Patrick McNamara is the “Science, Religion, & Politics Examiner” for the Examiner site, and has a long history of atheist-bashing and accommodationism. His philosophy can be summed up in a line from one of his articles:
Religion itself needs to be studied and treated with respect, not just because it sometimes serves positive purposes but also because it may allow us to access truths otherwise unavailable to the Human Mind-at least that is what its adherents believe.
And although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.
MacNamara responds in two ways:
1. Religion does not involve believing things that you’d like to be true.
I find it bizarre that Coyne can believe that religion is a way of believing what you’d like to be true. This is a very common mistake and misconception of religion by aggressive atheism. Religion is a crutch to avoid looking at the stark realities of the world etc etc It is tiresome to have to deal with this sort of view of religion as it has been falsified so often by scientists and scholars who study religion on a full time basis. For every religious belief that might be characterized as wish fulfillment there are a thousand religious beliefs that do not. Did pre-modernized African tribesmen want to believe in the literal reality of demons? Do the ancient Jewish purity regulations and rituals seem like a wish fulfillment exercise to you? Do catholic [sic] beliefs regarding ‘sex only in a marriage’ seem like a ‘way to believing what you’d like to be true”? Do Calvinist and Lutheran beliefs in the fundamental sinfulness of humankind sound like something we wish were true? I could go on but you get the point. All this characterization of religion as child’s play and wishful thinking is mere distraction.
My response: there’s a difference between “wish fulfillment” and “believing what you would like to be true.” Yes, I have read Pascal Boyer and other anthropological discussions of religion, and I know perfectly well that in some cultures “religion” doesn’t involve going to heaven or other wonderful fates, but represents instead a personification of unknown forces—a turning of the unknowable into supernatural agents. But even in those cases the explanations give one a way not just to explain events, but to avoid the bad ones. I doubt that their adherents would prefer not “understanding” things than to have their own supernatural explanations.
“Belief in what you’d like to be true” is most evident in the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, where there are explicit rewards—eternal afterlife—for good behavior. (Jews aren’t so clear on this, but many do believe in eternal rewards.) As for the bad stuff—threats of eternal damnation and the like—we’ve covered these before, and they can be seen as both things that people want to believe as fates for others (i.e., eternal damnation for people who behave badly), or as forms of control by religious authorities, perhaps those that evolved from earlier strictures for regulating societies (no adultery or wanton fornication, and so on).
Religions have both carrots and sticks, but the whole package is certainly one that many adherents swallow as a whole. Can anyone deny that the thought of a benevolent sky father, one who, if you behave yourself, will take care of you and help you obviate death, is something that people want to be true? And although MacNamara characterizes the human construction of faith as a “mere distraction,” it’s the central point of Gnu Atheism and of the sociology of religion: if religion is a human construction, and its tenets not true, what purpose does it serve? Are those essential purposes? And, if so, can they be fulfilled by secular institutions. (I tend to think “yes” based on widespread atheism in Europe.) Regardless, however, MacNamara avoids the question that all accommodationists avoid: are the tenets of faith true? If not, should we avoid pointing that out lest we damage the fragile psyches of the faithful?
2. Religion can too produce knowledge.
But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind. After all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge for humankind or that poetry does? What about novels? Surely science is not the only reliable way to knowledge that there is? If poetry, novels, music and the arts more generally can be said to POSSIBLY yield some form knowledge for humankind why can’t religion do so also? Why the preculiarly [sic] aggressive animus against religion?
Three responses. First, music, literature and poetry don’t produce any truths about the universe that don’t require independent verification by empirical and rational investigation: that is, through science (broadly interpreted). These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment. All of the other “truths” from the arts fall into the class of “emotional realizations.”
I may, for example, feel a oneness with humanity from reading Tolstoy, or a feeling that I need to “seize the day” from watching Never Let Me Go. While one might consider these things worthwhile knowledge, with “knowledge” defined broadly, they are not what we atheists—and many of the faithful—mean by “truths.” Religious “truths” of the sort we’re talking about are statements about how the universe really is, like these: “You will find eternal life by accepting Jesus as your savior.” Or “There is a celestial being in Heaven who answers prayers and regulates the world.” Or “A Jewish prophet, the son of God, was crucified two millennia ago and, by so dying, redeemed us from sin.” Or “You will find virgins (aka raisins) in heaven if you die a martyr to the faith.” Or “Mohamed flew up to heaven on the back of a white horse.”
Other forms of religious “knowledge,” like “Do unto others as you would have them to do you,” or “Thou shalt not kill,” are not facts or realities but guides for behavior, and all of them are (and have been) easily derived from secular morality.
Second, if MacNamara thinks that we can get worthwhile knowledge from religion, what is it? Why has he never given an example? And is that knowledge uniquely derived from religion, or is it available elsewhere? What are the eternal verities that we can get only from faith?
Finally, when you read a novel like Anna Karenina, you know it’s fiction: if from the endeavor you realize things about yourself, or about human emotions, you are not required to sign onto the genuine physical existence of Count Vronsky or Karenin. In contrast, emotional realizations that derive from faith require absolute belief in a number of ridiculous, incorrect, or unverifiable propositions.
Christopher Hitchens has offered his challenge to the faithful, and I have offered mine: tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason. Like Hitchens, I still have not received an answer.