Why I’m Agnostic About Anti-Theism

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I just want to say from the outset that this is a piece I have not been eager to write about, but I feel compelled to say something, if nothing other than to provide a very slightly different perspective.

First, though, some context: Recently, my Patheos colleague Martin Hughes wrote a post renouncing his former anti-theism, one that I found a bit surprising given my own interactions with him (see for instance here). This has led to a variety of responses, from The Orbit bloggers Alex Gabriel and Stephanie Zvan to my Patheos colleagues Kaveh Mousavi and Dan Arel. (There might be others, but if so, I’ve missed them.)

Hughes then made a second post to further state that he had recently imagined a deity that he prayed to during a difficult time. This elicited responses from Kaveh and Stephanie, but because the situation started to feel a bit weird at this point, I’m not going to respond to those here (although I do have my own feelings about these responses and maybe I’ll return to them in the future).

Instead, I want to come back to some of what Alex said in his initial response, which I thought was an excellent attempt to stake out an anti-theist position that is nuanced and thoughtful (an attempt that, in my opinion, basically succeeds in that respect). I’ve myself complained about the lack of nuanced thought around anti-theism from non-anti-theists, and Alex goes to great lengths to talk about the ancillary issues that are often tied to anti-theism by its critics.

What I really appreciate, however, is the way he cuts right down to the core of the issue here:

Yes, there are awful atheists; yes, plenty of believers are lovely: I’m intimately acquainted with both those facts, and I don’t spend my life fighting with them over beliefs. Being religious isn’t wicked on its own, and secular people aren’t necessarily better. Ditching faith wouldn’t solve all our problems—I doubt that ditching any one thing would, and there would be better candidates if I had to choose. But I don’t think any of this conflicts with the idea that overall, religious movements do more harm than good. If antitheism is the word we’re using for that, the only question that matters is this: if everyone on earth woke up an atheist, would the world be a better or worse place? For me the answer is better, and it doesn’t take me long to reach it. I don’t know how to say that in a palatable way—I don’t say it to be cruel or unkind—but there it is. It’s what seems true to me. (emphasis mine)

It’s amazing how much this gets lost in these discussions because they get focused on the behavior of anti-theists (which of course isn’t relevant to the merits of anti-theism as a stance) or the implication of the anti-theist position. The first post by Martin and the subsequent response by Kaveh each spend an exorbitant amount of space on whether or not anti-theism (or its negation) is “prideful,” and I can’t fully express just how little I care about that. If beliefs can be truly considered arrogant — and I am inclined to see that as a wholly subjective descriptor colored more by individual biases than anything else — then that still wouldn’t make arrogant beliefs of necessity false, nor would they necessarily be morally objectionable.

But to the question itself: Do I think the world would be better or worse if everyone were an atheist? (Or perhaps, as Alex suggested to me in a comment on Facebook: Would it be worth it if everyone became an atheist?)

Alex says that his answer is quick, and that’s fine. The honest answer for me, though, is simply I don’t know.

Before I get to a fuller explanation of that answer, though, I want to draw an analogy here.

I have lived my entire life in the USA, a country which has basically always been strongly pro-capitalist. Capitalism is an integral part of the fabric of our national identity, in my opinion. The American ethos is one that presumes a capitalist mechanism to achieve “the American dream.” Virtually all of our cultural mythology comes down to ideas that are either capitalist in nature or which form the basis for American capitalism.

And in my opinion, this view isn’t wholly based on fiction. Capitalism has in fact had positive effects, but this uncritical adoration for it ignores a whole bevy of dire effects — and real human suffering — on its hands.

So if you were to ask me a similar question as above — perhaps “Would it be worth it if every society abandoned capitalism?” — I would have to answer similarly. I just don’t freaking know.

Moreover, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make this calculation. How do you quantify the positive effects of capitalism or the suffering it has caused? How would you even agree on a measure of value? Can you actually compare improvements in the quality of life to suffering, or should one be weighted more heavily? What can be fairly attributed to capitalism? What (if anything) counts as “ethical” capitalism? Should any forms of capitalism be dismissed as illegitimate?

I’m deeply skeptical that such an endeavor is feasible. So I consider myself agnostic on this point, in the truly Huxleyan sense of finding the whole matter inscrutable.

My position on the anti-theism question is fairly comparable. Religion is such a pervasive force and a diverse descriptor that a massive amount of information is needed to answer the question with any accuracy. One could draw broad conclusions based on a wide amount of imprecise information, but the resulting conclusion would be as imprecise as the data points.

And there’s a way in which the comparison here is also very instructive: I don’t need to draw the broader conclusion to oppose the negative aspects of either. No one in this conversation is saying that there aren’t clearly detrimental aspects of religion. Neither is anyone saying (as far as I can see, at least) that religion deserves deference of any kind. I am personally quite adamant about challenging religious claims to authority.

I don’t want unchecked religion any more than I want unchecked capitalism. I just haven’t gone the whole way to saying that the baby needs to be thrown out with the bathwater. I think there are greater goods to be achieved.

I do understand that other people (and not just Alex here) think that we have enough information to at least tentatively conclude that the world would be better off without religion. I know at least a good number of the arguments, many of which are spelled out by Alex (and Stephanie additionally draws an evocative analogy with abuse in her second post). I get that the kinds of counterarguments Alex mentions (like the fact that getting rid of religion wouldn’t be a panacea because, well, duh) don’t give him pause. I just disagree on those evaluations. YMMV.

And perhaps more to the point, the broader question doesn’t even interest me that much. Religion as an abstract notion mostly bores me. Religion as a living practice, however, is well worth looking at, and that’s where a critical evaluation comes in the most handy. But starting with a conclusion that religion is on the whole beneficial or on the whole detrimental to people doesn’t help that evaluation; it skews it. It leaves us either rationalizing harmful religiosity as not “true religion” or dismissing beneficial religiosity as illusory or an inadvertent product that could be accomplished through secular means.

Of course, I’m also not saying that everyone who espouses anti-theistic views or self-identifies as such is incapable of a more dispassionate analysis of religion than this. But I also don’t think it helps much.

In all this, though, I don’t think there is all that much daylight between the views of myself and those of most of the people I’ve linked to above. I don’t think anyone is really engaging in any kind of denial of reality, and there is more than a little nuanced consideration of different sides.

Anti-theists are welcome to their view, as are faitheists (or whatever label the “other side” admits to). I have no interest in setting myself in stark opposition. Still, I think it’s useful to note that there is a middle ground here, and it has its own merits as well.

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Image via Pixabay

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