The worst offense that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.
—John Stuart Mill, 1806-73
The “new atheists” seek to save the people from religion by attacking their writings and beliefs. They imply that only the truly gullible could follow a religion and seek to free people from it.
Whether this approach succeeds or not is debatable. Some people believe this won’t convince believers. Steven Novella said “You cannot reason someone out of a belief they did not reason their way into in the first place.”
Nevertheless, many have left religion and embraced agnosticism or atheism. They have been freed from the shackles of faith and can now do something else. Something else?
It is like the woman who travelled months to the top of a mountain to ask the wise man:
“O, great wise man, I have been wondering so many things. Is life more than sitting at home doing the same thing over and over? Wise man, is life more than watching one’s relatives do unpleasant things, or more than the grim tasks one must perform at school and at work? Is life more than being entertained by literature, wise man, or more than traveling from place to another, suffering from poor emotional health and pondering the people one loves? And what about those who lead a life of mystery? And the mysteries of life? And, wise man, what about the overall feeling of doom that one cannot ever escape no matter what one does, and miscellaneous things that I have neglected to mention in specific?”
In fact answering questions like is the business of religion. Religion claims to answer these questions, perhaps falsely, but it does attempt to provide answers.
If we throw away religion, what will it be replaced with? Is it worth replacing at all?
Culture as a replacement
In the mid-19th century, church attendance was plummeting. Intellectuals of the period feared that this would result in a decline in society, the quality of life and ultimately a descent into anarchy.
They proposed that religion could be replaced with culture. Secular wisdom such as the works of Shakespeare, the poems of Wordsworth and the Odyssey could replace the scriptures and museums could replace the cathedral. This has certainly been part of University culture till relatively recently. (The rise and rise of science and technology over the humanities has meant that ideas like this aren’t as popular as they were. Many students aren’t even familiar with the classics anymore)
The good bits of religion
In his book “Religion for Atheists : The non-believers guide to the uses of religion” Alain De Botton discusses the “good bits” of religion.
He believes that the question of whether or not a religion is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings is a boring and unproductive question.
It is possible to be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity or the Buddhist Eightfold path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring….
…Surely it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
One of the greatest losses in modern society is a sense of community. We look back to a time of neighbourliness that has now been replaced by a fast technological secular state that is driven by individualism.
The overemphasis of our society on romantic love – finding that special someone who will give us the sense of connection we crave is a symptom of this.
De Buton says that churches gave a way for people to meet one another in the community. It gave an opportunity to meet people from various economic backgrounds and who were interested in things we weren’t necessarily interested in. (About the opposite of social networking really) The priest could ask the congregation to shake hands with the person next to them. People sang together and people did community minded things together.
He compares the role of the priest to the hostess at a good party. A good hostess will introduce people to one another, helping unlock the intrinsic friendliness that we have that we hide underneath our secular facade.
Historians have suggested that we began to disregard our neighbours around the same time we ceased to communally honour our gods. This of course begs the question of what religions might have done, prior to that time to enhance the spirit of community and whether secular society can replace this without building it upon a religious framework.
Of course building a sense of community is only one example.
Where to from here?
Regardless of your beliefs, it would be a worthwhile exercise to consider that people must see something worthwhile their beliefs. Rather then assume they are fools, why not take another look.
- http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/you-cant-reason-person-out-of-position.html (Contrary to view to the saying – You cant reason a person…)
- Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid – Lemony Snicket