Atheism vs. Religion: can’t we have a sensible debate?

I am posting this as a reaction to a few debates I got involved in recently, including one earlier today. My thoughts on these issues are still rather at a very early stage of development (and I daresay it shows), but it’s an issue that’s been bugging me for a while – that, and I promised Zadok Day that I’d turn my arguments into a blog post.   [Edited to add: Zadok Day has now also written a blog post on this topic]

I keep coming across atheists who not only argue vigorously against religion but also like to maintain that religion is responsible for most evils in this world, has had no positive consequences whatsoever and is generally hateful and bigoted. Moreover, such people seem to be awfully easily offended by anything that even faintly reminds them of the presence of religion anywhere in public life, and some would clearly like to see nothing less than removing religion from the planet altogether.

For me the most staggering and infuriating thing about such discussions is the single-minded, dogmatic zeal with which such opinions are being presented. I can only call it a fundamentalist mindset, and it worries me deeply, since I generally consider fundamentalism as destructive.

To put this argument in context, let me point out that I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I’d also describe myself as very liberal about religion, society and life in general. As so many people who consider themselves religious, I am very happy not to fit a number of the usual stereotypes.

When I come across yet another one of those atheism-against-religion discussions, I don’t feel victimised, but I am worried about increasing polarisation, and frankly, the dumbing down of the discussion: I blame it on the Christian Right in the US and on people like Dawkins and Hitchens trying to reply in kind. If you have a discussion where both sides claim that they are the persecuted minority whose grievances ought to get priority you are in trouble – yet that’s exactly where we are rapidly going in this debate. In the end, I can’t stand fundamentalists on both sides, and I get on with people of various religious views and none as long as they are willing to listen to other people’s arguments and don’t use their (non-)religious views to try to ‘prove’ their own self-importance and superiority to other people – or as long as they are not aggressive and condescending in trying to convert others to ‘their side’.

When it comes to the most zealous atheists I am often shocked about the apparently wilful ignorance and very shallow, stereotypical views of religion which often underlie their arguments: unfortunately, Richard Dawkins is a prime offender in this respect. In essence, the argument is often along the lines of: ‘if you are a Christian you obviously conform to stereotypes X, Y and Z’; and usually these stereotypes are not at all compatible with how religion (at least Christianity) is practiced in most parts of western Europe. For example, if you base your ideas of Christians on Richard Dawkins’s pronouncements, you might be surprised to hear that most Christians in western Europe have absolutely no problem with thinking that the natural world has taken its shape via the fascinating mechanism of evolution. What we get is people like Dawkins arguing against the kind of Christianity that is practiced in some parts of the USA – without much  (or any) acknowledgement of the sheer range of beliefs and practices that exist besides this rather extreme (if vocal) variant.

This statement (spotted during discussion today) seems typical for the kind of attitude I am describing:

It is the notion that those who follow religions on cherry pick from religious texts that annoy me. “Oh the bible teaches me to forgive”. So how about the bit about God promoting genocide? “Well, umm..we all inerpret it differently”. That was a real conversation with a real christian that I had.

Just how unacceptable and annoying is it that somebody who claims to be a Christian isn’t willing to fit completely with the ‘evil bigot’ stereotype? A Christian willing to think about interpreting the Bible and to prioritise tolerance! Get the thought police!

The problem is that religion is a complex historical and sociological phenomenon. This seems to be complete anathema to some people who participate in such debates. Here is a typical statement:

It is impossible for an atheist to believe that morality comes from anywhere other than humanity itself. Morality belongs to human beings not religions not gods. If you say that I hold Christian values you are imposing your religious beliefs on to me. I reject Christianity’s claim on them!

While there might not be any scientific evidence for the existence of a god, it’s hard to claim that there is no evidence for the existence and impact of religion as an anthropological phenomenon. In fact, I would say that the claim made above leaves some pretty basic logic behind. If you don’t believe in God then surely you must assume that the phenomenon of religion is clearly a human invention, so what is the problem? For somebody who considers history in a rational manner, any Christian values obviously come ‘from humanity itself’, and it’s hard to deny that a part of our society’s values were, during the last nineteen centuries or so, shaped by this particular philosophical system. The statement above seems to suggest that the person who made it  simply refuses to accept that any form of culture, history and society they disapprove of may have influenced whatever values they hold. When suspicion of religion goes so far that it leads to a complete rejection of some pretty basic facts of cultural history as it stands, that strikes me as the kind of fundamentalist mindset which prioritises ideology (or belief) over rational thinking. Of course, this kind of statement tends to come from people who pride themselves in basing all their values and ideas on pure rationalism. In my book, overlooking the facts of history because it doesn’t fit one’s wishful thinking isn’t exactly rational.

I am even more worried about arguments along the lines of ‘religion is generally evil and has only ever brought bad consequences’. Making arguments like this about complex sociological phenomena is simply beneath intelligent discourse – how is that better than saying all ‘gay people are evil’, or various other things some religious people get spectacularly and dogmatically wrong? And the reaction to any counter-argument is often just as the worst of religious fundamentalists would react, namely along the lines of ‘I am right and you are wrong, because my ideology is by definition rational and superior, so there’.

It’s a mindset that exists in relation to any kind of big idea (and ‘there is no god’ is a big idea)- and it’s really worrying if at a time when religious fundamentalism is increasingly recognised as something we need to fight, it’s the atheists, of all people, who inject more of that kind of rigid mindset into the discussion. You’d have hoped that those who criticise the excesses of fundamentalist beliefs would try their best not to operate in the exact same way in order to push their own ideas – but apparently it doesn’t work like that. Fire, apparently, is to be fought with more fire.  Thanks for nothing, Richard Dawkins.

Of course, this kind of argument is refuted time and time again with a kind of arrogance which simply refuses to accept that atheists might be susceptible to this kind of problem - here is another handy snippet spotted just a few hours ago:

We don’t want to be told that our rejection of religion is itself a quasi-religious belief. If people stopped doing that, stopped trying to impose religion on us, there would be far less to object to.

Well, how else should one describe it? In a debate where argument stands against argument, atheism represents an alternative belief system just as all the other viewpoints represented by other participants. A ‘belief system’ does not have to involve gods, and can be based on rational or irrational arguments. In the end, what matters is how the proponents of that way of thinking present their arguments. Do they shove them down the throats of other people? Do they use their beliefs to make themselves feel superior? Do they let their ideas trump rational argument or evidence? Do they actually use proper arguments? People who sum up religion with statements like ‘I laugh at people who believe in fairies’ are no less obnoxious than people who say ‘you’ll go to hell because you don’t believe in God in exactly the way I tell you to’.

I have nothing against atheism, which strikes me as a honest way of reacting to a rational world, but I am worried about a debate which increasingly sees entrenched positions and an arrogant unwillingness to investigate contexts, nuances and history. My big worry is that if Richard Dawkins and his followers continue in this vein they will produce the kind of irrational entrenched opposition they are currently merely postulating for places like the UK and Europe. Perhaps they really crave a world polarised between atheists and religious people, a world where we get black and white instead of many shades of grey – but I certainly don’t want to see that happening. We need less polarisation, not more.

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16 Responses to Atheism vs. Religion: can’t we have a sensible debate?

  1. Robin Martlew says:

    This post seems to be one of those “Cardboard Cut out” target things. a collection of “some people say” things, clearly not understood and but ” I can get my teeth into them so they’ll do for my purpose. Like God, they can’t be contradicted because they are either mistaken and a waste of time contradicting, or only held by a few, often very few, people.
    A non argument argued for the sake of having and argument!

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Thanks for a stimulating and well thought-through blog Maria.
    One thing that I have noticed about the fundamentalists (both atheist and religious) is how little good they seem to do and how little they show signs of caring about the most oppressed and needy in the world. Their dominant purpose in life seems to be to attack their opposite numbers, rather than to try to make the world a better place.

  3. Speedy Russell says:

    Well Robin, Dawkins (and not ‘some people’) *did* say recently:

    “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know….”

    So there’s a specific example of someone patronising people of faith – only stupid people believe in God. I don’t believe in God(s), but I’m aware that about 95% of the planet does, and to hold yourself as cleverer than several billion people because hey, you’ve worked it all out and they haven’t, is an act of such supreme arrogance that it’s almost as difficult to believe as creationism.

    Having said that, I rather like Dawkins, but like everyone else he can be an arse sometimes.

    There are other examples, but I can’t be bothered to look for them ;)

  4. Dave Page says:

    I’d like some evidence that Richard Dawkins tars all Christians with the same brush. I don’t like it when people do that, but I’m a big fan of Dawkins’ work precisely because he doesn’t. His argument is more nuanced – that either you accept that the Bible is the undiluted word of God, in which case you should follow it to the letter, or you pick and choose bits to follow, in which case you’re applying some extra-religious method of arbitration.

    As for the religion and morality argument, I don’t get particularly worked up by people talking about Christian morality, but it’s patently false – precisely because most people don’t follow the Bible literally, and because people all around the world have a very similar sense of morality even if they haven’t been exposed to Judeo-Christian religion.

    How do you respond to the fact that Richard Dawkins supports teaching of religious education in the national curriculum?

  5. Philippa says:

    Oh, I think your comments are very apposite, Maria. I often hear fellow Christians deride atheists as being morally defective or not having a moral compass. It is very simplistic to say that atheism in itself causes immorality, not least when we can all think of Christian leaders who have turned out to be seriously ‘morally defective’. Secular Scandinavia is a more civilised area of the world than many religious cultures. (I say that because US fundies love to bash poor Sweden, for some reason, as an example of European godlessness. The Swedes might be ‘godless’ but their infrastructure and the plumbing are marvellous. :D And they have a low crime rate!)
    The opposite response, that ALL religion is evil and should be wiped from the face of the earth, is equally ignorant and short-sighted. And just as arrogant.

    (A secular, post-Christian society has many contradictions: it’s OK in popular culture to lampoon the person of Christ but being irreverent about the Prophet Mohammed is off-limits because of potential repercussions. It does strike me as a double standard, and hypocritical too: either all religions are off-limits for humour, or none of them are.)

    I don’t know whether you ever watch 4thoughtTV on Channel 4, but it’s a great little 4-minute slot just before 8pm, when anyone – famous or just an ordinary member of the public – can share their opinion on ethics and religion. The other night David Baddiel was on. David is Jewish, a comedian and playwright, and he described himself as a ‘fundamental atheist’ who has no problem with religion. He said he really likes Christmas, often goes to church at Christmas and enjoys hearing a good sermon! He said he recognised the inherent poetry and lyricism in religion and he understood why people needed to have faith, even though he himself was an atheist. I found his comments very honest.

    No thinking Christian could deny that some truly horrible things have been done in the name of our faith. The fault, however, lies within man. I don’t believe that if religion were to disappear from the earth, then humanity’s propensity for greed, power and corruption would somehow magically disappear either.

    The militant atheism of Communism is certainly one of the reasons why I dislike it. But it’s not the only reason: I also think that Communism is unworkable as a political and economic system. Yes, the leading Communists deliberately replaced the icons of religion with their own exalted selves, and that kind of hubris will end in disaster one way or another, even if it takes 70 years. Organised atheism in Communist countries also led to the imprisonment, persecution and killing of millions of Christians and other faith-groups. And it still does! – Amnesty International reckon there are 200,000 thousand political prisoners interned in horrific labour camps in North Korea, and 70,000 of those ‘enemies of the state’ are Christians. But atheism is not the sole factor at work here: the Church has sometimes perpetrated horrors too, not least against other Christians! What the great Communist failure proves to me that an imperfect humanity is capable of abusing ANY system. In the case of Communism, the ‘useful peg’ to hang oppression on happened to be officially sanctioned atheism.

  6. Graeme Cowie says:

    The one thing that is true of all religions is that they make positive assertions about the universe and a deity without a shred of evidential support. All we have are several times translated fairy-tales from hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago, used to justify the world as is or should be today.

    Most atheists I know, and I include Dawkins and Hitchens in that number, do not question the right of others to believe in fairytales. What we object to is the use of institutions like the state to entrench religious norms and the disingenuous appropriation of “values” to religions when the good ones are pretty much always secular ones and the bad ones can scarcely be called “values” at all. The problem with those who cherry-pick is that we have to ask, as any good empiricist would: “if you are willing to disregard one bit, why should you not disregard the whole lot?” This is an argument to consistency in evidence, and not a shrill questioning of your not being pro-genocide. Anything which is not consistent struggles to resemble what one could call rational.

    You also seem under the misapprehension that atheism is a belief system. This is a common straw man promulgated by religious types with which I am all too familiar. Atheism is not a belief system. It is merely the absence of a belief in a deity. By definition it is NOT a system of beliefs. Unless someone is a strong atheist (which as far as I know, neither Hitchens nor Dawkins are) there is no positive statement or “article of faith” being made. People (usually on the theist side of the discussion) fail to distinguish between the statements “I do not believe in a God” “There is probably no God” and “I disbelieve in the existence of a God”. Indeed the second of those three statements actually fits more semantically agreeably with the first than the third.

    Complaining about presentation of arguments is what is commonly known as either concern or tone trolling. The very point the atheist makes is that the way arguments are presented have no bearing on their validity. Further atheists don’t “shove their ‘beliefs’ down the throats of others”. They don’t ask for special privileges. They don’t ask for “atheist” schools. They don’t ask for atheist representatives in the House of Lords. They don’t ask for special recognition through the tax system to have charitable status of “atheist” bodies fast-tracked. They don’t ask for religious symbols to be banned. They don’t ask for churches to be banned. They don’t ask for the abolition of religion. All they seek is a level playing field for ideas instead of this illogical and institutional special treatment that is given to organisations simply because they *are religious*. They should be treated just like anything else, because regardless of the normative impact of religion on society in instilling particular value-sets, it’s not a justification either for their supernatural claims or indeed those values themselves.

    As for this “do they try to make themselves feel superior”: this is a load of nonsense as well. Even if this were the case, the mere fact of hubris has no bearing on the validity of the arguments. This isn’t about letting the irrational trump the rational. This is a very human reaction which response to ridiculous arguments. Stop tone trolling.

    As for the “I’ll laugh at anyone who believes in fairies” it’s underpinned by a perfectly valid logical argument: that positive beliefs with no empirical base are as meaningless and infantile as a “genuinely held belief” in a flying spaghetti monster. The obnoxiousness of a statement has no bearing on its underlying premise and the validity thereof. Stop tone trolling.

    And of course religions are a product of human thought (though not, might I add, necessarily human rationality). But that doesn’t mean that these religions have any claim over these values. Indeed they could only lay claim to these values if they also lay claim to the aberrations such as anti-homosexuality, anti-contraception and more that they continue to make worse in the world. You cannot name a single moral value that cannot be reached without reference to religion. Just because religion was present and the coercive force used to make a conduct and its associated values normative, does not mean that it is a religious value. What you’re saying is tantamount to arguing post hoc ergo propter hoc. Atheists do not “overlook” these assertions about “Christian values”; they challenge your basis for labeling values based on what religion happened to be around at the time. You’d be as well saying that it’s a “Christian value” to have uncomfortable benches in public because they’ve had really narrow pews in Churches for a long time!

    But if we are to go down this consequentialist road, since when was a war waged in the name of atheism? Dawkins and Hitchens have never said that “all activity of a religious nature tends to negative consequences” but rather religion has been the basis for some of the most horrible conflicts in recent times. Religion also stops people thinking rationally. Definitionally, articles of faith are irrational. They are not based in evidence/empirical observation. We do make general observations that more rational societies are generally “less-wrong” on other issues. We do not impute causation, because there is insufficient proof. But we observe the correlation is strong.

    I say all of this as a son of the Manse. Both my parents are (extremely liberal) Church of Scotland ministers. I used to describe myself by the same denomination. 12 or so months ago, I concluded that I could no longer honestly hold that pretense. I hold no ill-will against those who want to believe in that which I regard, given the evidence, as ridiculous. But I, like many other atheists, simply ask that this is reciprocated, and that religious bodies receive no preferential treatment. Our argument is a secular one, which even some of the religious should feel comfortable supporting.

  7. Steve says:

    Interesting…I am wondering how Dawkins became so influential out of so many atheists out there (other than that he is an Oxford don.)

  8. Pingback: Religion | A Song of Liberty

  9. Melaszka says:

    Pretty much agree with you (I think!), Maria.

    I’m no friend of religion, but the sneering condescension and monomaniac obsession of some of the militant atheists I have encountered in real life and online (but especially on that Mecca for nutters of every flavour, the Guardian comment boards).

    My only reservation is that, I guess, I don’t share your belief that – politically or religiously – moderatism is always the way forward.

  10. mpg says:

    Just a thought, but isn’t the question of the viability of ‘liberal’ religion part of a sensible debate? If it isn’t, why isn’t it?

  11. Maria Pretzler says:

    mpg -
    I would say that it is perfectly possible to discuss or question the viability of liberal religion. My answer would be that it is perfectly viable, because it’s being practiced very widely in the western world (in the US as well, in fact) and as yet doesn’t seem to show any signs of disappearing – although moderate religious views seem to be in decline in some parts of the western world which I, personally, consider a pity.

    I can see that there might be arguments concerning the internal logic of a liberal religious stance – but as a self-declared liberal Roman Catholic, I am intensely relaxed about that. I would have thought that in the end, the degree of wishy-washy liberalism anybody is allowing to enter into their religious framework has to be a matter of personal conscience or political taste, just as would be the case with any decision concerning a religious person’s exact location in the complex matrix of factors that define one’s religious convictions and one’s place within a religious community.

    Outside mathematics (which is an ideal, rather than real part of the world) I have yet to come across a system that can maintain a completely consistent internal logic. I don’t think religion fits that picture, either, so everybody has to wrestle with the logical contradictions arising from their particular interpretation. I think that people who assume that one can avoid logical inconsistencies in a religious system, especially a system based on a book as evidently inconsistent as the Bible probably might want to take another look and ask a few more questions…

  12. mpg says:

    Hey Maria –

    A very cogent, thorough reply indeed. If I may play devil’s advocate for a moment (I am a ‘liberal’ Buddhist myself, which essentially means I’m not a very good Buddhist), I think that when New Atheism (Dawkins, the late, great Hitchens et al), argues against fundamentalism alone, the thinking is that, given the background beliefs, and particularly in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, a fundamentalist interpretation is the one most probable to be true. So when NA focuses on fundamentalism, it is taking on the strongest case for a theistic belief. That seems defensible to me (at least not having thought about it too deeply).

    And as you acknowledge, I think that there are serious arguments against ‘liberal’ religion that make it, from an outsiders point of view, improbable. I can think of a modified Pascal’s Wager, for example. One’s religious liberalism may be false and fundamentalism may be true, the price of being wrong about religious liberalism could be grave, therefore it is more rational to hold to religious fundamentalism (this should really be religious conservatism, but I hope you get my point).

    Now, having advocated for the Devil long enough, I share your concerns on the state of discourse between the religious and the sceptics. NA tends towards a very narrow stereotyped view of theistic belief, and I don’t think one has to lampoon theists in order to be sceptical of theism. Especially when many theists number among the most cutting edge thinkers in science, philosophy, et al.

  13. mpg says:

    PS. I’m not even sure if mathematics is wholly consistent with itself.

  14. poopmandranal says:

    evolution explains everything..even the reason why i poop in my hand and throw it at people.;))

  15. Mr. Scott says:

    You know i read through this blog, and through comments, but i thought i would enlighten on a few things.
    For 1. people arent posting stuff to try and make a difference in the world, if you want to make a difference then take away religion in general. Its an out dated notion that should have died out but didn’t. All it does is cause conflict between people. So for change to happen then you have to take away the things that people have problems with. Athiest have religious people, and religious people have other religious people that dont believe what they believe.

  16. David Damerell says:

    “You’d have hoped that those who criticise the excesses of fundamentalist beliefs would try their best not to operate in the exact same way in order to push their own ideas – but apparently it doesn’t work like that. Fire, apparently, is to be fought with more fire. Thanks for nothing, Richard Dawkins.”

    I think I missed the bit where Dawkins went around murdering people who disagree with him, which would be the “exact same way” as the “excesses of fundamentalist beliefs”, rather than arguing with them in a rather patronising fashion. When did that happen?

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