This is a guest post by Spencer Mulesky. Spencer is an undergraduate Philosophy major studying at Indiana University and a Co-Founder of the Atheist and Agnostic Club of North High School (Evansville, IN).
A response follows his piece.
Stephen Fry, a supporter of the British Humanist Association and a public voice for atheism, said just last year:
It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it.
More than any other institution, religion deserves our appreciation and respect because it has persistently encouraged people to care deeply — for the self, for neighbors, for humanity, and for the natural world — and to strive for the highest ideals humans are able to envision.
And on a more personal note, the Secular Alliance of Indiana University (of which I’m a member) recently visited several houses of worship as part of a fundraiser. One blog post focused on the experience of visiting a mosque. Though well written, it’s utterly lacking in honest criticism of religious ideas. The article was so “buddy-buddy” and superficial that I wonder if this “secular” group stands for anything at all.
To miss a golden opportunity to point out the intellectual fraud that people of Muslim (and all) faith commit every day is pitiful. The desire to be accepted and to avoid backlash has pushed even secularist organizations to cower and refuse to point out the obvious. Meaningless chatter about the atmosphere in a place of worship and the seeming-friendliness of the deluded people inside lacks focus.
This line of thinking is traitorous to our goals, and we hear it everywhere. No great thinker was ever celebrated for his unbelievable ability to “respect” everyone’s awful ideas and defer to those who held them. The highest respect one can pay to another’s idea is to scrutinize it and explain what might be wrong. This is what “respect” means in the intellectual domain.
There’s no reason to be so cozy with religious groups. We need a close relationship with religious organizations in the same way that environmentalists need a close relationship to BP.
We need to know their positions and we need to be on their case. We need to have a response to their public statements and we need to be pounding away at the irrationality of their doctrines. The kind of secular college organization that I would want to be a part of would pride themselves on the support of reason, the promotion of a naturalistic worldview, and most importantly the public rejection of bogus religious claims.
Should we work together with religious people to further common goals such as open conversation about faith? Yes. Aren’t there times where it is inappropriate to challenge religious claims? Sure, mourning people at a funeral might be a group worth leaving alone. However, any time that religion or supernatural claims come up in everyday conversation, we have a duty to be critical, even if we come off looking like dicks.
To the atheist, agnostic, Humanists, and secular writers: You know damn well that 2,000 years from now, humanity is going to be laughed at for the idiotic superstition that pervaded nearly every inch of our society.
So act like this matters to you and stop the meek pandering and deference to the religious claims that we all know are so harmful to the public’s proper understanding of the world. Give their poorly reasoned positions the criticism they deserve.
In short: Be more respectful.
This is a response to Spencer’s piece by Carly Jane Casper. Carly is the president of the Secular Alliance of Indiana University.
My student group, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, recently attended a Jummah prayer service with the IU Muslim Student Union. On a hot Friday afternoon, we climbed the eight flights of stairs to the top of the student activities tower and entered a conference room. Sheets and blankets were spread out on the floor. Men were seated separately from women. The service began with a 15-minute sermon on social justice from an MSU member and ended with a short group prayer.
We agreed to do this because we held a Send An Atheist To Church fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, and the MSU’s jar had the most donations. Our group decided that this event was an innocuous way to raise money and learn something new about religion.
Interactions with religious organizations are tricky things for atheist groups. For instance, faith (and, thereby, religion) goes against the values of skepticism and freethought. Undoubtedly, faith is something preventing society from progress. The act of valuing “beliefs” and “opinions” over “facts” and “evidence” has had repercussions in politics and policy across the world. When an atheist group allies themselves with a religious organization, they are tacitly accepting this.
On the other hand, we can’t ignore the influence that religion has. Besides the effect it has on non-religious and marginalized individuals, it also has an emotional effect on the people who follow it.
Skeptics know that ignorance is harmful. It’s harder to recognize, though, that we would be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring the psychology of faith and being quick to judge religious people in a negative way. This is what led me to the conclusion that interfaith dialogue is integral to achieving a truly secular society.
There is no progress to be made by hating faith, by mocking those who have faith, or by demeaning them for their beliefs. It’s also not a productive way of convincing them to abandon their beliefs. If our end goal is the elimination of faith, then careful attention to human emotional needs is essential. For this, we have to understand the religious. We need to be friends with them and have discussions with them. We, in turn, need to open ourselves to being understood. Closing ourselves off and hiding behind insults, rants, unkindness, hatred, cruelty, or mockery is a deflection mechanism. These tactics skirt the most important thing that this whole debate over religion is getting at, which is truth.
Reconciling uncomfortable truths with comfortable myths is not a simple process, and insulting someone won’t make it happen. Coming to terms with one’s own existence is a sensitive, delicate thing. Most of us have strong reasons for believing what we do and being insensitive to the emotional ties people have to their faith is simply irresponsible.
For this reason, I believe it’s unproductive to quarrel with the religious. There are good aspects of religious philosophy (e.g. love one another, don’t be assholes) and bad parts, too (e.g. stone the gays, enslave the children, control the women, ignore the pleasure, etc). Religious thought has captivated billions of people over the years and we can’t ignore that. It would be foolish for us to work against the current here. We have to act in full understanding, if not acceptance, of the power that faith has over people.
I don’t think that the sole purpose of interfaith is to infiltrate the religious and manipulate them, though that’s how some people view “interfaith work.” The most productive thing that will come out of that relationship for the secular movement is the honest dialogue that comes from talking philosophy with the religious. It helps us both come to conclusions about our existence and purpose and we don’t have to respect one another’s beliefs to achieve this. I certainly don’t respect Christianity, and I doubt there’s any way I’ll be convinced to take it seriously, but I respect a religious person’s search for truth, and the fact that they’re confronting the nature of their existence. I don’t expect a Muslim, who believes that my denial of God’s existence is active blasphemy, to respect my beliefs. We need to acknowledge one another, shake hands, and continue trying to convince one another that that the other person is wrong. We can’t hate each other, because after we retreat from the intellectual front lines of this debate, we have to live together. It’s possible for atheists be kind and still be unflinching in our message and goal.