Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing. (Sam Harris, 2005)
I really don’t like to spend over an hour each morning criticizing poorly-argued essays against New Atheism written by atheists. But I’ll do so if they appear on a reputable site or, if, as in this case, they make arguments that are seemingly novel. What’s annoying about David V. Johnson’s piece, “A refutation of the undergraduate atheists“, is that it appears on 3 Quarks Daily, a site that I thought was science friendly and dedicated to rational thought. The site had garnered a lot of prizes for its science and philosophy content. And though its writers have gone after me several times for my anti-accommodationism and other “philosophical errors”, I saw those pieces as Quirks rather than Quarks.
But Johnson’s piece, which accuses New Atheists of practicing what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis” (UAT), sets a new low for the site. (Johnson is described as “the online opinion editor for Al Jazeera America. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University.”)
In a nutshell, Johnson, who describes himself as an “atheist raised Catholic” is espousing the theory of Belief in Belief. He himself doesn’t believe, but he thinks that New Atheists are making a huge mistake by criticizing those who do. We are, he says, guilty of the UAT, characterized as follows:
Humanity would be better off without religious belief.
Johnson then tells us why the UAT is a bad argument:
This view — call it the Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis (UAT) — asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven’t and don’t. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.
I am an atheist who was raised Catholic and, like Lazaro, I am also someone who frets about the public’s general lack of scientific understanding. Yet I am deeply skeptical of UAT.
First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
My impression of UAT advocates is that they think it obvious that human beings would be better off without religion. Their typical mode of argument suggests this. They tend to argue by piling up a litany of anecdotes that, in total, suggest such a massive sum of evil from religion that it tips the scales so strongly toward the negative that a more careful weighing is unnecessary. But I remain unconvinced. In fact, I suspect the scales might tip the other way.
Why?. . . The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly. . .
Under the comparative scenario on which UAT rests, we are to imagine, as far as we are able, a course of human history without religious belief. This is exceedingly difficult to do, since religion is nearly universal across cultures. Yes, in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits. I submit that this would be a huge net negative for humanity, even if we granted that the religious universe would have more war, more intolerance and more folly than the non-religious one — something I’m not willing to grant.
Johnson then blithely informs us, apparently ignorant of the fact that many “strident” atheists were once quite religious, that he Knows Better because he was once a believer:
As someone who knows what it’s like from the inside to be a believer, I suspect that I’m better able to appreciate this point than the undergraduate atheists, who perhaps never grew up as part of a faith. For them, the only thing worth calculating is the objective consequences of religious superstition. But that would represent a gross error.
This is dreadful, dreadful stuff: an argument that hasn’t been thought through fully.
First of all, Johnson makes a calculation, too: a calculation that humanity is better off with religion than without it because faith has provided a “deep satisfaction, a reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides.” He doesn’t show that this “solace” outweighs all the psychological misery inflicted by religious dogma, but simply presumes that the net results are positive. Moreover, how does he know that, considering just psychological well-being and leaving aside wars, inquisitions, crusades, and so on, that religion has been a net good? Many religions operate on fear and guilt, and create a morality underlain by those emotions. Are Catholics really happier with their Catholicism than they would be without it? Yes, many people embrace religion for psychological reasons, but more often than not they don’t choose their faith but are raised believing it. It may provide “solace” simply because it’s the familial and social framework in which people were raised. If they were raised by atheists, would they be psychologically unstable? (Johnson apparently thinks so: see below).
Are Muslim women, oppressed as they are, really happier than they would be without Islam? Surely many of them feel stifled, unable to achieve their potential, and resent their status as wombs on legs. Perhaps their “psychological solace” comes from living the only life they know. And of course the many people who are dead because of religion, say, the 3000 people killed in the World Trade Center massacre, or the thousands of Muslims killed by Muslims from other sects, have no chance of psychological well being at all. How do you weigh the solace of Islam against the nonexistence of people killed by Muslims, or the misery of their families and friends?
Johnson also fails to consider that the delusional consolations of religion, whatever they may be, may be an excuse for people to avoid taking action in this life to better their lot—or the lot of others. If all will be set right in the next life, then why bother? That is not just a speculation, but the guiding philosophy of the Catholic Church, which makes a fetish and a virtue of suffering, most prominently instantiated in Mother Teresa, who wouldn’t even relieve the pain of terminal patients because, she believed, they were experiencing the suffering of Jesus. Mother Teresa in fact said, as quoted in Hitchens’s The Missionary Position, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”
Further, there are societies that are largely nonreligious and as good as or better than religious America: the countries of northern Europe like Denmark, France, Germany. Nonbelievers there, including those who are atheists or believe in only a “spirit or life force” but not a personal God, run from 50%-80% (58% in the UK), while the figure in America is just 18%. But I defy Johnson to say that Americans are better off than the French or the Danes. Where, oh where, do those nonbelievers find consolation, and why aren’t their countries dysfunctional, riddled with angst and malaise? It is simply wrong to claim that people need religion for their psychological well being. After all, Johnson doesn’t, and neither do most of us—and about 70% of Scandinavians.
Johnson claims that the UAT is dispositive against atheism:
Note that I do not need to secure agreement with the conclusion that humanity with religion is better off than without. All I need to put UAT in doubt is the consideration that a full investigation into its truth would require calculating not only all the good and bad objective consequences of religious belief versus the good and bad of a world without belief — wars, intolerance, violence, etc. — but also the subjective psychological consequences of human beings with religious belief versus humans without.
Well, yes, it’s hard to make those calculations, but we know that now, in the age of science and reason, that countries and people can do perfectly well without the crutch of faith. We may not have the theory, but we have the data, and those data come from the “experiments” of Northern Europe, plus the palpable positive correlation across countries (and across states) between religiosity and social dysfunctionality. Granted, a correlation doesn’t prove causation, but other studies suggest that social dysfunction is indeed, as Marx realized, one cause of religiosity. That suggests that the consolation brought by religion stems from a dissatisfaction with life in uncongenial societies, and a vain hope that God will help you. Well, God may make you feel a bit better, but he’s not going to improve your lot, and belief in Him weakens peoples’ drive to improve the situation of themselves and others.
Religion perpetuates social dysfunctionality, itself a cause of psychological distress. What religion does is give you a crutch when you’re crippled. That’s better than not having a crutch, but it doesn’t necessarily make you better off than those who can walk on their own. And of course humans can walk on their own: look at us, look at northern Europeans, look at the many people, like Dan Barker or Jerry DeWitt, who have abandoned their faith and live happy and fulfilled lives. Those people have made the psychological calculation suggested by Johnson, but gotten the opposite answer.
Perhaps the most odious of Johnson’s arguments is his suggestion that world populated mostly by unbelievers, lacking any drive toward religion (he calls its inhabitants “Dawkinsians”) would be a world completely different from the one we know, for nonbelievers aren’t fully human. I kid you not:
What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn’t, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it’s not a fair comparison.
The curious thing is that Johnson himself is such a person: he’s an atheist! But he’s also a diehard Believer in Belief. (I’ve found that atheists most sympathetic to religion tend to be ex-religionists.) As reader Sastra once pointed out, this is a profoundly hypocritical and condescending pose. It says, “I don’t see evidence for a god and have therefore discarded my belief; and I can function fine without it. But the others—the Little People—well, they must have their faith. Without it they would psychologically disintegrate.”
Johnson is a hypocrite. What he sees as the rational stance is one that, he thinks, is incapable of being embraced by everyone else. But I disagree, for I think that people can live with the truth, just as nonbelievers can learn to live with the truth that they are mortal on this planet and that this life is all we have. How can one possibly urge one’s fellows to live under a delusion? How can that be good for society? Although Johnson won’t be so crass to say it, he is arguing that societal atheism should be rejected because there are substantial arguments to be made for allowing—indeed, urging—one’s fellows to believe in something false.
As a scientist and believer in the value of reason, I think that in virtually every circumstance of life—save rare cases like the “dying religious grandmother”—it’s better to know the truth than pretend to know something you don’t. That means suspending belief in gods in the absence of evidence for them—in other words, becoming an a-theist, and not pretending that there’s a specific kind of God who prescribes specific ways of life. As George Smith said in his superb but little-read book, Atheism: The Case Against God (read it!):
“It is my firm conviction that man has nothing to gain, emotionally or otherwise, by adhering to a falsehood, regardless of how comfortable or sacred that falsehood may appear. Anyone who claims on the one hand, that he is concerned with human welfare, and who demands, on the other hand, that man must suspend or renounce his use of reason, is contradicting himself. There can be no knowledge of what is good for man apart from knowledge of reality and human nature—and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason. To advocate irrationality is to advocate that which is destructive to human life.” (p. x)
The cherry on Johnson’s hot-ordure sundae is the common but false contention that atheists, like religious fundamentalists, are dogmatic in their beliefs:
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
But the alternative universe already exists: it’s called Northern Europe. And Johnson is just as fundamentalist in this respect as the atheists he decries, for he claims to know that the “immense psychological benefits” conferred by faith outweigh the psychological burdens imposed by faith. He has done a calculation!
Really, just think of the psychological debility inflicted by, say Catholicism: an overweening and constant sense of guilt (especially if you’re gay), a recurring fear that you may sin and must expatiate those sins, and that you’ll fry forever if you don’t, the inability to get pleasure by masturbating or having sex at will, the inability to divorce someone with whom you’re no longer compatible, and so on. And what about the psychological “well being” of Islamic women? Is that a real well being, or an illusion they’ve adopted from their upbringing, their imams, and the males in their society?
Johnson’s essay is about the most blatant statement of Belief in Belief I’ve seen, and, sadly, it comes from an atheist. Other names for such a stand are Condescension and Hypocrisy. It’s the idea that we must never raise doubts in the minds of the Little People, for they can’t handle the same reasons that made Johnson (and many of us) abandon religion.