Monday, May 22, 2006

Defending Atheism

It's not something I do very well. Part of the reason is that I hid my atheism for such a long time. I have much family and many friends who are Christians of various kinds, as well as a few who belong to other religious beliefs. I surely don't want to offend any of them, and I remember from when I was a Pentacostal Christian that the belief in persecution is central to the faith. Christianity is taught, at least in a Pentacostal church, as the one true faith without which humanity is doomed to an eternity of torment. No atheist son wants to put his Christian mother through that kind of spiritual conflict, I assure you.

Another reason atheism is difficult to defend is because it's not a unified belief the way Christianity or Islam is. Sure, many theists will argue that atheism is just another religion, which is nothing more than an ignorant attempt to create parity where none exists. Atheism is no more a religion then an empty glass is a brand of beer. Atheists don't have dogma to support; rather, we have a decision to make as to what degree our individual spiritual beliefs affect others. It's not so much a difference in belief as it is a difference in how that belief should inform our actions in the world. While an atheist like myself tends to have a "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone" attitude towards the religious, others, such as Michael Newdow, have a more confrontational modus operandi. Neither is more morally correct than the other.

I mention the issue of defending atheism after reading this article from AlterNet, and the comments attached to it. It's part of an interview with Sam Harris, a noted atheist and author whose central argument about religion is that it's an irrational behavior which humans need to outgrow in order to evolve. Given the overwhelming religiosity of the United States, it's no surprise that Harris's work has been heavily criticized by people of faith. Conservative Christians I've read see him as just another example of atheists persecuting Christians, while the more liberal Christians I've read tend to see huge flaws in his reasoning and philosophy. Personally, I think the whole notion that American Christians are persecuted by atheists is absurd, so I discard that criticism accordingly. I tend to agree a bit with the liberal Christian criticism, however.

For my own part, I don't see religion as an intrinsic problem for humanity. Trying to frame an argument that says religion is the cause of so many social ills and should be discarded is to misplace the cause of those social ills, while also focusing too broadly on "religion" as a whole. Rather than debate the points in Harris's interview or book, I thought I'd write down some of what I believe when, as an atheist, I'm confronted with the question of religion's effect on human society.

First and foremost, I believe that religion is a reflection of humanity's actions, not the driving force behind them. I don't see that a very credible case can be made that by eliminating religion, we would usher in a period of peaceful rationalism. Perhaps that would be true in certain cases, but then that's already true in certain cases and religion dominates the globe. The ills attributed to religion, such as intolerance, violence, lack of critical thought, etc., are evils born from the lack of empathy and compassion that can be so prevalent among people. Religion is not the cause of this lack, it's the reflection of it. Religion doesn't breed intolerance, it only gives intolerance a focus. The good done by Christian missionaries or the evil done by the KKK is not symptomatic of their religious underpinnings. Those underpinnings only give a framework for the good and evil acts committed. It's the individuals who set the tone of their behavior. A KKK member will be a racist regardless of their religious beliefs, while a missionary helping the poor would still do so as an atheist.

Second, I do believe that literalist belief in religious dogma is a dangerous thing, and a detriment to our society. Hence my continual ranting against Intelligent Design and literalist Biblical morality like prohibitions against homosexuality. As an atheist, I utterly reject the idea that any one word of any religious document is divinely inspired truth. The only moral truth to be gained is that which is crafted by human innovation. After all, humanity crafted religion as surely as any other structure of our societies. Good moral beliefs certainly can rise from religious texts. I would argue that the Bible is chock full of positive codes of conduct and healthy ways to respect others. There was certainly a moral debate taking place when each book of the Bible was written; a debate that informed each concept written down and advocated as the "good" way to act.

Problems arise, however, when that debate ends, which is largely what has happened in the intervening years since Christ's death. The Bible was ideologically "set in stone" for many. Debate over its truthfulness and, more importantly, its relevance to human society has been placed beyond question for many. That sort of moral rigidity is what leads to affronts like gay marriage bans or abstinence pledges. The debate over moral standards as a positive for mankind is left off in favor of a belief in absolute truth. The debate being had 2,000 years ago that led to the plethora of Christian writings, both canon and apocryphal, is no more or less a relevant debate than any being had today. The danger is when the value of Biblical morality, or any religious dogma, is deemed absolute and beyond debate. In that sense, I agree with Harris in that belief in religion as dogma is a bad thing for society.

The over-arching point is that religion by itself is not the cause of the ills Harris claims that it is. Or, rather, it's not the root cause. The shortcomings of human behavior give rise to intolerant religions, just as they give rise to intolerance in all forms. Perhaps, as Harris says, mankind will be better off without religion and will be able to advance society to a more enlightened age. However, if that enlightenment happens, I believe an enlightened change to human society will bring that same kind of change to religion. Changing or eliminating religion is not the answer. Changing human behavior and morality is.

Finally, I confess that it's easy to fall into the trap into which Harris seems to have fallen if one's an atheist. When confronted with day after day of unyielding absolutist dogma and seeing the kind of damage it can do to people, it's very easy to condemn religion in response. I've found myself doing so on many occasions. However, that really is just letting the most reprobate members of our religious communities call the tune to which we're all marching. I believe the better path is plurality; to seek the common ground. I, for example, believe whole-heartedly in Jesus' teachings about how to treat the poor and respect others. Just because I don't believe he was some supernatural figure does not mean I can't find common ground with those who do. A culture war between atheism and religion doesn't serve anyone's good. It only distracts from the larger moral issues which both secular humanism and religious dogma seek to address.

[Note: This post was supposed to be a "Philosophy Friday" entry. However, real life snatched me up in its slavering jaws, shook me vigorously and spat me back out into cyberspace today. Better late than never, I always say... - S. Sam]

1 comment:

Edward Baker said...

An interesting article. I'm not too sure I agree totally with everything you say, I don't think that we should just accept religion as existing.

Admittedly some of the Bible (primarily the New Testament) does encourage good behaviour, but surely this is outweighed by some of the thoroughly outdated punishments in the Old Testament? There are much better ways to learn morality from literature!

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