Answering Laura: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 3

Laura, thank you.

I think I need to clarify my point about faith. I thought I’d made it clearly in my original post, Well, There’s Your Problem; but if Laura — who does, in fact, try hard to understand what I’m saying and give me the benefit of the doubt — didn’t understand it, than I obviously said it wrong. For which I apologize. I do treat this blog as my “thinking out loud” place, and I’m basically okay with that — but I’m a writer, and I hate it when I’m not clear, especially about important and sensitive subjects. So I want to clarify. (And I want to do it as a blog post instead of a comment/reply, since it’s a little too big for that.)

Here’s what I’m trying to say.

I really and truly don’t have a problem with people who hold beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence. We all do that to some extent — if not about religion, then about other things — and it’s part of what makes us human, part of what we all have in common. I make a big distinction between people with religious beliefs that they don’t have evidence for (what I’ll call “unsupported faith”) and people with religious beliefs that actually run counter to the evidence, and who deliberately reject the evidence in favor of their beliefs (what I’ll call “counter-factual faith”). And while I think atheism is a radically different outlook from the latter, I don’t agree at all that it’s radically different from the former. I don’t personally get it about the God hypothesis, and I happen to think it’s mistaken… but I do get it about acting on hunches and gut feelings. (I go into more detail about this in Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should Be Friends.)

And as long as someone’s particular version of the God hypothesis doesn’t flatly contradict mountains of evidence — and as long as they aren’t treating their hypothesis as fact and trying to shove it down other people’s throats — it’s not a big deal to me. I don’t think unsupported faith — or to secularize it, acting on hunches — is a sin.

But I don’t think it’s a virtue, either.

I think it’s common. I think it’s human. I think it sometimes results in brilliant inspiration, and sometimes in disastrous mistakes. (Let me tell you about my first several boyfriends sometime…) But I don’t think that — in and of itself and regardless of the actual beliefs being held — believing things for which you have no evidence is an admirable trait that makes you a good person.

And treating unsupported faith/hunches as if it were a virtue… that’s what I think is a problem. That’s what I think causes harm. And that’s the point I was trying to get at in my original post.

Here’s why.

1) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue makes people susceptible to other unsupported ideas — many of which are nonsense, and some of which are dangerous nonsense.

This is a point Ingrid keeps making when we talk about this. When people believe that acting on an unsupported hunch makes them admirable and good, they’re more likely to act on unsupported hunches in other areas. They’re more likely to, say, believe that magnets in their shoes will cure their arthritis; or that $200 an acre for that Florida beachfront property seems like a great bargain; or that Mr. Amir down the street just seems shady, if you know what I mean; or that capitalism will collapse of its own
contradictions in a glorious workers’ revolution, after which we will all eat strawberries and cream; or that the Iraqi people will shower us with flowers and greet us as liberators.

It’s one thing to say “Hunches are a part of life and we all have to make them sometimes.” It’s one thing to honor your hunches and respect the place they have in your life. But when people say “The fact that I act on my hunches makes me a really great person,” I think they’re more likely to do it more often — and less carefully.

Which leads me to Number 2:

2) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue makes people more likely to devalue evidence, intelligence, and reason.

In this country, we have a culture that devalues intelligence, education, and thoughtfulness, to the point of outright deriding it. From Presidential candidates getting mocked for speaking French, to smart kids
getting beaten up at school, we are often not a culture that values thinking and learning.

I think a lot of factors go into this, including complicated class stuff. But I think a big part of it comes from the “hunch as virtue” idea. When people pat themselves on the back for thinking with their gut and their
heart instead of their brain, I think they’re more likely to dismiss the kind of thinking that is done with the brain.

(Slight tangent: Which is a shame. Because in my own experience, the weird paradox of hunches is that, the more willing you are to pay attention to the outcome of your hunches and admit that they’re sometimes way off, the clearer and better they get. My hunches are WAY better now that I’m 45 than they were when I was 20.)

3) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue gives religion a free ride.

There’s a strong tendency in our society to treat religion as a subject that can never be argued with or questioned. If someone says they never ride the bus on Tuesday because they think it’s unethical, or they think it’s dangerous, or they say their doctor forbids it, we think it’s reasonable to argue with their opinion, or at least to ask some questions about it. But if someone says they never ride the bus on Tuesday because their religion forbids it… we’re not supposed to question it. It’s the conversation-stopper. It’s the trump card.

I get that this comes, at least partly, from a good place of seeing the terrible results of religious intolerance and not wanting any part of that. But I think it gets taken much too far — or rather, that it gets taken too far in the wrong direction.

See, while part of religion is about personal, largely subjective matters such as ethics and personal philosophy, another very big part of it for many people is about external objective questions about how the world works. The universe was created by an unmoved mover; human evolution was guided by the hand of God; homosexual sex will get you sent to Hell; God cares whether you eat fish on Friday or push an elevator button on Saturday or face the right direction when you pray; Yahweh wants us to live in the Holy Land; no, Allah wants us to live in the Holy Land — these are statements about the real, external world, and it should be okay to question them. It should be okay to ask people to explain their beliefs, and to question whether their beliefs are supported by evidence, and to point out inconsistencies and holes in their reasoning.

Especially when people try to get those beliefs set into law and public policy.

But it’s not. We’re supposed to just shut up and nod politely. It’s gotten to the point where any questioning of a religious belief, no matter how moderate or polite, is seen as an intolerant attack.

And I think a big part of this attitude comes from the idea that having unsupported faith is an admirable, virtuous quality, and that it’s churlish to question it.


And you know what? If you think I’m wrong, then tell me. All of you. Please. Again, this blog is my “thinking out loud” place, and one of the reasons I do it is to run my ideas past the gauntlet and see if they hold up. I’ve changed my mind on this blog more than once, on subjects from US military intervention in North Korea to the merits of “Lord of the Rings.” If I’m wrong about this, I want to know.

But if any of you think I’m wrong and want to tell me so, then please, I beg all of you, do not do any of the following:

1) Please do not accuse me of holding opinions that I haven’t expressed and don’t agree with.

2) When I reply that I don’t, in fact, hold those opinions and don’t agree with them, please don’t continue to insist that I hold those opinions, and continue to get angry at me over them.

3) Please do not berate me for making sweeping statements that I’ve only supported by a couple of pieces of anecdotal evidence, and then — when I point out that I have offered non-anecdotal evidence, clarify that evidence, offer to supply more evidence, and ask you to supply non-anecdotal evidence for your own sweeping statements — turn around and say, “Never mind, I’m not going to debate this.”

4) And if you’re going to do any of the above, please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not then get angry and sad about how atheists aren’t trying hard enough to understand believers.

That’s just gonna tick me off.

And not just because it’s personally annoying and unfair. See, this is the kind of thing atheists deal with all the time. There’s a depressingly common set of myths about what atheists believe and say and feel and act like, and when somebody holds those myths, they tend to apply them to all atheists… regardless of what the atheist in front of them is actually believing and saying and feeling and acting like.

And yes, that does make me angry. I think a lot of what gets interpreted as “fundamentalism,” or intolerance, or abrasiveness on the part of atheists, is actually anger.

Anger that, while it doesn’t always make people behave their best, is pretty damned justifiable.

But that’s a different post.

Answering Laura: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 3