Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Responsible Atheism

We feel only a little uncomfortable broadcasting the harsh truths of atheism to believers who happily push their “truths” on us. But I want to talk about how to handle the quieter believers who aren’t proselytizing at all, and not publicly judging others. They are minding their own business and usually don’t understand why atheists can’t mind theirs. These theists are often offended by atheists’ public declarations, objecting that it’s fine if atheists don’t believe in god but they should at least have respect for people who do and not push their atheism. After all, tolerance is about respecting different viewpoints, especially when it comes to something private like religion, they say.

But is religious belief the kind of viewpoint that we should all tolerate and exempt from public scrutiny? Belief in god isn’t like a predilection for classical music or Italian food. There is a crucial categorical difference that makes it awfully hard for an atheist to say, “To each, his own.” That is, whether there is a personal god is an objective matter; it is supported by evidence and justified by argumentation or it is not. Furthermore, believing or not believing in a personal god (especially of the Judeo-Christian variety to which most of the 70% of U.S. citizens who believe in a personal god subscribe) has profound personal and social consequences, unlike preference for music and food (to each his own taste). There is no good evidence or cogent argument for the existence of a supernatural creator, and belief in one has negative personal and social consequences. Also, since the belief concerns something monumentally important, these consequences are profound.

I don’t want to unnecessarily offend people or hurt their feelings, but I also don’t want to be complacent and feel intellectually and morally dishonest. So what’s the big problem with believing in a personal god? Here are some major ones:

  • Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy.

  • Believing that faith is a virtue, and that you should take someone at their word with no good evidence to back it, instead of forming a belief based on a critical examination of evidence and arguments, is intellectually poisonous.

  • Believing that there is some being that knows everything, more than you can ever know, even about yourself, is intellectually tragic.

  • Believing that you are born flawed, from sin, and that you must rely on someone else for your own salvation is dehumanizing.

  • The belief that god has a plan for everyone justifies imposing that plan on other people even when it causes suffering. (They say god always has a reason for allowing suffering.) Ironically, for other believers faith in god’s plan diminishes their urge to intervene where there is suffering. (Why do something so pompous as to interfere with god’s “great” plan?)

  • Belief in an afterlife necessarily devalues life here on earth and would mitigate responsibility and diminish motivation to change the status quo.

  • Belief in god offers false hope, and when prayers to help others aren’t answered, this can lead to feelings of profound guilt that one didn’t pray hard enough or in the right way.

  • Worship of any being threatens human integrity; subservience and unqualified devotion are not commendable.

As a participant in our society, passionate about emotional health and human potential, I can’t fully respect myself and not publicly challenge these harmful beliefs. Morality requires that we help people do what is in their best interest, even if others are totally unaffected by their choices. If you had a friend believing something harmful, wouldn’t you feel compelled to speak up? You want your friend, and people in general, to have the most fulfilling life possible, both emotionally and intellectually. So if your friend has a false belief, and you know there is intellectual damage and negative moral consequences that stem from it, are you a jerk for speaking up? On the contrary, morality requires it. So why are atheists accused of being jerks just because the topic is religion? How can we be expected to irresponsibly stand by and watch someone surrender to a harmful delusion?

If you aren’t persuaded by this paternalistic ethical stance, consider the negative social consequences of religious belief. We all live together in a society with no sharp boundaries, so religion and faith can’t be private matters. And on public matters, citizens have a democratic right to debate issues of public impact. Whenever someone votes against abortion and threatens women’s reproductive rights because they believe that a woman is killing one of god’s planned creatures, this becomes my concern as a U.S. citizen. When a person votes against gay marriage because the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, their religion just became my business. When someone’s religious beliefs cause them to let their daughter die from cancer without undergoing thorough medical treatment because “Jesus is calling for her,” that is a moral wrong and it would be wrong of me not to say so – that child is innocent and ought to be protected from such a moral atrocity. If some religious believers pray for victims of natural disasters in lieu of donating, I can hardly be expected to withhold criticism that they are outsourcing their moral obligations to a god that doesn’t exist. We have freedom of speech in a democracy so that society may progress by adopting reasonable viewpoints.

Many religious believers would object that they agree with me in most or all of these cases and therefore, I shouldn’t criticize their religion because it isn’t interfering with the social good. I admit many religious believers have done a fine job warping their religion to fit morality, and I’m extremely grateful that they value reasoning over what their religion tells them – I wish more believers did. I also don’t deny that there are atheists who aren’t on the right side of the issue: for example, there are some who don’t support gay marriage. But in those cases, it’s not a lack of religion or belief in god motivating this -- it’s plain old bigotry and ignorance. When a Christian is against gay marriage, I would expect that the belief that homosexuality is a sin against god is the motivating belief.

Cultures don’t progress when superstitions prevail over rational inquiry. The only way for a culture to advance is to believe and act only on what can be known, or at least on which there is good evidence. All actions stem from beliefs, and all beliefs have practical consequences. Fighting the truth only brings suffering because it’s fighting reality. If we accept the truth, suffering is diminished because we are aligned with the way life is. For that reason, and because we all have to live together, we are not entitled to believe anything we want. Why should I let culture stagnate because 70% of society is comforted by a personal god? Don’t I have a right to cultivate the most successful culture I can? Don’t I have a moral obligation to help those who aren’t living up to their full potential as rational human beings? I submit that I do simply because I’m a responsible participant in our culture. Precisely because religious beliefs have extreme consequences, for believers and nonbelievers, people have a responsibility to openly examine and criticize them.

Unfortunately, so long as we are dealing with deeply personal beliefs, criticism will unavoidably be tantamount to offense. Human psychology does not permit criticisms of one’s religious convictions to not come across as personal attack. Some atheists (not all) think that you can always separate the criticism of one’s belief from criticism of the believer – if only that were true. There are certainly better and worse ways to communicate to someone that a treasured belief is wrong. The mistake some atheists make (not all) is proceeding from the true premise that religious belief is not exempt from criticism to the idea that any brash attitude or rude approach towards religion is acceptable. I get frustrated when some atheists engage in more offense towards believers than necessary and justify it on the grounds that “they’ll just be offended anyway.” That attitude ignores the reality that minimal offense is more effective when arguing any position. Come at someone with too stinging an attack and they’ll only cling harder to their beliefs. Atheists need a respectful attitude and tactful approach to be effective. Moreover, human decency requires it, especially when it comes to these quieter believers who aren’t (publicly) judging atheists. Let’s civilly focus on the good reasons for criticizing religion by presenting the negative consequences, both personal and social. Staying focused on the negative consequences of religious belief as much as possible as opposed to attacking the beliefs themselves (especially with a brash characterization that they are simply stupid and irrational) mitigates perception of a personal attack.

Public atheism causes offense. Yet responsible criticism is justifiable when the stakes are a better future. We all need people to base beliefs on good evidence and fulfill their potential as rational beings. A naturalistic worldview brings self-empowerment and sets the stage for cultural improvement. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong -- I take no pleasure in doing that, especially when dealing with deeply personal beliefs. However, there is a brighter future for a society that holds accurate beliefs on matters of monumental emotional and social importance. Public examination of matters of great practical consequence, like religion, is necessary. Atheism is best done responsibly.


Chana Messinger said...

Hi, great piece!

A few criticisms, however.

Firstly, while I think you lay out many reasons why atheists are justified in caring deeply about religion and indeed in acting as a political (in a broad sense) body in order to change people's minds, there are some problematic elements. You seem to focus on the negative aspects of religion and religious faith, and while there are arguments to be made for all of your contentions, most of them are empirical questions that you do not provide evidence for, and therefore support your argument only incidentally at best.

For example, you say, "Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy." This is a question for the psychologists, and in fact, it's not clear that this is true. The evidence is muddled: but certainly it's clear that in some cases religion can provide a great deal of comfort, emotionally:

What does it mean for something to be intellectually poisonous or tragic? Those are extremely value-laden words. Does it affect other intellectual endeavors? Does it make someone less capable of exercising their intellect? Doubtful at best, given the historical record.

"The belief that god has a plan for everyone justifies imposing that plan on other people even when it causes suffering. " It can, certainly, but that's hardly a widespread belief, though since it exists at all, it's absolutely worth combating. In general, though, this smacks of being a strawman.

"Belief in an afterlife necessarily devalues life here on earth and would mitigate responsibility and diminish motivation to change the status quo." This works, but only insofar as we have no evidence for an afterlife. If it were true, it wouldn't much matter what psychological effect it had on how we conceptualize the value of our lives.

I could go on, but the point I'm trying to make is that it would be much more productive if you demonstrated the positive aspects of secularism, of the discoveries that are made when we use reason and evidence rather than faith, when we use empathy as a source of morality rather than in-group tribalism and xenophobia. Not only is there a much stronger basis for these, but they are also available tot he religious. As Greta Christina recently wrote, if all religious people were of the progressive sort, who used their religion as a source of personal spirituality but didn't apply it to the rest of their lives, or only insofar as it motivated them to help others and make the world a better place, then atheists really wouldn't mind so much (but still maybe a little.) This positive approach also seems much more in line with the general flow of your argument.

Thanks for the post,

J said...

I really struggled with that blog intellectually, to be honest. I didn't approach it aggressively, but I was extremely disappointed in the lack of substance in the argument; there were many references to belief in the personal God as being unhealthy and factless with regards to existence, but the argument itself was lacking of any supporting evidence or facts in its entirety. I find it difficult to know where to begin with a posting that logically defeats itself within its own second bullet point.

lucette said...

Thank you Sarah for a clear, honest, and needed communication. I have no idea who is "J", but s/he seems to be hearing about atheism for the first time, and asking you to argue the nonexistence of god as if it had never been done before. His/her request for supporting evidence is simply strange.

Bill Haines said...

J isn't referrring to nonexistence of deity -- which cannot be proven -- but to statements like these which are made with no references:

"Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy."

"Believing that you are born flawed, from sin, and that you must rely on someone else for your own salvation is dehumanizing."

And the copious sources in psychological studies for making these claim are...?

I could go on, but think the point's made, if the blogger is serious about publicly challenging harmful beliefs, actual evidence that the beliefs are harmful is required.

And before you assume: I'm an atheist myself, but a big "believer" in people minding our own business, regarding other people who do the same.

lucette said...

All these years, I have discouraged the belief in Santa Claus, or unicorns, or bigfoot, after childhood. I was a fool: where is my evidence? And why am I proselytizing so recklessly? Delusions are good for happiness.

Beth said... seem to keep missing the point. The article is a great starting point but if you are going to make claims about psychological damage and such, supporting evidence is important.

No one is saying that one should have evidence to support the idea that there is no god... the evidence requested is to support the claims of psychological damage.

And yes...I too am an atheist.

lucette said...

If an adult believes in Santa Claus and follows the demands of a Santa Claus religion, there is no need for statistics. Unless you want to argue that living a lie and being delusional is as good as living as much as possible without delusions.

What kind of statistics are you expecting? Would you like some fMRIs?

I am not only an atheist but also a moral person who does not think that delusions are to be protected just because they make us happy. It is a moral judgement independent of fMRIs or surveys.

Bill Creasy said...

I am beginning to think that the majority of people who are still religious believers must indicate that religion provides them a limited psychological benefit. If it didn't, why would they still be believers? For example, if someone has a very good life, then the religious idea that it was "meant to be" relieves them from guilt over doing well and worry that something bad may happen. On the other hand, if they experience a disaster, a religious belief may give them hope that things will get better, because they are good people and god owes it to them.

The negative side of these advantages is that the religious belief gives the people a distorted idea about how the world operates. It limits their options and choices, because they think that everything has already been "decided" or "determined" by a higher power. A good example is the problem of climate change, which seems like it's so big that it must be out of our hands.

lucette said...

Religious institutions provide an economic safety net. Unless secular groups provide an alternative safety net,religion will continue to win. The European communities most liberated from religion are also most socially equal.

Don Wharton said...

Lucette, you are absolutely correct. I think the medical care part of the safety net is the most important and hopefully it will survive the Repblican onslaught until it becomes fully implemented.

Sarah Hippolitus said...

Hi everyone, Thanks for the comments. I just wanted to say that I understand that I didn't offer much by way of evidence for my claim that supernaturalism & religion are psychologically harmful. That is a very important topic, one I actually intend to expand upon in a follow-up essay. I just didn't have room to do it here. I didn't want the blog to get too cluttered. The points were bulleted for a reason - they were meant to be a quick list for reflection (sometimes it's good to let the reader do some intellectual work.)

@Lucette - Thank you, I'm glad you liked my essay.

@Bill C- Certainly, religion offers psychological benefit, but the harms outweigh the benefits, in my opinion. Thank you for this point - I'll make sure I clarify that I recognize there are psychological benefits in my next blog (of course these benefits are precisely why religion prevails. Yes, I think belief in a personal god limits choices, too.

Thanks again, I appreciate feedback.

Sarah Hippolitus said...

Just posted my follow-up essay to this one:

lucette said...

Sarah, Let's have a cup of coffee to talk about it because I am curious about your point of view. OK?