Economist Robin Hanson poses an odd challenge to atheists:
A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?
One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.
Well, I’m certainly opposed to reading fiction and pretending that the stories are true. And I’m double-mega opposed to organizing my life around stories that I wrongly believe to be true. Beyond that, though, I don’t see the connection between loving truth and not reading fiction. A love for truth just means that you think it is important to distinguish truth from falsity, not that you must never engage in a bit of fantasy.
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t say my hostility toward religion, and my support for atheism, is the result of some abstract love for truth. After all, “the truth” tends to be elusive, especially when we are talking about ultimate, metaphysical questions. I’m fine saying things like, “There is no good evidence in favor of belief in God,” or “The claims of traditional Christian theism are incredibly hard to believe given what science has taught us about the world,” but I still hesitate before saying, “Atheism is the truth!”
It would be more accurate to say that my hostility towards religion is the result of my hatred towards bad reasons for believing things. Religion relies far too much on authority, revelation and dubious claims of direct mystical perception for my taste. Even that, though, doesn’t quite capture everything. I’m not the “reasons for beliefs” police, and I have no objection to people believing unreasonable things in the privacy of their own home.
With religion, it’s really the combination of the unreasonableness of the beliefs and the tendency of those beliefs not to remain private that provokes my hostility. I won’t go as far as Christopher Hitchens and say that religion poisons everything, but I would certainly agree that it poisons an awful lot of things.
At any rate, “becoming religious” just doesn’t seem to be an option for a lot of us. Pascal argued that if someone regularly goes through the motions of being religious they will eventually come to believe, but at least for me that does not seem to be the case. As a kid I attended Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah, and celebrated Jewish holidays, but mostly I couldn’t wait for it to be over (even though, looking back on it, I’m glad I had the experience.) Even as a kid the stories I was learning from the Torah struck me as pretty silly. When I later moved to Kansas I tried again, joining the synagogue and becoming a regular attendee at services. It didn’t take.
So the whole discussion is moot. I like reading stories, but I don’t like religion. It’s as simple as that.