My atheist journey; and, how I approach religion

When I first became an atheist, I was more than a little bit timid. I was practically apologetic. I was painfully aware that I lived in a religious world surrounded by religious people, and that I was the aberration. I was content to just see things differently and keep my head down.

Then I read Dawkins’ The God Delusion. This changed everything for me. Suddenly I no longer felt the need to apologize for my lack of belief. Suddenly I no longer felt the need to keep my head down. I no longer felt alone. Instead I felt bold, energized, alive.

But more than that, I also felt angry. Religion, I suddenly felt, was the root of all evil and needed to be eradicated. If only we could rid the world of religion, the world would be at peace, full of butterflies and flowers and music.

But then I realized something. Two things, actually.

First, there have been plenty of awful things done without religion. Stalin is an excellent example, or Mao. While religion can and does serve as an exacerbating factor (think of suicide bombers or Christian parents who disown gay children), our ability to cause harm and hurt stems not from religion but from, well, being human. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building and killed over 150 people, was not religious or acting from religious motivations. Eliminating religion would not at all result in an automatically sunshine world.

Second, while plenty of harm has been done in the name of religion, good has been done as well. Antebellum abolitionists, for example, relied on religious motivations for fighting slavery (even as their opponents also invoked religious arguments, of course), and religious organizations have fed the poor and dug wells (even as other religious organizations have opposed condom use in places like Africa, of course). From a strictly utilitarian perspective, religion causes both harm and good, and thus, it could be argued, becomes in some sense neutral.

Even as I continued to develop my position and views in the years following my reading of The God Delusion, Dawkins activated me in a way I hadn’t been before. He showed me that I didn’t have to be timid or ashamed for my lack of belief. He showed me that I don’t have to keep my head down or hold back, that I wasn’t crazy or alone. He showed me I didn’t have to apologize for being different. And for all of that I am grateful.

I’ve done a lot of thinking since reading Dawkins, and have asked myself a lot of questions. How do I feel about religion? How do I feel about religious individuals? What future ideal do I envision? What is my role in all this? I’m not at all sure I’ve settled where I’ll be forever, or that my views and approaches as an atheist won’t continue to shift as I gain more experience and a greater understanding of the world. For the moment, though, my approach to religion is as follows:

First, given the amount of objective harm more fundamentalist strains of religion cause, I can’t help but feel the need to push back. Whether it’s movements like Christian Patriarchy or Quiverfull, or the effects of evangelicalism and fundamentalism on American politics, or the problems of Islamic extremism, the damage fundamentalist religion causes is hard not to see. In combating fundamentalist strains of religion, I can generally count more progressive Christians and progressive religious individuals in general as allies, and I appreciate that.

Second, while I can and do work with progressive believers in combating religious fundamentalism and in forwarding other goals like social justice, that doesn’t mean I have to think their religious beliefs are rational or sound. While some religious beliefs cause a great deal of harm and others are more neutral or even do positive good, I don’t believe in giving any of them a “pass” because I do value objective reality. I don’t let my atheism mess up my relationships with the many progressive Christians I count my friends by mocking or continually bringing up their “silly” beliefs, but when the topic does comes up I am completely honest about what I think.

Third, I see any kind of superstition or “faith” (i.e. believing something in the absence of evidence) as inherently problematic. This goes beyond religion proper into all sorts of other areas of culture and politics (think of birthers or truthers, for instance). Any time a person doesn’t care about things like evidence or refuses to consider that he or she could be wrong, that’s a problem. Ideology held on complete certainty without reference or care to facts or evidence is dangerous. Anyone can do this, whether religious or not, whether on the right or on the left, and I oppose it wherever I see it.

I try not to get into battles over whether there is such a thing as a “militant” atheist or whether some atheists are “accommodationists.” No two atheists are going to be identical, and that’s okay. That’s good, actually. There are no “Tenets of True Atheism” or popes of atheism ready to excommunicate heretics in the atheist fold. There’s diversity, discussion, and disagreement, and that’s exactly what should be expected. And furthermore, there’s room to change your position, to grow, and to keep an open and active mind.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Steve

    >”From a strictly utilitarian perspective, religion causes both harm and good, and thus, it could be argued, becomes in some sense neutral.”

    Not when the harm clearly outweighs the good. The charitable functions religious organizations have could be fulfilled by other organizations with different motivations. In many cases, governments simply outsource services to them. More often than not, charity is just a means to proselytize and comes with strings attached.

    Sure, it’s far more practical to combat the most extreme outgrowths and in some ways it may be counterproductive to attack seemingly harmless ones. Unfortunately, we won’t get rid of religion entirely soon, so one has to pick one’s battles. That doesn’t mean I have find the entire thing useful because of some exceptions here and there

  • Kevin Alexander

    Good post Libby.
    I’m glad that you are able to see past the common misconception that it’s faith or lack of it that is responsible for good and evil.

    When anyone asks me what I believe in I have a long answer and a short one.

    1) I believe that there are seven billion and one universes. There’s one real one and there’s one that gets created in the imagination of each of the seven billion people in the world. As a scientist I try to make my imagination conform as closely as possible to the real universe even as I accept that my brain isn’t nearly big enough for the task.

    2) I believe in love.

  • purpleshoes

    I love this post. I know that I seem to come into these comments with a chip on my shoulder about this; I think it’s because I’ve run into so much more atheist unpleasantness than Christian unpleasantness (and I grew up in Appalachia; I think the fact that I did attend at a Unitarian church and could just say “Oh, I attend with the Unitarians” and not get into a doctrinal discussion shielded me from a lot of nonsense. The worst thing I ever faced after high school from a believer was some awkward silence.)

    I think I feel a lot of tension between two things:

    Category A: Faith is neutral:

    1) Any doctrinal belief can be used to justify nonsense and prejudice, and can be used to cherrypick beliefs about the world. For instance, “women be crazy” is a belief; evidence can be chosen from religion, science, or observation to support that belief.

    2) A lot of the beliefs I hold don’t have a lot of objective evidence behind them. For instance, “all people have inherent worth and dignity” and “people have the right to control their own bodies”. You show me where in the natural world or in human history this is an observable fact. Therefore, as a secularist, I still have articles of faith.

    3) Scientific evidence can’t be folk knowledge, that’s why we have scientists. While science literacy in this country should be way way better than it is – way, way better, to the point where literate people should at least be able to read public health studies with some degree of competency and not freak out every time a result is within a standard deviation – I’m probably never going to have a very good understanding of most scientific fields, reducing a lot of my understanding of, say, the immune system, or plant genetics to received, simplified understanding that I can’t prove through direct experiment. Everyone has to have some faith in what they’re told by other people in order to function, making truth by necessity pretty fragile and floppy. I wish this wasn’t true and that I could always claim to proceed from facts, but admitting a partial understanding seems to lead to better decision-making in general.

    4) The constant operation of the placebo effect in governing human life

    Category B: Atheism is necessary.

    1) I don’t know how you can have a reasonable discussion about the fate, for instance, of the human race or of the planet if you sincerely think that a supernatural deity will provide for us through supernatural means, or that there will be a break in human history in which supernatural laws take over for natural laws.

    2) I don’t know how you can have a reasonable discussion about human health, health choices, and the ethics of reproduction and death if you sincerely think that there is a planned design to the human body, including the kind of light “intelligent design” that comes from thinking that there’s a natural state for the human body in which pain, illness, and disorder only results from bad judgment or unhealthy actions. (I would say that this is actually the majority belief about the human body in the US, even among people with no strong religious views).

    3) I really think conversations about mental health and mental illness, for instance, are helped once you get the terrifying fact that human consciousness originates from the accidental actions of five pounds of goo that we carry around in our skulls under your belt. If you think that human wishes, whims, feelings, and that “spark of consciousness” come from some nonphysical, unfindable force, then “demons” really is a better understanding then “chemical imbalance” for why a happy person is suddenly crying all the time.

    So that’s where I am. Unloading my issues in your comment section. Hello.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      A lot of the beliefs I hold don’t have a lot of objective evidence behind them. For instance, “all people have inherent worth and dignity” and “people have the right to control their own bodies”. You show me where in the natural world or in human history this is an observable fact. Therefore, as a secularist, I still have articles of faith.

      It is not by evidence but by reason that we arrive at those conclusions. We have all have certain values taken as premises, but they’re not “articles of faith” unless you declare that no possible circumstance of any kind could impact them.

      It does become a problem to start using predefined values, with no regard to consequences, as absolute truth. That’s exactly what many religious types do, and it’s essentially argument by assertion (or declaration). People have a “right to life”, “life begins at conception”, therefore “abortion is murder”. It’s pretty simple and clearly broken reasoning. Neither premise is wholly correct, and there’s no way this could be practically useful when you adopt both based on faith rather than having actual, you know, reasons for them.

      The danger is in adopting absolutes to implement an ideology. You have to consider exceptions. People may have a right to life — that is, a right not be killed arbitrarily — but that right isn’t absolute. It doesn’t apply in cases of gross necessity such as a self-defense or defense of others. Likewise, talking about a “right to life” on a battlefield seems grotesquely impractical and nonsensical. Exceptional circumstances change the understanding. Context and consequences matter. Declaring something as a perfect article taken on faith and walking away will never lead you to the truth.

      Furthermore, any general principle taken to the extreme can lead to impracticality and even absurdity. What does a right to life really mean, actually? Does that include bacteria, which are very much alive in the biological sense? Even if it only includes those we’re predisposed to declare people, what does that right require from society in general? After all, if people have an inviolable right to survive in the general case, doesn’t that mean we are wholly obligated to provide free food, shelter, and medicine as all three are clearly necessary? Or is it, in reality, a limited right predicated on some kind of reciprocity or other requirement from the individual? Does the right change based on the nature of the environment, for example the relative scarcity of food?

      Anyone who starts to genuinely think about an issue will find that it is far more complicated than any truism or “article of faith” can describe.

      • purpleshoes

        Well, yes, these are values that can be interrogated, but anyone who’s had to play a rousing game of “are women better-served by a social role that acknowledges their poor spatial skills and special reproductive talents?” or “does science say white people have higher IQs?” with someone who’s Just Asking Questions might find some baseline values that they don’t really feel like interrogating pretty fast. That’s been my experience; sure, let philosophy majors do what they want with these questions, but how often am I supposed to interrogate my own right to basic human dignity? Do I really have to carry proof for that around in my head? Or can I take as read that humans are humans and that people should largely get over trying to assign traits to categories of humans? (With obvious exceptions, like “humans less than a year in age should not be expected to navigate stairwells.”)

        Again, I’m acknowledging that I’m coming to this discussion with maybe more personal history here then is helpful, though I also think that I share a lot of qualms with a lot of other people who are secular but haven’t sent away for their Atheist Membership Card.

      • http://kagerato.net kagerato

        That’s been my experience; sure, let philosophy majors do what they want with these questions, but how often am I supposed to interrogate my own right to basic human dignity? Do I really have to carry proof for that around in my head?

        As long as it’s not harming someone else or destroying your environment, I don’t think there is a need to question it. Before anything else, I am a pragmatist.

        As to the second part, one of the aspects of modern philosophy is that it may not actually be possible to “prove” such propositions at all. Indeed, “proofs” are something that is basically constrained to mathematics and pure logic. Even in science, we only know our conclusions are true to a probability better than X. For some value of X that differs from person to person, the idea becomes too obvious to deny any longer, but it’s still not absolute.

    • Dalillama

      1) Any doctrinal belief can be used to justify nonsense and prejudice, and can be used to cherrypick beliefs about the world. For instance, “women be crazy” is a belief; evidence can be chosen from religion, science, or observation to support that belief.

      Religion does not provide evidence, only assertions. You can certainly cherrypick scientific data to support a preexisting belief, but the problem remains one of faith. Specifically, faith in whatever irrational belief the evidence is being cherry picked to support.

      2) A lot of the beliefs I hold don’t have a lot of objective evidence behind them. For instance, “all people have inherent worth and dignity” and “people have the right to control their own bodies”. You show me where in the natural world or in human history this is an observable fact. Therefore, as a secularist, I still have articles of faith.

      I would argue that these ethical principles are still objectively derivable. For example: Life health, happiness, and sufficient prosperity to not worry about where tomorrow’s food and shelter are coming from are pretty much universal human values. Ask anyone if they’d rather be alive or dead, healthy or sick, happy or despairing, comfortable or homeless, and you’ll get the same answers 99.99% of the time. For those who do prefer death, poor health, misery and material deprivation, they can accomplish that themselves without any help from anyone else, and are thus excluded from societal calculus. Since everyone wants these things, the definition of a successful society is one that maximizes them for as many people as possible. We can compare different societies and empirically determine which ones do better on those metrics, and they are the societies that guarantee certain rights to their members, including bodily autonomy, worth and dignity.

      Everyone has to have some faith in what they’re told by other people in order to function, making truth by necessity pretty fragile and floppy.

      It’s important to distinguish between faith and trust. In the case of scientific pronouncements, they are asking you to trust them that they did gather the data they say they did, and corroboration is provided in the form of other scientists doing the same research and getting the same data as well as by confluence with data gathered in other areas which makes sense in the context of the new data. This is not faith, but accepting that a process that has demonstrably produces valid results in the past continues to do so. You have evidence all around you that the scientific process works, in the form of computers, aircraft, medicine, etc. Acknowledging the possibility of error does not obviate trust, simply opens the door to new knowledge. Faith is not based on data, but on belief in the absence of evidence, or in many cases contrary to the evidence.

      4) The constant operation of the placebo effect in governing human life

      I’m not certain what you mean by this? Science has a pretty good handle on the placebo effect, but it really only occurs in medical contexts.

      The second part I pretty much agree with, though. :)

      • purpleshoes

        The placebo effect also governs prayer, magic, feeling buzzed about taking vitamins, reiki, some but not all of the mood result of going to the gym – and the placebo effect, a.k.a. the human love of a ritual like talking to a doctor or taking a pill or saying abracadabra before turning three times in place, is super powerful. A placebo can be really effective in treating actual horrible diseases, like irritable bowel syndrome (in that last case, even when people know they’re getting a placebo). I’m not saying we don’t need medicine – I really love having properly-tested medicine – but the continued action of the placebo effect reminds me that some people respond bodily to little rituals, even though the mechanism is clearly not that someone’s clearing your energy channels or that you’re really getting anti-inflammatories.

        I will think about your other points. I can see evidence of religion doing what it said it was going to do in the life of Rick Santorum, in the operation of the AME soup kitchen on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-9 pm, and in the annihilation of Canaan. But then, I don’t actually believe in in the action of a supernatural force, and therefore the only result I expect to see of religion is people acting like they believe in religion. Thank you for your thoughtfulness in responding.

      • Dalillama

        The placebo effect pretty much only covers pain and symptoms brought on/aggravated by stress, and anything that relaxes you and pumps some endorphins into your system will do it. The psychological effects that can be obtained from meditation (prayer, magic etc) are somewhat different but also fairly well understood. I’m still not certain why you’re counting that as a plus for religion, though. People often find religious ritual comforting because it is a form of continuity in their lives, buy it’s only by chance that religion is what provides that; watching a favorite childhood tv show and eating the kind of snack your parents used to fix will work just as well in most cases.

        I can see evidence of religion doing what it said it was going to do in the life of Rick Santorum, in the operation of the AME soup kitchen on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-9 pm, and in the annihilation of Canaan.

        Successfully predicting your own behavior (example 2) doesn’t really count, though. When was the last time that religious thinking addressed in a pragmatic way the actual causes of poverty and hunger and how they can be alleviated on a wide scale? When was the last technological breakthrough derived from scripture? I’m not sure what you mean in the case of Santorum, but generally speaking anything that produces behavior like his is something that should be shunned for a variety of reasons. The annihilation of Canaan (Presumably the one in the Old Tesament?) didn’t actually happen so far as can be determined, so that one doesn’t really count either on my view.

      • purpleshoes

        It is kind of key to my point to remember that I’m not religious and don’t think that anything supernatural is ever happening ever. Some forms of some religions seem to be effective in harnessing the illogical, magical-thinking, chittering-tree-monkey part of the brain to increase human comfort. Of course, people also use the same basic systems of thinking to put curses on each other and get them to work, so we can’t count that as much of a win for people. Just as a thing that religion does that more or less exists.

        Well, exactly (re: religion affecting its followers). It’s not an 100% good equivalence, but the Bernoulli principle didn’t reach down and craft an airplane. Through experimentation, some humans found some principles that did what they wanted them to and then organized themselves into airplane-builders.

        Rick Santorum found some principles that described the way he wanted the world to be (awful, dedicated to treating men like him like spokesmen for god) and organized himself into a bullshit propagandist. The AME in my town found some principles describing the the way they wanted the world to be (kind, just, fed) and organized themselves into a soup kitchen. I am reassured about the Cannaanites and will leave them out of this. I guess I think that religion is a neutral force for the self-organization of a culture, large and small, and since I don’t think there’s any supernatural force that can do anything, that’s all I expect it to do – be a social tool that people use that only affects the actions of other people, and not be any better than any other tool I see humans using.

      • Dalillama

        I suppose that my point is that religion offers no methods to minimize the effect of those particular cognitive bugs, while there are a wide variety of rationalist and secular methods to minimize the harm that can be caused while maximizing available benefits. For the rest, society is really pretty much the way that societies and cultures organize, while religion can hardly be considered neutral with regard to method. Religious organizations are by definition not rational nor evidence based, and this means that even in cases where they embody the best of intentions they are unlikely to apply their resources to solve problems in the most effective ways. For instance, any and everything Santorum has done in his political career, and the activities of the AME (I assume that you mean the African Methodist Episcopal Church). In the case of the AME, they operate a soup kitchen with some of the resources they bring in, but they also spend a considerable amount of those resources on preaching and supporting a church hierarchy whose duties are AFAICT largely unrelated to charity. Contrast this to groups like Food not Bombs, which are not without their issues, but reliably do not use the the resources they collect to pay a hierarchy, preach information contrary to reality, or do things other than feed the hungry. There’s most likely a chapter in your town, but I don’t’ know where you are so I can’t promise it. This also leaves aside the question of whether private charities are actually the best solution to the problems of hunger, joblessness, and homelessness (hint:it’s not), which is something that church based charities tend to argue strongly for IME, although I can’t speak for your local AME church. I have no objection to soup kitchens, of course, but I think that it’s important to realize that it’s only a stopgap measure.

      • purpleshoes

        I know food not bombs well :D I am not an anarchist anymore for the specific reason that I learned that a hierarchy with some rules can be really helpful to people in a crisis. Food Not Bombs versus a church soup pantry is, in my town, a good example of how rules and a hierarchy can be very effective in providing a service consistently and with a certain standard of quality.

        Of course at the end of the day I’m for evidence-based social welfare programs, but there’s nothing unique to atheism that says that keeping everyone fed and sleeping indoors to the degree materially possible to a society is important. I know plenty of atheist Libertarians. I do agree that introducing supernatural cause-effects into material situations doesn’t help, but not all religious people believe in supernatural cause-effects.

      • Dalillama

        Belief in supernatural and/or contraevidentiary causes/effects is a fundamental part of what it means to be a religion. Social groupings without such beliefs are not religions according to any definition with which I am familiar. Regarding Food not Bombs, I did state that they had their own issues, and that is also why I specified that the AME hierarchy are not primarily involved in organizing the charitable works, but in maintaining the church organization itself, unlike secular charities which retain hierarchical organizations. For instance, the AME places “Preach the gospel” at the top of their priority list, above any efforts to materially improve lives, which is not something that any secular food bank, soup kitchen or other charity would do. Regarding Libertarians, while most forms of Libertarianism do not really qualify as religions (Objectivism meets preety much all the criteria, though; see Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things) they are really, really fond of contraevidentiary causes for things in the economic realm.

      • purpleshoes

        Yeah, I think my definition of “religion” tends to be nonstandard because I was raised Unitarian, and we both considered ourselves a religion and didn’t have any contraevidentary beliefs stronger than the aforementioned “people have worth” and “democracy can lead to justice”. Which are more disputable beliefs than contraevidentary beliefs. But I think even within Abrahamic faiths, say, progressive Episcopalians or Jewish Reconstructionists may not believe in any external supernatural definition of God or an afterlife and still consider themselves members of and practitioners of religion. The idea that an agreement with a creedal belief in an external supernatural being is the fundamental way to tell that you’re in a religion – as opposed to it being the way you eat, the songs you sing, and the things you do on holidays – really seems to me like a marker of evangelical religion as distinct from cultural religions.

        I’m not actually arguing with you, btw. I think what you think is fine. I’m just not sure I believe it and am trying to work out the degree of difference, because “of course there’s no God” is a shared starting point, but I think deep down in my brain I had a childhood of instruction in how no foxes ever actually talked about sour grapes, either, but that doesn’t mean Aesop’s fables don’t inform human choices.

        I think my main fallacy is in thinking that true believers are in on the joke and surely understand that there’s no God, they’re just doing things to do them and engaging with myths that tell important stories about human nature. I think, for instance, the rise of the Prosperity Gospel pretty definitively illustrates that this is not true.

      • Dalillama

        I’m in a similar position but coming from a different direction. I was not raised in any type of religious tradition whatsoever, cultural or otherwise. I have always looked at religion from the outside, and from the outside, it’s impossible to tell when someone is a true believer or not. IME, even the most liberal, in either sense, Christians talk about god a lot, and about jesus a lot, and I can’t tell the difference. Even the explanation that god is a metaphor fails to help me, because no one has ever been able to give be a comprehensible explanation of what the metaphor is meant to represent (note that this only applies to monotheist gods; polytheistic and animistic gods and spirits make perfectly comprehensible metaphors for all kinds of things, I just don’t see the point in using metaphor to discuss most of those matters rather than just talk directly about them).

        I think my main fallacy is in thinking that true believers are in on the joke and surely understand that there’s no God, they’re just doing things to do them and engaging with myths that tell important stories about human nature.

        This right here is the major stumbling block for me, because when people talk about taking moral lessons from the Bible (or other holy book of choice), I have absolutely no way of determining which bits they like and which bits they don’t, and I can be and have been unpleasantly surprised when someone who had a generally reality based worldview despite their professed religion suddenly turns out to have embraced one of the completely horrible or wildly contra reality bits too.
        See, there are a few parables/fables in the Bible (or other holy book of choice) that have valid things to say, or are useful metaphors for something, but it’s all mixed in with a whole bunch of parables that have perfectly horrible resolutions, metaphors for totally nonexistent things, and what appear to be intended as non-metaphorical statements of fact and are complete nonsense, and all of this is given the exact same relevance in the source material. Aesop’s fables, by contrast, and other collections of fable, parable and analect separate from religious traditions, are clearly and only metaphorical, and at no time claim to be making direct truth statements about the real world.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I see any kind of superstition or “faith” (i.e. believing something in the absence of evidence) as inherently problematic. This goes beyond religion proper into all sorts of other areas of culture and politics (think of birthers or truthers, for instance).

    Problematic is the right word. People who believe in religion, even fervently, go to church on Sunday, say grace before meals, and otherwise live quiet lives, not bothering anyone, are not harmful. It’s the Pat Robertsons who use religion to justify their extremist socio-political views or the Boyd K. Packers* who use religion to excuse their homophobia who are harmful.

    You’re also right that blind belief in any ideology and stubborn refusal to consider contradictory evidence is problematic. Rush Limbaugh isn’t particularly religious. His adherence to a strict conservative agenda and rejection of any idea with the slightest taint of “liberalism” makes him and his followers problematic.

    *Packer is president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, the second senior Mormon after the President of the Church.

  • dianne

    Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building and killed over 150 people, was not religious or acting from religious motivations.

    Wasn’t McVeigh upset about the destruction of a religious group/cult by the ATF? That would seem to make his motivation religious. I agree with your larger point, but am not sure about this specific example.

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      McVeigh wasn’t a Branch Davidian, though and he was upset about their treatment for purely secular reasons.

  • Rachel

    Your second and third points are very important to me, because as one of those progressive believers who tries to eradicate the harm done by fundamentalists, I fully recognize that the things I do are irrational.

    I don’t mix milk and meat. I light candles on Friday nights. Wednesday I spent hours baking 90 hamentashen for my classmates and friends. (Which was fun and delicious.) And I fully recognize that these things are irrational to most. But I also try to make sure that they don’t fall into the category of magical thinking for me — that I don’t treat my religion as, “oh, if I do this, then God will love me and favor me and all my problems will come true.” I try to make sure that I do things because I believe they’re the right thing for me to do, not because they are rituals. I would never insist other people do things because of my own religious beliefs.

    (I do sometimes advise people based on religious beliefs, but only when the problem is something that religion is intrinsic to or involved with, and they are receptive to it: for example, a friend of mine couldn’t find what she had been named in Hebrew, so I talked to her about the various Kabbalistic beliefs about how names represent you, and yet how names can be changed.)

    But at the same time, while my religious beliefs certainly influence my outlook on life and my passion toward social justice, I try very hard to separate those beliefs from the facts that inform how policy should be made. The only time I would use my religious beliefs is to point out how others’ religious-beliefs-made-law would violate mine, and vice versa: a reductio ad absurdem is usually enough to make people stop, as nobody wants to be told a law could be passed where they couldn’t eat cheeseburgers. ;)

  • Dalillama

    The important characteristic that Stalinism and Maoism shared with religion is fundamentalist authoritarianism. There was one source of knowledge, one source of morality, and one source of authority. They also had a variety of beliefs in what amounted to supernatural causality, including the inevitable historical dialectic, Lysenkoism , and the Great Leap Forward, based heavily on Mao’s belief that planting wheat deeply and very close together would yield bumper crops through class solidarity among the seeds.

  • Tenebras

    The problem isn’t religion. The problem is the flaws in our thinking and culture that allow things like religion to flourish in the first place. Teaching that blind faith and obediance are good things, that ignorance is a virtue, that our senses can’t be mistaken, that it is better to have a wrong answer than to admit you don’t know.

    You won’t solve all the problems in the world by educating that out of the population, but damned if you won’t solve most of them.

  • An Philosopher

    Something that I have been thinking about is the question of whether faith is voluntary. Certainly at this point, I don’t think I could suddenly choose a religion and force myself to believe in it. When I became an atheist, it’s because I *realized* I was already and atheist, there was no conscious choice. I know it’s not an immutable property, there’s a chance I could be brainwashed by some kind of horrific situation, but I doubt I could convince myself without some sort of extreme outside influence. If that’s the case for me, then what about a religious believer? The transition between faith/no faith is very traumatic, but doesn’t seem entirely voluntary.
    http://www.samharris.org/free-will
    I don’t know if I agree with his conclusions, since I haven’t read it yet, but I do think that free will is at least greatly constrained by our circumstances and experiences. All human endeavor (science, art, technology) builds on what came before, so it makes sense that our personal beliefs would operate the same way. If faith is not voluntary, then it doesn’t make much sense to blame or deride someone for their faith or lack thereof.

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    I would argue that the good done by religious organizations could as easily be achieved through purely secular means. It is a human problem, as you say, and in my view a human solution makes more sense then continued reliance on a system that at its heart relies on fear of eternal torture to engender good will in its adherents.

    • purpleshoes

      That’s one religion, then, maybe two. The collapsing of “religion” to “some of the Abrahamic religions” is a problem; among other things, it’s a good example of how those religions manage to create a worldview in which only they exist, even in unbelievers.

      • Dalillama

        Hells also show up in Hinduism, most forms of Buddhism, and TCR, which between them and the Abrahamic religions cover upwards of 90% of the world’s religious believers

  • scotlyn

    Libby Ann, one of the best works I’ve read addressing the issue you raise, in relation to the types of social movements that cause harm, is “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer. I believe the subtitle is something like “anatomy of a mass movement.” Eric Hoffer’s own story is amazing, his writing style is elegantly simple, but sharply insightful. His main thesis seems to be that people who feel their own lives are somehow broken, find solace in committing themselves to a higher cause, and it’s most comforting if that higher cause is so worthwhile that you would lay down your life for it. He lived through the years of Hitler and Stalin and did a pretty good job, I think, in decoding their common roots. I think if he were alive today he would include the Christian Right in his definition of a mass movement.

  • scotlyn

    Ps On reflection, I don’t think I’ve done all that great a job of describing “The True Believer.” But do read it. It will be worth your while!

  • jamessweet

    I’ve got a similar take, which coincidentally I also divide into three parts, although there is not a one-to-one correspondence with your division. Specifically, I think there are three questions that are constantly getting conflated:

    1) Is any given religion true? My answer: No. Well, it depends which one I guess, but with the exception of essentially atheist “religions” like certain forms of Buddhism, I feel pretty confident on this one.

    2) Is religion inherently positive, negative, or neutral? My answer: I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody can pretend to. What data we have is very mixed, and even if it weren’t, you can’t really measure this effectively in the current cultural context. I am biased towards thinking it’s inherently negative, but I can’t say for sure. A Quaker- or UU-like religion may be a net good for some people; I simply don’t think we have enough information at this point to say (and on a side note, I think it is elitist and condescending to assert that some people “need” religion without very strong evidence to support that. It may be the case, but unless you’ve got knockdown evidence of that fact, you are smugly proclaiming other people to be inferior to you when you say that.)

    3) Is religion, as it is practiced today, a net positive, net negative, or neutral? My answer: I feel very confident calling it a net negative, and I feel confident it will persist to be so for quite some time, even if there may be some hypothetical future where we find that some amount of de-virulent moderate religion is a net good. Therefore, I have no qualms with basically advocating against religion, all religion, in whatever way possible. I’m quite confident that I am shifting things in the right direction by doing so, and that if there is a line that might one day be crossed that would go “too far” in the irreligious direction, that line won’t be crossed in my lifetime, so for practical purposes I can more or less assume it doesn’t exist.

    Unfortunately, those three questions tend to all get conflated from time to time. But they really are three separate questions.

  • http://discerningspiritualist.com Cado

    I don’t think that holding beliefs which are unfalsifiable is harmful in itself; it’s the thinking style behind faith which allows for abuses, not the positions themselves.

    Where I’ll argue otherwise is with well-established religions like Christianity. The honest truth is that I think we’d all be better off if every copy of the bible spontaneously caught fire and we forgot it existed. It paves the way for so many ridiculous and oppressive dogmas that it can’t be argued that it’s neutral in itself. It’s very different than it used to be and it’s quite toothless compared to its historical counterpart but the potential for abuse is still strong enough to carry people like Rick Santorum through the republican primaries. A lot of people think like he does, and Christianity still needs some drastic change before it, as a whole, is truly acceptable.

    Christians like Fred Clark over at slacktivist ( http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/ ) are absolutely wonderful and if they become the dominant voices within Christianity my problems with it will mostly vanish. As it is, I do argue against it on an ideological level, and in my personal life I doubt I’ll ever see a reason to convert because the kind of Christianity I’d want to be part of exists now and I don’t think it would add anything to my life.

    Spiritual inquiry, however, does. The thing I keep in mind in my explorations is that nothing is solid-whatever I experience, or think I experience, is always subject to questioning, and what isn’t scientifically verifiable can never be taken as fact even if lots of people corroborate my own experiences. If nothing else, there’s value in it for me because it expands my imagination and helps me think in multiple dimensions at once-I can see connections more easily than I can with pure reason, and when I can use reason to connect the dots and it holds through testing then I know I’ve got something.

    All knowledge is tentative. That’s probably the most important aspect of my belief system and I think that in order to fully understand the world and the human condition it will require exploration on every front. We can’t shun science or facts but we can’t become so eager to align our thoughts with each new discovery that we fail to think critically about the data, or that we completely disregard experiences which may indicate there’s more to it and we need more testing.

    I don’t hold to anything that doesn’t get results, however I define that in a given context. Everything is a tool and we are the masters. The most dangerous part of human psychology is the desire to bend before authority without confirming that it’s legitimate. Whether it already exists and we cave or we create an authority where there is none, it doesn’t help us advance.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X