Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Problem with Faith

[Second in a series]


I want to thank you for the honor of co-posting on your blog. I've enjoyed your blog insights for some time now (and your postings on comp.lang.lisp prior to the blog), and have had fun playing devil's advocate in comments here in the past. I'm glad you suggested this series, and I'll do my best to keep up my end of the debate. I beg your readers' indulgence as I attempt to hone my writing craft for these posts while you all watch.

That said, let's get to it!

First of all, I want to state for the record that you and I most likely agree on the vast bulk of important points on this topic. We're both self-admitted atheists. We both have a rational, scientific approach to the world. From your earlier posts, I've come to appreciate your perspective on religion. You have claimed that religion (or, more generally, mythology) offers some important benefits to some people, which I can't deny. And you have offered me a brilliant analogy, that deprogramming people from religion has a lot in common with getting addicts off drugs. (For example, just shouting at them is unlikely to be an effective detox methodology in either case.)

But there are still (or may be) differences of opinion here, and I'll do my best to highlight them. You say that I'm a proponent of "hard atheism". I am indeed a fan of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. But you have criticized them as not being "effective" at converting the religious, and I don't necessarily disagree. Ironically, I may be one of the few people in the tiny population of readers for which the books have made a valuable difference. Since college, I've been a "secret" atheist, sure of my own beliefs, happy to express them in a private, trusting, environment, but very wary of going public with something that is viewed as abhorrent by a large majority of the U.S. (or world!) population. But after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I became convinced that my silence was cowardly, and I shouldn't be intimidated by the torrent of voices that disagree and disapprove of me.

You suggest that I agree that

religion, because it makes objectively false claims about the world, is an unalloyed evil

That's probably too strong, for my personal opinion. Yes, I agree that religion makes objectively false claims about the world. This is critically important to me, and seems to be much less so to you. I also think that many religions are, on balance, "evil" (with full awareness that morality is also a complex topic, with deep connections to religion). But I would say that these two points are orthogonal. Religion is not evil because it makes false claims. Homer's Odyssey also makes false claims about the world, but an entertaining fictional novel is not "evil".

But there is plenty done in the name of religion (e.g., Inquisitions, Crusades, and flying airplanes into skyscrapers) that I think is not just a coincidence. I don't accept the claim (by analogy) that every large group of people has some sociopaths, so if you find a serial killer within a chess club, you shouldn't blame chess. Religion isn't like chess. The need for religion to require faith (which is "truth" not supported by empirical observation), to take over culture and impose an us-vs-them view of the world, and to elevate its status as more important than anything else in the world (generally because of an everlasting afterlife) ... these are the kinds of things I think lead directly to the anti-social behavior of cruel and evil warfare against other humans. (Of course, there are many other reasons for warfare, but religion is a big one.)

You suggest that religion in general is not a problem, but only particular religions. And you rightly point out Buddhism as an example of a religion which doesn't seem to result in evils of most other religions.

I agree. Buddhism is a nice exception. But I think you can't ignore the historical evidence, that there have been thousands of religions in history, and the vast, vast majority of them have provided ready excuses for insiders to do great harm to outsiders. Religion is usually a tool for cultural supremacy, and the fact that there have been occasional outliers doesn't excuse the threads in common amongst the vast majority.

You conclude by asking what I want. I guess it would be: greater respect for rationality and empirical science, and less respect for faith, as a trusted means for understanding the world. You have in the past suggested to me many (real) benefits of religious belief, and kind of let pass the objective truth of the religious claims. I'm not willing to separate those so cleanly. To me, the problem is that the religious benefits only accrue to those that really believe, on faith, the (objectively false) claims about the universe. It may be that the believers are happy, and it may not bother you that the price of that happiness is believing in false things. But it would bother the believers themselves, if they actually thought that their religion was making a large series of false claims. I think the claimed benefits of (almost all) religions go hand-in-hand with beliefs based on faith. I want to break beliefs based on faith, and it seems to me that generally implies that religion needs to break also.

To get concrete about my ideal goals, let me quote P.Z. Myers, the prolific blogger behind Pharyngula who is even more of a "hard atheist" than I am. At the end of a post in March 2008, Myers gave what I thought was an eloquent description of a beautiful future world:

What I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It's a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It's not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don't elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works.

No comments: