Sunday, July 31, 2011

We Need to Speak to Religious Moderates and Argue to Them Against Belief in Gods

Listen to Buckwheat Zydeco and make a change.
I feel like I should post, even though I am rather drained this evening and don't have anything in particular on my mind.

Seems I'm looking for some new growth in the atheist community or someting apprecialbly different from broader discussion of atheism and theism in our culture. Mostly, I see the same things I saw three years ago when I came "out" as an atheist. If anything, the religious manacles grip our world more tightly than before. Every shmoe cleric now thinks s/he knows enough physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, philosophy, and history to pronounce authoritaively on any topic that threatens the idea of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful personal god who wants you to avoid masturbation and pork.

And the atheist community appears rather stagnant. We laugh at the silly arguments and violent rhetoric of the ardent faithful. We defend the real work and the reasoning behind our positions. But nothing new or especially interesting is happening.

I'd like to see more inroads made to the religious moderates, to the regular men and women who go to houses of worship, lead them, and blithely understand their religion as generally a good thing.

50 or so atheists were recntly featured in a piece on "Why I don't believe in god." The world no longer needs that article. The article needed now is "Why you shouldn't believe in gods."
  • Because it's not true.
  • Because it sucks up time and money better spent elsewhere.
  • Because its teachings are conflicted and incoherent.
  • Because its inherent conservatism hampers substantive debate on key social and political issues.
  • Because its inherent pessimism stunts personal growth and intellectual maturity.
  • Because it doesn't soothe, doesn't center, and doesn't help. 
Readers? Other reasons for not believing in gods that would speak to religious moderates?


  1. I disagree.

    The moderates mostly already know the arguments against belief. Some of them are probably closeted atheists. They continue with religion either because they like the traditions, or they like the privileges that our culture grants to members of Club Christian.

  2. -Once irrational faith is allowed, you can't argue as legitimately against extremism. I think the "why I don't believe in God" article IS helpful for this reason. As Sam Harris likes to point out, the very idea of faith without evidence/reason is shared by moderates and extremists, and once it's admitted, it's admitted.
    -It creates many needless out-groups (us vs. them mentalities) in a world that has too many, leading to all kinds of conflict--conflict that is all the more dangerous and serious in a globalized and nuclear world.

  3. Like many self-described atheists, you seem to me to exhibit what I call epistemological puritanism. Mencken aptly defined puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time. The epistemological puritan is someone who is haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere is entertaining a belief unsupported by evidence. I find this attitude incomprehensible and less than admirable.

    I can understand and sympathize with the attack on the delusion of some religious believers that their theistic beliefs have evidential support, such as supposed historical proofs of miracles and revelations ("We know for a fact that the resurrection of Jesus/the theophany at Mt. Sinai occurred because there were hundreds/thousands of witnesses to the event!") and, even worse, misrepresentations of science and its findings ("flood geology," "creation science," "intelligent design," etc.). It is this delusion that seems to me the great danger to civilization in some varieties of religion, not the mere theistic beliefs themselves. If someone believes in God but does not deny or distort history or science to sustain his belief—the attitude that I take to be characteristic of the religious moderate—I can't see that he does any harm to me or to anyone else.

  4. PS. You've got some spelling errors: "maturbation" in parag. 2; "it's" for "its" three times in the bullet list at the end. (You have my permission to delete this comment after you have corrected the errors.)

  5. MKR--

    I like the idea of epistemological puritanism. But, I think there are real concerns to be addressed here. Beliefs don't exist in isolation; they come with social consequences, and often engender further beliefs with further social consequences.

    E.g., beliefs about ensoulment shape debates on abortion and beliefs about the veracity of Leviticus shape debates about gay marriage. Beliefs in a chosen people may lead to unnecessary religious in-groups and poorer treatment of outsiders; belief in God's providence leads some to denial of climate change; etc.

    In general, the notion is that both the content of many religious beliefs--and the very act of irrational belief-- do pose potential harm in practice, even if in theory we needn't care about someone holding an isolated false belief.

    I have very mixed feelings about the state of religion in the modern world. But we live in a high stakes world: globalization, nuclear capabilities, as well as the specters of global warming and overconsumption of resources, yada yada yada. In that setting, I think concerns about consequences of irrational beliefs are well worth discussing.

  6. JG, I agree that some religious beliefs can have harmful social consequences, and I do not consider it puritanical to try to dissuade people of those beliefs on that account. But I am not convinced that that will have much application to religious moderates. There are plenty of people, especially in this country (the USA), who invoke their religious beliefs to justify acts and policies for which they can provide no credible argument on secular grounds; but surely such behavior is contrary to what the term "moderate" signifies.

    Further, people tend to shape their religious beliefs to fit their ethical and political convictions more than the other way around, especially in the United States, where "religion" most often means a dumbed-down, virtually content-free version of Protestant Christianity. (See, e.g., Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy (Harper, 2008), which is really about the religious illiteracy that prevails in the US.) I suppose that you can say that people's embrace of religion can confer a rigidity of conviction on beliefs that they otherwise might have held with a greater openness to rational influences. But, again, irrational rigidity of belief seems to me a mark of extreme, not moderate forms of religion.

  7. Fair point. I guess I see the line between moderate and extreme as a little blurry.

  8. abele derer2:49 PM


    "...the delusion of some religious believers that their theistic beliefs have evidential support, such as supposed historical proofs of miracles and revelations ("We know for a fact that the resurrection of Jesus/the theophany at Mt. Sinai occurred because there were hundreds/thousands of witnesses to the event!")."

    It is easy to call someone deluded when misrepresenting their arguments. No one ever argued for Sinai based on the assumption that there were thousands of witnesses there. We simply argue that you can't convince people to believe in a false national event. That's all. Why misrepresent our argument and then call us deluded?


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