on religion

Wired has an article on the New!, Hip! (everything in Wired is New! and Hip!) Atheists, which talks about a movement towards a suddenly new-found rejection of religion:

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.

Oh, brother, here we go:

Now, anyone that reads my blog knows that I am no fan of religion, and I am always encouraged by open debate about the negative impact of religion. But the problem with the attitude of that quote, as is often the case in debates using the English language, is that the word “respect” has many meanings. It’s important to realize how to “condemn .. respect for belief in God” can take many different directions depending on the interpretation of the word “respect”. On the one hand, you can assume it to mean a more benign rejection of the value of religion. In this sense, I don’t “respect” religion. I think religion has a net negative value in the world. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t “respect” people that are religious. I respect the value of liberty and personal choice more than I disapprove of the things people might choose to believe in.

On the other hand, you can take the phrase “condemn respect” in that sentence to mean a rejection and intolerance. It carries the implication of an active rebellion rather than a passive disapproval. One imagines roving gangs of black-shirts roving the streets, beating up priests and burning down churches.

In the writings of Dawkins, I sense a little more of the latter than the former. I’m not saying that Dawkins is an outright fascist, but it’s important to realize that this game has been played out before, and religion, for all its ills, is pretty damn deeply entrenched, and igniting passions to dig it out can be dangerous.

When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins’ analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

“How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?” Dawkins asks. “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

This last paragraph indicates some silliness in the extent to which Dawkins is willing to take his proposed intolerance of the religious, but the article does attempt to moderate this extremism with some “common sense” caveats:

Dawkins is also a believer in democracy. He understands perfectly well that there are practical constraints on controlling the spread of bad memes. If the solution to the spread of wrong ideas and contagious superstitions is a totalitarian commissariat that would silence believers, then the cure is worse than the disease. But such constraints are no excuse for the weak-minded pretense that religious viruses are trivial, much less benign. Bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. We should think harder about how to stop them.

Sounds easy, right? Of course, if we acknowledge that “the cure is worse than the disease”, one wonders what exactly is being advocated. On this, the article’s portrayal of Dawkins is short on answers, and quickly plunges right back into diatribes against the evils of tolerance. The problem is also that there are different types of religious people.

While frontline warriors against creationism are busy reassuring parents and legislators that teaching Darwin’s theory does not undermine the possibility of religious devotion, Dawkins is openly agreeing with the most stubborn fundamentalists that evolution must lead to atheism. I tell Dawkins what he already knows: He is making life harder for his friends.

He barely shrugs. “Well, it’s a cogent point, and I have to face that. My answer is that the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism. The sensible”

This is where Dawkins is wrong. It’s not a war between naturalism and supernaturalism – it’s a war against conflating the two. And this I think is a key area where many different religions differ greatly. I don’t give a shit if people believe in the supernatural. I know a great many religious people that I respect, and consider to be intelligent, rational people. These people, as far as I can tell, make a choice to also have a part of their life that they acknowledge is irrational – which is the core of the idea of “faith”. It’s an important part of their life, but it’s also separate. There’s really no war to be fought against religious people of this sort – as science and our knowledge progresses, it will pose no threat to their supernatural faith. The goalposts of their faith will move, so to speak. This has been happening for years, as we’ve seen with the various interpretations of the creation myth to make it “fit” with the big bang theory, or the theory of evolution.

There are other, more dangerous, strains of religion that require a rejection of rationality and science. They conflate their faith in the supernatural with a rational world. This is truly dangerous, and should be fought against – especially when this type of religion attempts to foist itself into the affairs of non-believers: in government and in civic life.

There are also religious people that fall somewhere in between these two poles, naturally. The article goes on to discuss Glen Slade, and it talks about the distinction between his rejection of an agnostic worldview:

Like Dawkins, Slade rejects those who might once have been his allies: agnostics and liberal believers, the type of people who may go to church but who are skeptical of doctrine.

The problem with the rejection of agnosticism is that it’s the rejection of skepticism. And any idiot (well most) can tell you that the rejection of skepticism is the rejection of science, which is bad. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe there’s not a God, either, or an invisible spaghetti monster, for that matter. (I think we can safely rule out Russell’s tiny orbiting teapot at this point, though.) It’s a small distinction, but it’s important, and it’s one that is poorly encapsulated in the broader term “agnostic”, which also seems to include people whose belief can be summed up by “maybe I believe in a God”, which is not really the same. My position as an Agnostic as separate from an Atheist is the lack of conviction. If you take it to this extreme, Atheism becomes another form of zealotry, and you can see this in the somewhat maniacally negative ravings of the guys in this article. You’re either with them, or against them!!

The bottom line is that there’s a stark difference between religion as a social institution and religion as a personal choice. I reject the former, and I don’t give a shit about the latter. There’s also a huge difference between advocating the rejection of religion on a personal, non-coercive level, and advocating the rejection (or overthrow) of religion at an institutional level by force. I reject the latter and recommend the former. I don’t have any plans to force people to not be religious – that’s idiotic, and you could only advocate something like that with a truly criminal lack of historical knowledge. But I am all about the open dissemination of religious critiques.

These guys, on the other hand, seem to be advocating a fervent form of atheism which seems only a hop, skip and a jump away from an outright authoritarian rejection of religion. That’s stupid, and dangerous.