All right, we’ve made this separation; we’ve put the veracity or epistemic question on one side of the line, and the consequentialist question on the other. We’ve further said that the epistemic question comes first: that is, that for the sake of clarity, it ought to. So then what happens on the other side of the line? How does that discussion go?
One way it goes is to say that even if there is no good reason to think religion is true (unless religion is defined so thinly that it bears no resemblance to what most people mean by the word), it still doesn’t do to say so, because saying so would (to put it somewhat hyperbolically, as people occasionally do) ‘rot the fabric of our civilization.’ Or it doesn’t do to say so because saying so might rot the fabric of our civilization. Or it doesn’t do to say so because what if saying so rotted the fabric of our civilization? Or it doesn’t do to say so because it is possible to imagine that saying so could rot the fabric of our civilization. Or some such variation on the theme. Which is a way of saying No, the epistemic question should not come first, the consequentialist one should; or else it’s a way of saying the separation is a bad separation, and the two are not and should not be separable: that one should consider the epistemic question and the consequentialist one simultaneously.
But how? How is that possible? Especially for people who don’t have an ingrained habit of thinking that way? Or for people who once did, but have learned not to, and are damned if they want to start again. It’s not an easy trick. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus or God, it’s very difficult – probably impossible – to convince yourself that you do for the sake of some other goal. It’s easy enough to lie about it, but not to believe it.
But that’s all right, belief is not required, lying is all that’s expected. All Philip Dodd was urging Hitchens to do, apparently, was to shut up – and burn his essay on Bonhoeffer. Not to change his own beliefs, just to keep silent about them. That’s easy enough, surely?
Perhaps, in a sense, but why is it expected? Because religion is a ‘pillar of society,’ because religion is good for social cohesion, because religion is the anti-fabric-rot of civilization. Therefore people ought to lie, at least by omission.
But first, how does anyone know that religion is any of those things? How does anyone know it’s those things more than it’s their opposites? How does anyone know, in short, that religion does more good than harm? It would take an enormous amount of counting and surveying and compiling to know that, surely. And what of the opposite argument? That religion causes wars, hatreds, genocides, persecution, oppression, and therefore should be undermined by noisy atheists without delay?
And second, isn’t it rather sleazy and condescending to tell people not to disclose, not to put into circulation, their opinion that there isn’t much reason to think religion is true, because it might upset the poor weak masses who haven’t heard the news yet? And isn’t it also slightly absurd? ‘Psst – they can hear you!’
And then – how does it work anyway? Or how would it work? How would, for instance, various scientific endeavors go forward if the deity always had to be taken into account? They wouldn’t, would they. So then what? How do we arrange all those complications.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think these arguments that we may be atheists ourselves but we shouldn’t say so in public, are at all convincing or persuasive. (Philip Dodd said he was a secularist himself – in the midst of his rather vehement rebuke.) I can think of arguments I do find persuasive, for why we shouldn’t always give voice to our atheism in personal contacts and relations. But for shutting up about it in books and journalism and on websites? Nope. Nothing so far.