http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-For-Dummies-Dale-McGowan/dp/111850920XTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Feb 22, 2015
Over the last 35 weeks, we have been looking at the modern literature on science and religion. So far, we have looked at 13 books. Four of them (Religion and Science: The Basics; Logic and Logos; Science and Religion in Quest of Truth; The Great Partnership) argue strongly in favor of having both science and religion. Six of them argue – usually vehemently – in favor of keeping science and jettisoning religion (The God Argument; Atheism for Dummies; God and the Folly of Faith; God: The Failed Hypothesis; Not By Design; The Meaning of Human Existence). And three of them provide overviews and perspectives on scientism, atheism, and modern thinking related to these topics (Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe; Atheists: The Origin of the Species, and The Modern Mind).
Generally speaking, the books arguing against religion – the several books by Victor Stenger, the book by Anthony Grayling, the book by McGowan – do a poor job at making their case. Like the New Atheist books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, they are excellent at conveying the antagonistic feelings and antipathies towards religion of their authors. And sometimes, yes, they provide a convenient enough rehashing of arguments from philosophy that are sometimes taken to show religion to be wrong. But these books are almost uniformly unconvincing and lacking in solid and believable argument. (The book by E.O. Wilson is the exception, but perhaps it is because Wilson appropriates all of religion’s best stuff and makes it sound like he – and science – invented it).
Why! Why do the arguments against religion that these books provide come across as fanatical, illogical, anti-intellectual, or just plain irrelevant? Is it that we have heard them for so long that we have become inured to them? Or is it that those that embrace both science and religion have upped their game to such a degree that those making the arguments against religion look tired and old-fashioned in comparison?
Both, I think. Here I argue two additional points: that those arguing against religion fall into the trap of labeling – of labeling those who believe in religion as “the other”. They lump all believers together and demonize them, not realizing that the primitive evolution-induced religious tendencies they argue against are not true religion. And they fail to realize that they have fallen victim to the same tendencies they decry in others.
Atheism as Prejudice
As I have indicated before, I think that reasonableness, rationality, objectivity, and intellectual fairness are mainly, if not exclusively, on the side of those arguing for both science and religion. I don’t mean that all those who don’t believe in religion are unreasonable, irrational, unobjective, or intellectually unfair. Its only those whose views morph into ideology and fanatical belief – as had happened for many in the 20th century – that raise concern. In other words, the problem with atheism, much as is the case for religion, is fanaticism and extremism directed at others, not personal belief and persuasion.
Those who argue vigorously and passionately against religion, like Victor Stenger, A.G. Grayling, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, and those who are argue against belief in God and hold that religion is intrinsically evil, are making arguments that are attacks on people. They are arguing against the validity of people’s belief in God and that, in turn, means that they are arguing for the stupidity and cupidity of those who allow themselves to entertain such beliefs. Surely, there is validity to some argumentation of this sort – there are religious nuts and terrorists aplenty in modern times. But such extremism and fanaticism exists in many different ways and for many different causes, not just religion. It attaches itself to many ideologies. Religious extremism, if body counts over the last several hundred years are taken as an indicator, is much less dangerous than extremism of the scientific type as manifested in social Darwinism and communism, or in nationalism and colonialism, or in other popular ideologies that roil the world.
To repeat, the crux of the aggressive atheist argument, it seems to me, is that that those who believe in God are deluded and fooled by their own ignorance, the manipulation of priests, and their own innate tendency to believe. In a modern evolutionary guise, this view holds that those who believe in God are deluded by a tendency to ascribe agency to a supernatural cause on the basis of inherited evolutionary traits. In its extremist form, the argument is that those who believe in God are simply ignorant and have been manipulated. But labeling a whole group of people this way is no different than racism, or sexism, or any other kind of ism. It essentially holds that those who believe in God are unreasoning beings, stupid and manipulated, views that echo almost precisely how earlier Europeans tended to view colonials, or people from non-European races, or the poor, or the disadvantaged, or women.
We have to ask: how are these views different from views that portray all who think or act differently than one does oneself as being inherently evil – as the other?
Many educated thinkers agree with much of what the atheists believe, but think it wrong thing to paint religion and belief in God as deluded, evil, and ignorant. To think in such a strong and hateful way, as many of my parent’s generation came to understand, betrays a fanaticism and a fundamentalist and ideological mindset. My parent’s generation remembered the havoc wrecked by extreme belief – not from religion, but in many cases against religion – and were not always lucky enough to live through the wars and persecutions that such beliefs engendered.
And the World has Changed: The Advance of Knowledge Favors those who Acknowledge Religion
In the modern world, we now have much more knowledge about religion, much more knowledge about science, scientism, materialism, and science-based creeds, and much more knowledge about the history of religion than that had by enlightenment atheists, by 19th century social Darwinists, by Marxists, by colonialists, and by materialists of all persuasions. We know much more than they did and we are not persuaded by blanket claims that religion is bad because some people have used it badly. We are more sophisticated than that now.
Another thing: the arguments are no longer just about Christianity. Modern thinkers are increasingly familiar with other religions and fewer advance the view that Christianity is the only valid religion or hold to such purely Christian points of view as the idea that miracles are the proof of the existence of God. Much as science is a moving target, so too is the understanding of religion.
Because of the increasing sophistication of thinkers they oppose, Dawkins, Harris, and others insist that moderate and reasonable thinkers are not truly representative of the religious urge. This suggests to me like they are conceding that they lack the knowledge of religion and sophistication about theology and metaphysics possessed by educated moderates and that they are trying to sidestep refutations of their views by capable and sophisticated thinkers. Or perhaps they are inadvertently taking a step towards recognizing that there is a difference between true religion and “evolutionary” religion (i.e., belief based on innate tendencies to believe).
Rather than insisting that religion is what the extremists or the gullible believe, we need to look both at religion’s strengths and its weaknesses. This, rather than uninformed claims to the effect that religion is inherently wrong or evil, is a step towards the truth.
In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism.
This is the 35th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valle