"…It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence. But what about those who do? If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer? Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed. The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.…"
Sean D. Illing writes on Salon.com:
Atheism has a storied history in the West. From the irreverent Voltaire to the iconoclastic Nietzsche, the godless have always had a voice. But the New Atheists are different. Religion, they argue, isn’t just wrong; it’s positively corrosive. If you’ve heard people like Bill Maher or Lawrence Krauss speak in recent years, you’re familiar with this approach.
New Atheism emerged in 2004 as a kind of literary and social movement. Led by such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, New Atheism became part of the zeitgeist, a well-timed reaction against religious fundamentalism. The New Atheists are notoriously pugilistic. In print or on stage, they never run from a fight. Whatever you think of their tactics, they’ve succeeded at putting fanatics and moralizers on the defensive – and that’s a good thing.
But there’s something missing in their critiques, something fundamental. For all their eloquence, their arguments are often banal. Regrettably, they’ve shown little interest in understanding the religious compulsion. They talk incessantly about the untruth of religion because they assume truth is what matters most to religious people. And perhaps it does for many, but certainly not all – at least not in the conventional sense of that term. Religious convictions, in many cases, are held not because they’re true but because they’re meaningful, because they’re personally transformative. New Atheists are blind to this brand of belief.
It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence. But what about those who do? If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer? Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed. The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.
The problem is that the New Atheists think of God only in epistemological terms. Consequently, they have nothing to say to those who affirm God for existential reasons. New Atheist writers tend to approach religion from the perspective of science: They argue that a particular religion isn’t true or that the empirical claims of religious texts are false. That’s easy to do. The more interesting question is why religions endure in spite of being empirically untrue. There are, of course, millions of fundamentalists for whom God is a literal proposition. Their claims concerning God are empirical and should be treated as such. For many, though, God is an existential impulse, a transcendent idea with no referent in reality. This conception of God is untouched – and untouchable – by positivist science; asking if God is true in this sense is like asking how much the number 12 weighs – it’s nonsensical.
These sorts of questions pervade literature and philosophy. The existentialist authors, most of whom were atheists, took seriously the problem of meaning and truth. Dostoevsky, for instance, although a Christian, refused to defend Christianity on positivist grounds. He considered God a motive force, not an empirical claim about reality or history. For his part, God was a bridge to self-transcendence, a way of linking the individual to a tradition and a community. The truth of Christ was therefore less important than the living faith made possible by belief in Christ.
Richard Dawkins may find this distinction trivial, but I don’t think it is.
Dostoevsky’s defense of the idea of God has to be reckoned with, especially by critics of religion. The great writer and humanist Albert Camus wrestled with Dostoevsky for most of his life. Camus was an atheist, but he understood the instinct for transcendence. And he knew that God was a solution (however false) to the problem of meaninglessness. Against the backdrop of death, what matters more: truth or a reason for living? “I’ve never seen anyone die for the ontological argument,” Camus wrote, but “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others getting killed for ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living.” Today is no different; people continue to kill and die in defense of beliefs that give their lives meaning and shape.
The New Atheists don’t have a satisfactory alternative for such people. They argue that religion is false; that it’s divisive; that it’s unethical; that it makes a virtue of self-deception; that it does more harm than good – and maybe they’re right, but if they don’t understand that, for many, meaning is more important than truth, they’ll never appreciate the vitality of religion. To his credit, Sam Harris’ most recent book, “Waking Up,” grapples with these issues in truly fascinating ways. Indeed, Harris writes insightfully about the necessity of love, meaning and self-transcendence. But he’s a fringe voice in the New Atheist community. Most are too busy disproving religion to consider why it is so persistent, and why something beyond science will have to take its place in a Godless world.
The New Atheists have an important role to play. Reason needs its champions, too. And religion has to be resisted because there are genuine societal costs. One can draw a straight line between religious dogma and scientific obscurantism or moral stagnation, for example. That’s a real problem. But if religion is ineradicable, we have to find a way to limit its destructive consequences. Satire and criticism are necessary, but they’re not sufficient.
People like Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens make a powerful case for a more humanistic ethics. Harris writes admirably about the need to be more attentive to the present, to the suffering of other human beings. I agree. But if we want to encourage people to care about the right things, we should spend as much time encouraging them to care about the right things as we do criticizing their faith.
Sean D. Illing is a freelance writer based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He teaches political theory at Louisiana State University. Read more from him at his blog at Cosmopoliticsblog.com. Follow him @sean_illing on Twitter.
In other words, the fact – note that word: "fact" – that religion does not hold up to rational scrutiny and that is not empirically true doesn't matter. People continue to believe anyway, because they need to believe.
But most people, presented with reality and what we know about it, chose to believe in a non-fundamentalist way. They take the ethical and moral lessons of religion and combine it with belief in an unknoable yet still caring deity who expects them to do good and be good, but who does not care which shoe they put on first or tie first, or whether an animal is glatt kosher or regular kosher or even kosher slaughtered at all. (These people are often far more worried about whether the animal was kindly treated while it was alive and then humanely slaughtered than they are about who slaughtered it and what humras were and were not followed.)
However, Orthodox and especially haredi Jews are increasingly fundamentalist. Haredim ignore science, ignore fact, ignore reason. They live in self-imposed darkness and attack the outside world as evil whil eat the same ignoring the very moral and ethical teachings of Judaism as they instead work every harder to be ever more strict in their observance of the irrational.
If there were only haredim in the world, there would be few or no doctors, few or more scientists, massive regression of society and increasing darkness – a new Dark Ages not all that dissimilar to what ISIS or al Qaeda would bring (although haredim would likely be far less bloody on the road to achieving absolute power).
By 2050, just over half of all elementary students in Israel will be haredim. Almost none will learn math or science or even Modern Hebrew language or computers. By 2075, that number will be close to 80%. There will likely be massive shortages of all types of scientists, engineers, nurses, pharmacists and medical technicians, and Israel will be an unhealthy backwater – if it still exists at all.
There is reality, people. ("Yesh breira," as Rabbi Moshe Weber of Jerusalem used to say.) No matter how tightly you close your eyes and sing a hasidic niggun to block out what you don't want to see and hear, what you don't want to see and hear still exists and still real. Your induced state of "holy" solitude, however, isn't. Learn the lesson: Yesh breira. There isn't much time left before it will be too late.
[Hat Tip: Dr. Rofeh-Filosof.]