THE BLOG
01/06/2007 01:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

15 Questions Militant Atheists Should Ask Before Trying to "Destroy Religion"

Richard Dawkins made an interesting point about Saddam Hussein recently. Dawkins said Hussein should have been kept alive and studied, so that humanity could learn how a dictator's personality works. It's too bad he doesn't have the same curiosity about religion. Instead, Dawkins caricatures all religious belief as essentially fundamentalist, then works to eradicate it. (See critiques of Dawkins by a scientist with no supernatural beliefs, a science journalist, and a Marxist philosopher.)

While religion has undoubtedly caused harm, many atheists and secularists believe it has also been responsible for much that is good. Shouldn't we give religion at least the same level of scrutiny Dawkins proposes for the likes of Saddam Hussein? And shouldn't people of good will pause when they hear atheists such as Sam Harris say silly things like "science must destroy religion"? After all, there's no proof that it can, and no reason to believe that it should.

Don't we all want to know before we act? Isn't that what we dislike about fundamentalists and fanatics - their lack of interest in the facts? Most militant atheists don't even define what they mean by "religion." They use irrational and literalist beliefs - e.g. that "Jesus will return in 2007" - interchangeably with subtler forms of religious expression. They argue without proof that rational "religious moderates" are equally as destructive as fundamentalists, while making bold and undocumented statements like "religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man."

I've been asked why I write about those I call "fundamentalist atheists," given that they are few in number and far less politically powerful than Christian fundamentalists. My answer is fourfold: First, I critize Christian fundamentalists quite a bit. It's one of my primary "missions," and it led me to debate Islam with Sean Hannity and Gary Bauer on Fox Radio. (See Dobson's Choice, The Evangelighouls, The God Gulag, and The Republichristians, just to name a few. I also write a lot on the contradictions between conservatism and the teachings of Jesus, but that won't win me any points in this argument!)

Second, the militant atheists are well-read among secular progressives and opinion leaders, influential people who may not have seen the authoritarian side of the movement. Third, I hold progressives and secularists to a higher standard of logic and integrity than I do the Pat Robertson crowd, in the belief that they add an important moral and social perspective to our political dialog.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, I find that there is an element of prejudice in the militant atheist movement. It's not just the stereotyping and mocking of Muslims, a persecuted minority, that bothers me (more about that shortly). It's also the easy and contemptuous way they dismiss a large percentage of humanity because it shares an experience that, judging from their writing, the militant atheists haven't fully investigated.

And I'll say it once again: I believe most atheists are progressive, enlightened people who are simply "nonbelievers." My quarrel is only with those who advocate the elimination of religion based on grandiose and unsubstantiated claims.

In that spirit, I've prepared some questions I think all progressive people - atheist or otherwise - should ask before leaping onto the "abolish religion" bandwagon. My list is by no means comprehensive, but it's a start:

  1. Where the wars so often cited by militants (the Crusades, etc.) primarily religious in nature, or did their root causes stem from other factors such as economics, nationalism, and territorial expansion - as many experts in the field suggest?  Or is the truth somewhere in between?
  2. Historically, has terrorism been driven primarily by religion - or by other forces? (See Robert Pape's work on the subject.)
  3. Does the historical experience of nontheistic countries challenge the notion that religion is a major factor in causing internal oppression or external military conflict?  (Note:  I'm not suggesting that nontheistic countries went to war to defend nontheism," as one atheist writer characterized the argument. The question is:  Does the absence of religion as a motivator reduce the likelihood of war, as the militants suggest - or not? Suggested countries of study: Cambodia, China/Tibet, USSR.)
  4. What is the extent of religion's role in creating individual discontent and unhappiness through ostracism, sexual repression, prejudice, etc. in various world cultures? (I suspect it's substantial, but I'd like more data.)
  5. Is Islam the origin for genital mutiliation, stoning of adulterous wives, and other abusive practices? (Note: Neither practice is condoned by the Qu'ran, and both existed as tribal practices before Islam. Historically weaker Prophetic sayings, or 'hadith,' are cited to support them. (See Reza Aslan.)
  6. Would the elimination of religion alone eliminate these harmful practices, or would additional actions need to take place?   
  7. If so, how can such practices be stopped most quickly and effectively - by campaigning to eliminate all religion, or by using moderate religion as a countermeasure against extremism?
  8. Can the positive influence of religion - in reducing conflict, bringing personal fulfillment, building communities, etc. - be quantified and measured against the negatives?
  9. Do the social problems caused by religion stem from personal religious belief, from organized religious activity, or both?
  10. Is all religious activity harmful, or just the fundamentalist variety (which one research project estimates involves roughly one-fifth of all religious populations)?
  11. Is it true, as some atheists argue that Buddhism's more peaceful doctrine propagates less violence and war than monotheistic religions with violent sacred texts?*
  12. Does 'moderate religion' enable fundamentalism to continue?  (That's another core militant assumption - also unproven.)  Or, does it draw adherents away from fundamentalism and thereby weaken its negative effects?
  13. What's the best way to advocate for needed changes - through aggressive attacks on religion or milder persuasion?
  14. Do the internal dynamics of religious communities suggest that extremism and fundamentalism are the primary source of religion's negative effects - or do these effects come from something fundamental about religious belief itself?
  15. Would the eradication of religion lead to increased trauma, and/or decreased mental and physical health? If so, how should we prepare to address that problem as we work to eradicate religion?

[*Note: I love and admire Buddhism, but the top Buddhist countries in the world (by percentage of the population) include Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos, Japan, and Vietnam - hardly oases of peace throughout the years.  That lends credence to my suspicion that violence is often caused by factors other than "God-belief" or warlike scriptures.]

In the interest of full disclosure, here are my personal biases:  While I respect individual (and especially mystical) religious experience, my personal suspicion is that organized religion is more of a negative force than a positive one.  I often hate what people do in the name of faith. 

My biases aside, however, there's no comprehensive study that suggests that even organized religion is a negative force overall, when factoring in both its good and bad effects. My feelings about it are only that: my feelings.

What has been well-documented are the harms caused by fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism has been a wellspring of individual violence that encourages brutal behaviors like female genital mutilation (whether or not those behaviors originated with it), and has often been a source ideology for totalitarianism.  All of these negative tendencies have been described in exhaustive detail, by both journalistic and academic sources.

If Dawkins, Harris, and the other militants were intellectually honest, they would have to acknowledge that their movement is based on hypothesis, not fact. They might then recognize that their first order of business is not to spout rhetoric like "where are the the moderate Muslims?" That's a question designed to promote militant atheism by exploiting (and fueling) anti-Muslim bigotry.  It's also easily answered with some quick Googling and a calculator, yet it continues to be repeated to promote the militant cause.

Instead of pandering to prejudice, or to decent people's understandable frustration with fundamentalism, the militants should engage in the hard academic work of either proving their core hypothesis - or allowing it to be disproved. 

Granted, mine are "soft" questions, and unanimity will be hard to come by.  Still, some compelling and well-researched debate would go a long way toward addressing questions for which humanity deserves answers. How tragic, then, that the militant atheists aren't leading the charge to help answer them.  Until they do, I will have to remain opposed to the movement - especially since their core tenet, their basic article of faith, remains an unproven statement of opinion.

Remember, I'm not making any statements of fact. I'm simply challenging a cherished assumption, much as atheists do. But I'm not challenging the ineffable, as some atheists are. I'm challenging the assumption that we're better off without religion - an idea that may not be "provable," but certainly can be subject to historical and sociological scrutiny.

There's another defense of atheism: that it is the truth while religion is false, and that it's a human duty to argue for truth. If militant atheists stopped there, I might not be as opposed - although I would argue there is no proof "against religion" per se. Religion means different things to different people, and many of those conceptions of religion cannot be proved or disproved. (Leading scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould have made the same point.)

But militants don't stop there. They argue that religion is the cause for war, terrorism, the subjugation of women, and other social evils. My response? Since you're arguing for the superiority of science over religion, treat your core tenet as a hypothesis and do the research.  That's the only rational way to move forward.

As a child of the Enlightenment, I promise in return that I'll change my position - if and when the sound and well-documented analyses I'm proposing suggest that I'm wrong.  Willingness to alter one's position in the face of contradictory evidence is, after all, the sign of an open mind.

I assume you'll do the same, once the results are in. Until then, I would argue we don't know enough to undertake "destroying" religion. I would suggest instead that we join forces and combat fundamentalism. Fundamentalist extremism is the common enemy of rational, tolerant, and enlightened people everywhere - whatever their personal beliefs.

UPDATE:

My opponents on this topic either complain that I don't back up my statements, or - when I offer detailed counter arguments - that I'm too long-winded. I'm sorry some of you found the piece difficult to read, and am open to the possibility it should have been shorter. Nevertheless, if you didn't read what I said you're not in a position to challenge it. I'm surprised that these commenters felt qualified to respond without following my argument.

Many commenters in this piece, and my earlier one, challenged my definition of "fundamentalist atheism" without reading it. They argued that atheism, being the absence of belief, cannot be "more or less fundamentalist." Interesting thought, but entirely irrelevant to my point.

Here's a quick recap: The "fundamentalist" part - the belief without evidence, coupled with a desire to impose one's belief on others - happens when certain atheists assume that life would be better without religion, although the historical record suggests otherwise and they haven't performed any new research.

There are many atheists who hold their belief - or lack thereof, if you prefer - without also believing that the eradication of religion would improve humanity. They are willing to take a "live and let live" attitude. Some of them have commented here. They are, by definition, "less fundamentalist" than the others.

It's a complex topic. Perhaps the commenters who say the piece is too long and difficult to read are really saying they didn't want to make the effort - that it's easier to assume they already know what they need to know. Then they can react accordingly, without reading anything that looks long or boring.

Sounds fundamentalist to me.

REFERENCES:

1. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.
2. Orr, Edwin A. "A Mission to Convert," New York Review of Books.
3. Eagleton, Terry. "Lunging, Flailing, Misplacing," London Review of Books.
4. Brown, Anthony. "Dawkins the Dogmatist," The Prospect.
5. Pape, Robert. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.
6. Marty, Martin E. et al. Fundamentalisms Observed: A Study Conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
7. BuddhaNet, Buddha Dharma Education Association. "Top Ten Countries With Highest Percentage Buddhist Populations."
8. Harris, Sam. "Science Must Destroy Religion."
9. Harris, Sam. "The Problem With Religious Moderates."

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