Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at a roundtable debate hosted by the Cleveland Freethinkers. The theme of the debate revolved around how atheists should present themselves in public discourse: should atheists be “accommodating” of their religious colleagues and acquaintances, or should they actively confront such acquaintances and directly challenge their beliefs at any reasonable opportunity? I was on the “confrontationalist” side, and the following is an approximate dump of some of my statements during the debate.
A case against accommodation
The biggest problem with religion seems to be that, no matter how moderately religious a society is, it inevitably creates a slippery slope towards extremism for those few adherents who take it a bit too literally; and there will always be those few. The reason for this is that religious moderates are basically the same as religious extremists, except that the moderates have (thankfully) allowed themselves to be tempered by the secular social norms of our time. By default, religious moderates are tolerant of extremists, because after all, the extremists actually believe what they say they believe, unlike the moderates who water down their religion to make it more palatable in the modern world.
And it seems to me that, from the atheist perspective, being an “accommodationist” would only help perpetuate that same kind of slippery slope that’s already made abundant by the religious moderate majority.
My rhetorical question to the accommodationists would be, “To what end?” Surely there must be some extreme forms of religion that you’re not willing to accommodate? If you’re willing to accommodate some forms of moderate Christianity, or moderate Islam, but not the more extreme forms of the two, then that would be just as hypocritical as the moderate Christians who cherry-pick which verses of the Bible to take literally, and which ones to take metaphorically. Religion should be an all-or-nothing deal. When it’s not all-or-nothing, there’s always some hypocrisy to be found.
Speaking of hypocrisy, it feels like we have a certain amount of intellectual integrity at stake here. We atheists are, to a reasonable extent, certain about the truth of our convictions. I don’t mean to speak for everybody, but that’s generally the case; we arrive at certain conclusions with some amount of certainty, and we consider these conclusions “true,” or at least tentatively true, insofar as the scientific method allows us to define truth. We don’t “believe” in things in the same sense that religious people believe in things, because our conclusions are backed up by evidence and observations, which makes the truth of our beliefs that much more meaningful and convincing.
So, taking all of that into consideration, why on earth should we be accommodating toward beliefs that are clearly false, or beliefs that are clearly lies, or beliefs that are demonstrably harmful to the well-being of their adherents? What does it say about our intellectual integrity when we allow falsehoods to be perpetuated, no matter how much false hope or false happiness they might bring to the people who believe them? I would think that we should be doing our best to expose such beliefs for what they are, and uproot them from the consciousness of our society using tools like education, debate, and scrutiny.
There’s a theory of why religious people get so offended when their faith is questioned. And the theory is that religious people are actually embarrassed by the things they believe, but they just don’t consciously realize it, which is why they get so defensive when their beliefs are put under the microscope. It’s embarrassing to believe the Earth is 6000 years old; it’s embarrassing to believe that a woman can give birth to a child without a man’s contribution to the zygote.
If I put myself in the mindset of a religious person, I can see how it would be embarrassing when science explains yet another thing that used to be attributed to God, and having my God demoted again and again, to the point where the very definition of “God” becomes so nebulous that it loses all meaning. And all I’m left with is profundities like “god is the universe,” or “god is beyond human logic,” or “god exists outside of space and time” — that’s my favorite.
The thing is, for truly religious people, that kind of embarrassment is buried deep down in their unconscious mind. Instinctively they’re perfectly aware that it’s all nonsense. But those instincts have been repressed by their conscious religious training, or indoctrination, or whatever. So when those beliefs are questioned, the conscious mind has no answer, so it turns to the unconscious mind, which says that it’s all nonsense, which directly butts heads with the conscious indoctrination, and that’s where the defensiveness and the anger comes from.
That’s only a theory, anyway. But my whole point here is that our goal as responsible atheists should be to bring that unconscious embarrassment to the foreground of consciousness. Not just the consciousness of religious individuals, but the foreground of our social consciousness. It should become outwardly embarrassing to keep believing in an all-powerful creator god. It should become embarrassing to keep believing in prayer, or believing in hell or heaven.
Believing in a god is on the same theoretical footing as believing any other figment of imagination for which you would otherwise be called crazy. It just so happened that this particular god was the one that got ingrained into the fabric of our society. But aside from that, there’s absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t attach the same kind of negative stigma to people who believe in the Abrahamic god, or the literal truth of ancient folk tales.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they like; of course they should. What I am saying is, we should work towards creating a society where the moment someone considers taking religion literally, it should be readily apparent to that person how embarrassing, counterproductive, and unwise that would be. So, in that kind of society, no one would have a reason anymore to turn to religion for any purpose, so therefore no one would have a reason to go down the slippery slope toward extremism.
That’s the kind of state we should be striving for; a state where it’s just as embarrassing to believe in the god of Abraham as it is to believe in Zeus or Poseidon or Xenu; because they are all on the same footing of pre-scientific wishful thinking. And I don’t see how accommodation will help us get there. Theism in general belongs in the Bronze Age, because it’s based on Bronze-age thinking, and because the Bronze Age is already the resting place for all other gods ever invented by men. There’s just one more to go!
When people who promote the merits of religion run out of arguments, they usually retreat to the last-resort argument, which is something like, “Well, at least religion gives people comfort, or hope, or a sense of purpose…” Well, that might be true; but the problem is that all those good things are for the wrong reasons, and all those things only happen when religion is at its very best. That’s more like an idealization of religion; that’s the infomercial promise of religion. The reality is quite different. In reality, when religion is not at its best, the same religion that brings the hope and the comfort will also bring fear, shame, intolerance, and guilt. And we know all too well what happens when religion is at its worst… it makes otherwise decent people commit unspeakably evil acts, for those very same reasons!
The other problem with that argument is that it’s rather condescending towards religious people. It assumes that religious people are too weak-minded to cope with the real world without religion, and I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m fully confident that even the most devoutly religious people will be able to find their moral bearings without a god telling them what’s right and wrong. I think people might be afraid to let go of religion, because religion has been pretty much the only option for thousands of years. But the solution to all of that, as with anything else, is education; not just education, but actively combating ignorance.
A proper education should start at the very beginning. Religion’s biggest offense is the indoctrination of young children. Nobody should have any kind of opinion or dogma forced onto them from birth, and yet this happens every day, in many millions of households, in the form of religious upbringing. I wish more of us would recoil when we hear parents label their young children as “Protestant” or “Jewish” or anything else, before the children are capable of objectively evaluating the implications of such a label.
That’s why I’m not advocating forcing atheism onto anyone. What I’m talking about is subtracting the forcing of religion (which is pretty much the definition of atheism anyway)! Atheism isn’t a viewpoint that can be forced onto someone. Atheism is a natural, “clean slate” state of mind, and children should be raised with a “clean slate” until they’re ready (and educated enough) to decide which ancient Babylonian deity to worship.
To put it plainly, we simply cannot afford to accommodate irrational beliefs anymore. It would be great to accommodate them, in theory, if only people’s irrational beliefs didn’t influence their actions, and if only people with irrational beliefs didn’t get elected to public offices, and didn’t allow their irrational beliefs to influence their policies. If that were the kind of world we lived in, then, by all means, accommodation would be very fitting and reasonable.
But we live in a country where half of the population refuses to accept basic facts about biology, and half of the population can’t tell you how long it takes for the Earth to make an orbit around the Sun. And we live in a world where we have an explosive growth of a religion that has a doctrine of military conquest literally built into it, and a growing minority of that religion that’s plotting our destruction as we speak.
We cannot afford to accommodate religions that are inherently anti-human, which all three of the world’s “great monotheisms” absolutely are. The moment when a religion places more value on things that are supposed to happen after we die, rather than focusing on doing good deeds in this life for its own sake, is a warning sign that such a religion needs to be eradicated, and fast.
Our battle is nearly vertically uphill, and the last thing we should be doing is pretending that there’s any good to be found in letting people cling on to their irrational beliefs just a bit longer. Religion’s function has been to divide people, divide communities, and stifle scientific and intellectual achievement. We should be doing our best to phase it out, instead of accommodating it. To put it as charitably as I can, religion has been the training wheels of our morality. And at some point, training wheels become more of a hindrance than a benefit. Our civilization is long overdue to take the training wheels off, and throw them away.