Tuesday, June 19. 2007
A couple of weeks ago I ran across a sudden spate of articles on new books on atheism -- one in the Wichita Eagle's Saturday "Faith and Values" section, another by Anthony Gottlieb in the May 21 New Yorker. The books in question include ones by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I haven't read any of them, and doubt that I will, although when Harris first came out with The End of Faith I thumbed through it with much anticipation, only to be disappointed. The turnoff was the extent to which the book appeared to be a mere anti-Islam rant. I reckon Hitchens is the same: he even shilled for a war to vent his hate. Not that I'm in any sense a fan of Islam. But I don't see it as, in principle at least, any worse than any other religion, and I especially don't like the company of those who put it down with force or threats.
Although I've gone through stages of being a very protestant Christian and a pretty militant atheist, I've settled down to a fairly simple view: that religion is a highly personal matter, that functions as a measure of the extent one is willing to accept myth in place of what one does not or even cannot know. That is to say, there are two limits on religion: the more you know, the less opportunity religion has to fill in the blanks; but also, the more you're willing to live with uncertainty, the less need you have for filling in the blanks. Within religion, there are further limits that have to do with the credibility of myths, or to put it differently, with one's credulity. Science limits religion both by dispelling ignorance and by debunking myth. But other factors can limit religion: in my own case, the first that affected me was ethics; later on there was humility. As a teenager I often said "I don't know" to avoid talking to my father; as an adult I came to recognize its truth.
I think of my little scheme as deriving from Immanuel Kant and his followers, but that may be because I mostly skipped over David Hume. Gottlieb describes Hume as "a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail." He goes on:
Way back when I was a tormented teenager, I was shocked and disgusted at the immorality of so many religious notables, especially regarding their support of what the US was doing in Vietnam. My instinct was that any doctrine that could be used to defend that was dangerously flawed. Indeed, one could look back through history and ascribe all sorts of atrocities to zealous Christianity. Only later did I notice that many who shared my ethical views derived them from religious sources as well documented as those of the warmongers. Returning to Wichita in 1999 may have crystalized this insight given that most of the antiwar movement here is firmly faith-based. That does nothing to restore my faith, but it does go to show that morality is orthogonal to religion. I can't find the quote now, but one piece I read recently cites someone, maybe Reinhold Niebuhr, as saying that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people. I'd prefer to express that negatively: religion is not bad for good people and not good for bad people.
I'd also say that religion is superfluous, unnecessary, and often confusing. But it occurs to me that it may still be useful shorthand. It is a substantial undertaking to master the reason and science that discredits most religious myths. Perhaps there should be something easier that still provides comparable guidance?
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
The author does not allow comments to this entry