Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What should an atheist think about religion?

One of the more prominent debates in what passes for American public intellectual life is the emergence of a “New Atheism,” which is new, apparently, for its derision of religious belief and its unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of reasonable theism. As a lifelong atheist myself, I suppose I ought to welcome this development. Since I was quite young I have been aware of both my utter lack of religious belief and the distance this created between me and most of the rest of America. When I was about 13, my parents urged me to enroll in a confirmation course at the Congregational Church our family attended. The plan was that at the end of the process I would be confirmed and baptized (I had been spared this rite as a baby) in one fell swoop. First, though, I had to meet with the youth minister. I admitted to him that I had misgivings about the process because, as I put it then, I was an agnostic. He smiled, nodded, and said with true liberal Protestant equanimity, “That’s great. We’ll rap about that.” Ah, the 70’s.
And yet my soul is troubled by all this—or rather, it would be if I had a soul, or if there were such a thing as ‘souls.’ The case for atheism is best made if it is not confused with the entirely separate issue of what to make of religion. Take away the latter question, and the strongest case for nonbelief in God is simply to refuse to accept the burden of proof. The theist, after all, professes not only to believe in a being that is utterly insensible and insusceptible to proof, but also maintains that this belief is the most important one could ever have. Let them prove it to me, I say—and no one has ever come close.
So, what ought an atheist to believe about religion? Strictly speaking, denying the existence of God entails nothing at all about religion, except for the obvious consequence that it can have nothing to do with God. Religion is a human institution, and as such is neither better nor worse than the human beings who practice it. Seen from this perspective, the hostility toward religion shown by the New Atheists is really misanthropy: hostility toward human beings themselves. Hardly a good thing for an erstwhile secular humanist.
Broadly speaking, religion has served to offer human beings certainty where they have none. Long ago, this certainty included certainty about matters of fact, for example the change of seasons, earthquakes, comets, and the like. The rise of science has largely destroyed this basis for religious belief, though the debate in American society about evolution shows that this motivation is not entirely dead. This is why Michael Shermer is entirely wrong to insist that evolution does not threaten religion. It does, because it removes one of the last little shreds of physical reality that religion could claim to make sense of: the unique place of human beings in the physical world. The Theory of Evolution entails that we have no such unique place, and fundamentalists are therefore right to see this as a threat.
What has survived is the religious offering of moral certainty—that kings rule with divine right; that the lives of nonbelievers count for less than believers; that the poor are blessed and shall inherit the earth. Religion in this capacity helped French peasants to build great cathedrals, for American blacks to challenge segregation, and for Crusaders to slaughter Arab civilians. We must ask whether, without the illusion of God’s moral commands, human beings would act in better or worse fashion. Perhaps, if they were less sure that God was on their side, civil rights activists would have found it harder to face the violence of white resistance. Similarly, if the soldiers of the Crusades had been prepared to ask critical questions about their mission, they would have been more likely to recognize the humanity in their victims. It is difficult to know where the balance lies, though in the end it may make no difference at all: There is no conclusive evidence that religious people act more ethically than the nonreligious. I’m inclined to think that, on balance, we’d all be better off nurturing our rational than our religious souls. But really, that’s far from obvious.


  1. Religion has been an major element in the development of our species. For good or bad, it's undeniably played many roles.

    As a "New Atheist", I find that my main concern is the harm that it often still causes. The Pope informing an entire continent that condoms are bad. States that still have "Blue Laws". People being discriminated against because of their ethnicity or sexual orientation. Religion often plays a key role.

    There isn't a single argument against gay marriage that isn't rooted firmly in religious dogma.

    The "New Atheists" are basically a group of people who have collectively said "enough".

    We are tired of demands to "respect" religion simply because it's religion.

    We watch as continual assaults against science and humans rights are launched, simply because someone's religious tomes direct them one way or another.

    Humans are going to act nobly or horrifically. We are just trying to remove one of the justifications for it.

  2. Atheists have had to remain largely closeted because of the crushing load of religious intolerance in most societies. I think it's great that atheists are finally asserting themselves, and taking on the responsibility of pointing out the religious roots of many current conflicts and social problems, referred to in the previous comment. Naturally this will offend some of the religious majority. The point, however, is not to cause offense, but to shake up settled beliefs and begin discussion of critical issues. If that offends some, I can only coin the addage about eggs and omelettes. Critics claim that atheism is just another religion, a belief founded on self-faith alone; that's an easy mistake for someone accustomed to selecting information to support a pre-formed position, rather than looking at evidence and then defining one's position accordingly. ¡Viva the New Atheism!

  3. Let me recommend J.S. Mill's essay "The Utility of Religion" for further reflections on the same themes.

  4. Nice post! I am going to nitpick this point though:

    "The Theory of Evolution entails that we have no such unique place, and fundamentalists are therefore right to see this as a threat."

    I do not think this is true. The theory of evolution does not describe the position of humans in the universe, but merely how we got there.

    If I drove a car to the grocery store and you drove a car to the top of Mount Washington, you would be in a more special place than me, but we got to our destinations in the same way.

    Similarly, I don’t think any serious evolutionary biologist would argue that humans are not unique among living things just because we arrived at current selves via the same physical laws as all other species on earth.

    But I do agree that the rise of science has destroyed the God of the gaps argument for religion if that is what you are saying. But this was never a good argument to begin with.

  5. Religion is the root of all evil. Or much of it anyway.

  6. "Seen from this perspective, the hostility toward religion shown by the New Atheists is really misanthropy: hostility toward human beings themselves."

    I disagree. The likes of Sam Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens disagree with you on the question of religion's social utility. They believe it to be a negative thing. A mistake of fact does not imply misanthropy. The fact that they are so vocal on changing society speaks to their desire to improve the lives of people everywhere.

  7. Thank you, Brett. In fact, I'm not really sure that I disagree with the people you refer to on the question of religion's utility. The question is rather what is meant by 'religion'. The word is often taken in a narrow way to refer to the great monotheisms, and these I agree are not good for us, on balance. But they arise from deeper and broader needs, such as those for order, understanding (even if illusory), and perhaps also for community and ritual. It is rejection even of these greater tendencies that I associated with misanthropy, and the critiques I've seen equivocate between the two senses.

  8. Dear GrillAPineapple (and how did you come up with that handle?),

    Thank you for your comment. I like the way you illustrate the analogy. I didn't mean to suggest that evolution rules out any "unique place" whatsoever for human beings, only that it badly undermined the particular way that that unique place has been understood in the theistic tradition. Descartes started a tradition, extinct in philosophy but very much alive in theology and in the common imagination, of supposing that the human mind or soul is exempt from the laws of nature scientists discover. Evolutionary accounts of the development and function of the human brain make this viewpoint close to untenable.