-Approved by bobjr
The last thread on religion didn't have as good of a start as it could have, and also seems to have largely run its course. With that said, I'm going to try and take a crack at breathing some new life into the debate. I'm going to be writing from the perspective of anti-theism, which is the proposition that belief in God(s) is harmful to society, in contrast to just atheism which is the belief that no such beings exist. I also consider myself anti-religion, anti-superstition, and anti-pseudo science, but to include all of those would make this debate a bit too broad. So, forgive me in advance if you catch me using the term anti-theism interchangeably with those things. I hope to avoid debate centering around whether or not God exists, because I believe that most of us, theists included, understand that there is no evidence for such beings and that it is purely a matter of personal belief. If you're dead set on arguing over the existence aspect and believe you have evidence that deities do in fact exist, I encourage you to make your own thread. I intend for this debate to be focused on two questions.
- Is religious belief good for humanity?
- Is religion compatible with science?
Before I tackle the first question, the second question within the secular community is referred to as The Great Accommodationist Debate. It is one of the biggest, and perhaps even the biggest debate going on within the secular community.
The most succinct and useful description of accomodationism I found is on RationalWiki's website.
Atheist accommodationists maintain that those who have religious or magical ideas which are closer to scientific reality should not be subject to the same level of rational criticism as that which is leveled at believers in creationism and others who utterly reject scientific evidence. Accomodationists will usually favour discussion, engagement, and pragmatic unity with religious groups who appear to condemn or combat extremism, even if doing so requires the pragmatic suspension of criticism towards those groups for their faith-based beliefs. Most accommodationists do not actively promote religion though, a few like, Chris Stedman, do.
Accomodationists argue that an individual's religious belief or lack thereof is irrelevant, unless that belief becomes disruptive to others. Individuals like Karen Armstrong who believe that God is wholly transcendent are generally regarded as harmless or potential allies, since their theology largely renders God irrelevant anyways. Accommodationists may find common ground with others who are less critical of atheism than Karen Armstrong. By contrast those whose beliefs are actively disruptive pose a much greater threat.If you've read any of my posts here, you're probably aware that in contrast to accomodationists, I'd be considered an exclusivist. I believe that all efforts to reconcile science and religion are futile. I think this because all attempts to reconcile religion and science have failed.The position of the atheist accommodationists can be contrasted with that of some of the New Atheists who maintain that all faith-based ideas are counter to scientific thought and should be criticized. Well-known New Atheists include Richard Dawkins and Paul Zachary Myers.
Neil Degrasse Tyson explains this eloquently in his interview with Moyers & Company
However, it's not just this fact that makes me firmly of the opinion that science and religion are not reconcilable. I believe that they are conceptually at odds with one another. Let's say that you interpret Genesis as allegory, for example, to make the bible compatible with evolution and an old universe. Fact of the matter is, you still aren't out of the woods yet. You still are left with the remaining claims that a supernatural creator(s) fashioned the universe and all of existence. This is something that I've observed that all religions share in common. The details can very obviously, like the espoused capabilities or personalities of the supernatural entities in question. Whether they're all powerful, benevolent, capricious, war like, mischievous, narcissistic, what have you. The fundamentals that always stay the same are that A) supernatural entities exist and B) They are responsible in whole or in part for creation as we know it. To make these claims is inherently dishonest. To do so is to say that you have knowledge that you do not have. The only way to circumvent this, as far as I'm aware, is to make the definition of religion so nebulous that it rejects claims of the supernatural. It's my hope that we can agree on this very basic definition, otherwise I have the hunch we're going to be here for a very long time. With that said, I maintain that science and religion are irreconcilable because science works in the exact opposite way. The scientific method has honesty and skepticism built into it. It does not make assertions without rigorously testing them and subjecting them to scrutiny. In essence, it's the complete antithesis to religion.
The middle ground to reconciling religion and science is called non overlapping magisteria, (NOMA) which was first coined by famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould. It states that science and religion are two completely separate schools of thought and are valid within their own domains, though they cannot intersect. In other words, all it really says is "We leave you alone, you leave us alone. Nobody steps on eachothers toes and everyone's happy."
Clearly, just because it occupies the goldy locks "middle ground" doesn't mean it's true, and many non believers have criticized NOMA saying that that science and religion are not non overlapping magisteria, but rather irreconcilable magisteria, which I hoped to have done justice explaining above.
Steering away from the subject of religions compatibility with science for a moment, we're still left with the question of whether or not religion is good for humanity. Personally, and some may see this as bold, but I am more convinced of anti-theism than I am of my atheism. Meaning that, even if supernatural orchestrators of creation exist, it would be unfavorable if it were true and that belief in them, regardless of whether they exist, is harmful. Now, why would I say that the existence of supernatural beings that had a hand in creating the universe, and by extension us, is an awful thing? For one, I think this robs us of crucial aspects of our humanity, especially in regards to morality and purpose. If we humans only have morality, or a reason for existence, through the agency of a supernatural being then it follows that you're a tool fashioned for someone else's amusement. Meaning and self determination are, I believe, utterly cheapened if the prerequisite for having them is through the permission of someone else. Empathy, compassion, mercy, the longing for justice and love for your fellow man come from within you. Not any invisible, disembodied intelligence. In addition, since meaning is a completely human construct, you have the power to give yourself whatever meaning that you want. Your meaning in life could be to spend all your years making the world a better place for abused animals, becoming the ultimate pokemon master, or being batman. Really! It's all you baby. To claim that purpose and meaning come through the agency of a supernatural being is an intrinsically authoritarian thing to believe, and as a logical consequence of that, harmful as well.
Assuming these beings do in fact exist, they would also have a lot to answer for. If you've taken a good look at the world lately, you'll notice a lot of things seem horribly, horribly wrong. War, genocide, slavery, widespread destruction of the environment, natural disasters, disease, famine, etc. These beings would have to be held morally accountable for either knowingly creating a world with so much misery, injustice, and pain or doing nothing about it.
Stephen Fry has a beautiful way of explaining this perspective in his interview with Gary Byrne:
Now ofcourse, I disagree with his kinder view point on Greek Gods. The existence of capricious Gods would be an awful reality, regardless of whether they were honest about their personality problems.
I also hold religion, as a construct, to be inherently linked with oppression. Since all religions at their core center around unsubstantiated truth claims, as an institution it cannot survive on its own merits. Religion props itself up by appealing to (Or, if you ask me, exploiting) peoples ignorance, fear of the unknown, and fear of death. (Which I guess in a sense, that could be redundant with fear of the unknown.) Once it runs out of options, it has no choice but to then turn to oppressive tactics in order to survive. It is this aspect that makes me vehemently disagree with those who claim anti-theism has the same potential for violence and bigotry that theism does. You will often here religious apologists cite the millions of deaths of religious people to Stalin and Mao's anti-theism, or more recently the shootings of three Muslim teenagers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by an anti-theist. Though I'm inclined to reject both examples, I believe Stalin's persecution of religious people had less to do with his anti-theism and more to do with the fact he wanted to consolidate power, i.e. he let thousands of churches re-open once they were willing to tuck their tail between their legs and get with the program. In the case of the shootings, we'll never know for sure whether it was his outspoken views against religion or Islamaphobia motivated him to pull the trigger. The only information we know for sure is that the dispute was over a parking space. You can read more about the incident here:
Anyways, assuming I grant the point and accept that both atrocities were motivated in full by radical anti-theism, drawing a moral equivalency between anti-theistic inspired violence and religiously inspired violence is dubious because anti-theism simply does not rely on oppression in the same that religion does. If I, you, or anyone harbor a distaste or dislike of religion and wish it to go away, or at least be pushed into irrelevancy and obscurity, we don't need to use oppressive tactics. The only thing we require is comprehensive education. We know that influence and pervasiveness of religion can be nerfed because there are real world examples that we can point to, like the UK and Sweden who have majority non religious populations, and even the U.S. where the fastest growing religious demographic are in fact, atheists. If we required philosophy and critical thinking skills to be mandatory subject matter in our schools, if we taught religion from an anthropological perspective, that being a long side every other religion, up to and including the religion that was created centered around U.S. planes that crashed in the South Pacific (I'm not kidding! http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/cargocult.htm) we could reasonably assume that others, over time, would naturally come to the conclusion that religion is a man made farce.
There also seems to be this trend going on lately that I am fiercely at odds with not just from the religiously minded, but my fellow non-believers for espousing. There is this tendency to reduce unspeakable acts of violence that are motivated by religious dogma to fundamentalists, or just "bad actors" who misuse their religion. I despise this for a number of reasons. Firstly, by taking this route you make religion completely immune from any and all criticism. This mantra that "Religion isn't the problem, people are." is a worthless platitude. For example, would we say that dictatorships are not the problem, because the lust for power is the real problem? Would we say that the sexual slave trade is not the problem, but that exploitation and misogyny are the real problems? That the unlimited amount of money that's allowed to be poured into U.S. elections is not the problem, but that selfishness and greed are the real problems? I would hope not. Ofcourse people are the problem! That's not the point. The point is that we combat how human avarice manifests itself in the real, everyday world. I'm frustrated when it seems like, when any religiously motivated attack or atrocity occurs, there are those who will explain the incident through every factor that they can, except religion. Don't get me wrong, I understand that the world is a multi-faceted and complicated place and it's critically important that we don't forget nuance in our approach to explaining conflict. I understand the frustration of others when over zealous anti-theists over simplify events like 9/11 as being strictly the work of religion, or say that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is strictly the work of religion. However, it's infuriating when others insist religion is not a factor at all. Surely, we can find some balance between "Religion causes all of the worlds problems" and "Religion is never responsible for any of the worlds problems." One prime example I would like to point to here are the attacks that took place in Paris, France. When Islamic terrorists killed twelve people at Charlie Hebdo, my facebook was a flutter with people rushing to say that the attacks had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with resources and power. The argument sort of goes sort of like this: Muslims in the Middle East are still kind of sore that they lost their empire at the hands of Western powers in WW1, so they believe that embracing a literal interpretation of the Koran is their golden ticket back to the glorious caliphate of ages past. The problem is that we do a disservice to understanding why an atrocity occurs, if every single time, we treat patently stated religious motivations as a euphemism for something else. The attackers in Paris shouted "Allah Akbar" and "The prophet is avenged", not "Down with Western expansionism" or "We want our caliphate back, please." I simply don't understand why, when people explicitly state their motivations for committing a heinous act were religiously inspired, it's become popular to not even do the courtesy of believing them.
One common response I encounter too often is that religion is "simply interpretation." From my angle, this appears like an attempt to give religion a jail out of free card. It's my view that some passages in various religious texts are meant to be taken literally, and some are meant to be taken as allegory. It doesn't make any sense to me that you'd interpret say, the bible, 100% literally or 100% figuratively. Deciding how to interpret any religious text takes time and study. In fact, the process used to most closely identify what scriptures in the bible for example mean is called biblical criticism.
So why go through all the trouble learning things like say, ancient Hebrew and complex reconstruction techniques if all interpretations are equally valid? It just doesn't make any sense.
I simply cannot accept that one can weasel their way out of every single contradiction, immoral injunction, or factual innaccuracy with a little creative (Or, in my view, blatantly foolish) interpretation. How many bible scholars are there that will tell you "Thou shalt not kill" for example, is allegory? What about when Jesus states that those who don't love him more than their own family are not worthy of him? I'm not intending to go out of my way to be narrow or myopic in my approach here, but this is simply a matter of being honest. The fact of the matter is, there are passages in which there are no other alternative interpretations that make any real sense. To excuse or overlook violence that is the direct result of religious dogma as just bad actors with a bad interpretation is just ludicrous. It's ludicrous because nobody can look me in the eye and say that nobody in the history of the world would have died from an exorcism gone wrong, if people didn't believe there was a such thing as demons. I'm also frustrated by the tendency to reduce religion to identity and culture. i.e., I'm a Christian because my dad was a Christian, and his dad before him was a Christian, and so on and so forth. It's absolutely true that religion is intimately intertwined with society and culture. However, defining religion this way makes it too nebulous. If there is no claim of the supernatural involved, no dogmas, no superstitions, the things that make religion what it is, then how does one distinguish religion from philosophy? Wouldn't I be able to call myself anti-theist Christian if that were the case? Surely we have to draw a line somewhere to avoid such silliness.
In closing, and to add a personal touch, the subject of superstition and how best to combat it is a topic that's extremely close to my heart. I was born into a really religious family. My father was a preacher and my mother was a self proclaimed prophetess. I've experienced what it's like to be immersed in an apocalyptic cult, where I was told I and everyone I ever knew was going to burn in hell. I've had demons cast out of me, been forced to speak in tongues, subjected to quack Christian therapy (that goes by the name of theophostics if you're curious), dealt with my family giving what little money they had left to religious, charlatan televangelists, isolated from people I love that were "children of the world", kicked out of the house because "God" commanded it and soon thereafter becoming homeless for a period of time, have a little half brother who's disowned by his entire Catholic family for being the "bastard" child, and the list goes on. It's my hope that none of you will use this against me to dismiss what I say by painting me as someone that simply holds a grudge against religion. I view it as no different than being inspired to fight racism because of ones personal experiences with racism, or becoming passionate about the environment because you lived near a place where mercury was constantly being dumped in the river. The point to take away is that I believe fighting for a society free of superstition is an integral part of the larger battle for social justice, and that all too often it seems as though those that don't acknowledge religion as being one of the forefronts of that battle have had the luxury, no, the privilege of having never taken the shaft from it. It's my sincerest wish that those who believe in liberal principles, who wish for a world with less madness and suffering, realize that working toward a society in which religion is largely irrelevant can only be helpful to that goal.
I hope you didn't roll your eyes too much at the bit of hardcore monologuing at the end, but I really hope to see some really awesome posts! There's also a lot more common responses that I wanted to pre-emptively address, but this was already a big enough wall of text. Anyways, happy debating.
This video will take some time to get through, it's almost two hours long. It's a conversation between four of the most prominent speakers for New Atheism (New Atheism refers to anti-theism as a movement and not simply the position) It's a fantastic discussion that explores a lot of typical grievances with the movement.