Tuesday, May 01, 2007

An atheist’s view of religion

In my conversations with the Deacon, it occurs to me that he and I are looking at "religion" in a very different way. I suspect that the Deacon looks at religion as a school of philosophical thought. My view is very different.

I view specifically politically extremist[1] religions as dangerous mass movements. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, Ted Haggard, Louis Farrakhan, James Dobson, Ken Ham, Ralph Reed, R. J. Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, William Donohue and dozens more are (or were) real people, with millions of real followers and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Let me first say that I'm convinced that the absolute worst way to attack a mass movement, no matter how dangerous, is to coercively suppress it. (We must, of course, still respond coercively to specific criminal actions.) Unless the coercion is extremely brutal, it will fail; if the coercion is sufficiently brutal, the cure is worse than the disease.

These mass movements have (at least) two vulnerabilities: Their philosophical, ideological foundations, and their variance with humanistic ethical belief.

I think Eric Hoffer is correct: All mass movements have an ideological foundation, which is accepted as true by people in the movement. I attack the ideological foundations of extremist religions to both deny converts and to deconvert the marginal believers. Whether this strategy is effective, only time will tell. It may not be the most effective strategy in the abstract, but given my personal characteristics, I consider it the most effective use of my time.

As it happens, there are those who share an identical or similar ideological foundation as the extremists, but who themselves are not extremists and are not in any way supporters of the dangerous mass movements I'm concerned about. They are, unfortunately, caught in the crossfire.

Many people, for instance, believe that at least to some extent the Bible establishes—and not just recognizes—moral truth. As non-extremists, they obviously do not take this position to extremes. Even so, a criticism against the the moral authority of the Bible—a key component of the ideological foundation of extremist religions—must reject that the Bible has any authority whatsoever. Likewise arguments against the existence of God must reject that one can have any sort of non-bullshit truth-talk about God.[2]

Furthermore, I have to attack the actual arguments that comprise the foundations of the extremist religions; even if there are "better" argument (in, I suppose, the sense of being less obviously fallacious), a critique of an argument not used by extremists has little force. It may be irritating to those in the religion-as-philosophical-school camp, but there it is.

It should be noted that I employ these absolutist critiques not because I'm an atheist; I'm an atheist, rather, because I can see no rational foundation for anything but an absolutist critique. I'm not particularly thrilled that such a critique irritates moderates and sophisticates, but the alternative—to not speak what I believe to be the truth—I consider worse than any offense I could give.

I recognize that the religious moderates have their own critiques of extremism, using a different basis. I wish them well. But, as I don't actually believe these alternative bases, I can't with honesty make the corresponding critiques. It's a pluralistic society, so if I'm wrong, perhaps they'll be right and will succeed where I fail.

[1] Many commenters use "fundamentalist" in place of "extremist". I think this is a very misleading term. I think, frankly, that pacifistic, tolerant Christians are more "fundamentalist" than the extremists.

[2] The first position does not argue that the authors of the Bible must have moral intuitions or positions that are exclusively reprehensible, only that it has no more authority than any other natural work of human literature. The second position does not argue against the use of "God" as a metaphor for wholly natural phenomena, such the laws of physics or as a natural ideal of human ethics.


  1. Hoffer sees the primary weakness of true believers in mass movements as a sense of alienation from themselves. Finding no validation internally, they seek it in something from without, latching on to the movement as the defining foundation of their lives. This is why, as Hoffer says, "the implacable stand is more often directed at the doubt within than the assailant without."

  2. Dammit, I have got to write that book on Hoffer.

  3. I've heard it said that you can't reason someone out of a position that they didn't reason themselves into in the first place.

    I think that may be a bit extreme, but only because some people arrive at a conclusion by failing to think, while other people arrive at a conclusion by refusing to think. Reason can reach the people who simply failed to think, but are willing to think if given the opportunity.

    Unfortunately, the power of religious extremism comes from those who refuse to think. You can't reach them under any circumstances. You do, however, have to watch out for signs that they are willing to coercively suppress you.


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