Jonny Scaramanga (whom I once interviewed) is a former Christian fundamentalist who left behind his faith after having realized that the “education” he had received was nothing more than a brain washing.
First of all, I want to say I really like him and his generally respectful attitude towards people not sharing his current worldview.
So I was somewhat troubled after having read his last blog post.
Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.
I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.
When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.
Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons
That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.
Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.
I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this. One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.
Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.
As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.
So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).
So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.
Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.
The horrors of a fundamentalist universe
To begin my response by something positive, I must say I admire Jonny’s humility and his acceptance of being possibly wrong.
I completely share Jonny’s indignation against Christians despising atheists and homosexuals, and this is what pushed me to write the parable of the “Good Godless Gay” where I used pretty much the same picture he showed towards the top of his post.
I agree that there are many atheists who leave Conservative Evangelical Christianity because they are basically good person and can no longer worship a being who will eternally torture billions of his creatures, for sins he himself bounded to commit, having cursed them with a sinful nature.
So I am sure that a nice and respectful atheist honorably defending his or her intellectual views is far closer to Christ than a nasty fundamentalist defending his “truth” in a heinous way.
Likewise, I entirely sympathize with Jonny viewing a godless universe far more optimistic and joyful than a fundamentalist universe where most humans will be eternally tortured for sins the Almighty Himself doomed them to commit.
In another post, I explained why the cognitive dissonance faced by Conservative Evangelicals is far greater than that hardcore materialists are facing.
What is the “harmfulness” of religion?
Jonny further wrote:
“Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.”
But what is this sentence supposed to mean? That 100% of all religions are harmful and ought to disappear? I’m sure this is certainly not what Jonny thinks about that matter. What he probably means is that the majority (perhaps more than 80%) of religious movements have (by and large) a harmful influence of society and if ALL religious were to be blotted out, the world would be a better place.
But if it WERE true, and social engineering were morally permissible, why should we not just combat the 80% harmful religions and leave the remaining 20% alone?
The only argument of the New Atheists is that tolerating them would inevitably lead to condone heinous fundamentalism. But Jonny himself doesn’t buy this argument:
“Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.”
So it would be great if Jonny and his fellow secularists (I am not employing this word in a negative sense) began to distinguish between the diverse religious movements with respect to their harm and benefits.
Perhaps the world would be better off with NO religion at all, but it would be EVEN better off with only tolerant and progressive religions preaching a compassion grounded in transcendence.
The grounding of morality in a purely material cosmos
The following sentence is particularly interesting.
“I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.”
IF we already know that there are basic moral values such as “maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the greatest number”, I agree we don’t necessarily need religion for achieving this, even though I believe that humanist and humanitarian religions (yes, this is not an oxymoron 🙂 ) can achieve an enormous contribution to this goal.
But why should we believe in the existence of objective moral facts identical to increasing happiness and diminishing suffering?
To paraphrase the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume, how can we derive the moral “ought” from the factual “is” without begging the question?
Of course, theism has also problems regarding the foundation of morality, such as the famous Euthyphron-Dilemma: “is rape bad because the gods disapprove of it, or do they disapprove of it because it is wrong?”.
While it would be foolish for me to try to answer this age-old problem in some sentences, I think that Reductive Materialism (RM) faces an even more formidable challenge. According to RM, everything which exists is identical to a bunch of energetic particles in interaction. But to what clusters of atoms or molecules with a precise location in space and time the moral value “It is always wrong to rape a woman.” can be identified to?
I don’t see how you can do that without completely distorting the meaning of the moral sentence. Thus yes, you don’t need to be a theist to be a good person striving for the Good. But you can run into serious problems if you try to justify this moral goodness in an objectively mindless universe.
Even if they have their own sets of problems, worldviews such as Theism and Platonism provide us with a world where objective morality (moral laws not followed by “if…”) are much more at home than in a thoughtless clump of stuff.
None of my arguments are uncontroversial, of course, but they should lead the New Atheists to a much deeper intellectual humility while criticizing the opinions of their opponents.
Finally, Jonny wrote a fantastic sentence I want to emphasize.
So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists.
Actually, progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote something very similar several years ago: religion can cause violence, injustice and oppression but it DOES not have to.
As a Christian, I certainly believe that a religion grounded on the message of Jesus can only have positive repercussions on society, if you seriously take the thought that every human being is unconditionally loved by a Heavenly Father.
While the Religious Right is utterly obsessed by homosexuality, they completely lose of sight that it was only condemned by very few verses in the Bible, so even by presupposing Biblical inerrancy, their priorities are inexcusable.
Conclusion: upholding a tolerant and open society.
I am well aware that by having written what I did, I am going to infuriate quite a few Conservatives and liberals alike.
Yet my intention is not to provoke a heroic battle of epic proportions, but to push people in both camps to reflect more profoundly about their own assumptions and start realizing that the others are not as crazy as they thought, to paraphrase the title of a great book of progressive Evagelical theologian Randal Rauser.
Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave us also important insights into why and how the culture war is maintained, along with its lovelessness.
It is my true hope we could all (a bit) contribute to build up a society where one’s political opponents are no longer view as loathsome foes but as people we happen to disagree with on various grounds.
I’m infinitely far from being inerrant and know all too well that many of my ideas are worthy of being criticized. But if I can only positively inspire four persons reading that, I would have achieved my goal.