May 30, 2007
How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-4
In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.
The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the 'moderate' and 'liberal' variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other's weaknesses.
The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.
This is especially true if your epiphany occurs later in life, as in my case. The whole religious belief structure seems so preposterous and outlandish to me now that I am incredulous that I could ever have believed in any of it before. How could I have possibly believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving but invisible god? How could I have not seen that the entire structure of the universe is consistent with the non-existence of such a god? How could I have ever taken the story of Jesus seriously? And, even more difficult to answer, how can those around me, who are like me in so many ways, not see the world as I now see it?
And it is precisely this attitude that causes problems. It is hard for you to understand how the religious people around you could be so like you and yet believe such different things from you. Author Douglas Adams captured this sentiment when he said: "I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)
Suggested response: It is tempting to think that because these religious believers are just like you in almost everything else, and are open to scientific ways of looking at the world, that one can hope to persuade them to have the same kind of epiphany that you had, that religion and god makes no sense. This is a mistake and can lead to long and fruitless discussions. While it is true that you can discuss things on a deeper level that you can with fundamentalist religious believers, I think that moderate religious people are harder to persuade because they are much better at finding sophisticated reasons for belief.
It is easier to get a handle on understanding this if you bear in mind that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people or between intelligent and stupid people, but only between rational and irrational beliefs. None of us is purely rational. All of us are irrational in some areas of our lives, in that we believe things for which there is no evidence.
There are many examples of irrationality in my own life. I think my dog is smarter and better looking than most dogs. I also think that I am a better-than-average driver. I cannot really provide any evidence in support of either belief. Sri Lankan society is riddled with all kinds of superstitions and one absorbs them as one grows up. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing something mechanically that, on reflection, turns out to be based purely on superstition.
We are not in a position to provide evidence to justify everything and in most cases this kind of belief is quite harmless. For example, most people will wish someone 'good luck' when they are about to go for a job interview or take an exam or take the field in a sport. Many people have their own superstitions, especially concerning sports, like wearing a lucky shirt or waving a towel when their favorite team is playing. Many people try not to say something that will jinx their team. Many read their horoscopes every day and some even take fortune cookies seriously. They will not walk under a ladder and are uneasy when a black cat crosses their path. A Friday that falls on the 13th day of a month causes them anxiety.
All these things are completely irrational and atheists are as susceptible to them as anyone else. But when questioned about any of these minor irrationalities, most people (religious and atheists alike) are sheepishly apologetic and will concede that what they believe and do is just a relatively harmless superstition and will not try to defend the practice as having any kind of real justification.
But religious beliefs do not belong in this class and understanding the nature of this difference is crucial if we are to have a cordial dialogue with moderate religious believers.
To be continued. . .
POST SCRIPT: Andrew Card booed
When President Bush's former chief of staff Andrew Card received an honorary degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he encountered overwhelming scenes of protest. Huge numbers of faculty and students in the procession wore cards on their gowns with the word "CARD" crossed out and faculty even unfurled a protest banner right behind him on the stage as he received his diploma and he was loudly booed. It was quite remarakable.
This is what happens when members of this administration attend functions which are not tightly controlled with only loyal, handpicked attendees allowed to attend.
To see this event, click here and watch the long version.