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.