Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beliefs Are Important

Regular readers will notice immediately that I have not titled this one up to my usual punnish standards, and there's a couple of reasons for that. The first is that I'm too irritated to be clever, having just re-read (I can't imagine why I subjected myself to a second inspection) Charlotte Allen's piece in the LA Times in which she decries what she sees as atheism's "extraordinary vitriol," "tired sarcasm," and - most outrageously - "boo-hoo victimhood." Atheists, she claims, are getting nowhere with "tired self-pity," and would be better off "engaging believers seriously." I'd usually place a disclaimer here about really being an agnostic, since the nonexistence of God is not tenable as a scientific hypothesis and uncertainty is valuable, but screw that - no semantics today. Smart people are under fire from strutting fools, and I'm not going to throw them under the bus for choosing an angrier title than me.

Now, I'd like to be clear - it's not Allen's disdain for arguments against God's existence that I find so irritating, though what little case she makes for faith is rather juvenile for a supposed scholar of the Historical Jesus. It is her fundamental question, which is really quite simple: What are atheists so mad about?

My answer is equally simple: Beliefs Are Important.

Atheists operate on the incontrovertible principle that people are strongly motivated by the things they believe. People make (or are given) assumptions about the world, assumptions upon which they then feel empowered to act. Where those assumptions are faulty, and where those assumptions are given undue authority, the results range from mediocre to catastrophic. Religion is a set of all-encompassing assumptions given limitless authority, and the results have been - and continue to be - negative in the extreme. That's it. That's the entire atheist position.

Now, is that position a result of failure on atheists' part to "engage believers seriously?" Quite the opposite - we are, in fact, the only group in human history to engage believers seriously. We have subjected religious beliefs to critical analysis of the sort adherents almost always omit - analysis which demands proof for every premise, requires that every dictum be drawn to its logical conclusion, and suggests that tradition and authority are inadequate reasons to rest on one's laurels. Most critically of all, we have done away with the indefensible notion that religions (whatever those are - no one can quite say, though everyone is certain theirs qualifies) are in some way distinct from all other systems of belief, and necessarily subject to a "global gag rule" - free from serious scrutiny by anyone who doesn't want to come off as a prick.

Our overwhelming, inescapable conclusion is that religious beliefs have a dramatic impact on human behavior - far too dramatic to be treated as some kind of private issue, when their public ramifications have been so abundantly clear. This, really, is Sam Harris' point, about which he has been deliberately provocative (and therefore vulnerable to relentless quote-mining): your religious beliefs are probably not private. They are hugely pertinent to your behavior, and therefore of fundamental importance to anyone with a vested interest in your future actions. If you're a schizophrenic who believes that the creators of the universe speak to you and tell you to kill all the gays, you will almost certainly be institutionalized, and any gay acquaintances of yours are well within their rights to take out a restraining order. If you're a Christian who believes the exact same thing, you will walk the streets freely, your beliefs a private matter - between you and your God. Then you'll kill a gay man and everyone will say my goodness, he seemed so stable, an ordained minister, a lifelong church volunteer.

Wouldn't it be great if someone had been willing to engage your beliefs seriously? Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone had read your book, and thought about what you might do if you believed what was in it?

And don't tell me I've chosen an over-the-top example, because this happens every single day - people are killed for beliefs enshrined in books everyone has read. You can argue, as theists always do, that I am drawing on overzealous fundamentalists who are doing religion wrong - well, wrong or not, they are doing religion as it has always been done. Those of you who believe in a private sphere of religious faith, separate from and unaffected by things like scientific rationalism and day-to-day reality, are something entirely new to the modern era - theists born in a post-Enlightenment culture of secularism and anti-religiosity. Rational ecumenism is the exception; dogmatic fundamentalism is the norm. They are following the God they claim to follow, they are doing the things they claim to believe they should do, and when you defend religion you're defending them.

And don't you dare - don't you dare - claim that in so doing, you're not persecuting the non-believers. The fact is that Allen and people like her are so deeply immersed in theism that they can't even recognize persecution when they see it. Oh, goodness, Charlotte - only six state constitutions bar atheists from holding public office? Why in the name of all that's good should it be any? Why should a nation so clearly and conclusively founded with no religious intent include God in its public oaths and court proceedings? Why should courts be able to order alcohol offenders to seek treatment with a proselytizing religious organization like Alcoholics Anonymous? Why should so much ambient religiosity be taken for granted, and why are we whiners for pointing it out when you clearly never think about it?

And please don't insult my intelligence by pretending an open atheist could be elected to public office in this country. I write under a pseudonym so that my future career is not undone by what I'm writing right now. I attend Catholic mass on Christmas and Easter so that members of my (liberal, Democrat, college-educated) extended family don't disown me. Polls show atheists are about half as likely to be elected as gay men. We don't have to look at antique legal documents to know we're being persecuted, and neither would you if you were paying the slightest attention.

Which is really the bottom line: mainstream theists aren't paying attention, so atheists have to. Mainstream theists aren't asking questions of themselves, or of their religions, so atheists have to. Mainstream theists aren't associating belief with action, and atheists know they have to - because Beliefs Are Important. And if we're the only ones willing to point that out, so be it.

Edit: This is what I'm talking about. Why the special treatment?

"I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true."
-Bertrand Russell

"With or without religion, 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."
Steven Weinberg

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