I have been watching a lot of old episodes (from 2005 and 2006) of The Atheist Experience in recent weeks. As a sceptic, rationalist, philosophical realist, naturalist, materialist, determinist, free thinker, intellectual, scientist in spe, transhumanist and (on the ethics side of things) a utilitarian – and of course, there is a lot of overlap between many of those terms – I have to say that listening to the discussions on the show and some of the people who call in, I count myself very blessed (so to speak) to live in a society that is very accepting of atheists.
The Atheist Experience is a Texas-based call-in TV show promoting “positive atheism” (not a particular brand of atheism in this case, but rather the position that atheism can be a positive thing, simply put) and the separation of church and state. It discusses various topics related directly or indirectly to atheism, and the hosts and co-hosts tend not to shy away from attacking the logic or validity of religious beliefs as they come up in the news or from their callers.
Some of the people who call in will suggest that if the atheistic notion that there is no god (which, by the way, isn’t positively asserted by all atheists) is correct, there would be no source of morality and you may as well go about murdering and pillaging. After all, there are no “ultimate consequences”. I won’t argue against that (other than to say that I don’t see why ordinary consequences won’t do), because I think generally the reason why this idea is ridiculous should be obvious. And yet, apparently, to those people calling in, it isn’t. And there’s many such people, as you get at least one on most of the episodes! And then there’s the people who believe that the life of an atheist must be empty and depressing, and various other such claims whose falsehood should be apparent, if you ask me. That is why I said before that I feel so lucky that in the society in which I live, I don’t have to go about explaining how I can be moral without the belief in a god, and people typically understand this by default.
People also sometimes call in response to the hosts’s more frank arguments against religion or specific religions, suggesting that everybody should be allowed to believe what they will. According to them, there is no reason to attempt to demonstrate the falsity of people’s beliefs, since they are ultimately harmless and they make people feel good.
Whether they really are harmless is up for debate, I think. I’ve seen a very good discussion on that on YouTube at some point, which was specifically about the Catholic church, but many of the points can be extended to religion as a whole. Furthermore, it features Stephen Fry, one of my personal heroes, as one of the panelists.
However, I don’t actually want to talk about this. Instead, I want to discuss this idea that you should leave people to their beliefs and be respectful of said beliefs. I don’t agree with this at all. I think that religions have often times and long since hidden behind a wall of taking offense: You can’t say anything bad about a religion, because then you’re offending something at the very core of a person’s identity.
In my view, it’s good to be respectful toward people, but I object to the notion that you have to be respectful toward people’s beliefs as well, if they are held strongly enough. As if the contents of the beliefs don’t matter. Are we supposed to be respectful of the belief of Holocaust deniers, or that of flat-Earthers? Of course not. You respect the person, sure, to the extent that you would respect any sentient being, but whether a belief is to be respected should be based on its own merits. I would go so far as to say that beliefs which are particularly nonsensical can and should be mocked, or at least argued against, in order for their silliness to become apparent both to its believers and to others.
I would also say that this tendency of religious people to take offense to criticisms of their beliefs falls under the same category as faith of devices to prevent them from having to really think about their beliefs in a logical, critical manner. After all, if all you need is faith to believe something and you don’t need evidence – or, for that matter, to even regard evidence opposed to your beliefs – you can hold onto that belief indefinitely, without thinking about it. If, furthermore, you manage to convince people that they can’t attempt to argue with your beliefs either, you have even less of a reason to ever have to consider them. You can live comfortably, believing whatever you want, regardless of truth.
However, if the thing that you believe in is true, it would stand up to scrutiny and consideration, and you shouldn’t have to worry about such things in the first place. That’s why it always seems to me as though religious people, deep down, actually do know that their beliefs are false, they just don’t want to have to face it. They will deny this, of course, and even I don’t think it’s actually true for a good number of them… but it sure does seem that way, following this logic.
Of course, all of this rises and falls with whether or not you believe that one should believe what is actually true in the first place. It might be that you think it’s fine to believe something that is not so. However, if that were the case, then believers should be open and honest about this. This goes further than just being an agnostic theist, stating that you admit you don’t know the beliefs of your particular religion are true. After all, that only applies in cases where the veracity of beliefs cannot objectively be determined. But what if it could be? That’s where the “evidence to the contrary” that I mentioned above comes in. It’s been pretty well established that people will believe plenty of things evidence to the contrary. Flat-Earthers and Holocaust deniers are (extreme) examples of this.
I think faith – at least faith as it is used as a way to gain knowledge – is a vice, not a virtue. Reason and evidence are demonstrably good ways of coming to understandings about the universe – at least if you subscribe to philosophical realism – and faith is directly opposed to this. If you have faith that some race, or some sex, or some sexuality, is inferior or immoral, how is anybody supposed to challenge that, even if you are wrong? That is why it’s so ironic when people will call in to The Atheist Experience and tell the hosts to be more open-minded to the notion that religious beliefs may just be right. If they have faith, they themselves are anything but open-minded.
I suppose it’s defensible to have faith in something like the goodness of humankind – things that are related less to factual matters and more to interpretations of things (people, in this case). Even then, though, I would hope that such faith would be based on some evidence and would be discarded given sufficient evidence to the contrary. By some definitions, I suppose you would then not call it “faith”, but just “belief”. This would make it easier for me to just continue talking simply about “faith”. After all, that is the sense in which I used the term “faith” above, as distinct from “belief”.
I have not talked about direct negative effects of specific religions on society, other than in that one paragraph where I said I was not going to say anything about it. I talked instead about the mistaken preconceptions some religious people in different cultures have about atheists, and how I’m happy that’s not true as much for my own culture. Talking only about that, one might argue that you could come up with the same sentiment from the religious perspective. After all, I have various negative ideas about religion, which apparently then (if I am to be taken as being at all representative of my culture – whether I actually am is another question1, but let’s say for argument’s sake that I am) do occur in our society. So am I not contributing to the creation of a society which is as unpleasant for religious people to live in as the Texan society is for atheists? Maybe so, but this whole post is talking about my personal, subjective perspective as an atheist in this society. Also, I didn’t actually say that it’s wrong for people to call in to the show and mention their preconceptions and negative views. In fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just happy things are different around here.
I’m glad to be an atheist, and to live in a place where atheism is accepted and mostly understood, and a large fraction of the population consists of atheists. I for one feel more comfortable around those who think critically and logically, not just in some but in all areas of their lives. Especially as a scientist, as I think religion, or at least certain types of religions, are in a very real sense opposed to the concept of science. After all, science uses evidence rather than faith to come to knowledge, and those religions with an almighty deity can always say that their deity manipulated the evidence found by science, ultimately rendering science powerless against their faith.
I take atheism quite seriously: I watch a lot of programs about it, I watch debates, I read and at times participate in discussions online. Even I have a hard time challenging the beliefs of religious people one on one, in real life (due to the tendency of people to take offense to this). However, in a less direct, more general setting, I will come right out and say that I think religion, and in particular those aspects of it that prevent critical thought, has various negative effects on the world. For me, atheism is an issue, but I’m very happy that in this culture, it doesn’t have to be.
1 I don’t think I’m very representative. From my personal experience, in the society in which I live, it is much more common for atheists to say that they don’t believe in a higher power, but they respect the beliefs of those who do. In fact, they may say that they think it is respectable to have such a belief (which is a slightly stronger claim still, I would say).