Religion and Atheists

There has been a lot of talk recently about religion especially in 2008 presidential race.  Mitt Romney, a Mormon, gave a speech last week on religion, that I will look at in a separate post.  Mike Huckabee has been a Southern Baptist Minister.  Barack Obama has been the recipient of a smear viral e-mail characterizing him as militant Muslim (not that being a Muslim is necessarily bad).

Now as an atheist, I find religion, and the religious litmus test, to be very fascinating.  I suspect a majority of Americans would be more willing to elect a Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, or Jew than an atheist.  The Minnesota Daily reported an interesting survey done by University of Minnesota sociology professors in 2006 that supports that.

Based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households and in-depth interviews with more than 140 people, researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, homosexuals and other groups as “sharing their vision of American society.” Americans are also least willing to let their children marry atheists.

“It tells us about how Americans view religion,” said Penny Edgell, an associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher. “Many Americans seem to believe some kind of religious faith is central to being a good American and a good person.”

Why do I have to believe in some higher power to be consider a good man?  I just don’t get.  I realize having faith is the world view that many people are coming from, and that they may find the lack of belief to be so different they project that difference in belief on to me having different morals and ethics.  Or their moral and ethical compass my be sort tied to their belief structure, that they would feel lost without the belief to give the guidance, that they project that feeling on to me.  But we need as a society, believers and non-believers, need to bridge that gap

A really good place to start is with Bill Moyers’ 14 interviews from his Faith and Reason series.  I will confess I haven’t seen them all, but I have seen a few of them and they were really well done.  So check them out here.  Naturally as an atheist, I made sure to see the interview with Colin McGinn an atheist.  I found this part of the interview to be interesting, and I think it is doing a good job of defining the difference between persecution and criticism of religion [emphasis added].

BILL MOYERS: What brought this festival of writers together on faith and reason is the growing chorus of voices that are calling for the protection of religious sensibilities and sensitivities against offense, against the insult. There’s something going on here. How do you see it?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, the notion of insult is a slippery one, isn’t it? And does it include criticism? I mean, are you insulting somebody’s religious beliefs if you criticize them?

BILL MOYERS: Well, the people think that you are.

COLIN MCGINN: They do think that you are.

BILL MOYERS: And they want protection for their beliefs.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, that, I think, is wrong. Nobody can have their beliefs protected from rational criticism. If insulting people includes shouting at them and calling them names, that’s very bad behavior. But should it be prohibited by law? Maybe, if it’s very extreme. But if people just want to have their belief system protected from every form of rational scrutiny, I don’t have any sympathy for that. I think there’s got to be a very firm distinction between criticism and persecution. And I think people misunderstand the idea of tolerance often. They think that tolerance is the same thing as lack of criticism. But to me, tolerating somebody else’s beliefs is not failing to criticize them. It’s not persecuting them for having those beliefs. That is absolutely important. You should not persecute people for their beliefs. It doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their beliefs. Those are not the same thing. I think people have tended to sort of run these two things together, and they perceive criticism as if it was persecution. But it isn’t.

So when I describe something as militant atheism, then I am referring to the atheist as persecuting a believer for having those beliefs.  But I will still maintain my right to criticize a belief structure.

Now back to the MN Daily article,

Those surveyed tended to view people who don’t believe in a god as the “ultimate self-interested actor who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves,” Edgell said.

Yet, Colin McGinn takes it from a very different angle [emphasis added]

BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that when you let slip the bonds or the tether of religion, you anticipated that you might find a big hole in your heart.


BILL MOYERS: Or, in your soul.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: But you didn’t.

COLIN MCGINN: I didn’t, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: What filled it?

COLIN MCGINN: In fact, I felt the contrary. It felt to me a better world I was living in without God. I mean one of the things about God is everything you as a moral being do is under the scrutiny of this being who’s gonna reward you or not as the case may be. I think it compromises people’s moral sense, because they feel as if everything they do which is good, they’re doing it because God will approve of them and reward them for it. And once you jettison that idea, you do what you should, because you should, because it’s the right thing to do and that you don’t feel that there’s always some sense of self-interest involved in any moral action that you perform.

I think it’s an oppressive idea that God is always looking into your soul at every moment of the day and weighing you up. It makes people too introspective. So, I found it was sort of liberating to not have that oppressive, Big Brother surveillance from God all the time. And I found the universe more interesting and more stimulating without gods. I thought, you know, investigating the universe without a religious impulse or religious perspective on it was to me a more interesting and stimulating thing to do.

McGinn’s position, which I like, is supported by a quote in the MN Daily article,

Cole Ries, the president of the Maranatha Christian Fellowship said he does not agree with that perception.

“Atheists seem to be concerned with the human good,” he said. “Where I differ as a Christian is that I’m more concerned with God’s will than man’s will.”

Still, Ries said, “I don’t believe that anybody is really an atheist. I believe that deep down everyone knows there is a god.”

So Ries gives a nice comment about atheists, then supports McGinn’s argument, and then doesn’t believe in non-believers.

I will also direct you to McGinn’s statement about what is the greatest predictor of your religious belief, or non-belief.

COLIN MCGINN: I think the story of Jesus is a powerful story. It’s got many important ingredients about justice, suffering, bravery. The content of Jesus’ teachings still have a lot of relevance. The Sermon on the Mount still seems to me to have a lot of good things in it. So, there’s a lot to be said for it in terms of just the religion itself.

But also I would say there’s a huge institutional structure behind religion. There has been for a long time. That’s why the best predictor of what people believe in matters of religion is where they were born and their families. I mean, why is it that most people in America believe in Christianity, not in Islam? The answer’s not because of the intrinsic content of the two views. It’s because they were born in a country where Christianity is what they’re taught. If you were born in a country where Islam is taught, you believe Islam. It’s to do with what people are taught and that’s why it hangs on. It’s just a huge, powerful, institutional structure.

That is oversimplifying things, but there is much truth in it.  I was baptized Catholic, and I remember going when I was really little, but we stopped going regularly as a family when I was 3 or 4.  I did go occasionally with my grandmother when she had me overnight to Sunday mornings.  But I didn’t do confirmation and I have never taken communion.

Just some thoughts on atheism and religion.



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