Silly Arguments

Taner Edis lists one of Harris’ “silly arguments” against atheism in which “religion is used as a rationale for other aims.” He concludes, correctly I think, that “paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.” I agree. After all, the Abolitionist Movement in the U.S. probably would not have gotten very far in the North if its early adherents did not fashion a religious argument to bolster the main secular case. That’s hardly a silly argument. However I imagine that if we took a poll most of our fellow atheists would come down on Harris’ side. Indeed, maybe it’s because I’m reading Dawkin’s new book and so I’m sensing the new angrier tone but there seems to be a strong feeling right now that religious ideas are at the root of all evil in the world. This seems way too simplistic. As Jane Galt asks:

[I]s it reasonable for atheist/agnostic types to add an extra special layer of dislike to ideas that are held for religious reasons? People hold ideas for all sorts of reasons that are not, to me, obviously more attractive than plucking them out of the sacred book that has guided your culture for several thousand years. The basic theorems of your religion have at least stood the test of time, unlike Angelina Jolie’s oeuvre. Sure, maybe God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean His pronouncements must be stupider than Alec Baldwin’s, or your college roommate with delusions of Derrida.

I can’t meet her all the way here and agree that religion’s “basic theorems” have “stood the test of time.” Clearly (as she admits) the basic theorem of God’s existence isn’t exactly passing that test of time. However, I take her basic point to be true. Today, an idea’s merits should rest more on its pragmatic fit in the complex web of a society rather than whether or not its derivation is secular or sectarian. I’d like to see atheists accept or reject an idea on its merits alone rather than because it came out of theism. Too far in that direction and we become ideologues ourselves, losing sight of the critical thinking techniques for which even our critics admire us. If theists propose some horrible idea based on religious notions then I’ll be the first to condemn it. However, if they propose an idea which is sound but couched in religious language then I would want to support it for the underlying reasons that make it a good idea rather than discard it as tainted.

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

    JS said: I’d like to see atheists accept or reject an idea on its merits alone rather than because it came out of theism.

    I’m sure that if they are reasonable people they would judge an idea on its merits regardless of its providence. However, can an idea based on theistic philosophy *be* reasonable in the atheistic sense? Such ideas should not be rejected out of hand but they should be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism and suspicion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 Hallq

    I rather like the Jane Galt quote–but do please note that Dawkins has explicitly renounced the idea that religion is the root of all evil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    You make a good point and I agree with it. It seems that many atheists adopt a less pragmatic, more ideological and rigid kind of one-dimensional approach that infects their public policy perspective. When it comes to public policy its not an issue of what do the religionists advocate so anti-religionists can advocate the opposite.

    Furthermore, public policy is not all about what is good for religion versus what is bad for religion, its more about what is good for people versus what is bad for people. And as long as people are religious, this fact has to be accommodated in a public policy context. We ALL have a freedom of conscience and we don’t use government to deny this freedom for those we disagree with just because their beliefs are wrong. I am as radical as anyone with regard to atheism and anti-theism, which I advocate and promote, and I disagree with those who say atheists should keep quiet and not rock the boat and not actively assert their civic equality, but I feel I don’t share the political views of many atheists because I don’t look at public policy through just that lense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02676321490856223383 ts

    What part of “against atheism” don’t you understand? Harris didn’t say that it’s silly to consider the context in which religious movements appear, just that this is a silly argument against atheism. No matter what the facts are about “public policy” and other elements of human culture, none of this touches the existence of God. Sheesh.


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