Sociologist Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College has been a hero of mine ever since he published (in 2008) an excellent book called Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He studied Sweden and Denmark, where atheists predominate, and showed rather effectively that when religious demagogues wail about the pernicious moral effects of a society losing its faith they are just making stuff up.
So you can imagine my disappointment at reading this asinine essay over at HuffPo. It’s a poor representative of a tiresome genre: An atheist lectures his flock about the proper way to discuss religion. Here’s the opening:
I’ve been studying atheists, agnostics, XTC fans, and various other types of secular folk out there for quite some time. I’ve also read most of the anti-religious books that have been published ever since Sam Harris kicked things off with The End of Faith.
And I must say, I’ve got a few criticisms for my God-denying brothers and sisters out there.
Or perhaps, more specifically, some pointers.
For if you really think that a secular worldview is superior to — or at least more rational than — a religious one, and if you really think that the world would be a better place if people didn’t believe in supernatural deities, nasty demons, or chubby cherubs, I would suggest a little self-examination. A lot of you out there are making some serious mistakes.
With that opening I would assume that atheists, through their serious mistakes, have achieved a level of irrationality commensurate with a belief in demons and cherubs. That seems implausible, but let’s see what Zuckerman has in mind.
1. Insisting that science can, or will, answer everything. When Bill O’Reilly or your Baptist in-laws ask you pointed questions like: “How did the universe get here?” or “What caused the Big Bang?” or “Why is there something instead of nothing?” don’t insist that science has the answer. It may not — ever. It is far better to simply say that we don’t know everything, and may in fact never know everything. There will always be some mysteries out there. Just say: “Yeah — it is quite a profound puzzle. No one knows the answer. But just because we don’t know the answers to everything, doesn’t mean we then automatically accept some made-up possibility.”
Are there atheists out there who don’t answer that way? I am not aware of anyone who claims that science will someday answer every existential mystery. With regard to ultimate questions the point is simply that there is no reason to believe that theology can solve any mysteries that science cannot.
2. Condemning all religion, rather then just the bad aspects thereof. Religion is man-made. It is socially constructed. It grows out of human culture. As such, religion inevitably contains, reflects, and reveals all that is within the realm of humanity: the good and the bad. It is like any other facet of human civilization: some of it is noble and inspirational, much of it is nonsensical and even dangerous. But to condemn it all as poisonous is to be in serious denial.
Religion does a lot more than that. In many cases it amplifies the worst aspects of human nature, our xenophobia and tribalism. It makes false claims to knowledge, retards science, and often promotes highly dubious ideas about morality. And, no, the harm of all this is not even close to outweighed by the instances of religion-inspired self-sacrifice or charitable giving, or the great art and music religions sometimes inspires.
At least this one isn’t a total strawman, since I assume it is directed at Hitchens. But come on! Hitchens might go overboard occasionally with his polemicizing, but I really don’t think he’s confused that some forms of religion are more harmful than others. Overly flamboyant rhetoric does not constitute irrationality commensurate with demons and cherubs.
3. Condemning the Bible as a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well. The Bible was written by humans. It has no other source. The evidence is clear on that front. And similar to point two above, given that it is a human creation means that it isn’t all good or all bad — but contains both. Its contents can be downright absurd, flagrantly unscientific, embarrassingly racist and sexist — not to mention painfully boring. But it also contains brilliant insights into the human condition, fun stories to entertain kids, and heady poetry. It even has solemn stretches of unbridled skepticism and existential angst. Check out Ecclesiastes
Among nonblievers, it’s always Ecclesiastes. A rotten movie might have a few good scenes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still condemn it as rotten. And you might be strongly inclined to do so if everyone around you were praising the film as so magnificent it could only have been directed by God. So, yes, the stories of Joseph and Jonah are pretty good, the proverbs have their moments, and, of course, there’s Ecclesiastes. (Job, on the other hand, is way overrated.) But these are a few small bright spots in a volume that is frequently both turgid and uninspiring, to put it kindly.
4. Failing to understand and appreciate “cultural religion.”There are tens of millions of people out there who are part of a religious tradition, but don’t actually believe in the theological teachings thereof. They go to church, they get bar-mitzvahed, they identify with a religious tradition, and yet they are basically atheists, agnostics, or skeptics at heart. Why do they stay religious? They like it. They enjoy the traditions, the songs, the rituals, the community. These people should be seen as allies, not enemies. And every time we condemn their religion as idiocy or wickedness, we simply turn them off. Religion is not a black or white thing. Neither is secularity. There is a lot of gray out there. Deal with it. Appreciate it.
Once again this looks like a pure straw man. I am culturally religious, in the sense that I consider myself Jewish and sometimes participate in Jewish traditions, but somehow I have never managed to get offended over anything I’ve seen in atheist writing. People who are culturally religious are usually among the first to concede the absurdity of the creeds and dogmas. And allies in what, exactly? If we are talking, say, about science education or stem-cell research are we really worried they will be driven to the forces of darkness because Richard Dawkins said something snide? Are there any atheists who are not willing to make common cause with the culturally religious?
And, incidentally, anyone who uses the phrase “Deal with it,” can be immediately dismissed from serious consideration.
5. Critiquing God as nasty, wicked, and immoral. There is no point in critiquing a deity that doesn’t exist. There is no need to catalogue the horrors, hypocrisies, or genocidal tendencies of a god that is imaginary. The reason we don’t believe in God is simple: lack of evidence. That’s it. Stay focused people.
Sorry, but this is just flat stupid. If someone tells you that the Bible is the Word of God and an infallible guide to morality, it is certainly fair to observe that God comes off looking petty and vindictive through much of the text. I’ve never seen that put forward as a reason for not believing in God. It’s just a reason for doubting the moral wisdom of the Bible, and the moral judgement of people who read it uncritically.
6. Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place. People who believe in irrational things will rarely change their minds by listening to rational arguments. And yet atheists expel so much sweat constructing philosophical, scientific, or logical arguments against the existence of God. Think this will change people’s minds? Perhaps. But only rarely. What really lowers levels of religiosity, the world-over, is living in a society where life is decent and secure. When people have enough to eat, shelter, healthcare, elder-care, child-care, employment, peacefulness, democracy — that’s when religion really starts to lose its grip.
Really? Atheists spend too much time on philosophical arguments? Because the usual rap is that we don’t spend enough time immersed in the relevant theological and philosophical literature. I’m afraid I see no evidence that an atheist obsession with devising arguments for what we believe is cutting into time that would be better spent fighting for social justice. I also see no evidence that giving atheism a level of visibility it has previously lacked and making it a prominent part of the public conversation has somehow made it more difficult to fight the forces of blinkered religious ignorance.
7. Arguing about morality in the abstract. Don’t get sucked into arguments about “Can we be good without God?” Don’t try to convince theists that secular morality is actually more rational and, well, more moral. Rather, just insist that morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed. And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled. End of discussion.
Once again, is that actually a problem for atheists? Do we routinely get into abstract philosophical arguments about the nature of morality? Have atheists overlooked the rhetorical value of pointing to the social contentedness of the world’s least religious societies? I honestly don’t know what he’s talking about here.
8. Not having more kids. The sociological evidence is clear: religious parents tend to have religious kids and secular parents tend to have secular kids. The demographic data is unambiguous: religious people have far more kids than secular people, with religious fundamentalists having the most kids of all. And the highly religious societies on earth tend to have the highest birthrates, and the most secular nations have among the lowest. So if you really want a godless world, better get busy.
Stopped clock department. I’ll give him that one. But is this what he meant in suggesting that atheists exhibit a level of irrationality comparable to cherubs and demon belief?
9. Always making top ten lists. It is so “Old Testament.” Let’s start going with top nine lists instead. Nine is divisible by 3. And 3, they say, is a magic number.
You just wrote a very bad essay. Don’t think you can joke your way out of it.