How do you know?

Russell Blackford makes an important point:

[I]t’s become increasingly apparent to me, partly from the Voices of Disbelief exercise, that many people in the bioethics community are fed up with the never-ending resistance from religionists to rational bioethics. Some of them are asking what credentials religion has anyway. Religious leaders are, of course, able to put their arguments in public, like anyone else. But they cannot expect anyone to defer to them if they rely on controversial religious claims…I suggest that religious leaders should be free to put their arguments, but if the arguments depend on doctrines such as ensoulment, the views of God, the sanctity of the natural order, and so on, these popes and priests should not expect to wield any influence. Those are not the sorts of worldly concerns that should influence government policy. But there’s a further twist. If religious leaders insist that it’s legitimate to put an argument such as “stem cell research should be stopped because my deity says so”, they are going to be met, inevitably, with questions about whether this is even true. How do you know that that’s what your deity says? Why should we believe you? How do we know that your deity even exists? The more that religious leaders rely on arguments based on essentially religious claims, the more those religious claims will themselves be challenged.

Preeecisely. How do you know that that’s what your deity says and why should we believe you? I see no reason at all to think you do know, and plenty of reason to think you don’t. I don’t believe you, and I think I have lots of good reasons for not believing you, and I think you have no good reasons for expecting me to believe you, or for believing that you know, yourself.

And this is why the ‘new’ atheists are so new, or so old but assertive, or so gentle but explicit. It is because we keep being told things that there is no good reason to believe are true – and now in addition we keep being berated and shouted at and pushed into the mud for saying as much. This gets irritating, so we say the magic word – shazam – and become shiny new atheists.

Look at A N Wilson again, for instance.

‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ [Polly Toynbee] asked in a puerile article…

Puerile? But which is more puerile – to believe in a god-son-of-god who took our sins upon himself to save our souls, or to point out that there is no reason to believe that? Wilson (after a lapse) believes that, yet he calls Toynbee puerile for not believing it. That’s backward. He makes a boast of having been convinced of the truth of ‘the Easter story’ without evidence – yet he calls people who decline to believe fanciful-sounding stories without evidence all sorts of hard names. That’s backward.

If so many religious leaders had not become so aggressive in trying to impose their views on the rest of us – i.e., beyond their congregations – the phenomenon being called the New Atheism might well not have happened, but popes and priests can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to the public sphere, as they have been doing, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged.

Both ways of course is exactly how they want to have it, but they can’t, not unless they get a global blasphemy law complete with death penalty and no right of appeal. Meanwhile, we’ll keep talking.

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