Posted by: coloradokiwi | December 18, 2007

Missing the point about objections to religion

Although certainly I could blog long and hard about the arguments for or against religion, for or against atheism, and so forth (indeed mighty tomes by much mightier and more well informed minds than I have done so), in the spirit of the season I’d like to make a few quick points about recent reactions to “the new atheism.”

By “the new atheists” I refer of course to the sudden glut of bestselling authors who have mounted stinging critiques of religion and of faith in a God or gods, authors such as Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling and Harris. These folks and others have let religion have it with both barrels, and needless to say in an era of suicide bombers and presidential candidates who seem to wish that America was bereft of those pesky non-believers, the words of these men seem to have struck a chord. Just as needless to say of course is that all manner of counter-attacks have been waged by the defenders of religion and/or God. A common refrain among the religionists (if you’ll pardon the term) seems to revolve around a few common points:

1. Yes, religions have been the impetus for quite a lot of bad things like war, torture, and the suppression of knowledge. However they have also been the impetus for quite a lot of good things like human outreach, charities, incredibly beautiful art and architecture, and the spiritual nourishment of millions, i.e. providing moral guidance and existential meaning.

2. Without religion we have no profound moral guidance, and people need this—they are hardwired, in fact, to have moral boundaries established. In either case, these new atheists are on a mission to disprove God, which is impossible as well as undesirable. The chaos—think of the chaos!!!

And round and round we go.

I don’t wish to re-hash all of these arguments, in part because it takes much more time and thought than I have to commit right now, and in part because they are amazingly well articulated by the best in both camps in dialogues you can find nearly anywhere on the net. However, I’d like to just reiterate a couple of main points that religionists tend to miss or misunderstand about an anti-faith, anti-religious argument (which, to be fair, is something that some self-ascribed atheists also miss):

1. We can never know whether or not there is God, or what to do about his existence or lack thereof. I tend to side with Dawkins here that there is no good reason for the existence of God, and  it is arrogant to think that we are deserving of any creator’s attention in a universe this big. But this isn’t really worth arguing about, and is not the point of attacks on faith and religion. The point, rather, is that religion and faith leaves one with no recourse to get around fundamental disagreements. However much one’s faith might bring “peace” and guidance, the whole point of faith is that it is to be believed, adhered to, largely without question. So when diametrically opposed faiths meet, a priori their disagreements cannot be worked out. The only recourse is to either agree to disagree, or to utterly eliminate (usually through killing) the contrary view. Yes, well, that’s done wonders for human history. Good show. Therefore religious faith is in fact dangerous and intransigent in a way that arguing reasoned points is not, and it is why it should be either subsumed or discarded as an artifact of humanity’s past. So while it may be the project of some atheists to tear down faith and religion, this isn’t the case per se: it is (or should be) their project to tear down faith-based, religious thinking: the mindset that inculcates certainty, stubbornness, fear, and the rejection of rather than engagement with different ideas.

****Aside: this is not to say that apparently secular disagreements cannot be violent. However these are still demonstrations of the ingrained bloody-mindedness of the sort of faith-based thinking: the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, the Hutu—all killing their fellow humans in this vein. There may always be wars, but by far the bloodiest struggles occur when people are full of certainty and absent doubt. And to be fair, such conflicts arise in the context of socio-economic failures. Ensuring that everyone has employment, food on the table, and recourse to meaningful political action goes a long way toward avoiding bloody conflict.****

2. Beauty will continue to be created without “divine” inspiration. It happens all the time. And while one may point to the awe-inspiring architecture of a cathedral, one may also point to the God-awfulness (pun intended) of the megachurch. Similarly, morality will continue to exist, and to be hashed out, regardless of faith or religion. Religion may provide both of these in abundance, but so far religious faith has not provided us with consistency here without resorting to the sorts of means listed above. Without faith there will be no morality? Wait a minute, how is it that faith provides us with “the answer” for morality now? Religion is a means of articulating morality, not the means of articulating morality. Appeasing a divinity is not the only prerequisite for discerning what constitutes justice and goodness (this rehashes the arguments I said I wouldn’t, I know).

People will continue to struggle to live as they think is right, with or without religious faith. But without religious faith, we may at least have the ability to change our minds about what is good for us (and everyone else) without incurring the imaginary wrath of God(s) or the vitriol of the “faithful.” We might be able to at least attempt to achieve sensible consensus, rather than encounter dogmatic intransigence.

But if I may make a larger point: this whole discussion over religion versus reason strikes me as more of a side show than the main event in moving human history forward. Ultimately it is not whether or not God exists, whether or not we have moral foundations, whether or not killing can be justified (news flash: it always can, or at least it always will be by somebody). What we should commit our thoughts to is processes—how we can achieve the Utilitarian utopia of balancing personal freedom with the curtailing of certain behaviors, of balancing strong central governance with authoritarian control, of balancing pragmatism and idealism. In short: whether or not there is religious faith, we must ensure the establishment of just means over just ends—the process of creating the ultimate society, rather than arguing over what that ultimate society is (here’s a hint: it is a society in which these processes work).

But of course, that takes effort and the abandonment of fear, ignorance, and greed, which also alas exist with or without religious faith. So, I guess we can relegate that idea to the dustbin of history, too. That’s okay: I take it as an article of faith that capitalist ideology is beating religious faith, anyway, and will become the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm of the near future, although arguably this is already the case. 😉

So as a last rejoinder, if these “new atheists” had really wanted to piss off religionists, they should have said that capitalism is far more powerful than God, which is ironically a much easier case to make.

****ADDENDUM: I’m waiting for the fast-approaching day when a Pastafarian or similar has to make a Romney-esque speech about how it’s important to have a “person of faith” in the White House, which is desirable over an agnostic or atheist, no matter what kind of cuckoo religion they belong to. “Hey, I know it sounds weird to you that our religion promotes the sanctity of pig fucking, but at least I believe in something and it provides me with moral guidance! Where would we be without that? This nation was founded on religious principles, and by the Pig God we need a person of faith with their finger on The Button!”****



  1. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster strikes again: “They’ve made us the laughingstock of the world,” board member Lofton told the Tampa Tribune, in reference to the Pasafarians.

  2. Marvelous. It’s good to have an active network of sensible, yet humorous people to shame people in all sorts of little precincts all over. Man, don’t even get me started on ID….

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