Taking it personally and ignoring the bad stuff

I’ve decided not to write anything more directly on Chris Stedman’s “Toxic Atheism” piece, but I think this piece, which I recently wrote to be included in The Book.

The question of whether “religion” is bad or whether “Islam” is bad is slightly more complicated than the question of whether religions or a particular religion have morally odious texts and doctrines (which they clearly do). So I’m going to save it for later chapter. But there’s one reaction atheists get when we say things like that that I want to address here.

That reaction is, “oh, but what about all the good religious believers in the world?” When objections like this are used to argue that a criticism of religion is not just incorrect, but should be off the table entirely, the idea seems to be that critics of religion are being unfair to the good religious believers by saying these things about religion, or about a particular religion.

To which I reply: atheists know about the good religious believers. For example, early in The End of Faith, Sam Harris says:

Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused (Harris p. 14).

Harris goes on to argue that the abusive religious moderates are still problematic in their own way. One point he makes is that, “Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world” (one example would be Muslims who ignore the hateful passages in the Quran that Harris documents in such great detail). Whether you agree with such criticisms or not, Harris knows the moderates exist, and can’t be accused of suggesting otherwise.

To give another example, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins talks about working with his friend, the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, to defend science teaching in schools (Dawkins 2006, p. 335). And after discussing all the horrible things in the Bible, he writes:

My main purpose here has not been to show that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture.

When he says this, he’s taking for granted that there are lots of religious believers who managed to be good in spite of the nasty stuff in their holy books. In fact, the fact that religious believers, even those who think of themselves as “orthodox” or “traditional,”routinely ignore the nasty stuff is what makes pointing out the nasty stuff and effective criticism of religion. Yes, there are hard-core fundamentalists who’ve their holy book cover to cover and reconcile themselves to everything in it, but they’re very much in the minority, and that’s what makes this kind of criticism of religion more than just “preaching to the choir.”

I feel a little silly having to say all this. Isn’t it obvious that Dawkins can disagree with Harries about one day and work with him on something they agree on the next? Unfortunately, I see too many people talk about how not all religious believers were the same, or how atheists and believers should work together, and present it as if it were a criticism of popular atheist writers. The fact that at that many people will assume you reject these obvious points if you say anything bad against religion is really just another example of the taboo against any criticism of religion, no matter how reasonable.