Chris at Mixing Memory has a post up, Respecting the Religious (or the A-Religious), pointing to a Simon Blackburn working paper, Respect and Religion. I enjoyed Blackburn’s Think, but the chapter on God left me a bit cold. Blackburn is a philosopher, and his thoughts reflect that training. If I believed that religiosity was grounded in the sorts of arguments presented in Summa Theologica, I would take more interest in philosophical deconstructions of theism. As it is, I doubt that this is the case, a reality which Summa Theologica‘s author, St. Thomas Aquinas, acknowledges as well. Philosophical reflection is for those who have the ability, will and marginal time. A few thoughts about the whole Religion thing….
Truth: Some of the New Atheists strike a pose for truth. They dare not live by lies. The problem I have with this is that the New Atheists tend to less inclined to accept truths when it diminishes the value of their polemics; specifically, the idea that religion is not about truth on any fundamental level, but a bundle of various elements bracketed together. More generally, that their polemics will not convince. I suspect that the reality is that the New Atheist program is not to witness truth to the masses, but to raise consciousness, awareness and identity. I have no issue with that, but bringing it to such a human level would I think make it incumbent upon some of the New Atheists to forthrightly acknowledge the naturalness of religion. As Chris notes, some of the New Atheists show a profound lack of interest in the details of what religion is and are content to reduce the phenomenon to a book or a set of laws.
Phenomenon: Religion is a phenomenon. It is a term with many faces and manifestations. Religion is belief is in supernatural entities, the dimension of psychology. Religion is group identity, the dimension of sociology. Religion is about institutions, the dimension of politics. Religion is about ethics, the dimension of philosophy. Religion is about cultural memory, the dimension of history. And so forth.
Importance: Religion is important. It is important to those who believe. It is important to those of us who do not believe in societies where most do believe. If I worked at an office and asked that I be excused from work three times a day to relax and reflect people might look at me strangely. Contrastingly, if I asked to be excused from work three times a day to pray as required by my religion the request would be acknowledged as possibly having merit or being worthy of consideration, even if it was denied. Whether atheists respect or care about religion, it cares about us. People die in the name of gods, and have for thousands of years. If it is worth killing over, it is worth noting, observing and acknowledging.
Intuition: I recall reading an autobiography by Anwar Shaikh a few years back. The author was raised a Muslim and he killed two Sikhs during communal violence during partition. Later, during the 1950s, he was reading a translation of the Koran and came upon a passage which absolved the Prophet Muhammad of the injunctions which had previous held to all others. Shaikh had a flashing thought, “Muhammad interpolated that into the text!” And the rest is history.
I bring this up to note that leaving religion is often not a process which is driven by rational reflection; it can emerge almost as an epiphany or from a moment of intense stress. More commonly people can be socialized toward irreligion. I had a friend who was a moderate liberal Catholic during the beginning of college who eventually became an atheist after her period of immersion in radical Left politics. It was pretty clear that her disavowal of her religious background was made easier by the fact that she had a new identity which could replace her previous affiliations. The analogy here to religious converts is pretty clear. Scholarship by researchers such as William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark suggest in the United States conversions to sects and cults generally happen through personal contacts and peer groups. Post facto individuals may offer a rationale for why they converted that has nothing to do with exogenous factors, but generally these do not hold up to closer inspection. As an example, I once had a discussion with a woman who was a convert to Christianity from Buddhism. She explained that her reason for changing religions was that Buddhism was just superstition, most Buddhists didn’t even know what they really believed. At this point I asked her a few pointed questions about Trinitarian theology and soteriology; she looked at me blankly. The point is not that I would have expected any Christian to describe in detail the finer points of their faith’s philosophy, only that critique is applied very selectively (this can be expanded outside of religion to outlooks, world-views and ideologies more generally).
Material consequences: Thomas Jefferson once said “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This is true as far as it goes, but religion is more than a psychological phenomenon; it has communal and institutional dimensions. Like it or not, religions which are thick on the ground will make their presence felt and demand accommodation. The gods which your neighbors worship are relevant because those gods often demand practices which impinge upon your own life, they may be jealous, and they certainly warrant attention. For the religious they may also feel that the belief of their neighbor is critical for their salvation, and so they must intervene for their own good. The idea that gods exist within the confines of the mind is what economists would term a “stylized fact.”
To conclude, my general suspicion of the New Atheists echoes Chris’ in some ways, I find many of them sloppy and rather uninterested in constructing an accurate model of the world. They are polemicists, first & foremost. That is all fine and well, but to the gods of rhetoric I offer few sacrifices. To those of knowledge I would give my firstborn. Those who would join us as we sail into the unknown need not declare to which gods they render their homage, none or twenty, it makes little difference. Someone whose religious views do reflect deeply held values and sincere cogitation would no doubt be absolutely uninterested in whether I respect them or not.