“Silly retorts to atheism”: Really?

In his latest column in Free Inquiry, Sam Harris gives a list of “silly retorts to atheism” made by atheists reluctant to oppose religion, and announces a contest to come up with short replies.

Now, the four items on Harris’s list are indeed dubious. Nonetheless, I think most of them bring up good questions, which are obscured by Harris’s caricature. Let me go through them one by one.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

I don’t know about “wrong.” But it surely makes sense to ask why we should aggressively promote nonbelief to those who appear to benefit from their religion and who also do not interfere with the lives of skeptics. There seem to be many such people. I doubt anyone can make the case that most people would be better off without their supernatural beliefs. Most of the evidence that I know of suggests the opposite: that religious belief and activity benefit most believers. It seems at least defensible to say that many people need religion. Acknowledging this does not mean refraining from criticizing religion, only paying attention to context. There are social enterprises—academic life in particular—in which subjecting beliefs and institutions to criticism is normal and proper. Why should we expect that public life in general should fit the same mold?

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

At face value, this is clearly false. Religion is not merely “superstructure” or a disguise for real motivations. Nevertheless, people who might say this do, I suspect, also have a point. Religions vary widely; religious movements can even claim to defend the same scriptures and doctrines and yet interpret them to produce significantly different political and moral orientations. Understanding religion in the real world requires much more than a critique of an idealized orthodox doctrine; paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

Again, false at face value. But it does not hurt to recognize that much, probably even most of religious activity is not directly concerned with claims about reality. Take, for example, creationism. It would be absurd to suggest that it is only metaphor, or that it is not a serious form of conflict between science and the conservative Abrahamic religions. But any visitor to a conservative Christian bookstore can see that creationism, while important, is a comparatively minor preoccupation of the faithful. The bulk of Christian literature has other interests. It is a mistake to think that religion is always focused on supernatural claims. Religious people usually take the supernatural for granted and apply religion to very practical interests.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

I wouldn’t put it so strongly, but I think there is considerable truth here. All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains and that religion is ingrained in human societies. Expecting that belief in supernatural agents can be overcome without some serious reconfiguring of human nature does, indeed, border on the delusional. If Dawkins is not wasting his time, it is not because he can expect any great success for his hopes of a nonreligious human future, but because his efforts at consciousness-raising can help among populations that are already inclined toward nonbelief. Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people will likely remain a small social minority. Many of us value a social space for skepticism, and a healthy, confident minority of reflective nonbelievers helps provide this space. Moreover, this is a realistic goal. I can see how some nonbelievers could worry that a quixotic crusade against all religion could distract from more attainable ends.

I wish Harris would start behaving more sensibly, particularly as he seems to have become some kind of media spokesperson for atheism. He has an irritating tendency to insinuate that less aggressive forms of nonbelief are associated with intellectual cowardice. Nonsense. People have reasons for holding back; at the very least these need to be argued against, not caricatured and countered with slogan contests.