Is the mere act of questioning religion an attack on it?
There are religious believers who seem to think so. An increasingly common refrain among religious writers and leaders is that the recent surge of atheist writing is unacceptably offensive and insulting. Intolerant, even.
I’m not going to say atheists are never rude. But much of the time, atheists get accused of offensiveness and intolerance for saying things like:
“I don’t agree with you.”
‘I don’t think you’ve made your case.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“What evidence do you have to support that?”
As Richard Dawkins pointed out in a recent Free Inquiry article, the kind of critical language that’s considered shockingly offensive when it’s applied to religion isn’t even blinked at when it’s applied to, say, political discourse or restaurant reviews.
But many believers are very serious about this. Example: A recent visitor to my blog accused me of trying to force my atheism down everyone’s throat. When I challenged him to find one place — just one — on my blog where I advocated forcing atheism on anyone, he replied that I was “trying to cow others into your restrictive view” and “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God.”
Right. The act of stating my opinion in public is the same as forcing that view onto others. I don’t, in fact, claim that I know there is no God, but never mind that now. I am cowing people into my narrow view through the awesome power of my blog. Which is read by hundreds of people every day! HUNDREDS, I tell you! Flee before me, puny earthlings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! I will cow you with the force of my opinions! Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated into my materialist Godless view; for while you may have the infinite power of the Almighty God on your side… I WIELD THE BLOG!
Bwa ha ha ha ha!
That’s the modern atheist movement, all right. Trying to destroy all that is holy by, you know, arguing. By trying to convince people that religion is mistaken. By writing books, and blogging, and going on TV, and such.
Of course, this was the same guy who later tried to defend biblical atrocities by arguing that genocide and the infanticide of one’s enemies were, in some cases, morally defensible. Thus earning him our household nickname “Senor McGenocide Pants.” So it’s a little hard to take him seriously.
But Senor McGenocide Pants isn’t alone. A lot of religious believers are very angry and very upset over the fact that atheists are starting to speak out: not just expressing our own opinions and theories, but seriously criticizing theirs.
And while I don’t think they’re at all right to be morally outraged, I do think they’re right to be afraid.
I think the act of looking at religion as just another hypothesis about the way the world works — and asking it to defend itself with evidence and logic just like any other hypothesis — is a radical act. All by itself, completely apart from any of the specific arguments against religion’s accuracy and morality. The mere act of shoving religion into the marketplace of ideas, and expecting it to fight it out with all the other ideas about why things are the way they are… I think people who are deeply attached to religion have every reason to be afraid of that. I think that act has more potential to eventually dismantle religious beliefs than any of the specific arguments leveled against those beliefs.
The thing is this. When you start examining religion closely, you realize that it has a large number of very effective protective layers: tropes and memes that not only perpetuate it but that defend it, and that defend it not just against criticism but against the very idea that criticism is legitimate. When non-believers talk about religion getting a free ride in our society and in the marketplace of ideas, these tropes are a big part of what we’re talking about.
A few examples:
1. Religious faith — i.e., believing in God despite the lack of evidence supporting the idea, despite the idea being inherently and by definition undemonstrable — is not only acceptable, but virtuous. Faith makes you a good person.
1a. A subset of that one: Holding strong, passionate religious beliefs is by itself a good thing, and being a “person of faith” is an admirable trait, one you have to give at least grudging respect to… regardless of what those beliefs are, regardless of whether they’re demonstrably untrue or demonstrably harmful.
1b. And a converse of that one: People with less spiritual faith — or who deny spirituality altogether — are cynical, untrusting, selfish, and/or lost. After all, a person’s soul or spirit is the most central and important part of them, the part that makes them who they are, and denying it means denying your truest self.
2. Letting go of doubts and questions about your faith is an act of love and trust that will make your life easier — and again, an act that makes you a virtuous person.
3. The more apparently paradoxical or irrational a religious belief is, the more special it is to accept and believe it. (The mysteriousness and paradoxy of the Trinity is, for many believers in it, one of the things that makes it magnificent; and for some observant Jews, the very irrationality of dietary laws is what makes them a serious test of faith.)
4. Faith is just a different way of knowing, separate from evidence or reason.
4a. Religion and science operate in different realms. The spiritual realm is by its very nature beyond questions of evidence, and expecting it to stand up to inquiries based on evidence and reason is absurd.
5. Religious leaders and teachers, such as priests, ministers, rabbis, etc., should be given an extra level of social respect and deference. (We see how well this one worked out in the Catholic priesthood pedophilia scandal…)
6. The objects connected with religion — books, relics, devotional items, etc. — should be given an extra level of respect and deference, greater than that of other historical or art objects.
7. Questioning people’s religion, and pointing out inaccuracies/ inconsistencies/ immoralities with it, is a heretical crime, punishable by exile, imprisonment, torture, or death.
8. Questioning people’s religion, and pointing out inaccuracies/ inconsistencies/ immoralities with it, is rude and intolerant, whether it’s done at the dinner table or in the op ed columns.
9. Being tolerant of other people’s religion requires that you not criticize it.
And that’s not even a complete list. That’s just what I came up with in an hour on a Saturday night.
If you accept and practice a religion, many of these ideas may seem self-evident. But if you are a believer, I’d like to ask you to step back from the tropes for a moment and see them from the outside, the way a non-believer would, or even simply someone who’s not sure what they believe.
Because if you don’t already start with the premise that God exists and religion is true, these tropes don’t look like self-evident truths. They look like self-perpetuating protective layers that exist to shield religion from the necessity of defending itself against inquiries into its accuracy, consistency, and/or morality. Look at them carefully. The tropes aren’t arguments for why religion is right. They’re rationalizations for why religion shouldn’t have to prove that it’s right, escape hatches for when it’s backed into a corner.
These tropes are, as you may have noticed, extremely circular. And while that circularity is excruciatingly frustrating for anyone engaging in debate with a believerâŠ well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The circular, self-justifying nature of these protective layers, while it makes them logically absurd, also makes them extremely resistant to logic, or to evidence.
And that’s why the very act of questioning religion — of saying, “Okay, if you’re such a great and true idea, prove yourself” — may be the single most important thing atheists are doing. The act of asking —
“Is the emperor wearing any clothes?”
“It sure doesn’t look like he’s wearing any clothes — can you show me some evidence that he is?”
“Invisible clothes — that doesn’t seem to make sense. Can you give me a good argument for why it does?”
— is, I think, even more powerful and more radical than simply saying, “The emperor has no clothes!”
After all, if all atheists are saying is, “The emperor has no clothes!”… that’s just another opinion. Another belief, in the great tapestry of beliefs about the magnificent and ultimately unknowable mystery of the emperor’s invisible garments. And thus, it’s a lot easier to ignore.
But if what we’re saying is, “Is the emperor wearing any clothes? Can you show me some evidence that he’s wearing clothes? Can you give me a rational argument supporting the idea of invisible clothes?”… that changes the entire conversation. It seriously chips away at the self-protective tropes to ask questions like these:
Why is faith — believing in a supernatural entity for which there’s no evidence — a good thing? Why is it a good thing to let go of questions and doubts about the supernatural entity? Why do the paradoxes and irrationalities in supernatural beliefs make those beliefs more special, when paradoxes and irrationalities in any other opinions undercut them? If people are really knowing and perceiving a real supernatural entity, how does that work — and why do different people perceive that entity in such radically different and contradictory ways? If the supernatural entity acts on and interacts with the physical world, why shouldn’t that be an observable phenomenon with results we can rationally investigate? Why should books and objects connected with a supernatural belief — and people whose job it is to explain their supernatural belief to others — deserve any more respect and deference than anybody or anything else?
And why is asking questions and expressing disagreement with opinions about the supernatural entity any more rude or intolerant than asking questions and expressing disagreement with political or artistic opinions?
All of these questions weaken the armor — the automatic deference, the “get out of jail free” cards, the exemption from the rules that everyone else has to play by — and bring religion back down to earth, to the level of any other hypothesis about why the world is the way it is, with the same rules of what constitutes evidence and morality and a good argument.
Where it doesn’t stand a chance.
Without all this protective shielding and special privileging, religion comes down to a hypothesis that an invisible supernatural entity brought all of the physical world into existence by magic; shapes the progress of that world in invisible magical ways we can’t perceive; cares deeply about people but nevertheless fails to protect us from terrible suffering and often brings about that suffering on his/her/its own; and will let us live forever in a state of bliss after we die, as long as we act according to the right set of wildly differing opinions about him/her/it. And the only evidence we have for any of this is the evidence inside our own brains, and inside other people’s brains, and in the brains of people who wrote down their opinions in books hundreds or thousands of years ago.
It doesn’t stand a chance.
I could be wrong about that. After thousands of years, you’d think some convincing evidence for God would have come up by now… but maybe it still will, and if it does, I’ll accept it. And maybe the “you get to live forever if you do the right thing” trope is compelling enough to survive even without any evidence supporting it. But I tend to doubt it. I think that, if atheists succeed in stripping it of its self-protective armor, the God hypothesis will eventually dwindle into memory and history.
That’s not to say Senor McGenocide Pants is right. Questioning religion and expressing disagreement with it doesnât force atheism down anyone’s throat. But it does force religion to stand on its own feet and prove itself.
What I don’t understand is why that’s a bad thing.
Thanks to Daylight Atheism, in whose comment thread I developed these ideas (as well as the “puny earthlings” rant). And thanks to Daniel Dennet, who write a lot about religion’s self-protective tropes in “Breaking the Spell.”