Asymmetry Again

A couple of our readers are cross with Dawkins and with me for being blunt about religion, or perhaps for oversimplifying it. Of course that’s one of those perennial irregular verb things that I’m always noticing. One of those eye of the beholder things, one of those glass half-full or half-empty things, one of those Well it depends on which way you look at it things. Granted, I did speak bluntly and even rudely – I said as much at the time. But this is part of my point. How odd that hardly anyone rushes to upbraid Lieberman for being rude about atheism or secularism. How odd that there’s such a radical asymmetry in public rhetoric about the whole question, and that we’re so used to that asymmetry that we never even notice it. Why is it all right for Lieberman and other believers to chastise non-believers, but not all right for non-believers to chastise back? This set-up is bizarre and inequitable in at least two ways. One, it’s just unfair on the face of it. They can say we’re wrong, and we’re not allowed to say that they’re wrong. Two, it’s particularly absurd because they are in fact so very much more likely to be wrong than we are – and that’s putting it politely. That, you see, is why I put it so rudely. Because surely there is something grotesque about the fact that religious people get to scold non-religious people for, precisely, not sharing their ‘faith’ or ‘belief.’ What does faith mean in that context? It means believing something is true without good evidence. The word itself carries the implication that one is supposed to overlook the lack of evidence and just believe anyway – a procedure which is not considered intellectually respectable in other contexts. We don’t just have faith that the earth moves around the sun or that the Holocaust happened or that viruses cause colds, do we – we rely on evidence. Granted it’s not evidence that we ourselves have examined or produced. Even if we are astronomers or historians or medical researchers, we still have to rely on researchers in other fields to examine that evidence in our place; nobody can examine the evidence for everything we believe. But that’s not the same thing as no evidence at all. There are no equivalents of astronomers in religion – theologians don’t look for evidence, that’s not in the job description.

So that’s why it is grotesque that religious people think they are entitled to scold non-religious people – because they are urging people to believe something that there is no good reason to think is true. We are so accustomed to the grotesquery that most of us don’t notice it, but that doesn’t make it less grotesque – arguably it only makes it more so. Hence the need to point out, loudly and firmly, to windbags on the campaign trail, the epistemologically shaky status of what they believe. However rude it may seem.

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