There is a Reason
Norm quoted a question the other day that I’ve been thinking about on and offishly. It’s from a theologian or professor of ‘divinity’ (wot?) called Keith Ward (who wrote a presumptuous godbothering book called ‘God is Better Than Science’ or some such thing which I’ve read and disliked very much). He wonders why Richard Dawkins can ‘only see the bad in religion’. (He means ‘see only the bad,’ but never mind). That’s what I’ve been pondering, as a general question, not a specifically Dawkins-directed question. Why do some atheists ‘see only the bad’ in religion? Or, at least, why do we (because I’m one, although I do in fact sometimes note what one could call ‘the good’ or at least the understandable in religion) choose to concentrate on the bad rather than offering a more mixed or ‘balanced’ view?
There are some not terribly interesting, what one might call pragmatic reasons, to do with the fact that there are thousands of voices yapping about ‘the good’ in religion right now and not all that many insisting on the other thing, so it seems not unreasonable for opponents to go ahead and be opponents, rather than scrupulously giving the religious side its putative due (especially since the religious side so often gives remarkably inaccurate and badtempered accounts of atheism and atheists). But never mind that for the moment; it’s not all that complicated or productive, and it’s related to contingencies which could change. The real reason is not contingent, and it is more interesting, I think – because it’s about something that matters, and that’s the point.
The reason I, at least, am not much inclined to talk about ‘the good in religion’ is because it comes at a price, and the price is too high. The good is inseparable from that price, you can’t get the good without the price, so if you think the good is not worth the price – then for you it is not a good. It can’t be a good because it’s so tangled up with the price – with the bad.
It’s not as if you can make two lists, good, bad, and judge each in isolation. Because the basic problem with religion, the thing that makes people like me adopt a fighting stance, is that it’s not true. That’s not just some minor or detachable problem that one can compartmentalize or bracket – it’s right smack in the middle.
It’s a corruption, a surrender, an abdication, and we don’t make it because – we don’t want to endorse a lie. That’s why.
In other words, yes, we can see that religion has some useful and beneficial aspects sometimes – consolation, solidarity, inspiration, motivation – but they depend on a supernatural belief system, on a systematic illusion, and we don’t consider and don’t want to consider that a good thing.
We think truth matters, and that the human ability to sort truth from fiction, and speculation from findings based on evidence, matters. If religion consisted of maybe, if it were about uncertainty as some of its defenders claim, that would be different – but it’s not. It’s assertive – it makes firm, coercive truth claims. (And then shifts the ground by saying that no one can prove them false. No, of course not, but that is not a reason to assert them as true.)
The pivot is the word ‘faith.’ It’s no accident that that keeps coming up – ‘faith’ is the problem, faith is where religion demands that we treat speculation and hope – invention and fantasy – as true. And that is a bad thing, and we do know that in other contexts. (You’re in the car. ‘Is this the right road?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Faith.’ ‘Err…’) If religion were about, and were named, hope, or speculation, that would be one thing – but it’s not, it’s ‘faith.’ So we don’t see how to cite the putative good aspects of religion without endorsing the lying and refusal to think. It’s all one fabric.