Note: The following is an short essay expressing why I argue against (some) religious belief. It will be followed up by an essay explaining what atheism means to me.
Spend enough time in discussion with theists and the question inevitably comes up: “Why are you even arguing against religion?” or “Why do you care what we believe?”
From the perspective of a moderate believer, the question is perfectly understandable. They’re generally peaceful folk, desiring to do good, and harming no one (at least, directly). Their faith is extremely personal and a bedrock source of strength in their lives. To have someone attack it must seem very much like attacking motherhood or apple pie.
Before I answer, allow me to observe that the question is hypocritical. Don’t these believers argue against other competing faiths? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, is it not? In the market place of ideas, one should expect competition.
So, why do I argue against religious belief?
1) My survival, and that of humanity’s, may very well depend on it. This is perhaps the key point made by the so-called new atheists. The infliction of suffering and death on the innocent is an inherent feature of religious belief, which sadly continues even today. But in a time when our capacity for destruction includes the ability to extinguish most life on the planet, this dirty little secret of faith is something we can no longer countenance. When some traditions pray for war, while others seek the means to bring it to ever larger populations, it falls to the reality-based community to sound the alarm.
But widespread destruction is not the only threat; neglect and improper stewardship of our planet could very well produce the same end. A fatalistic or blase attitude toward this issue, based primarily on theological doctrines like end-times belief, characterizes the views of too many theists (though, fortunately, there is some sign that this is changing). They’re taking a faith-based gamble, but my life and welfare are not theirs to gamble with.
It may very well be that the solution to such suicidal expressions of faith lies in its moderation. Though atheists like Sam Harris make a strong case that faith itself is the problem, I believe we can increase our odds for survival by simply sanding religious belief down, diluting its toxicity, mixing it with doubt and a healthy dose of skepticism. We can encourage “figurative re-interpretations,” if not outright repudiations, of morally repugnant religious doctrines, though the ones widely held now have far greater scriptural support than ones held previously (like slavery). Still, when I read about some religious organizations endorsing gay marriage, or how those unaffiliated with any religion are the fastest growing segment of belief in our society, I gain confidence and hope such a whittling process is well on its way, along with (hopefully) a corresponding shift toward greater rationalism.
I don’t claim that religion is the root of all evil, and that by eliminating it will we achieve some sort of nirvana on earth. It’s clear that most people have a deep-seated thirst for spirituality which will not be disappearing any time soon. Instead, our challenges lie in divorcing faith from dogmatism, and in assisting its inevitable yielding to science. Would more theists adopt the view of the Dalai Lama:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
2) Atheists today are unjustly one of the most, if not the most, maligned groups in American society today. This is remarkable because it’s based not so much on anything atheists have done, but merely on the absence of a particular belief. Atheism is thus, apparently, a thought-crime. But in any society which calls itself free, the fruits of one’s actions, not the contents of one’s mind, are the arbiters of her character. Unfortunately, we see this principal ignored in favor of irrational and hypocritical manifestations of prejudice against atheists. In some instances, this prejudice is codified and sanctioned in law.
The only source of this cancerous intolerance are the alleged words of the believer’s god, which is rather ironic given that one of its commands to followers is to “love your enemies”. If I’m a “fool” for not believing in their god, the only way I’ll get a fair shake is to help re-make the image of this god to one less odious, or give doubt to its existence in the first place. Fortunately, atheists are assisted in this task by the hard-core believer himself, whose behavior and invective repulses everyone, making toleration and acceptance appear the moral alternative.
3) The opportunity cost of religious belief is too expensive to ignore. The waxing of religious belief is generally accompanied by the waning of scientific and human progress, and vice versa. The American 50s are often considered a “golden age” among Christians, yet when the Soviet Union became the first country to put a man in space, it came as a real shock, resulting in a re-evaluation of the education curriculum, including abandonment of creationism in favor of evolution. The hostility toward science exhibited by some believers represents lost opportunity to create the new technologies necessary to alleviate humanity’s afflictions and capitalize on its potential. Large population swathes where religious belief is the dominant force in society remain stunted and underdeveloped, resulting in avoidable suffering. While some argue that science and religion are compatible, the fact that scientists are far more irreligious than the general population should give pause, though some form of spirituality remains popular among them.
I know many believers will scoff at these reasons, preferring instead to maintain that I’m “mad at God” or “want to be free to sin”. That’s their perogative, but then they shouldn’t expect non-believers to take their testimony about being “touched by the Holy Spirit” any more seriously.