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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How to be an atheist who doesn't hate religion

Are you an atheist? Do you hate religion? "Well, I don't hate it," I can hear you say. "Or at least, I don't hate religious people. I just think that fundamentally it's better not to be religious, because religion isn't true. And I do really hate a lot of what people do in the name of their religious beliefs, such as trying to pass laws to make me follow them. It's not like I go around being a jerk to religious people and telling them their beliefs are wrong just for the hell of it." I hear you. "I'm not even going to say that religion is a greater force for negative than positive in the world because clearly a lot of people have religious motivations for being moral." I hear that too.

Let me give you two cases to consider of atheists who are not altogether opposed to religion, along with a suggestion of who to emulate.

Case #1: Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies morality. His stance is that the vast majority of moral judgments are intuitive in nature, reached more because of gut feelings than deliberate reflection. In order to better understand the bases from which people from different political factions derive their emphasis, he has articulated separate domains of moral concern such as reciprocity, purity, and liberty and argues that the reason liberals and conservatives so often talk past each other is because they assume priorities for these domains differently. He says:
What's an atheist scientist like me doing writing good things about religion? I didn't start out this way. As a teenager, I had contempt for religion. I was raised Jewish, but when I read the Bible, I was shocked. It hardly seemed to me like a good guide for ethical behavior in modern times, what with all the smiting and stoning and genocide, some of it ordered by God. In college, I read other holy books, and they didn't make me any more positive toward religion. 
In my 20s, I obtained a Ph.D. in social psychology and began to study morality. I ignored religion in my studies. We don't need religion to be ethical, I thought. And yet, in almost every human society, religion has been intimately tied to ethics. Was that just a coincidence? 
In my 30s, I began to study the emotion of "moral elevation." That's the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see acts of moral beauty. When you see someone do something kind, loyal, or heroic, you feel uplifted. You can feel yourself becoming a better person -- at least for a few minutes. 
Everyone who has watched an episode of Oprah knows the feeling, but there was absolutely no scientific research on this emotion. Studying moral elevation led me to study feelings of awe more generally, and before I knew it, I was trying to understand a whole class of positive emotions in which people feel as though they have somehow escaped from or "transcended" their normal, everyday, often petty self.

I was beginning to see connections between experiences as varied as falling in love, watching a sunset from a hilltop, singing in a church choir, and reading about a virtuous person. In all cases there's a change to the self -- a kind of opening to our higher, nobler possibilities. 
Now, one may or may not agree with Haidt about the importance of religious kinds of "moral elevation" (which you can read more about in his book The Happiness Hypothesis and apparently the newly published The Righteous Mind, which I haven't read yet but am eager to). Haidt believes that the moral domains are evolved tendencies-- and that includes the domain of purity, which is tied most directly to religion-- and there is considerable room for disagreement there. However, Haidt recognized some things which really shouldn't be a surprise:
  1. Religion is both causal (it makes things happen) and caused (things make religion happen), 
  2. We don't understand nearly enough about how either one works, and
  3. The causes and effects of religion can't be nearly summed up in the truth or falsity of religious beliefs
The latter proposition might seem questionable-- isn't it bad to believe false things, and good to believe true ones? Well, sure. But people reach beliefs for all sorts of reasons besides those beliefs being true-- in other words, because of biases-- in every part of life, in every culture across the world. Rather than thinking of biases as being deviations from our ordinary path of rationality, it would be more accurate to say that rationality is a deviation from our ordinary meandering path of bias. People have to be taught how to think critically, how to be skeptical, because it isn't intuitive. Once Haidt discovered this about morality generally, he started applying it to politics and religion and suddenly disagreements about such things started to make a lot more sense. 

Case #2:  Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a Swiss philosopher. In contrast to Haidt, who came to understand the relevance of understanding religion scientifically, de Botton seems almost allergic to science. However, he doesn't hate religion-- in fact, he's enamored enough of it to title his new book Religion for Atheists, and some statements he has made in it and elsewhere have a lot of atheists scratching their heads. Such as "Probably the most boring thing you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is 'true'." This matter might be boring to de Botton and others who reside in countries where religious belief is more settled in the realm of the theological and less in public life, but it's a top concern to theists and atheists alike in places where this is absolutely not the case, and it's startlingly myopic for him not to recognize that. Further, de Botton's characterization of the abandonment of religion and pitfalls that he alleges exist in the process are so bizarre that I've seen several question whether he is, in fact, an atheist:
In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked. 
Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought.
This sounds like a list of concerns of someone desperately trying to hang onto faith-- not someone who has left it behind. There is no real evidence to support the idea that these are things to worry about, and arguably more showing that these tendencies, especially "placing the human being at the center stage of everything," might be far more encouraged by religion than the lack of it. Describing atheists as "believing in nothing" is a good way to piss off many of them (there being all kinds of things to believe in besides gods, most of which are non-controversial), but more irritating to me is the unspoken assumption that in order to lose one's faith properly, a person must take great care to do so with "great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought." How does one do that, exactly-- pause for a few months in between concluding that there is no such thing as Hell and deciding that the same thing is probably true of Heaven in order to focus empathetically on the concerns of people who believe in both?  

That sounds nice...I suppose...but it's not how making one's mind up works. Not all atheists used to be theists, of course, but for many of those of us who did, the de-conversion process was long and emotional. It involved consideration of how religious people can behave so poorly, if God is the source of morality. How to know the truth, when so many religions claim to have it (accompanied by penalties for those who disregard their particular brand of truth) and faith as the only "evidence" offered. Whether to be open about our doubts when it could cause detrimental effects in terms of family alienation, the workplace, and possibly even backlash in the greater community (as happened for Jessica Ahlquist). Whether there actually is any argument out there in support of God's existence that is easily logically refuted and has been, over and over and over (spoiler: nope). There really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to that-- nobody seems to have been converted to theistic in the first place by the argument from design, Pascal's Wager, the cosmological argument, and so on, but boy are those ancient arguments revived and reformulated to battle those philosophy text-pounding atheists! (After hearing Pascal's Wager for roughly the 4,000th time, I became strongly tempted to just link to the episode on that topic of Logically Critical). Point being, telling people that they need to exercise great care in the process of leaving their faith behind is not only misguided and impractical but also patronizing and insulting-- if there is something to think of, they have thought of it. 

Ed Brayton called de Botton a "concern troll" today, and I can see his point-- a concern troll is a person who presents him/herself as aligned with whatever cause is being discussed, but makes suggestions and recommendations which purport to be helpful but actually sound like they're coming from someone who is actually highly ignorant of and/or opposed to the cause. de Botton really does sound like if Ken Ham decided to re-brand himself as an atheist. 

So...quiz time! Which atheist-who-doesn't-hate-religion is a better role model?

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