by Patrick Appel
I'm doing my best to round-up reader responses, but the influx of e-mail has temporarily overwhelmed me. Please do not feel slighted if your e-mail doesn't make it into the mix. Thanks to everyone for their candor. A reader writes:
Your reader claims that a "particular class of atheists state rather reflexively that [religion] is not [useful], and get annoyed when asked to back that up." This particular class, being of course the class that compares religion to other imaginary beings. Instead of saying why this is unreasonable, he asserts it without evidence and then continues to argue that there is a reasonable middle ground that can be had without challenging the core beliefs of either side. While politic, this belies a certain willingness to forgo the search for truth in the interest of being "sensible."
Such atheists (those that compare belief in god to belief in faeries or Santa Claus) absolutely make arguments about the pragmatic value of religion! Bertrand Russel, in Why I am Not A Christian, argues that religion, by compelling people to come to church during the plagues, inadvertently resulted in the deaths of many more people. Sam Harris, in Letter to a Christian Nation, explains that by creating an environment in which faith is seen as laudable, moderate and otherwise inoffensive religious practice cultivates fertile ground for extremism. Richard Dawkins argues throughout his writings that any benefits that can be claimed by religion are non-unique, and that framing the debate solely in terms of pragmatic value overlooks other mechanisms from which we might derive the same benefits without the harm of submitting ourselves to personal delusion.
Count me among the atheists that are sick of being marginalized as "unthinking," "extreme," or "angry" strawmen merely because we speak our minds. This is a tactic designed to avoid debate and prop up the theists' position by tying argumentative legitimacy to a subjective notion of respect (which really just means demanding that certain questions not be asked, that certain comparisons not be made). American society is completely saturated with Christian imagery, social rules, and politicking. Excuse me for offending someone by not taking their belief in the supernatural seriously, and raising legitimate questions about what truth means if we embrace an unscientific epistemology which heavily relies on assertions of pragmatism rather than evidence. Santa Claus can be lots of fun. But when we become adults we put childish things away, I might assert, because we become more interested in truth than in writing wish lists to the North Pole.
Santa Claus is a special case, I suppose, as it is a purposeful fiction that we all are "in on", and thus is particularly insulting to someone who has given a lot of thought to his/her faith. I agree that whether religious belief and/or practice are good or bad is a difficult question and is really not answerable in a knee-jerk fashion, by athiests or believers. I would encourage believers to actually read Dawkins, Dennett, and other so-called "New Athiests" - I think the aggressiveness and arrogance often attributed to them is unfounded if we start at a point where criticism of religion is not granted some special status as somehow offensive on its face as compared to criticism of single payer healthcare or gay marriage or the musical skills of Dylan versus McCartney.
If the reader wants to debate the benefits of religion rather than the existence of god then that should be fully explored. What are the benefits and can a non-believer get these same benefits from an organization without having to believe? Most believers tend to feel that the benefits received from religion could not be fully received from something other than religion. It is at this point in the discussion the believer will usually say that faith in god is essential to receive the full benefits of the religion and the debate is not back to the existence of god. So I find it hypocritical that the reader thinks atheists only want to discuss faith in god.
I think a full analysis of the benefits received from religion is in order because just because something has some positive benefits does make it proper. I can think of many drugs that appear to offer short term benefits but used incorrectly or for too long can cause harm. Does the benefit to one individual impact another in a negative way? I think anytime religion steps into politics this occurs.What are the mental benefits to organized religion and is there a better way to receive those benefits?
Frankly, most of the atheist and agnostics I know couldn’t really care less if other people want to wallow in delusion. It gives us someone to laugh at. What concerns us is the concerted attempts by the religious to hijack our secular State. Whether it’s using belief in god as a basis for denying gays the right to marry, fighting against allowing non-Abrahamic insignia on dead soldiers headstones, or haranguing a sitting president for not making a public spectacle of his faith during the National Day of Prayer’ (which is yet another example of unnecessary encroachment…), these believers’ force us into arguing the existence of God. Not because we CARE about it, but because THEY use his existence to justify their actions.
Your "Bigger Question" reader is presenting his sober, rational and introspective version of religious belief as "much more fertile for constructive discussion" and I could agree. It just doesn't happen to be the version of religious belief at which Dawkins and Dennett direct their intemperate ire. It is the rather common, "unsophisticated" version of religious belief that draws their scorn: Their loudest complaints are against things like a 6000 year old earth, creationism, religiously justified bigotry and oppression, and scientific ignorance encouraged by religious belief.
The earth isn't 6000 years old nor was it created in 7 days: I think your reader and I would agree to that - but he only wants to permit atheists to argue about "more interesting arguments" which have the coincidental virtue of being both fairly innocuous and fairly vague. If the overwhelming majority of religious belief and religiously motivated behavior consisted of sober introspection about the limits and foundations of knowledge, then Dawkins et al would have very little to say. It is because a great many people do believe in God or Mohammed within the same kind of childish framework that they once accepted Tooth Fairies, and that these people then base their social and political behavior on such beliefs, that "new athiests" have a chronic target for their vitriol.
And finally, I must address the reader's parting comment concerning the "century of rigorous, lively philosophical debate and criticism on ontology and epistemology" that he claims new atheists ignore. I'm well read in this area and I agree than strident atheist arguments are usually not directed at these lines of thought - but the reason is that an honest epistemology of religious belief has little charity for the claims of specific religions that agitate atheists most. That century of religious philosophy takes for granted that 7-day creations, immaculate conceptions, and bodily resurrections (with open wounds left intact!) do not lend themselves to serious consideration anymore than do Aztec feathered dragons nor Thors Hammer. Instead, modern philosophy of religion (when not simply Christian apology), leads at most to a measured reassurance than some kind of vague conception of the divine cannot be dismissed as simply irrational - but it is cold comfort for anyone who values such things as eternal life, a God who is knowable, or a universe in which good deeds are ultimately rewarded.