How Should I, a Secular Humanist, Treat Religious Belief? On an Intellectual Level, Does Religious Belief Warrant The Deference to Which it has Become Accustomed?
An issue that occasionally comes to my mind is how I and fellow atheists should conduct themselves when it comes to expressing our lack of confidence in religious beliefs. Recently a good friend of mine, after reading my post on the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of delusion and my views on whether or not religious belief is delusion, accused me of being on par with Pat Robertson or the KKK, saying that I am as intolerant, though in a different way and for different reasons, as they are of people who think differently than them, and am essentially religiously intolerant of religion. While I definitely disagree with this view in many ways, I can also find a meaningful element of truth in it. And having acknowledged the elements of truth, I believe that I need to reconsider my perspective on how I should conduct myself with respect to issues of religion—not necessarily changing how I go about this, but genuinely reconsider how I do things and possibly change depending on the outcome of the analysis. I would greatly appreciate input from others of all perspectives. I believe that this can be a beneficial exercise not just for myself, but also for atheist readers and people of all religious orientations. Because this issue is very important to me and to fellow atheists and will hopefully also offer insight to non-atheists into prominent a set of values and beliefs common among agnostic atheists, I have put great time into this to present a complete, well-organized and concise-as-possible overview. Please continue reading below the fold.
So here’s how I’m going to structure this analysis. I’m going to begin by considering my friend’s accusation, specifying points of agreement and disagreement. In considering the element with which I agree, I will paint in some more details of my relevant personal values and beliefs. Then, I’ll present a list of arguments relevant to the issue under question: how should I behave when it comes to expressing my beliefs on religious beliefs. Finally, I will open the floor to the readers to review my position and provide their own if they so please. After about a week or so I will go over the feedback that I have received and will post on what these new considerations have informed me to decide.
So, first I’m going to discuss the elements of my friends comments that I disagree with. I do not agree that I am on par with persons like the KKK and Pat Robertson. First of all, I don’t go saying ridiculous things like that hurricanes were caused by people that I morally disagree with. Secondly, in ways that their beliefs are fixed, mine can be changed. For instance, given a compelling case for the existence of God I would have to reconsider my position. It would take strong evidence, but hey, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. On smaller scales I have already subjected my beliefs to modification. For over half a year Sam Harris was my single favourite Atheist writer and speaker—while my friend had the entire time and up to the present viewed him as a biased hate and fear monger who deliberately presents a naively incomplete picture of Islam and Middle Eastern Islamic cultures so as to create an impression that suggests that religious belief is a potent instigator of terrorism. Between my friend continuing to argue this position and seeing Scott Atran—an esteemed cognitive and social scientist who studies the Psychology and Sociology of Middle Eastern suicide terrorism, and who is also an atheist with similar hopes to myself and Harris regarding secularism and peace—vigorously argue a position that had a fair bit in common with my friend’s, I have come to move in the direction of agnosticism with respect to Harris, pending further research. While I still appreciate much of what Harris has done, I need to learn more about the position of Atran and my friend before making a broad assessment of Harris’ message regarding Islam. Note to readers: As part of my effort to become more educated I have begun reviewing work by Scott Atran and will be presenting reviews here over the coming weeks. Briefly, Atran’s view is that the Islamic faith has little to do with motivating anti-Westernism and suicide terrorism; rather, the dominant underlying factor is a sense of moral outrage and injustice toward the West—particularly the US. Anyhow, the point I’m making here is that I’ve been willing to reconsider a perspective that I held fairly strongly, just as I am doing now with the issue at hand.
The last point of disparity between zealots like Pat Robertson and organizations like the KKK that I will consider is that it would never ever occur to me to want to beat, kill, or get rid of those that I disagree with—I don’t know if Robertson has ever supported these sorts of measures, but it definitely wouldn’t be unprecedented in the history of Christianity, and does still happen now and again in the US.
There is, however, one part of my friend’s accusation that I could see myself in. It’s probably fair to say that I am a rationalist fundamentalist. I habitually demand good evidence for people’s beliefs, whether the issue is religious or not. I am intolerant of unreason. In most cases in which a person does not support their belief adequately in my eyes, I will bring this up and if they cannot provide a sound rational basis for their belief but insist on keeping it, I will generally make an explicit statement that I’ll respect their freedom to hold their belief, but they are being irrational in their analysis of the evidence, or lack thereof.
Since I became a rationalist fundamentalist I generally haven’t seen much problem with it. I guess I’ve generally just tended to feel that people should have beliefs in line with evidence and if they’re not going to do that—and I believe that they have every right not to if it’s their preference—then I shouldn’t be condemned for pointing it out. But really, for me, the big issue is not so much an individual’s unreason, but the social and political consequences of unreason en masse. And in my view and that of many many others—my friend included—some prominent religious communities have become a major impediment to free society, free thinking, education, research, and mutual understanding. If it weren’t for all of this—if we truly lived in a secular society in which religious belief had no significant impact on society—I would never have joined a secularist organization or have started a blog in which at least half of my content is going to connect in one way or another to religion and/or secularism. My participation in this sort of thing would presumably be limited to occasional basement and coffee shop chats.
So how should I conduct myself? While, as I’ve said, I do acknowledge the right of others to believe things on what I see as insufficient evidence, I also acknowledge my own right to point out the rational insufficiencies and to not just bend over backwards to pressure to give religious claims about reality some sort of special protection that people rarely demand for secular claims. I also reserve the right to view this form of systemic irrationality as a character flaw, just as I would view it as a character flaw if someone staunchly committed themselves to some other belief despite their inability to demonstrate a rational basis for it. However, looking at the big picture, is it in my best interests—considering the type of life I want to lead and the type of world that I want to help shape—to exhibit this freedom to openly critique religious belief and point out irrationality when it is emitted? To address these questions, I need to consider some of the things that I value. Three things that I care about a great deal are secularism, fairness and getting along with people.
Consider first secularism. I would like to live in a world in which policy was determined in a secular fashion by people who considered the issues openly, honestly and rationally with a genuine interest in the well-being of others. To have this in a complete sense is very unlikely, because many religious people are going to be influenced in their voting and political activity by their religious convictions. So this truth is itself an argument for being a vocal atheist—not being deliberately offensive about it, but not holding one’s tongue either. One cannot engage in the war of ideas with their mouths closed, and one should not be forced to forfeit simply because they’re a minority that has a hard time not hurting the feelings of the faithful majority. I’ll also briefly mention that I’m fully aware that it’s not like it’s going to be easy to determine policy in a secular fashion. It will almost certainly always be impossible to create policy that is perceived as rational and fair from every perspective. However, I assert that claiming that some God said that X is good or bad is hardly a respectable way out of a moral dilemma.
Secondly, I want a society that is fair with respect to ideas and beliefs. If most humans feel little reason for restraint in criticizing the beliefs of members of new cults, and feel no reason to restrain themselves from criticizing other sorts of beliefs for which a person has provided insufficient evidence, why should I feel obligated to give religious beliefs free rides on the rationality express? Why do religious beliefs deserve special treatment among the entire range of ideas that people could consider?
Perhaps the answer to the last question, according to people that believe religious beliefs do deserve special treatment, is that these beliefs are important to them. Clearly religious beliefs are important to people, and are far more to believers than a set of declarative statements about how we got here and morality. It’s a frame through which believers understand life and the world: what is important, what is meaningful, what is the point of persevering through life’s ups and downs; it is a social binding force which brings communities together (and also divides them, but that’s another issue); it can be for some an assurance of justice, a source of strength and support, and something that one can always count on no matter what. Clearly, organized religion is no trifling matter that can be reduced to a simple set of true or false statements. For these reasons, perhaps religious beliefs, while not deserving special ascent in terms of reason and evidence, do deserve some sort of special considerations. I will address this possibility from the negative perspective here, and will come back to it again later.
When it comes to the argument that religion deserves special treatment because it is very important to people, one should ask what types of policies humans enact in secular domains of personal importance. In science, when a theory or model is refuted, does anyone feel any imperative to continue to respect the supplanted idea as being justified? Does anyone in the scientific community say anything like “Well, Dr. Smith worked really hard on that theory; he has built the better part of his career around it; I’ve talked to the man, this theory is his pride and joy, his greatest accomplishment, the shining star of his life! I really think that we should keep our disagreements largely to ourselves and avoid debating him with the same rigor that we do the rest of our work.” Would a statement of this sort be uttered in any domain of discussion other than religion? When university residence floormates are having a 2AM bull session in which they’re debating the existence of free will or other minds and they discover that one person is very tied to beliefs that he cannot successfully back up, do the others feel a deep-seated obligation to back off and “respect” this person’s belief? If the following month one of the other discussants remarks that the belief-committed friend had not provided a good case for his belief, has the instigator committed some palpably awkward faux pas? Does he risk being viewed negatively as a rationalist fundamentalist? Clearly the argument from personal importance doesn’t seem to be cutting much mustard here.
Okay, well how about the argument that religious belief is not necessarily about having a traditionally rational belief, but having a different type of rational belief in which personal experience carries a lot of legitimate weight. So, for instance, despite all the arguments against theism, if a person reads this or that religious text and they find that this text resonates with them in a way that nothing else has—nothing has ever made so much sense to them, nothing has tied things together for them in a meaningful way so well, nothing has generated feelings of genuine warmth and completedness in them—do we give this compelling personal narrative equal weight to all the dispassionate rational argumentation against theism? While I can accord some significant sympathy with regard to the power of personal experience, ultimately I cannot personally justify giving special privileges to beliefs simply because they are deeply meaningful to the believer. Lets consider a somewhat parallel incident I encountered a few years ago. At the age of about 22 a friend of mine after reading some work by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre became, for some time, a pretty strong existentialist. So much so that he began to hold beliefs that were patently indefensible. For example, taking faith in the ability of an individual to its extreme, my friend repeatedly argued that a person could literally do ANYTHING they wanted to if they truly believed in themselves and worked hard enough. In order to press this issue, I asked him if he thought a 25 year old with a body completely ill-suited for cycling and who has never engaged in serious athletic training could eventually come to surpass the achievements of elite cyclist Lance Armstrong. He said “yes”. Even after drawing this example out, pointing out that Armstrong started training at a much younger age, has a better natural body for the sport, and that the hypothetical person was only a few years away from the end of his prime years, my friend persisted. I said, okay, what if this person does go gung-ho in pursuing this goal. He dedicates his entire life to it—his training, diet, everything are tailored to his goals and six days a week he beats the hell out of his body, taking himself to the very brink between training hard and risking injury. If he never makes it, despite his belief and undeniable hard work, what does this mean for your philosophy? His responses were reliably that he didn’t try hard enough or believe strongly enough. It was clear that his beliefs, in addition to being irrational—after all, I doubt Lance Armstrong works harder than every other world class cyclist, yet not everyone can be number one—were wholly unfalsifiable—and this allowed for their preservation despite irrationality. Indeed, in a desperate effort to get my friend to admit some limitation to his views, I asked him about the prospects of a paraplegic being able to jump to the moon. We literally had the same conversation. Now, how many readers feel that I crossed some sort of sacred line, or some sort of boundary of civility, for pressing my friend on this? His beliefs were inspired by reading a set of books that resonated with him very deeply, they came to have paramount importance in his life, and the beliefs had strong pertinence to his entire perspective on life and possibilities. So was I a jerk or otherwise morally questionable for having simply heard out his ideas and said, okay, I think I understand what you’re saying and I don’t agree or think it’s rational, here’s why? The reason I ask If I’m morally questionable is that in talking with my other friend on the phone—the one that was very perturbed by my APA article—he initially said that he’s not sure if I’m a good person, though it seems that he may have lightened this stance, but I’m not totally sure. Anyhow, I don’t see this example or any other for that matter as justifying that ideas that people get from books that resonate deeply with them deserve special protection.
Okay, maybe I should just accept that the world is not a fair place and I should accept some unfairness with regard to belief toleration. Rather than advocating for what Sam Harris calls conversational intolerance, which is an unwillingness to simply dignify the beliefs of others just because they believe them rather than asking for rational justification, I should yield to the double standard. There are arguments for doing so. Firstly, in addition to valuing secularism and fairness with respect to the treatment of ideas and beliefs, I also value having a day-to-day life in which I’m not regularly experiencing the type of social tension that can be created by conversational intolerance in most cultures. Moreover, I value having a society in which people can get along with each other. Challenging people’s deeply held beliefs seems to interfere with this a lot of the time. These are reasons for being more reserved in questioning the beliefs of others; not discontinuing conversational intolerance altogether, but avoiding it when possible and generally letting references to God pass as one would give such tacit ascent to more valid arguments. These are argue for not talking much about religion but rallying against threats to secularism—that is, working with moderates to oppose politically-motivated fundamentalists, and addressing not religious belief as a whole but particular issues (e.g., abortion, stem cell research).
Lets consider the arguments just offered for a more subtle atheism. What does such subtlety boil down to? To me, it boils down to submission out of fear of social rejection. The sorts of arguments I listed for according religious beliefs a privileged status were the type of arguments you make for a group that has a broad base of political power but does not have a valid argument. These arguments boil down to subordinating considerations of equality, intellectual honestly, and intellectual fairness to democratic bullying. That’s right. Democratic bullying. The equivalent of saying that what is right is what most of the people believe, even if they can’t defend their arguments rationally, but must invoke pleas for special consideration that none of us would accord for any other subject matter.
I’m arguing here that the most important reason nontheists and less committed religious people feel a sense of duty to respect religious beliefs is because of the sheer number and political power of religious people. I mean, honestly speaking, if there were only 100 Christians in the entire world, would we really feel any obligation to not acknowledge the absurdity of the story of Jesus? Would we feel obligated to not chuckle when we read that there are people out there that believe that this guy a few thousand years ago was born of a virgin, is the son of and the material incarnation of the one and only God, and died for the sins of man and then days later came back to life and ascended to heaven? And that the only evidence for this is the original religious text itself? And that in the original text Jesus can be found claiming that it is virtuous to have faith in him in the absence of evidence for him? Would it really be as integral to dignify these beliefs if they were only held by 100 people? Now, one may be inclined to believe that they still would, given the aforementioned deep personal importance of these beliefs for many people and communities. While one should consider this in their pondering, one should also consider cults. I mean, here’s a group that we treat with the greatest compassion and sensitivity, right? The very fact that we call them cults–-a term that has universally negative connotations such as “crazy”, “naive” and “stupid”—and not religions shows that not just any set of metaphysical speculation will do. And is a cult necessarily meaningfully different from a religion? In Sociology the term “cult” is interchangeable with “new religious movement”. While some cults may be more dangerous than most religious groups most of the time—though there surely are exceptions—is there reason to believe that the major religions are really anything more than highly successfully propogated cults? If I’m off base here, please tell me.
So I’ll wrap it up here. From this analysis here’s what I’m gathering. I have at least three major priorities: secularism, fairness in the treatment of ideas, and being able to get along with people. I’m going to add a forth: compassion. As much as I criticize religion, I am not a compassionless person. Now how to balance these priorities.
It would seem to me to be patently unfair to treat religious beliefs differently than any other. A number of atheist speakers have asserted that those beliefs that we call religious are those that people believe despite not having demonstrable, good evidence for. If there were good evidence for them they would not be religious beliefs, they’d simply be a part of our rational worldview. Getting back to the point, I don’t see the fairness in giving religious beliefs a special priority just because a large number of people care about them a lot. What happens if we spread this compassion to other belief groups that have failed to meet the hefty burdens of evidence warranted by their claims? What happens if we show the same compassionate quietness to homeopaths, astrologers, “faith healers”, “psychics”, Scientologists, people who believe in the existence of sasquatch (Note: the Discovery Intitute recently welcomed a new Senior Fellow, Michael Medved, who just happens to have this belief and actively searches for evidence), and so on? What kind of world would we be living in if we as a society deemed it socially inappropriate to publicly challenge the validity of any belief that a person has and claims to have a deep emotional investment in?
It seems to me that a big part of my decision hinges on whether or not I’m willing to be a martyr. Am I willing to stand up for the principles of honest, fair and equitable evaluation of ideas, religious or not, even if it results in some social rejection from a majority which doesn’t like to have its beliefs reviewed without special allowances made?
So, this is where I’m currently standing. I strongly encourage any and all feedback. Positive, negative, insulting, supporting, whatever. If I’ve made an oversight, I want to hear about it. Thanks for reading!