March 02, 2009

When religious people and atheists talk

Within the last few years I have observed and been involved in discussions with people representing various religious denominations. I have noticed that when people of different faiths meet and the topic of religion comes up, one of two scenarios unfold.

One the one hand, you may have the holding-hands-and-singing-kumbaya phenomenon. This ecumenical approach seeks to find commonalities in religions and to emphasize the things that all religions share, such as that in every major religion one can find some version of the Golden Rule, to act towards others as one would want them to act towards you, and so on. This group of people tends to suppress those things in their religious texts that highlight differences with, or preach intolerance of, other religions.

The other is the "My religion is better than yours" or "My religion is right, yours is wrong" approach, taken by those seeking to either convert the other person or by people pursuing a political agenda. Such people are so convinced of the rightness of their own religion that they are often completely ignorant of even the most basic tenets of other faiths, having just a caricatured view of only those parts that they think puts the other in a bad light. So, for example, the anti-Muslim bigots in America can often quote those parts of the Koran that seem to call for violent action against infidels while ignoring those parts that are more tolerant.

But while it is understandable why the former group has decided for political reasons not to compare the relative merits of their respective religions, what is interesting is that even in the latter case, they do not try to argue, on the basis of evidence, why one religion might be superior to another. One can see why. After all, how can you rationally argue that Judaism (to pick a religion at random) is better than Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever? What possible data could you produce? They rarely use evidence because introducing the notion of evidence immediately shows the weakness of their own religion. Would it make any sense for a Christian and a Muslim and a Jew to argue about the merits of the evidence for Jesus rising from the dead compared with that for Mohammed to ride on a winged horse or for Joshua stopping the sun in its tracks? To do so risks making all of them skeptics because it would become immediately apparent that the claims of each religion are all absurd and unsupported.

Instead, the appeal for religious allegiance is almost always based on emotional or moral grounds, that one religion provides greater emotional satisfaction or rewards (material and spiritual) than the other or conforms more closely with current societal values. For example, it is hard to see a majority of Americans embracing orthodox Islam or Judaism, irrespective of the theological merits of those religions, simply because of their absurd and unconscionable restrictions on the role of women. Most women will simply not go along.

When religions try to convert people to another faith, it is almost always on the basis of some sort of emotional appeal. Fundamentalist Christian evangelists have a two-pronged strategy to making converts: first scare the daylights out of people by declaring them to be sinners destined for the fires of everlasting hell, and then promise them an escape from such torments if they accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

This is why it must be disconcerting for a religious person to have such discussions with an atheist. Atheists believe that god does not exist not because the idea of nonexistence is appealing or satisfies some emotional need, but simply because the idea of believing in something for which there is zero evidence strikes them as an absurd thing to do. To convince an atheist, you need to provide evidence for god, and this mode of persuasion is foreign to religious believers.

To bring the discussion back to a form they are familiar with, religious people try to assert that atheism is also a 'belief'. They try to argue that since atheists cannot prove that god does not exist, then assuming so must make it a belief. This tactic puts them back into a more familiar discussion mode, since it is arguing for one belief versus another, and the argument can then be made on the basis of emotional appeals, by asking which belief is more satisfying.

This is, of course, a false argument. Believing in the nonexistence of an entity because of the lack of any evidence for it is not equivalent to believing in the existence of an entity despite the lack of evidence for it. The former is a rational belief while the latter is irrational.

This is not to say that emotions do not play any role. Human beings are emotional animals. But for anyone with a logical or scientific attitude towards life, holding rational beliefs is far more emotionally satisfying than clinging on to irrational ones.

The crucial difference in the emotional responses is this: Religious people believe in irrational things because it makes them feel good. Atheists feel good because they believe in rational things.

POST SCRIPT: Extra fluffy toilet paper, eco-destroyer

This article points out how America's passion for the softest possible toilet paper is harming the environment because producing it requires destroying vast amounts of virgin forests to get that extra fluffiness. It causes "more environmental devastation than the country's love of gas-guzzling cars, fast food or McMansions".

Thanks to very aggressive promotion and marketing by companies like Kimberley-Clark, Americans are convinced that only the softest will do and so 98% of the toilet rolls sold in America are made from virgin forests, while in Europe and Latin America 40% is made from recycled products.

Our local Heinen's supermarket has been stocking toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper for some time. I can report that they are perfectly acceptable.


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I can't tell if the postscript is TMI or an effort to save the world.

Posted by Voltaire on March 5, 2009 02:04 PM

I tell proselytizers that they're wasting their breath because to those who already believe, the "message" sounds like babies cooing, blackbirds warbling, and orchestras belting out the "Ode to Joy,", while to nonbelievers it sounds like the whine of a mosquito in a region where malaria is endemic.

Posted by Weemaryanne on March 5, 2009 09:48 PM