Your lover is ugly; how could you fail to see these hideous scars? And what about this appalling history of violence? The early and recurrent madness? Of course, your family, friends and neighbours are all deluded too. Finally, and worst of all, your lover, the centre of your world, is really just a figment of your imagination.
Sound familiar? It’s the standard approach taken by books extolling atheism. And we wonder why the news doesn’t go down so well!
In Breaking The Spell, Dan Dennett speculates that religious devotion is a form of love. Certain religions may be happy with this view, after all, does not God reciprocate with his love for you too? But Dennett is looking to explain the tenacious pathology of sincere unfounded belief in the non-existent, not to inspire a warm fuzzy hug-in. To an evolutionary psychologist, love’s use is as the mental character encouraging long monogamous relationships so slow-growing and vulnerable human children may be looked after by a single pair of adults. Of course, even a psychologist knows that the experience of loving another may be wonderful, mysterious and rich; evolutionary explanations add knowledge to the experiential side without subtracting from it. The ubiquitous love of imaginary beings, some argue, is just a misdirected side effect of our ability to love real people.
Whether or not a religious person is in any meaningful way truly in love with God, faith certainly shares similar deeply held features with love such as partisanship, exclusivity and comforting blindness to logic (no, your lover isn’t the most beautiful or intelligent person in the world). So it is hardly surprising that when we atheists try to break the news to religious folk that they are misguided star-struck fools we get a prickly response. Not only are we telling people that the object of their love doesn’t exist and that everything that they think is important to them is absurd and dangerous, we are also explaining that they cannot or should not ever love in this way again.
This is the problem facing Dawkins in The God Delusion. He is passionate about his cause, and means so well, wanting to pull the wool from people’s eyes to help them see the truth, but his method is to use reason and logic to hammer home all the faults of faith. Just as some people cannot see a world outside their scripture, Dawkins never looks outside his monistic mechanistic metaphysic. As obvious and beautiful as it may seem to him, not everyone is persuaded by this view or holds it as their implicit ontology. On their own terms, scientific evidence, reason and logic do create an overwhelming case against religions, but their use is somewhat begging the question; if people were reasonable and logical to begin with they wouldn’t latch on so emotionally to those arbitrary stories from their childhood.
When pushed into a corner by one damned argument after another people either slam up their defensive armour or they blast out with their fists flailing. Thus the claims that Dawkins knows nothing about religion or that he is an arrogant fundamentalist. At the extreme end he is, of course, the spawn of Satan himself.
Dennett is aware of this problem but wastes so much time in his book trying to cautiously smooth the fears of any religious readers brave enough to peer inside it that he ends up being boring, before solidly whacking them with the cold steel of scientific logic in any case.
Guys, your books are great, but people just aren’t religious for logical reasons. They don’t sit down and look for a satisfactory explanation for the scientific laws of The Universe, weigh up the pros & cons of various scriptures, and then decide to become a Jain or a Zoroastrian (even if they were allowed to be). Unlike scientists they don’t often think or care about “The Universe” that much. From a scientific or philosophically naturalist viewpoint religions appear bizarre, arbitrary and irrational, but harping on about that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Few of us, if any, hold a fully coherent and non-contradictory set of beliefs, and this doesn’t worry us at all.
Tufyal Choudhury explored this area amusingly at the British Museum on Friday night. Looking for an explanation for why so many younger generation Bengalis in the UK are turning to more assertive forms of Islam he offered the suggestion that it was a way to get back at their parents. As first generation immigrants the parents were often economically marginalised (er.. poor) and so seen as weak, and for many their defining battle was for Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan in 1971, a separation that the commonality of religion between the two regions was too feeble or irrelevant to prevent. Becoming a pious Muslim gives you a power in the World, it taps into a structure of authority and purpose, it makes you someone. I found this funny, as I like the idea that becoming more Muslim is on a par with becoming a goth or a punk. If the rebel theory holds over time, then perhaps we need just wait a few years until the next generation of recalcitrant UK/Bengali kids start turning to atheism.
Whether or not he is correct in his claims, the point is that Choudhury is taking the right approach. Faith is a personal thing, with psychological, cultural, social, political and even economic reasons for existing. Certain clerics may build elaborate post-hoc logical filigree premised upon the foundational tenets of their faith, but that’s just their job; it adds to the perceived grandeur of their institutions just like using more gold leaf or commissioning another statue. Any logical constructions built by the larger religions are very much secondary to their psychological core services.
The real function of the pro-atheism books is not so much to persuade the religious to change sides but instead to strengthen and empower the existing atheists. In the UK, where religion isn’t as pervasive as in certain other countries many non-believers are simply atheist by default. These books may help turn mild “don’t care for or about religion” types into more passionate and informed defenders of the lack-of-faith.
Until 9.11 the most important political reason for countering religious power was the rise of the American Christian right. I still think this is the most dangerous religious force in the World, since the US is such an unhelpfully active military power. But the Christian encroachment on the White House was slow and steady, no single event jolted atheists into thinking that they couldn’t continue to coexist (though separately) with believers, after all, being nice may often trump being right. It was the spectacular and dramatic terrorist events committed in the name of Islam that awoke the proselytising side of atheists, and that made religion into a news item.
The irony of this is that this stupid, evil, terrorism may be a greater force for turning some people away from God (just as it convinces its supporters of the power of their faith) than all the patient, precise, and reasonable logical arguments laid down in books. I don’t know where the next force against faith will come from but I doubt that logic will be involved; a major celebrity reporting an atheist miracle, perhaps?