for the notion that we are promoting as “authentic” a form of religion that is highly unusual and quite distinct from traditional religion all down the ages. It’s not quite a total humbug, because religion does change over time; and there are plenty of religious leaders trying to promote an expression of their religion that remains fully consistent with all the discoveries of modern science. We tolerant atheists approve and encourage them.
I categorically reject the label and the approach, for a couple of different reasons. One, as Larry Moran already notes in the comments there, it sets up an obvious dichotomy and implies that this is a disagreement between the good, sweet, kind, tolerant atheists and those who reject Ho-Stuart’s position, who must be the awful intolerant atheists. This plays right into the hands of the reactionary supporters of the status quo; I’ve been accused of wanting to march the religious into camps, of planning forced sterilizations, and of wanting to purge science of Christians, all false, but still reflecting this unfortunate choice of terminology.
For another, it’s delusional. Someone who favors applying pressure to tack the Southern Baptists towards a science-friendly deism is no more tolerant, from their point of view, than someone who advocates for an outright rejection of all religion. It will misleadingly find approval from many of the liberal theists, but we aren’t worried about them. It’s ignoring the real threat to wallow with a few like-minded progressives and pretend all is right with the world.
I’ve got a different label for Chris. Instead of “tolerant atheists,” they are “do-nothing atheists”. Their goal is to avoid conflict, ignore differences, and just get along, and hope that by avoiding confrontation the great theistic mob will just generally drift into friendship with them and eventually align themselves more and more with that great bunch of guys and gals. It’s nice. It’s even going to work — with some people. I’ll also admit that most of us are “do-nothing atheists” most of the time. When I talk to some Christian fellow at the coffee house, we’ll talk about the weather, the news, what’s happening around town, and I’m not interested in sparking a confrontation over an issue that isn’t relevant to the interaction at hand (remember, we’re all tolerant atheists together here, and despite all rumors to the contrary, I do not think my fellow citizens are idiots if they go to church).
The do-nothing atheists optimistically hope that everyone will evolve into a more enlightened form of religion, and unfortunately, will abstain from contumelious contention even when they are directly opposed by strongly held and patently absurd religious beliefs. I get the impression they’d instead want to fix a nice pot of tea and reassure the visiting evangelist that they can still find common cause in a conversation about the azaleas this spring. It’s all so damned nice and buries all the argument under the sociable politesse that it makes my sublingual venom glands start to spasm. OK, sure, I’ll join them both in a cup of tea and a little chit-chat, but let’s not fool ourselves: this is not a step towards resolving conflicts, it’s evading them. It’s a delaying maneuver while the do-nothing atheist vaguely hopes progressive social forces draw people away from hellfire-and-brimstone religion, and the evangelical Christian enjoys a moment’s conversation while his peers are actively proselytizing and influencing the political process in the background. At some point we must engage the fight.
The complement to the do-nothing atheist is, naturally enough, the activist atheist. The difference isn’t that we’re intolerant, or even that we have different beliefs about god and religion—it’s that we’ll unfurl a bold banner and stand uncompromisingly beneath it, state our differences loudly, and dare the others to contend with us. We do not aim to get along. Our goal is to strengthen others in our shared skepticism about religion and our positive affirmation of the power of reason and the sufficiency of the natural world, to challenge the long-held domination of supernatural and authoritarian thinking, and to change minds. Not to passively hope that others will eventually see the light, but to light that fire ourselves. Not to glimmer optimistically, but to incandesce ferociously. Where some hope the world will follow, some have to lead.
Jefferson and Madison and the other founding fathers also led. Their position was not so radical as atheism, but they did not sit back and make excuses for states that restricted freedom of religion or the advocates of heretic-burning, they did not wait for liberal winds to waft the populace towards a kinder, gentler religion—they worked to promote their vision of an enlightened faith. They got the country part way there, but as we can see, we’re backsliding at a tremendous pace, a frightening portion of the world around us is enslaved to faith, and now is not the time to trust to those liberal winds…now is the time to work harder, push farther, and aim higher. And I choose to aim for an unapologetically secular state that trusts in empiricism and natural law rather than revelation and traditional dogma.
And I will speak and act to achieve that goal.