‘No Religion’ Does Not Equal Utopia – A ‘New Atheist’ Perspective


In a recent post on AlterNet, Sean McElwee writes about what ‘new atheists” get wrong about religion.In the first part of the piece the author makes the bold claim is that atheists make a fundamental error in logic when examining the impact of religion on human suffering. The fundamental error is as follows (taken directly from the post):

  1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality
  2. Religion is irrational
  3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

That is some heavy lifting in constructing such a huge straw man. Let’s see what a ‘new atheist’ (me) really thinks about this issue of the cause of all human suffering.
 Let’s focus on the first premise, shall we, as this is the foundation of everything else that follows – it is the heart and soul (:-)) of the thesis. The premise is that all human suffering is due to irrationality. Really? Anyone concluding that would be a fool (yes, the righteous think all atheists are fools as it says so right in their good book). First, there are all sorts of natural causes of human suffering outside of the application of an irrational mind – cancers, earthquakes, Alzheimer’s, tsunamis etc. But I think the author is really meaning to focus on the suffering caused by human geopolitical interactions. He rightly points out that there are economic and political elements that must be considered in any geopolitical conflict. But surely Mr. McElwee will agree that the geopolitical (war) machine can be greased by irrationalities dispatched by religion? Examine the language that was used both by Al Qaeda and President Bush during the 9/11 attacks and the second Iraqi war as examples of the role religion plays in international conflicts.

In any case, the first premise is clearly wrong (the cause of all human suffering is irrationality) so what ensues from the first premise is also wrong. I don’t know any reasonable atheist who would conclude that removing religion will end all strife; that is a bogus straw man argument. I think our tribal past still echoes through our DNA. Its funny when I travel if I see someone from Canada I feel a certain kinship, although at home I might have being flipping that person the bird. It really doesn’t take too much to divide us into US vs THEM. I played high school sports and witnessed it first hand; I have seen and read about the Milgram experiments.

While banishing religion (and other superstitions) won’t end strife, I wonder if we did not have religion with ancient scriptures what would be the rationale for rejecting the equality of homosexuals? What would be the reasons for the subjugation of women (not just in Islamic culture, but also in fundamentalist Christian and Jewish cultures)? What would be the barrier to the widespread acceptance of the teaching of evolution? Removing religion would certainly not end all strife, but we would be able to check off a few boxes that will increase the well-being of all members of our societies, and that would certainly be a positive thing.

The rest of the post by Mr. McElwee does not really address the ‘fundamental error’. Mr. McElwee goes on to bash Christopher Hitchens for his stance of the war on Iraq (support for the war as a religious conflict). I disagreed with the war of Iraq, and with Mr. Hitchens on this point – we ‘new atheists’ are not all alike you know.

In the last part of the post, Mr. McElwee makes a plea for science (which now stands in place of atheism in the article – at least he got that right :-)) and religion to share a peaceful co-existence. He references Stephen J. Gould and his concept of science and religion being non-overlapping magisterial. He states that “Neither can invalidate the theories of the other.” Odd that he uses a scientific concept in delineating the non-overlap. But more important, what constitutes a religious theory? We know what constitutes a scientific theory – a hypothesis that receives support (a lot of support) from experimental evidence. By relying on empirical evidence, a scientific theory by definition is falsifiable. So we have a clear path in science for evaluating the information value of claims. What is that path in religion? How do we discern what is ‘true’ from ‘false’ in religion?

As an aside. A lot of folks don’t really understand the concepts of knowledge or truth in the scientific sense. They don’t understand the probabilistic nature of knowledge or truth (and I am not talking about subjective truths, such as ‘I know I love my wife’). Knowledge or truth is based on the accumulated evidence to this point in time, and will always be subjected to adjustment pending new evidence. A lot of folks view this as a weakness of science (as a species I think we need things to be black and white – either with us or against us), but this empirical aspect of science is its greatest strength and what separates it from other magisteria.

Near the end of the post, Mr. McElwee repeats a canard that I have heard or read numerous times: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” I would buy this argument if it can be demonstrated to me that there is a method for discerning information value among the various religious claims. Also, that bit about religion being about values (or morals) is just plain old bunk. I haven’t read all of the religious texts out there, but from those I have read (most familiar with Christian text, but also have read a bit of the Quran) the texts are all over the place with regard to moral codes of conduct. Adherents have to pick and choose which precepts to follow and which to disregard, indicating that morality is derived from without and not from within their ancient scriptures.

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