In the past few weeks I've been trying to sum up my feelings about religion and religiousness. I tried to organise it in a sensible way, but unfortunately I've been going over some of the same ground. I've also ended up speaking to both religious people and atheists in almost the same breath, which is a bit of a balancing act. Thankfully, as you may be able to see from the title, this week I will be being a bit more direct and, for the sake of the argument, will be talking directly to the Atheists* (that is, assume that science is correct and Religion, at least in the factual sense, is wrong). Hopefully, I will also be treading some totally new ground.
So, what exactly is it I'm going to argue against, what is wrong with Atheism? Well firstly, I've already pointed out in the last few weeks why I think we should all be Religious and why Religiousness is a personal thing. What I want to address here is the perception which, it seems to me at least, is pervasive among Atheists, that religious people are simply wrong, that the facts are against them and that it is clear they are simply misguided or stupid. It feels to me as though this point of view is quite widely held despite the fact that it is singularly destructive and ill thought out.
The first point I need to make, which really is the crux of my whole argument, is that this is not about right or wrong, but about different points of view. It doesn't matter if an idea is right or not if it serves a definite and useful purpose. It may greatly comfort a person to believe that there are fairies which live at the end of their garden and I think the important factor is whether such an idea is a constructive and useful influence on their lives. They may well be wrong in a strict logical sense, but in a personal sense they may actually be living a happier, freer existence.
We have complex and rich inner lives and one of the things we search for in the depths of these is understanding, some sense of how the world works**. I think it's fair to say that ever since the conception of early religions this has been a big part of their purpose. We didn't understand the thunder and lightning, so we came up with the concept of a god, something bigger than us, and had him be responsible for that. It's what we're built to do, to understand the world, it's what allowed us to beat out all the other creatures and get to the top of the food chain and it's what makes us search for meaning constantly, even when there is none. In this sense, I think having a god, having some explanation for what happens after death and where it all comes from, makes perfect sense.
“Well sure” I can hear all the Atheists exclaiming, “but we can explain all that now, science answers those questions now”. Let me be clear, science does answer all of these things and it works logically and with careful definite proofs. In a very real sense it is more correct than those old religious answers. However there is another sense in which the answers which science provides simply aren't up to snuff. Even for relatively intelligent people, there are gaps which science doesn't fill, 'what came before the big bang?' and 'where do I go when I die?'. These are, in many ways, nonsensical scientific questions, obviously I simply cease to exist after death. However in a personal sense they are very real and appropriate questions. Whatever you tell someone, they are never going to lose that sense that their personality has a powerful intrinsic force to it, telling them that it can just stop simply isn't something which everyone's brains can accept as true.
This is what it all comes down to for me. There are answers which science provides, and there are ways of finding in those answers great comfort and even a religious sense of the expanse and wonder of the Universe. However, not everyone can understand the deeper concepts of science, for many those answers simply don't fit into the way they understand the world. I expect that for a vast majority of the population (even some physicists) theoretical physics simply doesn't make much sense. It is counter-intuitive and strange, a set of wholly alien concepts. Equally, for a smaller percentage of people, things like the big bang and an entirely physical self may not fit into their understanding of the world.
It has always felt a bit like intellectual snobbery to say “well we have an understanding of the world that is right, so if you believe otherwise you are wrong”. It isn't that all these religious people are wrong, they simply can't accept, for whatever reason, the answers which science provides. This may be a matter of personality or, sure, it could be because they are stupid (though really, is it okay to attack something which people feel, only as a result of being less clever than you). Really though, I don't think it is them being wrong. They are filling in the blanks in their understanding of the world in the way which is most sensible to them and which comforts them the most. Is that really such a bad thing? Is this really about right or wrong, or is this about a personal sense of the shape of the world? In which case, how can you be wrong?
I want to finish by saying that part of the real problem is that so many people are so insufferably obnoxious about their religion. They push it into people's faces and their politics and that is most definitely wrong on all sorts of levels. However, all too often I see Atheists argue beyond that, taking things to the next step where not just the obnoxiousness of religions, but the simple fact of individual people's religiousness, is offensive to them. They take this to the point where they see having a religion as being wrong and stupid and, for all the reasons I've given above, that seems like a foolish argument to me. Too often it just feels as though it is coming from that old, awfully human place of: 'you disagree with me, therefore you are an idiot'.
Ultimately this isn't the route which I would like to see Atheism take, it just doesn't seem productive. Ideally I think the proper way to progress is for Atheists to argue with religious people against their religions. To try to guide the whole thing so that each person has a greater sense of autonomy from their church and preacher. However that is an argument which I will get into next week.
*[I realise that I've made a total hash out of the capitalisations of “atheist”, “god” and various other tangled words over the past few weeks. I'm happy to be corrected on that, but I just thought it was worth also offering an apology if you feel I got it particularly wrong]
**[There is also the matter of religious experiences, which I think may be an equally valid part of what people look for when defining their faith. However I felt that this was simply a better example and one which is more exactly analogous to scientific discoveries. I do however think it is endlessly fascinating the extent to which people can have, what seem to be religious feelings and inspirations about the hard facts of science]