Questionable Motives

May 23, 2011

Religion: what’s the harm?

Filed under: belief,Faith,Gnu Atheism,God,Religion — tildeb @ 3:57 pm

Plenty, it turns out, and some of it very personal. For example, Eric MacDonald was an anglican priest but became a gnu atheist when he began to experience just how insidiously our laws about end of life issues and personal dignity have been co-opted by the faithful to represent their beliefs and imposed on everyone as if they were justified. He says

I write this blog (Choice in Dying) because I want to see laws regarding assisted dying become the norm. I believe that opposition to reasonable and compassionate assisted dying legislation is almost entirely religious — though there are some outriders in secular movements which, for inadequate reasons (see my own criticism of Jennifer Michael Hecht), oppose assisted dying legislation, or at least would limit it in serious and, I believe, unjustifiable ways. This is only one example of religious regressive effect on law and society. It is a simple one, but it is characteristic.

In the last little while, Eric has revisited Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and has tackled many of the most critical reviews about it to see if they carry forward a good argument against its central thesis, that god is a delusion – the term meaning belief in the absence of corroborating evidence. Eric’s posts are always very well written and I urge readers to check them out. I know I am far richer for reading the thoughts so eloquently expressed by this highly articulate man. And I am not alone. Many of the commentators are just as literate and sharp and add their distinctive voices and styles to the very high quality of this site.

From his latest post about H. Allen Orr’s review, Eric addresses the topic of my post, namely, why do gnu atheists go after something that apparently brings so much comfort to so many? Where’s the harm in believing in that which has no corroborating evidence? I think he addresses in the following some of the very points raised by various commentators here at QM.

For example, it is common to have someone insist that the criticisms put forth don’t accurately describe the particular religious beliefs of the commentator:

It is widely thought that being forthright and deliberately offensive about the poverty or religion makes it impossible for Dawkins, and those who think like him, to engage in cooperative efforts with so-called “people of faith”. Since liberal religious believers often remark that Dawkins is overturning god beliefs which they do not themselves hold, there is no reason why this should be so. Even if Dawkins thinks that these “believers” belong to the Neville Chamberlain school of apologetics, enabling the worst kinds of religious believing to do their damage to others and to the world at large, there is no reason for them not to make common cause with Dawkins in an effort to diminish the harm that religion can do. If they do not think that extremist forms of belief, even mildly extremist forms of belief, are not dangerous, then they simply are a menace to the future of humanity. If they are not, they should forthrightly say why they reject such forms of belief, and why they cannot associate with them, or allow their own more liberal beliefs to be a flag of convenience for extremists who claim to speak in the name of the religion they apparently share.

But how can so many ‘believers’ be wrong? Surely atheists must recognize that they are but a tiny minority awash in a sea of believers and so are missing something in their own understanding:

There are, I should think, at a rough estimate, millions of people who are caught between the devil and a hard place, people for whom religion is empty and meaningless, but who are bound to religious traditions and religious affirmations which they dare not, for many reasons, publicly question. If doubt is an essential part of religious faith, as so many of Dawkins’ detractors claim, then this doubt must have carried many of them over into real, corrosive doubt, even though they remain trapped within networks of beliefs and believers which they feel unable to escape. Providing subtle distinctions in such a context would not help. It would bind the believer that much more inescapably to the wheel of affirmation and reaffirmation, however desperate they may be to escape the trammels of religious belief and the sometimes cloying web of religious community.

Religion has always been with us and always will. Gnu atheists are just going to have to accept the fact that their efforts are doomed, their points matter little, that too much good comes from religious belief to tilt against its windmill, that finding common ground and accommodating differences of opinion is far more beneficial than to follow and support the stridency, militancy, and arrogance of a Richard Dawkins:

Whether a world without religion would be a better one is certainly worth asking. Whether Dawkins is a bit naive in supposing that it would be greatly better may certainly be discussed. But that religion is now, at this present time, a threat to world peace and human rights, seems to me irrefragable. The religious believe that they have final answers to some of our most pressing social and personal problems. For some, obviously, religious answers do provide the basis for personal revaluation and change. The real problems arise when religion interferes uninvited in the lives of others, and the problem is that religion simply cannot help itself. Since it believes in moral absolutes which must be applied whatever the consequences, religion is in the forefront of forces which would limit human freedom and subvert open societies.

This is why gnu atheists continue to do what we do: criticize that which is in desperate need of criticism, namely, pointing out the danger and refusing to respect the delusions of faith.


  1. Interestingly I just added Eric’s blog to my read list. Indeed it looks excellent. And indeed this aspect of religion is critical to fight!!

    And indeed, religious folks who do not criticize (or admit) the dangerous elements or even mildly dangerous elements of those using the same name, then they do harm in ways too.

    As to the pros and cons, harms and benefits of religion, I think it is complicated. But I am sure of one thing: the voices of the gnu atheists are highly beneficial.

    Comment by Sabio Lantz — May 23, 2011 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • And long overdue, I think.

      Comment by tildeb — May 23, 2011 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

      • What is long overdue?

        Comment by Sabio Lantz — May 23, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

      • The very public voices of the gnus challenging religious privilege.

        Comment by tildeb — May 23, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

  2. Public voices have been here for a long time, haven’t they? Voltaire and many more, no?
    But TV presence is indeed important.

    Comment by Sabio Lantz — May 23, 2011 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

    • The emphasis on what is overdue isn’t the public voice of atheism, which has been around in written form since at least Epicurus’ time, but on the consistent challenging of religious privilege. That’s what’s new about this atheist movement.

      Comment by tildeb — May 24, 2011 @ 7:53 am | Reply

      • And by privilege, I mean treating what is believed to be true to what IS true as equivalent and compatible options. This assumption, this artificial division of NOMA, this assumed respect for beliefs in the absence of corroborating evidence, has long been acceptable to protect religious sensibilities from criticism in the public domain. No longer. Although many atheists still cling to this notion that mutual respect is preferable, gnus differ by insisting that faith is a broken epistemology for gaining knowledge and simply incompatible with honest inquiry that does.

        Comment by tildeb — May 24, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    • This link may work better.

      Yes, I’ve seen it and it is certainly the way many of us view scripture before apologeticians (is that a word?) worm their interpretations for metaphor into its reading wherever it’s convenient to do so (why, of course christians don’t believe slavery is right and moral… now) but hold to the literal for privileged beliefs (Jesus was raised from the dead) as well as god-soaked rules and regs when it seems handy.

      Comment by tildeb — May 24, 2011 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  3. interesting… i get what you’re saying up until ” The real problems arise when religion interferes uninvited in the lives of others, and the problem is that religion simply cannot help itself. Since it believes in moral absolutes which must be applied whatever the consequences, religion is in the forefront of forces which would limit human freedom and subvert open societies.”

    i don’t believe humans are free. we’re always being imposed upon, whether by religion, or government, or society, or our family and friends, or corporations. the things that limit us are legion. the healthy thing to do is to question and to see what is good and helpful and what isn’t. religion is just one aspect of the multitude.

    Comment by zero1ghost — June 1, 2011 @ 10:56 am | Reply

    • I don’t believe humans are free, either. Like you, I recognize all kinds of restraints. But I’m not talking about social impositions and family obligations and laws; I’m talking about a concerted effort to limit and undermine what freedoms we do have under our constitutional rights as well as direct public policies (law, education, research, public institutional directives, the military, and so on) in the name of religious belief. This is a different kettle of fish from other impositions (I’m thinking of speed limits and other across-the-board laws) and social obligations (I’m thinking of what we in Canada call ‘social services’) and familial duties (providing care and comfort for family members) and not, as you write, just one aspect of the multitude.

      What I’m saying is that because there is a belief in moral absolutes derived from religious beliefs, there will always be a struggle between those who feel they must impose their beliefs on others in the name of god and those who say this is not an acceptable practice in a secular society that separates the state from using its collective power of the whole to privilege the religious beliefs of some.

      Comment by tildeb — June 1, 2011 @ 11:33 am | Reply

      • well, i’m glad we can agree on the fact that humans aren’t free. that’s cool.

        but how about the first line that would be written like this “What I’m saying is that because there is a belief in moral absolutes derived from beliefs, there will always be a struggle between those who feel they must impose their beliefs on others.” i think that stands true as well. religion is just a tool for those people. there are those who use science and whatever else (including their own unique brand of crazy) to bully others.

        Comment by zero1ghost — June 1, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: