How thoughtful?

Norm commented on Julian’s atheism piece a couple of days ago, and when I read it my attention snagged on another claim in Julian’s article.

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers…

Hmm. I’m not sure what that means. Are thoughtful, intelligent believers ones who respect the limits on our thinking set by soberly assessing where reason and evidence lead us? But if they are, then are they really believers? If they’re not, are they really thoughtful and intelligent?

I think there’s a lurking and unacknowledged oxymoron there – or maybe it’s an elision. Believers can be thoughtful and intelligent but with an exception carved out for their belief. Believers, as such, aren’t thoughtful and intelligent all the way down. That’s in the nature of the word. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent, credulous people,’ but believers are by definition credulous. To the extent that they are credulous – they’re not thoughtful and intelligent enough.

This is perhaps another case where the special status of religion confuses things. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent astrologers’ – or homeopaths or Wiccans or Holocaust deniers. In those cases we would recognize from the outset that there had to be a big hole in the thoughtfulness and intelligence in question, but we’re more reluctant to see it in the case of religion.

The background idea seems to be that the two are in balance – that thoughtful intelligent believers and unbelievers are much the same, they just happen to differ on this one point. But that’s wrong. Believers are making a mistake that non-believers don’t make. They’re making a mistake even if there is a god, because we have no real evidence that there is a god, so it’s a mistake to take anyone’s word for it on the basis of nothing.

Irshad Manji is an example of the thoughtful intelligent believer who is nonetheless not thoughtful enough, because she says proudly that her faith in Allah is unshakeable. That’s not thoughtful, it’s the reverse of thoughtful. I think Manji is terrific in a lot of ways – but that does nothing to patch over the hole in her thinking.

40 Responses to “How thoughtful?”