I’ve been catching up on some material since I’ve been back from writing in New York (I’ve also picked up a few very exciting and promising projects), and I stumbled on a roundtable discussion from last month—how should atheists engage with religious believers?
Steve starts by explaining some of the issues with some forms of criticism, and James argues that anti-theists tend to focus on religion to the exclusion of other social ills:
STEVE: The line between a firebrand and a diplomat is sometimes blurred. Passionate argument isn’t the problem. Being a passionate advocate for something has a greater effect on one’s listeners than an abstract, detached approach. But when that passion tilts toward arrogance and ridicule, you’ve lost your audience. When a firebrand attacks a believer’s beliefs as silly or stupid, the reality is that they are attacking the believer as silly and stupid, even if they explicitly claim they’re not. Again, perception is reality, and I think diplomats understand this fact of human nature better than firebrands.
JAMES: Anti-theists often seem to display an over-sensitivity to religious oppression and an under-sensitivity to oppressions not based on religion. They often see religion as an automatic problem, rather than as a complex array of interconnecting social forces that can have both positive and negative consequences.
James goes on to make one of the most succinct arguments for our cause that I’ve seen in a while:
If the rallying cry of the anti-theist is “religion poisons everything”, then I think my response would be “religion poisons some things, and may make others sweeter.” Diplomats see the task as untangling the good from the bad, while anti-theists tend to see the task as dismantling religion wholesale.
A perfect example of this is the breathless and shortsighted quote by physicist Steven Weinberg, which is echoed by many anti-theists: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This quote of course ignores that religion just as well may make bad people do good things, and that there are myriad ways of making good people do bad things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. To get good people to do bad things doesn’t take anything more complicated than a passable understanding of basic social psychology.
I also greatly enjoyed this exchange between Kaveh and James in their shared roundtable discussion:
KAVEH: I strongly disagree with Steve that if you call religious beliefs “stupid” you’re calling religious people “stupid”. There are many anti-theists including me who find calling people stupid wrong because of its inherent ableism and yet we have no problem with pointing out the absurdity of religious ideas. And as I have said before, I simply don’t care how effective my arguments are. My whole existence is ineffective. I only care about the truth. I think of myself as a writer and an intellectual, not an activist.
JAMES: With the greatest respect, I find this a self-indulgent position. When we decry injustice while relieving ourselves of any responsibility to effectively change the world, we are saying, essentially, that satisfying our own psychological needs – to vent, to be “authentic”, to be angry – is more important than the lives of those harmed by the issues we discuss. We have a responsibility to get beyond ourselves in order to bring about a just society.