Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True

Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True March 8, 2012

Alain de Botton has caused a stir in the atheist blogosphere, and particularly here at Freethought Blogs, with his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. More specifically he caused waves with his article on CNN , which is heavy on selections from the book, and which begins as follows:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

Now, in principle I share an interest in exploring what good things may be reclaimed from religion which are presently falsely taken to be the exclusive (or even proper!) province of authoritarian, faith-based religions. But I am not certain I will agree with de Botton in the particulars of what we should take from religions and what we should leave. And, while I understand, the first line of his article (for reasons I will spell out in some detail), I essentially loathe, and want to strongly contest, his attitude towards those of us challengers of religious beliefs that he unfairly mischaracterizes as “fanatics”.

First, my sympathies with Mr. de Botton.

Questions with obvious answers are boring from a philosophical or a scientific point of view. This is a point I have long been planning to mention on my blog as part of explaining what often impels me (and Eric Steinhart) to explore more complicated questions about religion’s possible value and not just focus on its easily refutable falsehoods. The propositional claims which religious traditions and their theologians make about supernatural personal gods and their magical doings are so patently false as to seem to most intellectuals to be an utter waste of time to refute. The questions we normally want to ask about any subject are the ones whose satisfactory answers are not so bleedingly obvious to nearly anyone who is simply willing to actually apply minimal critical thinking skills to them.

Most academics are not interested in the question of whether religious beliefs are true not because they are uninterested in reality or find truth itself boring, but because they would like to spend their time actually discovering something new about reality—new truths which cannot be discovered while one is shooting fish in a barrel. This is the obvious reason why we do not have academic journal articles devoted to refuting every clearly false statement some religion makes.

So to most intellectuals who are interested in learning something when thinking about religion, the question of whether supernatural beings intervene in the world is a pointless question to have anywhere on the agenda. Whenever it is raised, the answer is simple: “No. Next question!”

Actual puzzles about religion are questions like, “Why is religion here?” “Why is it so persistent and even resurgent over a century after Nietzsche declared God dead?” “Is it eradicable and, if so, how?” “Why has natural selection among memes favored it so maddeningly despite its falseness and all the attendant harms that come with false beliefs?” “Is it merely a memetic parasite or might it have some advantage giving characteristics to those who have it?” “Is there anything of value that is presently found in religions that has not yet been satisfactorily replicated in superstition-free/authoritarianism-free secular forms?” “Are there ways to learn techniques for community building and values inculcation from religions without replicating the authoritarian and sectarian cultishness of existing religions?”

These are interesting questions. Atheists looking to move on from faith-based, authoritarian, patriarchal, regressive religions to either a wholly self-sufficient secular society which makes no use of religions whatsoever or to a secular religion purified of the vices of faith-based religions, should be vigorously and open-mindedly asking such questions. Whether or not de Botton does a good job at this is a different question which I will critically explore in several coming posts as I make my way through Religion for Atheists. I’ve just started reading it. But I do not find the assertion that “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true'” problematic insofar as he is only spelling out that it is so obviously false that if we are to be intellectually, ethically, and socially constructive we should have more truth-productive lines of inquiry.

It is much like telling someone who is obsessed with whether a literary story is true that the least interesting thing about literature is whether it is based on true stories. What literature has to offer quite often has little to do with literal truth. Whatever is of potentially redeemable value in religion is similarly not to be found in the literal truth of its claims. It is in its techniques for connecting people and for helping them connect their ethics and metaphysics to practices which express and reinforce them.

But even though I understand where de Botton is essentially coming from in one sense, I also find his blanket dismissal of the value of atheist discussions of the truth of religious beliefs to be pretty clueless and unhelpful. He contemptuously trivializes all our attempts to dispel religious believers of their errors and uncharitably demonizes us when he writes in Religion for Atheists (Kindle Locations 47-50):

Attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining for atheists. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs. Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.

Contrary to de Botton’s characterization, I do not spend so much of my precious time refuting false religious beliefs because it is “entertaining”. Nor is it because I want to “show up my enemies”, nor because I think of religious believers as “thorough-going simpletons” or “maniacs”. Really—what is “entertaining” about showing the ways that an obvious falsehood is false? Maybe laughing with marvel at some of the absurdities that people can believe with a straight face is fun in a cathartic sort of way. But soberly facing head on the fact that otherwise fully educable people believe such patent nonsense in the 21st Century and that they allow their delusions to influence their ethics and politics is not entertaining at all, but alarming and angering.

And intricately picking through all the obfuscations and illogical twists and turns of their absurd theological and philosophical rationalizations is tedious philosophical labor that is only worth it if it has the benefit of making what should be clear to everyone finally obvious to the billions of people who have been conditioned through enormously powerful techniques to cling to them with an iron grip as a matter of their most fundamental identity. Too much educational effort and philosophical creativity has to be expended on the obvious when it could be spent on illuminating more fruitful questions. That’s just the way things are when so many people are systematically deceived and repressed by religious falsehoods.

I think I speak for all the New Atheists–even those most notoriously and unabashedly curt with believers–when I say that I do not do this out of the desire to make anyone feel stupid or crazy, but rather to help them become at last capable of sifting some really obvious facts from really obvious fictions for themselves, that they may engage with reality better and live better lives accordingly. I think that having more truths increases people’s autonomy as it makes possible better informed, and therefore more genuine, choices. I think that removing the clutter of encumbering falsehoods makes people’s decisions more likely to be better both for themselves and for those who are impacted by their beliefs and actions. This is my motive. No smug superiority enters the picture, at least for me. I don’t see the world as made up of people who are simply smart atheists or simply dumb people of faith, where debates about ideas are just opportunities for asserting one’s identity or attacking another’s. I don’t think the religious are so stupid and defenseless that they need to be spared the indignity and embarrassment of having their “pathetic” ideas “pedantically” picked apart in public.

I take the time to meticulously dissect the flaws in faith-based beliefs precisely because I do not believe that the non-atheist is so hopelessly simple-minded or maniacal that they are beyond reason. I do not just write them off as inherently faith-believers and then just tend to “my own kind” and our replacement institutions. We all share reason, we all share humanity, and most of us share sanity. We can reason together and most people are smart enough and sane enough to change their minds if only they can overcome the inordinately powerful conditioning that their religions have given them. de Botton may have so impoverished an imagination or sense of compassion that he cannot imagine any other reason that an atheist might deign to critically discuss religion with believers besides cruel sport.  But some us actually perceive religious believers as our equals and worthy of our patient treatment of their ideas.

de Botton’s mischaracterization of people like me is insultingly simplistic. It is self-serving to his apparent desire to pit himself as a wise moderate beset on both sides by those who he paints with a black and white brush as equally fanatics. I unequivocally reject the false choice he offers between salvaging whatever may be good in religions, on the one hand, and criticizing the false beliefs and anti-rational training in belief religions give, on the other.

I happily seek both what is of value in religion which may not yet have been adequately replicated in secular forms, while also staying wary of, and unapologetically denouncing, religion’s unique dangers. And I happily seek out new, constructive questions about the actual nature and dynamics of religion, while also doing my part as an educator to combat the pervasive falsehoods that billions of people believe and live by. Religious traditions not only impede the development of adequate critical thinking skills but they actively train people in fallacious habits of thinking and believing. And they actively repress and regress worthwhile ethical and political development. Writing and speaking vigorously about religions’ falsehoods is a civic obligation for all public atheists who care about their fellow human beings’ freedom from authoritarian institutions and about their freedom to think and act according to the light of reason.

This is not fanaticism. This is precisely the kind of concern for morality and for our fellow human being that de Botton claims irreligious atheists do not yet have and which we need to learn from religion (and through him, of course). New Atheism is the movement already uniting atheists in community and in common moral cause. We have New Atheism to thank for the increasing identity-consciousness among atheists. That de Botton recoils from us as fanatics maybe betrays that he likes the idea of morally adamant, identity-forming atheist community that rivals religions more in theory than in actual practice. Maybe his implicit contempt extends in fact not only to the theistically religious but to the atheistically so as well.

But more on that as we go.

In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

Follow up posts on de Botton’s book:

Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity

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