“Silly retorts to atheism”: Really?

In his latest column in Free Inquiry, Sam Harris gives a list of “silly retorts to atheism” made by atheists reluctant to oppose religion, and announces a contest to come up with short replies.

Now, the four items on Harris’s list are indeed dubious. Nonetheless, I think most of them bring up good questions, which are obscured by Harris’s caricature. Let me go through them one by one.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

I don’t know about “wrong.” But it surely makes sense to ask why we should aggressively promote nonbelief to those who appear to benefit from their religion and who also do not interfere with the lives of skeptics. There seem to be many such people. I doubt anyone can make the case that most people would be better off without their supernatural beliefs. Most of the evidence that I know of suggests the opposite: that religious belief and activity benefit most believers. It seems at least defensible to say that many people need religion. Acknowledging this does not mean refraining from criticizing religion, only paying attention to context. There are social enterprises—academic life in particular—in which subjecting beliefs and institutions to criticism is normal and proper. Why should we expect that public life in general should fit the same mold?

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

At face value, this is clearly false. Religion is not merely “superstructure” or a disguise for real motivations. Nevertheless, people who might say this do, I suspect, also have a point. Religions vary widely; religious movements can even claim to defend the same scriptures and doctrines and yet interpret them to produce significantly different political and moral orientations. Understanding religion in the real world requires much more than a critique of an idealized orthodox doctrine; paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

Again, false at face value. But it does not hurt to recognize that much, probably even most of religious activity is not directly concerned with claims about reality. Take, for example, creationism. It would be absurd to suggest that it is only metaphor, or that it is not a serious form of conflict between science and the conservative Abrahamic religions. But any visitor to a conservative Christian bookstore can see that creationism, while important, is a comparatively minor preoccupation of the faithful. The bulk of Christian literature has other interests. It is a mistake to think that religion is always focused on supernatural claims. Religious people usually take the supernatural for granted and apply religion to very practical interests.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

I wouldn’t put it so strongly, but I think there is considerable truth here. All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains and that religion is ingrained in human societies. Expecting that belief in supernatural agents can be overcome without some serious reconfiguring of human nature does, indeed, border on the delusional. If Dawkins is not wasting his time, it is not because he can expect any great success for his hopes of a nonreligious human future, but because his efforts at consciousness-raising can help among populations that are already inclined toward nonbelief. Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people will likely remain a small social minority. Many of us value a social space for skepticism, and a healthy, confident minority of reflective nonbelievers helps provide this space. Moreover, this is a realistic goal. I can see how some nonbelievers could worry that a quixotic crusade against all religion could distract from more attainable ends.

I wish Harris would start behaving more sensibly, particularly as he seems to have become some kind of media spokesperson for atheism. He has an irritating tendency to insinuate that less aggressive forms of nonbelief are associated with intellectual cowardice. Nonsense. People have reasons for holding back; at the very least these need to be argued against, not caricatured and countered with slogan contests.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11024988454431006674 CyberKitten

    Taner Edis said: All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains and that religion is ingrained in human societies.

    Certainly there appears to be *some* evidence to support this but it begs the question ‘Why is this so?’ Need such beliefs be the inevitable consequence of being human? Or is religion just an historical accident?

    Taner Edis said: Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people will likely remain a small social minority.

    Based on what evidence? In Europe it appears that “Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people” have become the majority. Considering the apparent depth of religious feelings in days gone by I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that the majority of the human population could become non-theists in the future. Theism is not an inevitable postion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Taner,

    Thanks for the post. I find it very much agreeable to my view.

    I know many theists … don’t we all?

    By and large, Harris’ efforts widens the divide between their world-view and his. I think we can all agree that there are too many sectarians who fancy themselves as God’s policeman and go about condemning the lives and opinions of others.

    I’d like to hope that the self-annointed leader of atheists would see the wrong in policing of thought. However, it appears that Harris does not :-(

    In this he is no better than the self-annointed messengers of God.

    I’m worried that if he continues on his present course, Harris will come to share much of the same character as those he struggles against :-(

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Cyberkitten: “In Europe it appears that “Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people” have become the majority.”

    I chose my words carefully. In many parts of Europe, indifference to organized religion has become widespread. This is far from reflective, science-minded nonbelief, though such social conditions are probably more congenial to the flourishing of a minority of rationalist nonbelievers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Taner Edis said: I chose my words carefully.

    Indeed, though maybe *too* carefully?

    When you talk about “Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people” you are ensuring that you are talking about a minority group. If however, we’re talking about atheists or even agnostics we’re talking about a much larger group. Add in those who are disinterested in religion (either actively or passively) and certainly in some parts of Europe you’re talking about a sizable minority or even the majority population.

    Such facts lead me to believe that religion may not be as ingrained in human society as you believe. If religion is primarily a cultural phenomena then it is open to change. If a societies culture becomes largely secular in nature and the people follow suit then it follows that theists will become a ‘small social minority’ rather than atheists – reflective or otherwise.

    bpabbott said: I know many theists … don’t we all?

    Erm… Nope. I know one or two, not many – though people here do tend to keep their religious beliefs to themselves. Most of the people I know are either indifferent to religion or atheists. I guess it all depends on where you live & who you congregate with?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13159062997090223850 Isaac

    You wrote:

    I doubt anyone can make the case that most people would be better off without their supernatural beliefs. Most of the evidence that I know of suggests the opposite: that religious belief and activity benefit most believers. It seems at least defensible to say that many people need religion. Acknowledging this does not mean refraining from criticizing religion, only paying attention to context. There are social enterprises—academic life in particular—in which subjecting beliefs and institutions to criticism is normal and proper. Why should we expect that public life in general should fit the same mold?

    1. People can and have made exactly the case that the religious would be better off without their religion. You can disagree, or rebut, but the first sentence in the quote is false. A case certainly can be made.

    2. In every area except religious belief, every idea is subject to public criticism and frank analysis in most cases. If I say that the Bears should have won the Superbowl, the guy next to me on the bus will not hesitate to speak up if he is a Colts fan. The same goes for political ideas, or tastes in music or movies, or any of the other countless ideas that people feel passionately about, and we’re all expected to be adult enough to handle these discussions without flying off the handle.

    However, when it comes to religion, any discussion at all in our society has to be handled very gracefully, and we must always be careful to never say anything too critical. Why is this? Why do other atheists get nervous when I proudly proclaim that I don’t believe in God? Why is it OK for a Christian to hand out tracts, and for them to tell me that I’m going to hell, but everyone gets scandalized if I tell him that he’s wasting his life pushing a myth?

    Religious tolerance is a euphemism for intolerance of atheism and fear of free speech.

    Harris does not endorse “policing of thought,” in any sort of Big Brother sense. He endorses pride in atheism and courage to be public about it–something that most atheists are sorely lacking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08198491806219153442 John

    Does it really matter whether religious thought is inevitable or not, or whether there are parts of Europe that have cast it aside or not? The reality is that it is here and strongly felt and that it is a big part of our cultural experience whether you are religious or not and it needs to be dealt with that understanding.

    The trappings of the Christian religion are so intertwined with our culture that it takes a lot more time than a couple centuries and a lot more than some high profile academics to wrestle it out of the typical American conscience. To think otherwise is to show how far removed you are from the day to day world of most Americans.

    As has been pointed out in these comments, religion is culture and culture is subject to change – and culture change is often a shifting in the window dressing and not the roots of the perception. People have looked down on the morals of teenagers since the times of the Puritans, only the current cultural affectations of teenagers have changed in that time. It’s the same with all sorts of other popular perceptions.

    Besides, Europe’s long term history with the way religion has affected their daily lives as well as the sweep of their history is far more devastating than anything we in America have experienced in our brief little history. The European experience is a great motivator to turning to critical, rational and secular thought as a solution to governance, but Americans just don’t have the same impetus.

    I believe that good education and LOTS of time will eventually breed a kind of populist secularism in the United States and the high profile atheists now will be part of that historical mix. Atheists just need to have, as it were, the patients of saints until the cultural transformation is complete.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10615233201833238198 Paul Manata

    Hello,

    Says John,

    “I believe that good education and LOTS of time will eventually breed a kind of populist secularism in the United States and the high profile atheists now will be part of that historical mix. Atheists just need to have, as it were, the patients of saints until the cultural transformation is complete.”

    People have been offering this eschatological prophecy for hundreds and hundreds of years. It kind of reminds me of those Christians y’all love to make fun of – you know, the ones who are constantly saying Jesus will return in the next decade, generation, or whatever.

    Furthermore, if, as cyber kitten says, “All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains,” then how could education affect this Darwinian given survival trait? And, if it did, how would they pass this change in them on in the gene pools to their children?

    Lastly, let’s remember what David Hume said,

    “Look out for a people entirely void of religion, and if you find them at all, be assured that they are but a few degrees removed from the brutes.”

    And so it appears that, pace Hume, John Lennon atheology is winning the day:

    “Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace

    You may say that I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one”

    cheers,

    PM

    P.S. I’d also add that some Christians take it as a sign that their religion is true when atheists spend vast amiunts of time and resources trying to convert them in a Harris-Dawkinsian manner. So, this evangelistic outreach may have the oppisite outcome than the one they’re trying to reach. I’m not saying don’t do it. I for one, am thankful for how the “New Atheism” is hurting the cause of the allegedly intellectual and non-emotional secularist – who just cares about reason and good argumentation. Also, as a Calvinist, I know that God is using “The New Atheists” as a means to root out false believers in His church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17933545393470431585 Martin Wagner

    Also, as a Calvinist, I know that God is using “The New Atheists” as a means to root out false believers in His church.

    Yeah, because, you know, an omniscient, omnipotent being wouldn’t have any other way of finding out who they were.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10615233201833238198 Paul Manata

    Martin,

    No, because God uses means to accomplish things in the ecclesia historia. God ordaines the ends and the means. Obviously, then, He’d know who the apostates were, but these are some of the means he’s chosen to reach the end. It would be nice, for a change, if unbeleivers managed to familiarize themselves with the relevant Calvinistic literature.

    best,

    ~PM

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00186042121713501568 God-Rousing Dog Pipes

    Paul Manata, I’m not sure what you intend with that Hume quote, but I think you might be misrepresenting him.

    That quote does not concern post-religious societies of secularists and nontheists. It concerns super-primitive cultures so uncivilized that they don’t even have religion. And for the record, the word “brutes” here means dumb animals, not reckless amoral nihilists. What Hume is doing is making a (not very PC) claim about mindless savages who might as well be apes. He’s not making a claim relevant to (say) the Soviet Union, or the French Revolution, or (for that matter) Japan or Estonia or Sweden or the Czech Republic.

    The quote comes from the very end of his Natural History of Religion, in the middle of a litany of “this is true, and yet this is true” paradoxes intended to illustrate how religion contains both the best and the worst of things: “Ignorance is the mother of Devotion: A maxim that is proverbial, and confirmed by general experience. Look out for a people, entirely destitute of religion: If you find them at all, be assured, that they are but a few degrees removed from brutes.” So on the one hand, religious devoutness comes from ignorance, and on the other hand, any culture out there without any religion would surely be practically animal-like.

    Also Hume said something very relevant to the topic of this post. His close friend Adam Smith was visiting Hume on his deathbed and Hume was talking about the excuses he might give to Charon to try to avoid death: “But I might still urge, ‘Have a little patience, good Charon; I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.’ But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. ‘You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.’”

    So although Hume apparently wanted to see the downfall of the great religions, he was pessimistic about it happening anytime soon.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14125606089717025025 Rev. Moe

    Paul Manata said:
    Furthermore, if, as cyber kitten says, “All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains,” then how could education affect this Darwinian given survival trait? And, if it did, how would they pass this change in them on in the gene pools to their children?

    You seem to forget evolution, despite your nod to Darwin. The earliest humans did not have access to the kind of scientific understanding that we have today, therefore what they did not understand was given a mystical answer, for lack of any other answer. That kind of thinking took hold, and was, over time, imprinted on our brains.

    The same kind of thing can happen in reverse now that we do have the scientific and technological means to not only explain much of the mysteries of the world, but ensure those explanations reach even the most remote parts of our society.

    Evolution has not stopped, although it may seem like it to us because we can’t see the changes taking place. Noticeable evolution takes hundreds or thousands of years. Also, there is a societal evolution that takes place as well as the biological kind.

    It could be argued that Christianity itself was one form of societal evolution, where morality and the concept of a “loving God” helped shape the course of human civilization in new ways. Perhaps the Enlightenment was yet another step in human societal evolution as well, as it brought forth our more compassionate and intellectual traits. If that is true, then we are already on the course to a time when “magical thinking” will be sent further and further into our recessive genes, while our capacity to learn, think, reason, and embrace reality will come to the forefront.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14645354804351238807 Justin

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I did have one thought on the position of Harris concerning religious moderation. I think he goes too far in criticizing moderates as much as he does, but I think he is doing a good thing in bringing their attention to the fact that you can become so moderate as to lose contact with authentic Christianity. If being a Christian means that you believe roughly the same things that Christians did eighteen or nineteen centuries ago, then that will mean accepting concepts like hell and that homosexuality is wrong. Religious moderates should not think that they can have it both ways: living according to modern sensibilities yet still claiming to be perfectly consistent with biblical/patristic beliefs.

    If they want to say that things have changed, that’s fine, but they should be forced to try and make that argument (as the Catholic Noonan did in his book A Church That Can and Cannot Change), and grapple with the implications of a changing morality (or doctrine). If some “moderates” are to some extent cafeteria Christians–picking and choosing beliefs according to a whim–then they should be called on that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11763611413119869009 False Fable

    Rev. moe: You seem to forget evolution, despite your nod to Darwin.

    If evolution is the mechanism, then we have a long wait ahead of us. Evolution works on the scale of millions of years (except in very small breeding populations), and even then only in response to conditions that persist in the long term. So not only would we have to wait for countless millenia, but the “evolutionary impact” of modern life would have to persist along that whole time frame. Any cultural regression (nuclear war, widespread famine, global plague, etc) would re-set the clock, so to speak.


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