The Atheist Dilemma
Science is predicated on the assumption that belief is unwarranted without evidence and reason to back it up. But religion is based on the opposite: that belief in the absence of evidence is a virtue and that "the more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are."
("Among the Disbelievers", The Nation)
Continuing the discussion started earlier, anti-religion is going on the offensive. Columnist Daniel Lazare in The Nation writes about the difficulty of defining oneself negatively - that is, as a negation of something else. Once the vile thing has been negated, what remains? The column does a good job of exploring the difficulties.
But what interests me more is the idea behind the portion quoted above. Certainly, some people would like to define science as entirely rational and requiring no unsubstantiated beliefs (although I wonder if most professional scientists wouldn't so readily agree). And some people would like to define religion as entirely irrational beliefs that have no (in fact, stoutly refuse any) experiential substantiation. But that just doesn't make sense to me.
Admittedly, my "science" and "religion" are really close and overlap a great deal. But still, it seems like most reasonable people (theist, atheist, naturalist, polytheist, pantheist, panentheist alike) can see religion as more than merely unsubstantiated belief. (Surely some reader will quote Hebrews 11: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Yeah-yeah, don't get me started. That one scripture has, in my opinion, entirely swayed the Biblical notion of faith more than it deserves. But that's another post.)
Defining religion (or faith) as belief in unsubstantiated (or unsubstantiable) things plays to two types of rhetoric. One, the anti-religionist who wants to scorn religious-types for their foolishness. Two, the authoritarian religionist who wants to control the thoughts, feelings and loyalties of his or her followers. I don't want to be either one of these kinds of people (although there are times when both are tempting).
Religion is part of a culture that shapes and forms individuals. Henry Nelson Wieman, an early-20th-century philosopher, described religion thusly. Humans have an amazing potential for transformation - we can become things and people we never thought possible. Sometimes people are transformed into tremendously bad people (e.g. Hitler, Jeff Lundgren). Sometimes people are transformed into powerfully good people (Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa). Religion is a mechanism to cultivate among people an orientation to that which will transform them into better people.
Sometimes, believing people can be better is crazy - and frankly defies so much evidence to the contrary (e.g. Holocaust, Collectivization, African genocide, endless war). But religion turns our hearts and minds, our hopes and dedication, to the idea that people can be better - we can be better, the world can be better. That requires some amount of "belief in things unseen," but isn't entirely without evidence. And sometimes, we have to candidly admit, it doesn't seem reasonable. But that's our task as Christians - to see the world as capable and in need of radical transformation into something better, starting with individuals, namely you, me and our relationship with our enemy.
(I'll also note that violence and warfare also act without evidence - since the whole history of the human race is one of recurring violence under the rhetoric of necessity. But, again, that's another post.)
Yes, religion does require some sense of confidence and hope that isn't necessarily substantiated by our previous experience. But then again, most all of us have experiences of transformation and love, and it doesn't take much imagination to extend those experiences beyond our own bodies, neighborhoods or lifetimes. This kind of extrapolation isn't necessarily irrational. Nor does it praise ignorance of the facts or our best reasoning. Religion of this kind embraces the best that we as humans know, incorporating the best of what we know (contingently, as science does) into our perennial hopes and visions of a better world, articulated by some as the Will of a All-Loving God.
(Religion, like all mechanisms of organization, of course serves other purposes - and has all too often in the past and present served the destructive transformation of people and nations. We have to face that reality, too, and be on guard, lest our religion and faith be corrupted into destruction rather than life-giving energy.)
I guess, all I'm saying is that the reasoning behind the quotation above just doesn't fly with me. It doesn't accurately or helpfully describe either religion or science, and doesn't get us any closer to being better people. The dilemma of the atheist, in this case, is also one for the theist; the dilemma of the anti-religious is also that of the religious. When we define or identify ourselves merely negatively, we are an empty shell dangerously vulnerable to being filled with whatever comes along. We should form our faiths based on our ultimate commitments, informed and shaped by the best that we know (at the time).