February 16, 2011
Why atheism is winning-2: Religion's Achilles heel
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In the previous post, I looked at some of the theoretical arguments made by accommodationists for not criticizing religion and discussed why I did not think them very credible.
The other arguments that accommodationists make are practical ones. Belief in a god, we are told, serves some positive ends, such as inculcating moral values or causing people to refrain from bad actions for fear of divine retribution, and eliminating it would result in antisocial behavior by some. The counter to this argument is that there is no evidence that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or that lack of religious beliefs drive people to evil actions.
The other practical argument is that religions have been around forever and will continue to be around forever so fighting to eliminate them is futile and only serves to alienate those moderate religious people whose assistance we need in the struggle against dangerous and pernicious forms of religious extremism. Hence the best that atheists can hope for is to form an alliance with moderate religious believers. To attack religion in all its forms is to risk pushing the moderate religious faction into an alliance with the extremists. This is the argument that I am going to address in some depth in this series by arguing that the seeming durability of religion is an accidental byproduct of history and those factors that sustained it for so long are no longer the force they once were.
The idea that one can hope to eliminate extreme forms of religion and be left with just the cuddly moderate forms is an illusion. On the contrary, it is the very existence of any form of religion at all that enables the extreme forms to survive. The followers of extreme forms of religion do not in the least see themselves as extreme. On the contrary they see themselves as the true believers, the center, because they are the ones who take the commands of their religious texts seriously and follow them diligently. The moderates are seen by them as people who lack seriousness and have compromised their religion in order to gain social acceptance in the secular world and enjoy worldly pleasures despite the commands of their religious texts.
As long as these religious texts are treated as venerable and as the 'word of god' (however one interprets that ambiguous phrase), there will always be extreme forms of religion and endless debates between moderates and extremists as to who has the correct interpretation of the texts. Such an argument is necessarily going to be inconclusive, since there is no objective means of arriving at a conclusion and what is the best interpretation is always going to be in the eyes of the beholder.
A better way to counter religious extremism is to strike at its very core and point out that the very basis of their religious beliefs, the texts themselves, are basically ideological tracts written by people at particular times in history to serve particular ends. They are little more than works of fiction using the occasional bit of actual history to create a fanciful narrative. They bear even less of a relationship to actual history than the highly tenuous ones that the film Birth of a Nation and the book Gone With the Wind do to the history of the Civil War and the period of the Reconstruction.
It is easy to make this case objectively and conclusively because the evidence is already at hand and the scholarly work has been done, is well established and this knowledge is widely known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts. For example, using all the tools at their disposal, such as archeological findings, modern scientific tools, and textual analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that almost everything in the Old Testament of the Bible is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. All the major characters and events (Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, the captivity of Jews in Egypt, the exodus, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.) are fictional. The story that the books of the Old Testament tells is interesting and complex and full of charismatic figures and magical events but so is the Harry Potter series but we do not believe it to be true for that reason.
Many people, even non-believers, will be surprised at the claims that I make in the previous paragraph, because even those who do not accept the Adam and Eve and Noah stories still tend to think that the later stories of Egyptian captivity and Moses and David and Solomon are based on facts. They will question why, if the falsity of these things are so well known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts, and given the importance of this topic and its obvious relevance, this knowledge has not been disseminated to the general public.
I suspect that these facts are not broadcast widely or even mentioned in polite company because Christianity and Judaism and Islam, even in their so-called moderate forms, cannot survive if these things are widely known because their theology all depend on varying degrees in believing in the historicity of at least some of these people and events. This is religion's Achilles heel. The advent of modern tools of scientific analysis has exposed this heel and has tilted the balance away from religion in a decisive way. It is impossible to see how re-truthify (to coin a word) these legends. There is no going back and this is why religion is doomed.
Next: The clergy's dilemma