Atheists get their knickers in a knot when someone accuses them of being another kind of religious fundamentalist believer who are just as certain in their belief that there is no god as those who believe there is. So what’s the big deal with this accusation?
It’s important to understand why the notion of belief in the religious sense applied to atheism is antithetical to what it is that drives the atheist to publicly criticize religion: that far too many people simply don’t value the principle of reasoning when it comes to believing in their religious viewpoints and how that belief adversely affects their society. This is no small matter.
Faith as an intellectual condition is, as Sam Harris accurately describes, conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, and so on. The response to this criticism when pointed out in unreasonable specifics is almost always along the lines of “Well, that’s not MY religious faith…,” yet 57% of Americans believe that one must believe in god to have good values and be moral agents, 69% want a president who is guided by strong religious beliefs, 81% believe in heaven, 78% in angels, 70% in Satan, and 70% in hell. Yet on almost every measure of societal health, the less religious it is the better off its members are: life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, charity to poorer nations, and so. These levels are all negatively correlated to the rate of religious belief in the society. In addition, the bonus feature of religious commitment in the US is highly correlated with racism. Where’s the discussion about how to change all of this in the forums and blogs of the religious, how to reduce this negative influence? What we see are popular religious sites that make no such attempt to reduce this religious influence in the public domain in the service of their fellow citizens but actively work to support its promotion and influence and continuation.
These hard facts speak out loudly against the claim that religious belief is associated with better societal health, that religious belief is a force for good. Yet when people do speak out against the assumption that religious belief is good, that it is beneficial, that it offers more solutions than it does problems, they are marginalized and criticized for their ‘militancy’ and ‘stridency’ and ‘arrogance’ and ‘fundamentalism’ to the ‘dogma’ of atheistic human secularism. When reasonable folk raise the uncomfortable fact that religious belief is a negative correlate in so much of what makes society beneficial to its members, they are criticized for their alleged incivility, bias, and ignorance how ‘sophisticated’ believers practice their faith.
So where are all these ‘sophisticates’ and why isn’t their influence mitigating the religious adverse affects? They certainly are not the majority of religious believers. Yet the sophisticates play a central role in defending religious belief from legitimate criticism, from religious believers having an honest dialogue about the overwhelming negative effects religious belief correlates to people’s well-being as a society and make it next to impossible to come up with a strategy to implement necessary change to get religious influence out of the public domain where it continues to be a root correlate of societal harm.
Beliefs have consequences. How we arrive at them matters a great deal. It is possible to arrive at them poorly. To paraphrase Harris from his final chapter in The Moral Landscape, it is possible to be wrong and not know it. We call that ignorance. It is possible to be wrong and to know it but be reluctance to admit that we do so to avoid the social stigma of not going along with the majority. We call this hypocrisy. It is possible to dimly glimpse that we may be wrong in our beliefs but allow the fear of being wrong to drive our urge to increase our commitment to the belief set. We call this self-deception. These are not unusual thinking tools used in the service of religious belief. And there is a growing epidemic of scientific illiteracy and ignorance and anti-intellectualism in much of the world that fails to appreciate that few scientific truths are self-evident and many are counter-intuitive. It is intellectual work and effort and discipline of method to come to understand how and why empty space is structured, that we share a common ancestor with fruit flies and carrots. And few things make thinking like a scientist and understanding the world as it really is more difficult than a deep attachment to religious beliefs that offer simple answers regardless if they are true. What some might perceive to be “superior-ish” disrespect for those who think themselves justified to maintain religious beliefs in the face of contrary knowledge, I think is a sense of disdain for those who are unwilling to do this work, to respect the principle of reason, that the product of good reasoning reveals what’s knowable and what’s true, and that what’s true matters more than what one simply wishes to believe.
To then be accused of substituting a simplistic set of answers based on wishful thinking for another such set reveals the depth of just how wide is the gulf between those who respect the principle and product of good reasoning and those who choose to know far too little about it in the service of their religious beliefs.