Hey Skeptic North – atheists are not witches. We are skeptics too. We are you.
In case you haven’t heard of it, Skeptic North is an exceptionally well written blog focusing on the subject of (you guessed it) skepticism. The site has a bit of a Canadian flavour, which works for me since I also happen to be Canadian.
Warm fuzzies aside, I’m having problems with Skeptic North’s final installment in their otherwise excellent Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking series. Specifically, I’m taking issue with what writer Erik Davis’ has to say about “The Problem of Religion”…
Whether you believe or not, there’s no disputing that many religions provide significant value to adherents… religion provides certain comforts that cannot easily be gotten elsewhere. A belief in an ordained purpose to life, in a god who has our interest at heart, in a death that’s not final – these are ideas that help people get through an existence that can be spirit-crushingly difficult for many.
Ok, so far so good. I myself have written how difficult it was to let go of the religious security blanket he’s described. Continuing on…
And while I’ve heard the atheist argument that self-delusion is not the best way to deal with those difficulties, the pervasiveness of magical beliefs in our mind design simply belies that notion.
What? How does the mere existence of magical beliefs negate the idea that there might be a better way to handle “an existence that can be spirit-crushing”? Has Erik done extensive research into the efficacy of the various methods we might employ to help people deal with their existential angst? Does he know how effective religion really is at helping people through angst? Why do people drop in and out of religion? Why does so much church shopping go on? Why is atheism/agnosticism the fastest growing belief category in Canada and the U.S.? Is it possible that, if we opened our eyes to other options, religion might be replaced as a preferred mechanism for helping people handle the realities of existence? The phrase, “If I can do it, anybody can” comes to mind. Let’s not assume believers are too weak and or stupid to make the transition from belief to non-belief and come out the other end happy, functioning human beings!
After all, how different is this than our delusion of love, or of free will? If we can admit that those things are valuable, then we can certainly admit the comforts of religion into the same camp.
I’d say that the illusion of free will is vastly different than belief in a deity! Why? Well, first, I’m guessing most people never give the idea of free will even a glancing thought, whereas, most also think a great deal about death, suffering and a god that will make everything better once they die. Second, where is the cult of freewillians who go around proselytizing the free-will gospel, and influencing public policy based on their freewillian world view? The analogy is weak. Worse, it and the analysis that precedes it implores us to give religion a free pass due to it being a sort of default method for helping people. Personally, I think humanity can do better… but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, onward…
I think the first thing we need to do is stop being such purists. The skeptical community includes a disproportionate number of atheists… …religious belief isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that they will continue to be confronted with the magical thinking that underlies it. We need to remember that everyone thinks magically about some things and that’s not necessarily so bad. And we need to focus on the a more important objective, which is reducing the harm religion can do when left unchecked. In short, we need to focus on ways to encourage religious moderation.
First, in a truly skeptic community, I would hope that there would be a disproportionate number of atheists compared to within the general population, just like I would hope there would be a disproportionate number of people against homeopathic medicine in that same group. I honestly don’t know what value there is in making this statement about atheists. Is it because Erik believes atheism too often hijacks skeptical discussion? Is it because he is afraid of alienating skeptics who also happen to be believers? Is it because he thinks that attacking religion may result in aligning skeptics with unsavoury “new atheists”, thereby diminishing the skeptic’s influence in other areas?
These are questions I feel I must ask in response to atheists being singled out in the article. I feel compeled to say that many atheists are skeptics too – we are skeptics who specialize in debunking *a specific kind* of magical thinking. Please don’t marginalize our favorite subject – doing so suggests that criticisms of religion are not as important as being critical of other skeptic targets.
All of this reminds me of something from my theist to atheist de-conversion experience. It was during my de-conversion that I learned how to be skeptical – a lesson and attitude that carried forward into virtually every other corner of my life. After ditching God, I was eager to apply the same hard-nosed rational thinking process to every belief I had.
In other words, ditching religion was the gateway to my becoming a skeptic. This, I think, is part of the reason many atheists are so vocal and passionate about sharing their atheism – not only because we feel belief in God is incorrect, but because we’ve learned that when such deeply held beliefs are destroyed, it can lead to the birth of a freethinking skeptic. We believe that someone who can break free from the shackles of religion can question anything. We think it’s worth the effort.
Ok, I flogged that one enough – let’s finish up…
For example, as much as I may not agree with publicly funding the Catholic school system in Ontario, I’m at pains to point out any material societal harm that’s caused by it. The fact is that Catholicism in Canada, and in the west generally, is pretty moderate. That wasn’t always the case (see: “Inquisition, Spanish”), but it certainly is today. And that moderation pushes Catholicism westward on our matrix.
The existence of the Catholic school system in Canada is a slippery slope with major implications. The United Nations rightly pointed out that funding it is discriminatory to other faiths so, the choice becomes, fund none or fund them all. In Alberta (where I live), I can tell you the latter is the case – more and more faith schools are being funded. And I can state as a matter of fact that there are faith-based schools teaching creationism and undermining science in Alberta. This can lead to nothing good – and we need only look south of the border to see the downstream effects of religion in schools. 40% of American believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old – as well a lot of other bunk that comes with that world view. Need I say more?
In one sense, I agree with Erik. We do currently have it good in Canada. However, I’m concerned – very concerned – that our society will suffer in the long-haul if we ignore the problem.
And thus what I’ll call The Problem of Religion for Skeptics – which is that the best way to moderate religion and reduce its potential for harm may simply be to let it flourish. Protect religious freedoms, debate the beliefs honestly in an open marketplace of ideas, and focus most of our efforts on curbing the worst abuses. If the Ontario Catholic school system survives, but everyone in it must get vaccinated no matter what their beliefs, I’d say the skeptics win.
That’s one way. Another way is to teach critical thinking and skepticism and show that the underlying belief system is wrong and potentially harmful. Instead of putting out fires, why don’t we focus on the root cause of those fires?
Peace to you my fellow skeptics – and thanks for getting me out of my writing slumber. Oh, and keep up the good work, Skeptic North!
Tags: Skeptic North