This Is Our Problem with Religion
About two weeks ago, Siobhain Woodhouse asked us to remember the good that religion does. She argued that today’s atheists can be needlessly rude about the belief systems they reject, that they should consider the benefits of faith at the same time as they criticise it for its harm. On one level, her contentions are perfectly reasonable. We have to be careful, in any debate, to treat our opponents with a certain amount of respect. Arguments ad hominem are not only logically fallacious; they’re discourteous and unnecessary, and the reminder was, to this extent, poignant.
However, I think it’s necessary to mount a defence. Not of the deliberately rude, combative behaviour that Siobhain cites in her article, but of the many atheists who, even in the present day, feel unable to express their criticisms of religion. Theists are regularly pitied when their purportedly harmless beliefs are attacked, but atheists never seem to receive the same sympathy for the impossible situation that, should they wish to speak out against religion, confronts them.
Let’s not forget that atheists, too, are capable of taking offense. My own opposition to religion results largely from the demeaning remarks it makes about humanity. When I’m told that, without a divine superintendent, I wouldn’t know right from wrong; that unless I submit myself completely to a distant, ineffable ruler, I will suffer an eternity of pain and torture, and rightfully so; that homosexuals are immoral, women should be subservient, and everyone was born in original sin, I also have a right to be offended.
Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate and physicist, spoke for many atheists when he declared, ‘Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’ It’s not for me, here, to recapitulate the countless arguments brought against both the verity and goodness of religion. It’s not even important that you agree with them. All that needs to be stated is that many of us are passionately opposed to what we view as harmful, demeaning, prejudicial dogma.
I can criticise someone’s political beliefs in strong terms, and that’s acceptable. I can call George Bush wholly incompetent, condemn his Conservatism, accuse his military strategy of gross crimes against humanity, and in the eyes of many, I’d be saying something fairly unexceptional. I can publish an extremely disapproving review of an artistic work, or lambast someone’s football team for their performance at the weekend, and that’s fine as well. But should I speak about a religion in those terms, using a similar language, society will refuse to hear me. Theistic belief systems are accorded a privilege that no other, from politics to aesthetics to sport, shares.
But even without the automatic disapproval of much of society, it’s difficult to reject religion tactfully. Can you think of a nice way to tell someone that the premises on which his or her entire world outlook is founded are both false and immoral? It’s impossible to denounce a theory of everything in part; it must be taken on as a whole. The nature of the claim determines the nature of the critique. However you try, it’s difficult not to come across as rude or insensitive or militant when you speak out against religion.