Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Apatheism

Francis de Waal:

Yet you identify yourself as an atheist.

Yeah, but I really don’t care if God exists or not. If people can lead good lives by believing in God, that’s perfectly fine with me as long as they are not overly dogmatic. But some atheists have also become dogmatic.

Why are you bothered by atheists who don’t like religion and want to smash it?

Because religion is so inherently human that I don’t know what happens if you kick it out of society. Sigmund Freud wrote a whole book against religion and in the end he says that he is still not sure what would happen if we would remove it from society. It might not be good.

...Humans do terrible things to each other, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes without any religious reference. There is no proof that without religion we would be treating our enemies any better. We’re just not a particularly nice species when it comes to the out-group.

I think again of Razib's recent post, which clarified a lot of things for me. The intellectual tendency he described is present in many atheist critiques of religion — they engage with belief as a body of rational propositions which, when taken to their logical conclusions, are obviously found wanting. As Razib noted, theology (and its rational opposition) leave a comprehensive intellectual fossil record in the form of texts, which helps present a misleading picture of ideology's importance in the actual lives of believers and non-dogmatic skeptics. But even the followers of creedal religions are often inconsistent and moderate in practice. Stated reasons are more like the makeup we apply before special events, not the face we wake up with every morning. And so, when latter-day positivists talk about reasoning religion out of existence and the objectively better world that will result, I just laugh at their naïveté. They might be surprised to find how much they have in common with a religious fanatic like U Wirathu, who shares the conviction that if only everyone would agree with him on everything of importance, then there would be no more problems. Isaiah Berlin made this mindset a recurring theme in his lectures and writing:

It was further believed that methods similar to those of Newtonian physics, which had achieved such triumphs in the realm of inanimate nature, could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made; with the corollary that once this had been effected, it would sweep away irrational and oppressive legal systems and economic policies the replacement of which by the rule of reason would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness and virtue.

Once people become convinced that there is one true answer to be found for questions of ethics, politics and relationships, it often seems perfectly reasonable then to marginalize opposition for the good of us all — peacefully if possible, violently if regrettably necessary. Religion has in many ways ceased to be an interesting issue for me; now, I mostly just stay vigilant for moralizing busybodies who have a grand plan for fixing everything and are looking for recruits and victims.