(I had a poli-sci professor who once compared me to my namesake: slow and meandering. Other students in this seminar years ago wondered how I could take such an insult, but I was acing the writing-intensive course so I didn’t see it that way. This 900 word post grew out of a FB conversation I had once a few years ago brought about by a group reading of The Atheist Reader. I’ve cut some throat-clearing about how New Atheists often come off as jerks about both theistic belief and religion.)
Putting the truth of the existence of a god or gods to one side for a moment (an admittedly strange starting point for a post on atheism), religion itself isn’t really a theistic or atheistic thing. It is the case that certain religions do make truth claims about their theologies, but what religions actually are isn’t about theology. What religions are actually about is organizing human society by making social structures of the individual’s religious impulse, and giving the individual a meaningful way of hanging onto an otherwise ineffable experience. Liking or not liking the way a society is organized (say, along the principles of particular religious teachings) isn’t an argument about the theistic truth claims. In the West, we have demoted religion from the only way to legitimately organize society to being one contender in a way to organize society using a pluralised political process.
The argument that the scientific worldview has developed the most comprehensive, falsifiable method for understanding the truth value of claims–and that it doesn’t require the support of a theistic component–is a powerful one in favor of atheism. I suspect there are a lot of atheists in the world because the scientific worldview argument is so powerful, maybe even plenty of reluctant atheists. (Parenthetically, let me observe that neither the atheists in the collection nor I are presenting anything like an original argument.)
Natural processes can account for anything you’d care to point to in the world. If humans have a religious impulse, then it got there in response to stimulus in the world. If humans attribute the religious feeling to a god or gods, then natural processes say that the propensity evolved, and evolved independently of whether or not there are gods or even just one. Did the religious impulse evolve because there is a supernatural something-or-other, or did the religious impulse evolve as a by-product of some other evolutionary advantage, or under some other pressure? I suppose someone out there can point to research on the subject, and I’d welcome the reading. Regardless of the answer, the religious impulse is there–part of the human condition.
A number of the atheists in the collection consider the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling an actual evil in the world. I wasn’t aware that evolutionary biology made value judgements about evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling are side effects of evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps. An evolutionary adaptation which is harmful to the survival of the species (which, if the evil claim coming from a materialist means anything, is what it must mean) should not survive. (Maybe it arose in just the last couple of hundred of thousands of years, and will die off as a maladaption. Maybe atheists are themselves, biologically, an evolutionary adaptation.) An evolutionary adaptation (or side effect) with neutral survival implications might hang on for ever. An adaptation which improves survival will tend to solidify its position. It will improve survival if it confers some advantage over real world challenges. This isn’t a theistic truth claim, nor it is not an atheistic truth claim.
Anyway, “I don’t like religion (or god),” and, “I don’t need religion (or god),” aren’t really arguments. They’re assertions which ultimately don’t persuade me.
And that’s really why I’m not an atheist. What atheism offers isn’t enough of an explanation of my subjective experience of the world.
And, really, all I’ve got is my subjective experience of the world. I believe there is an objective reality, that my subjective experience of it isn’t all there is to reality, that my subjective will has (at most) very little impact on the world unless I take affirmative action. I believe the scientific worldview has done a lot of good in the world. I think it’s done a lot of harm in the world, too. Germ theory has probably been an unalloyed good in the world. Nuclear science possibly has a ton more to answer for than it’s been good for even when things like radiation treatments and smoke detectors are factored in.
My subjective experience has included experience of the religious impulse and of the religious feeling. I believe those impulses and feelings are a part of me because they respond to something real in the world. I haven’t read much Dawkins, and I’m sure he’s got something to say about this experience on my part (I’m lazy, maybe someone can point me to it). If his explanation doesn’t allow my experience to inform my opinion, then that’s a pretty anti-humanist position.
Not being an atheist doesn’t make me a Catholic, nor a Sunni Muslim, nor a Hindu, nor a pagan, nor an anything. (I might be a Taoist, though… and I’ve had some experiences I’m pretty sure need more than scientific materialism to comprehend) Not wanting to be slotted into a religious social organization doesn’t mean I’m a godless heathen, nor does it mean that I cannot take comfort in certain religious developments as part of my human heritage.
As strange as this may sound to some religious believers, some theists, some atheists, some materialists and some others who are both smart and rigorous, being intellectually honest about one’s beliefs does not entail accepting the logical conclusions of them no matter what. Intellectual honesty does not demand finding what lies behind every belief. Intellectual honesty does not require that all one’s beliefs be examined and any that conflict with one or another be scrutinized for the permanent dismissal of one or another. Intellectual honesty merely requires that one be able to consider one’s beliefs, determine what they really are, and live accordingly.