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February 28, 2011

Has atheism won already?

Some of you may be wondering what has happened to my series of essays on why atheism is winning. Do not fret, it has not been forgotten! It has just been displaced as the focus of the daily essay by the more immediate and timely issues of labor and the struggles in the Middle East. It will be continued.

But until then, here is Marcus Brigstocke in a debate arguing in favor of the proposition that religion has had its day.

The response by the Christian is pathetic. No wonder the largely young audience overwhelmingly agrees with the proposition.

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Comments

I thought Jesus had two commandments, although He was specifically asked to name one. The first was to love your God with all your everything. The second was to love your neighbors, presumably with whatever you had left after completing the other commandment.

Posted by John on February 28, 2011 08:23 PM

Mano,

I've been following your blog for a while, because I have found many of your posts to be extremely insightful and rather necessary on a wide range of issues, particularly political issues. I'm a grad student over in the English department here at Case, and I thought it may be worthwhile to at least attempt to complicate some of the points you make regarding religion and spirituality.

I consider myself to be a spiritual person, though not necessarily one who is inclined to submit to the various orthodoxies of particular religious institutions. I would say I am a Christian, perhaps because that is the faith tradition I grew up in, and a certain form of Christianity seems to be the most effective way for me to search for and express my faith in God. I have tremendous respect for atheists like yourself; perhaps more so than I have for most religious believers, because so many of the religious people I have known throughout my life have been, as you often characterize them, gullible, easily manipulated sheep. It was the Evangelical community--many of whom I grew up around--that essentially put George Bush in the White House, for instance. But I also think there's a point where this characterization goes too far. While nearly all organized (that's key) religious institutions have had their share of abuses, I would contest that the creation of the "gullible believers and the crooks who fool them" vs. "liberated, free thinking intellectuals who know better" dichotomy is rather too convenient, and something of a straw man argument.

True, much of the religion that has dominated throughout history--the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Religious Right of the 20th century, and innumerable others--operated as an "opiate of the people," as Marx would put it. But I think its irresponsible both logically and historically to move from this fact to a larger claim that ALL religious or spiritual conviction is oppressive rather than liberating. What would the Civil Rights Movement in the US have been, for instance, without the religious conviction of Martin Luther King? And imagine El Salvador without Oscar Romero, or South Africa without Desmond Tutu. Going way back into history, consider how powerfully Martin Luther's influence, in subverting the dominant religious institution of his day, helped to give rise (along with other things, obviously, like the printing press) to the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of Modernity. Hierarchical, authoritarian religion has almost always (if not always) had the detrimental effect on society that you frequently ascribe to it. But personal, inward, spiritual conviction--which is often fomented by various religious narratives--can also bestow tremendous benefits.

If you haven't do so before, I would really encourage you to look at the work of a number of religious thinkers whose work tends to be on the margins of popular religious dialogue, rather that of the all-too-easy culture warriors that we all love to caricature. For instance: Kierkegaard's arguments about existential despair and the leap of faith in "Fear and Trembling" and "The Sickness Unto Death." Paul Tillich's Existentialist approach to Christianity in "The Courage to Be." The two most recent novels by Marilynne Robinson, ("Gilead" and "Home," "Gilead" recently won the Pulitzer). Also, Karen Armstrong (I've watched a lecture by her, which I've posted a link to, but haven't yet dug into her other work...it looks very good, though).

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dftuw-kZ8fac%26feature%3Dplayer_embedded%23at%3D3184&h=0576dcsCVH5t0cOhrALUk_q9T7A


Anyway, I just wanted to throw some of those points out there, just for the sake of discussion. It's great that you hold religious people accountable for some of the foolish things they do, because as we both know, there are many. But I also think it's important to give credit where credit is do, and to make sure that the rather private and deeply personal convictions of responsible, reasonable persons of faith are treated with dignity, respect, and a fair discussion.

I'm not out to convert anyone, and I certainly would not fall into the fundamentalist or literalist categories of certain religious sects. I have merely found that the religious / spiritual path is, for myself, a meaningful and fulfilling way of (to borrow Heidegger's phrase) being-in-the-world. And I have found that whenever I try to abandon that path, thinking I am too intellectual and enlightened for such ideas, my inner life diminishes, and I eventually realize that faith is a vital and necessary part of my day to day life. I'm not sure where I'd be without it. But that doesn't mean I'm willing to cling to any article of faith uncritically or anti-intellectually.

Thanks for reading this, and sorry it ended up being so long! I tend to have a lot to say about these things...

Posted by Ray Horton on March 1, 2011 02:19 AM

Ray,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have addressed some of these issues many times before (like here) but let me summarize the main point.

I do not doubt that there are many good people who do worthwhile things in the name of religion. I also have no doubt that there are many who seek some kind of existential meaning and, like you, find it in religion.

The question is whether this group can be peeled away from those who practice 'bad' religion. I have regretfully come to the conclusion that it cannot. In the words of comedian Marcus Brigstocke:

"I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they'll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away."

If I think that god does not exist, I do not see how to make a coherent argument that some kinds of faith in god is good and other kinds are bad. My aim is to persuade people that it is the very act of believing in god (any god) that makes no sense.

So if religion goes away, will we have no more MLKs or Tutus? I don't think so. Decent people who seek to do good will find the reasons to do so without recourse to god, just the way that decent nonbelievers do.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 1, 2011 04:27 PM

do i think atheism has claimed victory yet? no i don't think that day will ever happen unless some mystical sign occurs. however i do feel religion is on the run in free thinking locations like the US, Canada and much of Europe

Posted by Stacey Lu Von Oglesbie on March 23, 2011 01:31 PM

Mano, just reading through your "Why atheism is winning" series - absolutely loving it. But just wanted to pick up on...

The response by the Christian is pathetic.

Argumental is a comedy panel show, where comedians argue for/against propositions with which they don't necessarily agree. I don't think any of the people arguing for religion in this clip are arguing from their personal convictions: they're trying to be funny.

Posted by Sue on March 28, 2011 10:02 AM