Working out who the good guys are in a room full of atheists and believers is something of a preoccupation of mine. So it’s no surprise that the comment and fall-out from the Atheist Bus campaign has set me off on this line of thought again. Before I launch into this, I must acknowledge that the posts in the campaign thread are light-hearted and full of good humour and playfulness. By contrast a lot of the response has been peevish, mean-spirited and picky. Unfortunately, it is hard not to react to that peevishness dismissively, and some people have done so. This is what’s prompted me to consider what aspects of religious faith are in fact baby which we risk throwing out with the bath-water.
I’ve decided to list the sloppiness of thinking that turns up in some atheists’ thoughts. Come on guys – you are pinning your colours to the mast of critical thinking – think critically please. That way we can all lurch slowly towards the truth.
Sloppy thought: All believers are the same
Cricial thought: No they’re not – they are all different
It does not help the cause when atheists lump all believers together, characterising them as simple-minded at best and psychotic at worst. If you have any level of diversity among your friends and acquaintances then you will almost certainly know sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful people some of whom are believers and some of whom are not. Any sentence that starts “Christians say…” or “Christians believe…” or “Christians think…” is quite demonstrably a lie. Truly critical thinkers must acknowledge that each of those sentences must be qualified: ”Some Christians say…”, “Bible-belt Christians believe…”, “Liberal Christians think…”. This, I suspect, is more relevant in the US where religion is a force in politics and on the Internet, where there’s a tendency to flame in haste and troll at leisure.
Sloppy thought: Religion ruins the lives of individuals
Critial thought: Only some individuals – it transforms the lives of others
Again, the only way for this statement to be true is to qualify it. Some kinds of religion ruins the lives of some individuals. Actually that’s another piece of sloppy thinking. The truth is that it’s bigotry that messes people over, and bigotry may or may not spring from a monotheistic faith. If your particular life has been damaged in the name of religion, then it’s hard to separate religion from the bigot who told you that the bad things they did to you were in fact good things.
Religious faith can be transformative. It is important to acknowledge this. Until atheism can produce a a treatment for addition as effective as the 12 Step programme it behooves us to tread carefully when dissing belief. Some years ago I met a woman who had been abandoned by her mother, raised by abusive foster parents, had a child as a teenager whom she abandoned in turn, and sunk into alcoholism, addiction and imprisonment. When I met her, she was the most annoying kind of Christian, the kind who cannot hold a conversation without praising god every third sentence. But – and this is the infuriating thing – her life had been completely and profoundly transformed. Sure, it’s the placebo effect. But it turned her life around.
We need to acknowledge that it’s not religion that ruinse the lives of individuals it’s bigotry – the parental bigotry that rejects the gay son, for example. Sure, many believers are bigots, but not all of them by any means. And religion doesn’t have the monopoly on bigotry.
Sloppy thought: Religious people are full of hate
Critial thought: … but transformative forgiveness springs from religious faith
Maybe the truth is that some people full of hate cling on to religion in the way a drunk clings on to a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination. I am not convinced by the correlation of religion and hate.
It is almost always religious faith that helps people whose family members have been murdered to not get swept up into a cycle of anger and bitterness. They grieve, but they do not muddy their grief with anger and recriminations. Two individual’s whose reaction to the murder of their children astonished the nation are Gee Walker, who is the mother of Anthony whose racist murder took place in Liverpool in 2005, and Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died holding his hand in the rubble of the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. An article in the Independent suggests that Wilson’s act of forgiveness was a small but significant part of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Independent quotes Wilson: ”I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead.” I cannot think of an example of this kind of astonishing and transformative grace which did not spring from religious faith, though I’d be happy to be shown wrong.
Sloppy thought: It is folly to think dead people are alive in another place
Critical thought: Yes, but faith comforts the dying and the bereaved
If you are a believer, then that belief in the face of your own death or the death of someone you love gives the experience meaning and that is an enormous comfort. It makes the experience easier, and it may even make it enriching. Only an arrogant fool would mess with that, no matter how distasteful they found it.
Personally, I find it fascinating that the term for what happens at the end of our lives is “dying”, not “stopping”, because stopping is so clearly what happens. Anything else is a euphemism. I’d rather deal with death in a spiritual context. Unfortunately for me, I can’t.
The Christians of my aquaintance will be frustrated that I attribute these good things to faith rather than god. However, I find it easy to accept that the placebo effect can do all these things. For me, religious faith is the placebo effect writ large – there’s no great big medicine in the sky. But it is belief in that medicine that gives the placebo effect its power. It’s a bit of a bugger, really.
One last thing:
Critical thought: The danger of monotheism lies in the way it polarises ideas – atheists shouldn’t fall into the same trap
God vs the Devil. Good vs Evil. Right vs Wrong. The belief in a single virtuous deity makes it much easier to create demons.
However, atheists and the non-religious must make sure they don’t play the same game and demonise people of faith. It is a rich, complex, multifaceted world we live in. Embrace that complexity.
Anyway – I’m just being crabby. If you want to read something full of warm good humour step aboard the Atheist Bus.
Footnote: This is not a new preoccupation. I was discussing similar ideas here in March and here a year before that . Five years ago and elsewhere I contributed to a debate which concluded that there was an evolutionary advantage to belief.