Saturday, September 05, 2009

An Atheist I Agree With

In a previous post "Got God?" about the atheist ads on buses in the UK, I took advantage of a site that allowed you to make up your own bus ad. My ad read, "Arguing About God is Dumb. Have a Nice Day. PS. Eat your vegetables." An atheist author of a recent book that argues in favor of religion seems to agree with me. Here is a portion of his blog entry from the Washing Post site "On Faith":

For centuries, the theism-atheism debate has been dominated by two positions: hard-core believers fervently committed to their faith in a living God; and militant atheists vehemently driven to repudiate the Divine. The time has come to admit that after more than 2,000 years of back-and forth proofs and counterproofs, this debate has reached an insolvable impasse. The question about the existence of God can never be resolved to either side's satisfaction. But the discussion need not end there. We are still left with the important issue of the value of religion. And this is a debate that religion can win. "An Atheist Defends Religion" redefines the terms of the debate, offering a new direction and perspective.

I am not a person of faith: I do not feel the majesty or mystery of the Holy. But neither do I stridently repudiate God. Indeed, there is a part of me that wants to believe in God. That makes me an "aspiring theist." And I want to believe in the Divine because, on balance, religion provides a combination of benefits -- moral, emotional, aesthetic, psychological, existential, communal, and even physical-health -- that no other institution can replicate. These are the essential qualities that make religion so enthralling, enriching, enlightening, and enrapturing. They explain how we achieve our fullest humanity only in religion.

The question I present is not whether God exists, but whether the world is a better place because people believe God exists. This book, as a consequence, is not a defense of God; rather, it is a defense of the belief in God and of religious belief in general. (Read the whole thing here)

I always find it refreshing when someone takes an old debate and frames it in a new way that offers new possibilities for thought and action. I am also reminded that the approach being offered by this author is similar to the way that I'm approaching the study of religion as a social scientist in training. Being a Baha'i, I obviously believe in God but also recognize the limits of science regarding metaphysical questions. Thankfully, I do not need to try and use my research to prove or disprove religious beliefs, but rather to understand their implications for individuals and for society. More specifically, as a social worker, I can use science to understand how religion can be used for the betterment of human life and the advancement of civilization. I would much rather spend my time doing that than arguing about the existence of God.

"All blessings are divine in origin but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight...A scientific man is a true index and representative of humanity, for through processes of inductive reasoning and research he is informed of all that appertains to humanity, its status, conditions and happenings. He studies the human body politic, understands social problems and weaves the web and texture of civilization". (Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 60)


  1. The old "okay, it's not true, but it's a useful lie" argument. How nauseatingly weak - and demonstrably wrong. Fasle premises will inevitably lead to worse decisions than factual ones will, however innocuous they may seem. Examples of bad decisions made explicitly by authority of faith abound. When millions of people agree to believe something based on the misguided notion that believing is more important than knowing - or that believing leads to knowing - the results are innately dangerous and divisive.

  2. This is an interesting development. People are waking up to some of the more destructive elements of religion, but are still aware of the constructive possibilities. They are searching for a religion they can believe in. Seems to be a theme of our time....

  3. Jesse, no reasonable person can deny that faith is used to justify all kinds of bad things in this world. However, the argument that because some religious people do bad things then religion itself is false is a simplistic one. There are as many examples of good things done on the basis of the authority of faith as there are bad ones not to mention positive impacts on health and mental health that are well documented. This is the point I think the author is trying to make. I'm grateful that an author is trying to have a different kind of conversation about these issues, rather than the same old debate over and over again.

    Anne, this is interesting development and an encouraging one.

  4. The excerpt at the end by Abdu'l-Baha really spoke to me.

    Thank you for posting it.

    It is good that someone within the Atheist Community is trying to see how relevant and important religion overall has been to history and humanity.

  5. Anonymous1:06 AM

    I accept your argument Phillipe; Those without faith are just as likely to make irrational, harmful decisions as those with faith. However, I object to anyone making any major decisions, harmful or otherwise, without any rational,apparently fact based reasoning behind the decision. Thus, (in my view, anyway) religion has no place in global politics, or any decision making that deals with people outside of the religion.
    If a group of people wish to have faith in something that has no factual evidence besides word of mouth storytelling, so be it. It's when they try to make decisions involving me or anyone else who doesn't subscribe to their abstract belief system using the principles of that system that I become upset.
    If the religions of the world did not try to force their views to shape reality for other people, than any rational non-believer would have no quarrels with them at all, and there would BE no debate.

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