Lately there have been a few articles on Disinfo that eventually, either immediately or after a few days, spurred an argument that rears its head fairly often here. The debate between atheism and religion is one in which I usually enjoy taking part, and I like that it pops up on Disinfo with a certain regularity. What I don’t like, what I suspect many of us don’t like, is that they often devolve into, if not begin as, something along the lines of:
Poster A: religion is stupid
Poster B: YOU’RE stupid
Sometimes it’s a little more eloquent, but this is the bare bones of it. Not very useful, nor very informative. This I think we can agree on. So how does one go about creating a better, more informative dialogue? Can it even be done? One side believes the other to be irrational, delusional, utilizing a sort of maladaptive coping mechanism to either protect oneself from the harsh realities of life or as an easy way to answer the hard questions with which life presents us. Coming from the other direction, one side believes the other to be narrow-minded, hypocritical (“atheism is just another faith!”) and every bit as dogmatic as their opponents. Is there any ground between the two camps wherein a discussion can be had?
I believe so, and I think I’ve got the way to do it. First one must ask why the discussion even needs to take place. When these discussions occur, one may hear an oft-repeated cry for tolerance: “Why does everyone have to argue about this? Why can’t you just believe want you want to believe and let others do the same?”
Well, the problem is person x may believe that everyone needs to believe as they do, or that the laws of the land need to reflect person x’s religious beliefs because they are the basis for all morality. Allowing people to believe whatever they want means allowing them to act however they want, which means allowing moral crimes to occur. Person y believes that person x’s beliefs infringe upon their personal freedom by influencing the policies of whatever organizations that have an effect on person y’s life. So to answer the question of “why can’t we just let everyone believe whatever they want to believe”, it is because other people’s beliefs will affect you in real ways. We all share this ball of mud hurtling through space, and the things we believe can dictate how we act and how we believe other people should act. Other people’s beliefs don’t just stay in their head.
So now that we agree the discussion is inevitable, how can we go about it properly? If our goal is to have an informed and informative discussion in which there is a frank exchange of ideas, opinions and facts, how can we ensure that happens?
A productive way to move forward is to lay out some questions that will get to the heart of the discussion in a lucid, easy-to-follow way. For your consideration I have borrowed a set of questions from a fellow I speak with fairly often on Liminal Nation, a message board devoted to an “intelligent and visible” discussion on religion, occultism and associated fields. I will provide my own meager answers as examples, as well as to hopefully begin a rational discussion on the topic.
1. What was the origin of religion? Can its origin be meaningfully traced at all?
I often hear atheists describe the origins of religion as proto-men drawing pictures on the walls of caves, of legends and superstitions from a time when our brains were wired up different and we were hearing voices in our heads. Religion comes from a time when we really didn’t know a lot about the world around us so we filled in the gaps with ideas that, from the perspective of the 21st century, seem silly, out-dated, and most importantly false.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. “Religion” and “spirituality” are not synonymous. I grind my teeth when I hear people say “I don’t go for organized religion; I prefer a non-specific spirituality”. The reason is simple: there is no such thing as unorganized religion. Religion is an organized set of spiritual beliefs and rituals. It arose when mankind began to get itself more organized. There was a time when magic, science, and religion were considered the same thing and were generally handled by the same person. There is one religious tradition that all cultures on all continents share: Shamanism. The shaman was the person who would “travel” to the Other Worlds, returning with knowledge or power given to him by spirits or gods or whomever one runs into in the Other Worlds handing out knowledge and power. But at some point in the development of mankind, magic and religion began to separate. It’s useful to consider when priests began to become separate entities from magicians. They became two separate jobs, performing different duties. The priest ran the rituals and served the public through the duties of an office in an organized religion.
The follow up question is very important, and it has quite a bit to do with what I was just talking about. Can this moment, this separation, be traced meaningfully? What if it can’t? More importantly, if religion IS a product of the past, why is it still around? Why is it still very, very popular? This leads us to the next question…
2. What functions does religion serve?
This is a difficult question to answer. There are many different religions, and many different people following these religions, and many different interpretations of the same religion. Attempting to answer this question seems to involve trying to get inside the heads of religious people.
Fortunately, there are ways to begin answering it. One can look to history to see what role religion has played in different countries at different times. I’ll leave this to others to investigate, but I can offer answers from my own experience.
When people ask me about my religious beliefs, I usually make a joke or brush it off or distract them or ignore it completely. I do this not because I don’t enjoy talking about religion, but because I don’t want to disclose that I worship Hermes Trismegistus, a fusion of the Greek deity Hermes and the Egyptian deity Thoth. Aside from the fact that it would break my dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist mother’s heart to learn I was involved with a *GASP* pagan deity, and thus am barely a step above worshiping Satan outright, in these times it is still considered odd to have a DIY religion or be involved with a deity whose worship insignificant numbers dropped off at least a thousand years ago. It leads to dumb and occasionally insulting questions that I would prefer not to hear.
But the question is “what role does religion serve in my life”. To be blunt, it helps me achieve my goals. There is a style to Hermes Trismegistus, a way of operating, a style that I appreciate and want to incorporate into my own life. I find it graceful and a useful way to get what I want. The objective existence of Hermes Trismegistus is unimportant; what matters is whether or not the things I do in regard to my religion actually help me accomplish my goals.
3. To what extent does religion serve as a psychological crutch for some people? Does religion have legitimate functions other than as a psychological crutch?
I just told everyone that my own religion is basically a tool, a method for adjusting my behavior to get what I want, so I can’t deny that it functions as a tool. I wouldn’t call it a crutch; I can (and did for quite some time) get along without it with no adverse effects. I would not be limping along, psychologically-speaking. But what of other religions, specifically those that offer a “happy ending” for folks when they die? What about those that offer (or demand) a set of behavior that takes care of a lot of decisions one runs into in daily life? How deep does that go, and is it a legitimate function of religion? Should it be? Marx’s famous phrase “Religion is the opiate of the masses”, is commonly thrown about. But few mention the sentence that is directly prior to that, wherein Marx calls religion “the heart in a heartless world”.
Since Abrahamic faiths are by and large the most popular in the west, it is obviously a good step to answer these questions as they pertain to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
4. Is there a significant connection between religion (as opposed to other aspects of human culture) and violence? Between religion and morality? Between religion and love?
This is similar to the question of what role religion plays in one’s life. This is a very meaty topic, so I won’t attempt to give any quick answers. I hope this gets explored by others, though. These questions are important when one considers religion’s influence on morality and law, two areas where one’s religion intrudes on another’s religion (or lack thereof) and life in general.
5. Can Atheism be considered a faith?
This question, or rather answers to this question, are proposed very often here. Is the lack of a belief a belief, can atheism be considered a “belief” like Christianity?
Here’s a hint: no.
Militant atheists seem dogmatic, yes. They place a great value on reason and the scientific method, and since neither has produced any proof or anything close to proof, they don’t believe there is a god. Is that the same as saying they believe there isn’t a god? Yes. Is it the same as a religion? No. The difference comes in the word “believe”, which is being used in two different ways when one says one “believes” in god and when one says one “believes” there is no god. It’s a shame that one word can have two very different meanings, but that’s English for you.
For instance: I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. I have sufficient evidence for this. The belief is based on things like prior events and a heliocentric view of the solar system. A belief in god relies on something very different, something called “faith”. Which leads us to the next question…
6. What’s up with faith? I mean, what’s the deal there?
Okay, so it’s not phrased very eloquently. The same fella who offered these questions offered this quote from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith:
It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down as though they were primordial truths. This leaves us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.
Of what use is faith? Where does it crop up besides religion, and is it treated the same way when it does? Is it an essentially human thing? What is a life with faith like compared to a life without?
It is my hope that these questions lead to a discussion between atheists and those that follow a religion that isn’t based on insults and questioning the sanity of each other.