Friday, May 11, 2007

The Atheist Dilemma

And What It Means for Religious People

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).

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  • I can't be bothered with most of the anti-religious books being published. They always seem to start out with the belief that religion is 'irrational' while atheism is 'rational'. Seemingly, until the emergence of Christopher Hitchens, or whoever, mankind was unable to connect the dots and 'rationally' arrive at atheism.

    In fact, most of the professed atheists that I have known were God Cussers: "I don't believe in the dude. He never done me any good." (as a fellow I worked with once said to me)

    The only worthwhile criticism of religion that I've come across lately is "Religion and the Human Prospect" by Alexander Saxton.

    Saxton is a Marxist. He believes in materialism, not scientism. He starts from the supposition that religion has served to advance human survival. As such it has served as an entirely rational and historically justified institution.

    Then, he asks the big question: What purpose, if any, does it serve in the world today?

    I haven't finished the book, and it hasn't really had much of an effect on my beliefs. ("I believe. Help my unbelief.") At least he presents an argument with some substance. I'm sorry, but the "rationalism" crowd remind of High School nerds who worship Ayn Rand and Mr Spock.

    By Blogger Jon, at 11:05 PM  

  • It seems to me that those who attack religion as being "irrational", as opposed to the rationality of science, are just missing the point. Religion is not, or at least should not be, in the business of trying to explain the natural phenomena that science concerns itself with. The two operate in different arenas. I blame some of this, however, on fundamentalists, who also suffer from the same delusion, for example when they think that the Bible is providing literal scientific explanations for the origin of life.

    There is a lot of hostility against religion these days--Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Sweeney--and almost all of this hostility seems to be based on the same basic faulty premise about the supposedly universal characteristics of religious belief.

    By Blogger Mystical Seeker, at 9:30 AM  


    Hmmm, I've read all of those listed above, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Sweeny and found all of them, in their own way, a breath of fresh air. I don't know about the other commentators here, but I was raised without a religious faith. I think that makes a difference in the reaction to these books. My entire life, I've felt like I was not really welcome or expected to join in with discussions about religion with religious people because having none, I obviously cannot be expected to have an opinion about it, right? Up until a few years ago, I really used to try to be very tolerant of other peoples religions. These books have given me the right to feel like I am finally allowed to examine religion critically and to say outloud many of the things that I've often thought. And yes, some of it is hostile. With good reason.

    I think religion and science are in the same arena. In fact, I used to argue in college that science, in a way, was a religion because it too was presupposed on a belief system, and without it the foundation would collapse. Mainly I just said this to make my boyfriend mad, the I thought the concept was true . . . science is based on a certain way of looking at the world that you have to "buy into" for it to work.

    However, these books have proven to me that science, although prone to mistakes, everchanging and still a long way from answering all of our questions, is the best choice humans have to understanding why we are here. Religion is about explaining why the world works as it does and what happens to us after we die. It was what we told ourselves BEFORE we had science. Now that science continues to fill gaps, nearing ever closer to prickly areas that religion fills, religion seems ever increasingly irrational to me.

    These books are all angry, it's true. But I think I know where the anger comes from in some of these books . . . it's a natural reaction to feeling like you are surrounded by crazy people. The drapes that always shrouded religion were parted for me early, but I dared not peek too closely because it was never felt like something that belonged to me. For me, these books fully drew the shades back and now I feel surrounded by a world of otherwise very rational, often very intelligent human beings, who are just in one area of their life, totally crazy.

    As any good game of "Civilization" shows, religion in the past did help us enormously to get us where we are today, as far as cultural groups, organized societies, etc. But now, it truly has outlived it's usefulness . . . the amount of bloodshed it contributes to the world, the amount and varieties of types of guilt it piles on believers, and the amount of human progress it seeks to halt is not made up for by any comforts it may bring. Humans have changed and changed again the tenets of their religions to match as best they can modern times, but the fit is never quite there. We are trying to retrofit ancient beliefs that were created in a world before germs and viruses were known of and trying to make them fit the world we have today. Moral codes have also been adjusted throughout history because we suddenly realized that stoning children for being disrespectful to their parents just didn't fly anymore. It's ridiculous to live life on such old and self-contradictory beliefs and I mourn for all the people who lived and died to perpetutate them.

    We already live in an amazing world, which brings about daily miracles, wonder, hope, love and forgiveness. As Penn Jillette says, "If I asked for anything more, that would just be greedy."

    By Blogger MIP Christie, at 5:49 PM  

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