Silly Arguments

Taner Edis lists one of Harris’ “silly arguments” against atheism in which “religion is used as a rationale for other aims.” He concludes, correctly I think, that “paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.” I agree. After all, the Abolitionist Movement in the U.S. probably would not have gotten very far in the North if its early adherents did not fashion a religious argument to bolster the main secular case. That’s hardly a silly argument. However I imagine that if we took a poll most of our fellow atheists would come down on Harris’ side. Indeed, maybe it’s because I’m reading Dawkin’s new book and so I’m sensing the new angrier tone but there seems to be a strong feeling right now that religious ideas are at the root of all evil in the world. This seems way too simplistic. As Jane Galt asks:

[I]s it reasonable for atheist/agnostic types to add an extra special layer of dislike to ideas that are held for religious reasons? People hold ideas for all sorts of reasons that are not, to me, obviously more attractive than plucking them out of the sacred book that has guided your culture for several thousand years. The basic theorems of your religion have at least stood the test of time, unlike Angelina Jolie’s oeuvre. Sure, maybe God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean His pronouncements must be stupider than Alec Baldwin’s, or your college roommate with delusions of Derrida.

I can’t meet her all the way here and agree that religion’s “basic theorems” have “stood the test of time.” Clearly (as she admits) the basic theorem of God’s existence isn’t exactly passing that test of time. However, I take her basic point to be true. Today, an idea’s merits should rest more on its pragmatic fit in the complex web of a society rather than whether or not its derivation is secular or sectarian. I’d like to see atheists accept or reject an idea on its merits alone rather than because it came out of theism. Too far in that direction and we become ideologues ourselves, losing sight of the critical thinking techniques for which even our critics admire us. If theists propose some horrible idea based on religious notions then I’ll be the first to condemn it. However, if they propose an idea which is sound but couched in religious language then I would want to support it for the underlying reasons that make it a good idea rather than discard it as tainted.