Wednesday, June 06, 2007


I should really know better than to bother fisking Theo Hobson, but, well, he’s at it again:

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does.

You mean, that there are no gods when actually there are? Nope:

It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is.

Um. I’ll come back to this.

And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, the atheists will doubtless reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful.

You might think that a challenge that has a “doubtless” reply isn’t so much of a muddle. Oh well.

But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up.

It seems to me more an assumption about the relationship between falsity and harmfulness. And often it’s an explicit argument rather than an assumption.

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place.

Does anyone mind if I just say “oh no it isn’t” here, so we can keep things moving along? Thanks.

Atheism therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion".

If ‘the world would be better if there were less X’ entails ‘world history has involved (or henceforth will involve) a reduction in the amount of X’, then I’m very much mistaken about the nature of logic and/or history.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Ah. So there’s something called ‘militant atheism’, which from the qualifier one might guess is something different from atheism per se. You know, if only there were some sort of word that meant disbelief in gods, then we could use it in articles and discussions without people wondering what the bloody hell we were on about.

What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. … If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It's a terribly inadequate definition.

Well, I don’t know if I can speak for atheists; I’m just someone who thinks there aren’t any supernatural beings. And what I hate is terrorism, malaria, jam jars that you can’t open, the excess of ad breaks on TV these days and waffly obscurantist third-rate sophistry.

In my terribly inadequate opinion, a religion is something that involves some sort of belief in the supernatural. Religion may also involve meetings, institutions, set texts, communal culture, architecture, arias, contemplation, charity and violence, but then you can have all of those things without religion. And I don’t really hate those things (except violence).

In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion".

Agreed. And the supernatural aspect is that which is distinctive to religion; it’s what religion “essentially is”. And the belief that I’d like to but apparently can’t call atheism is distinctive for its rejection of a supernatural creator. Beyond this basic disagreement, there is indeed an “infinite variety” to the types of outlook held by religious believers – and the outlooks held by atheists.

The… relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation. For he has to insist that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always.

Specificity is good for clarity. And everyone will agree that religions at times deserve specific criticisms. But acknowledging this doesn’t preclude the possibility of a general argument that the social effects of religion may be likely to be bad overall (no, not “all of it, always”).

I consider the atheist's desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty.

You might say the same about the desire to generalise about atheism. Is this guy being paid to satirise himself?

OK, fisking over. Undeserved substantive response follows.

There’s a Steven Weinberg quote that Richard Dawkins is fond of:

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

There’s some truth in this, but there are two things wrong with it. First, religion can indeed make good people do evil things – but certainly not in all cases. In many cases it can make evil people (and we should really say ‘nasty’ rather than ‘evil’, which is a bit all-or-nothing) do good things. In fact, religious belief systems, once acquired, have general motivational power: they can make people do all sorts of things they weren’t previously inclined to.

The second point is that this isn’t just true of religion. Any belief system can have motivational power, for good or for ill or for whatever. Secular political ideologies, if held with uncritical zealotry, and pursued with disregard to the consequences, can be monstrous and catastrophic. If held with a scepticism about means and a willingness to question ends, they can motivate great good.

So, what characteristics of a belief system could lead it to tending towards intolerant, fanatical, unthinking closed-mindedness, thus producing bad results? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Being based around an authority (in the form of either a leader or a text); it may perhaps be acceptable to question the authority, but these questions are not permitted to lead to rejection.
  • Favouring believers over unbelievers, saying that the latter are less deserving of good treatment in this world and/or that the former will be rewarded and the latter punished in a subsequent world.
  • Relying on doctrines that resist empirical disproof.
  • Encouraging or demanding assent without clearly reasoned supportive arguments.

Of course there are other risk factors (ethnic tribalism, sanctioning of violence), but the above, I think, are likely to be more common in supernaturally based belief systems – particularly more organised and institutional ones.


The Barefoot Bum said...

In many cases [religion] can make evil people (and we should really say ‘nasty’ rather than ‘evil’, which is a bit all-or-nothing) do good things.

First, this observation, even if true, would not contradict Weinberg's observation. Second, I don't buy that this observation is at all true except perhaps in the most rare, isolated instance. The closest I can think of is Alcoholics Anonymous, and even then a vague, generic "higher power" helps only to maintain a choice made on pragmatic, nonreligious grounds.

Jailhouse conversions are a distant second. It's telling that they seem to always happen after the prisoner is incarcerated; it's not at all common for people to turn themselves in for past, unpunished crimes after a religious conversion.

Other than that, I'm really unconvinced that specifically religion per se has much of a good effect on people other than fallaciously supporting the self-righteousness of their already good beliefs.

Kaite said...

I pretty much said my piece on my own blog, so all I shall say is 'Word.' Although not in the 'Word was with God and the Word was God' sense, because that's just encouraging people to take a text as an unquestionable authority.