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Seven Things Atheists Get Wrong

Atheists need to understand and embrace the role religion has played in creating the world we live in.

In a spectacular and telling failure of journalism MSNBC reported recently that Pope Francis “broke with Catholic tradition” by asserting that the Big Bang theory is real. Instantly, the Internet responded with the name Georges Lemaitre, one of the creators of the Theory of Universal Expansion who also happened to be a Jesuit priest. He is also the first entry on a Google search of “Catholic Big Bang.”

That the MSNBC author did not bother to do one search before making a pronouncement about the faith of a billion people displays abysmal incompetence. But it also reflects very skewed and dangerous ideas about the nature of religion widely held in the media and creative class. As atheist Sam Harris put it in his article “Science Must Destroy Religion”: “the conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero sum.” This confrontational attitude ,which is unnecessary and harmful, springs from a slew of misconceptions about religion as a human phenomenon.

1. Religion Is About Morality, Not Creation Myths

It was apt that MSNBCs misnomer about the Catholic view of science concerned creation. Often the origin of the earth and of man plays a central role in the science versus religion debate. There are jokes about cave men riding dinosaurs, deep concerns about our children being exposed to the idea of intelligent design, and disdain thrown upon those who question the almighty power of science. But, frankly, creation, while fascinating, is not the most important aspect of the atheist critique of religion. Morality is. The means by which the earth was made plays an insignificant role in our daily lives. Moral choices, on the other hand, are made every day, and they have long, lingering effects.

2. Religion Is the Foundation of All Morality, Not Merely an Expression of It

The atheist approach to the non-empirical question of “how do we determine right from wrong” tends to be a negative ad campaign listing the horrors done in the name of religion. Whether it is the Inquisition or ISIS, atheists argue that these barbarities stem directly from the intolerance of religious texts and practices. On the surface it can be a persuasive argument, but upon deeper reflection it becomes murky.

Christopher Hitchens, of all people, inadvertently exposed the complexity of religion’s relationship to morality and barbarism in a debate. Confronted with the fact that Stalin was an atheist who committed genocide, he said:

Hitchens is too clever for his own good here. In broadening the scope of immoral actions caused by religion to capture the acts of atheists, he broadens it so completely that it captures everything. Hitchens, in his eagerness to blame religion for Stalin’s atrocities asserts that religion is the foundation for all moral choices, not merely those made in religion’s name.

He is absolutely right. All of us, whether atheist, agnostic, or a member of a religion, practice morality based on religion. Without religion there would never have been morality. There was no peaceful, Adamite paradise of moral choice which religion sullied millennia ago. Before religion, there was murder and rape and all manner of horrors just as there are today. It was religion that first sought to constrain human actions through a moral code, not science. The same credulity and servility that led Russia to support Stalin leads us to believe that right differs from wrong and that we must choose (or serve) that which is right.

3. Religion Was the Foundation of Society, Not an Addition to It

In his insightful essay, “Primitive Religion and the Origin of the State”[1] philosopher Marcel Gauchet goes a step farther, arguing that without religion there would be no state. He writes that “by going back in time to the religious tie between supernatural founder-givers and human heirs-debtors, we can elucidate the system of primitive links that produces the social space.” It was this debt to supernatural, irrational powers that created the very notion of acting in accordance with what is good. Whether all, or some, or none of the admonitions in Leviticus or the Koran are really moral is beside the point. They are part of humanity’s search, stretching to the invisible past, for guidelines or maxims that produce good actions and the structures to encourage them.

4. Atheists Do Believe

The question most often posed to atheists who complain about the presence of the Ten Commandments or a creche in public spaces is, “Since you don’t believe, why does it bother you so much?” This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Since you do believe, why does it bother you so much?” Because most atheists do believe, and I stress the word believe, that they are capable of understanding right from wrong. They provide no scientific justification for such a belief because no such scientific justification exists.

5. Science Can’t Teach Us Right from Wrong

Even if it were proven that there is a “generosity gene” or that there are evolutionary advantages to cooperative behavior, such things would not inform us how to act in a given situation. The activation of a gene or the selfless actions of our ancestors may well provide a subconscious impulse for moral action, but that impulse must still be translated to the conscious mind. Upon finding a $20 bill on the floor, we must still decide whether to keep it or look for its previous owner based on stories we tell ourselves. Science cannot tell us these stories, and the moment it tries to it becomes religion.

The idea of a cold finite existence ending in complete oblivion is not the harshest concept an atheist must swallow. Far more present and paralyzing is the notion that our actions are devoid of moral consequence. As Hitchens points out, so ingrained is our credulity towards morality and our servility to it that most people cannot ignore it. It is not merely silly superstitions that atheists seek to remove from our personal and policy choices, it is the idea that an objectively, morally correct choice is even possible. But even if we accept the premise that morality is entirely subjective, we still have to decide how to act.

6. Religion Complements Science, It Doesn’t Oppose It

This is where religion, far from being the natural enemy of science, comes to its aid. Just as believers must always fight nagging doubts about the truth of their beliefs, the atheist must fight nagging beliefs when confronted with moral choices. Just as there is no paradox in a believer knowing that science can reveal important details of how the physical world operates, there is no paradox in an atheist knowing that religion and its ancient history of moral investigation is relevant to moral understanding.

In his masterpiece “The Glass Bead Game,” Herman Hesse envisions a future Europe in which there are two basic powers. The first is the elite group of players of the game, a mysterious enterprise in which all of human knowledge is manipulated and combined to create pure, rational truths. The other is the Roman Catholic Church, which remains essentially unchanged in the world of the novel. Hesse knew that at some points the cold, rational understanding of the world must give way to metaphysical musings. The book’s central character stands between these two powers, influenced by both. Most Americans stand similarly between these obligations to science and to religion.

7. Ignorance of Religion Is Ignorance of History, For Atheists and Everyone

The systematic removal of religious texts, practices, and imagery from our public lives is not a worthy goal. When the Ten Commandments are placed on a wall, nobody believes they are the actual tablets Moses brought down from Sinai’s mount. They are a representation of an ancient message that one can believe is sacred or secular but that one cannot claim is insignificant. It is possible to encounter and explore a religious text without imbuing it with supernatural significance. Harold Bloom does just that in his insightful “The Book of J,” which explores the work of one Old Testament writer through the lens of literary criticism.

Secular approaches to religion such as Bloom’s are far superior to the idea of hiding religion from education or public discourse. We have to understand that for thousands of years our culture and every culture based its moral choices on very simple sets of stories—stories which many of us have stopped telling each other. That has a terrible effect on our ability to understand our culture and its past. Try reading “Moby Dick” without a working knowledge of the Bible. It becomes little more than a tall tale about fishing.

Showing respect for a person or culture’s religious beliefs, even if you disagree with him, is simple common courtesy. I am asking atheists to do much more. I am asking them to understand and embrace the role religion played in creating the world we live in, and to see that religion was not merely the author of good moral choices or bad moral choices but of the very concept of moral choice.

Later in his essay, Harris argues that “religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of global, civil society.” This, in a nutshell, is what atheists get wrong. It is only through religion, and its metaphysical, moral obligations that global society is possible at all. As Harris pulls the offending thread of religion out of the global moral tapestry, it falls apart, replaced only with his preferences. In the end the battle, between atheists and believers in the area of moral choice is little different than the battle between Jews and Muslims. All of us have contributions to make, and no side will ever prove its unique power to teach us how we should choose.

[1]Gauchet, Marcel, “Primitive Religion and the Origin of the State,” New French Thought, Lilla, Mark (1994).

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