Should We Care Whether Others Believe in God?

March 24, 2011

I gave a talk recently in which I stated that converting the religious to atheism or humanism should not be a major objective of secular organizations such as CFI. This assertion resulted in probing questions from some who maintained that I might be underestimating the importance of religious belief. I don’t think so. Let me explain why. (An editorial making some of the same points appears in the current (April/May) issue of Free Inquiry.)

Why should we care whether others believe in a god or other supernatural beings? Because these beliefs are false? Yes, they are false, but most people, including humanists, have a large number of false beliefs. Mistaken beliefs do not typically trigger passionate, prolonged efforts to persuade the person holding the erroneous belief that s/he is incorrect. Think of all the false beliefs each of us has about history, physics, biology, and whether our hair is thinning.

So if we are concerned about false beliefs that the religious have about the supernatural, presumably it must be because of the significant harmful consequences that follow from holding such mistaken beliefs.

In the case of religious beliefs, there are three broad categories into which such harmful consequences could fit. One is the self-inflicted harm resulting from religious belief. Second, there is the harm resulting from efforts by the religious to force their beliefs on others. Finally, there is harmful conduct toward others (not connected to imposition of beliefs) inspired or motivated by religious doctrines and practices.

With respect to self-regarding harmful behavior, I do not see this as sufficient justification for intervention, except perhaps in the case of imminent serious harm, for example, a person who is about to commit suicide because s/he believes it is the only way to meet God. Sure, religion produces false hopes and wastes a person’s time, but so do other mistaken beliefs. If the only harmful consequences from religious belief were those affecting the believer, it would constitute unjustified paternalism to devote significant time and effort to persuade the religious to give up their beliefs. Atheists are not in the business of saving souls.

Of course, for many—but, importantly, not all—of the religious, their beliefs are not purely a personal matter. To the contrary, many of the religious actively seek to convert others. Moreover, they often seek to impose their beliefs by enlisting the support of the government. This support can range from laws prohibiting individuals from abandoning their religion or criticizing it (such as the laws forbidding apostasy and blasphemy in some Islamic countries) to laws that passively support religion by allowing religious symbols to be displayed on public property. Whatever form government support for religion takes, it is wrong. Everyone should be free to come to their own conclusions about the existence of the supernatural without compulsion, prodding, or oversight by the State.

But notice that although religious beliefs surely motivate some of the religious to use the government as a crutch for their beliefs, other individuals who are religious are staunch defenders of church-state separation. Indeed, in the United States, the individuals responsible for providing us with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom were probably all religious, to some degree. In other words, it’s possible for a person to be religious and also support a secular government. So if we are concerned about combating preferential treatment for religion, it’s not necessary to persuade the religious to become atheists; we only need to persuade most of them of the justice and advantages of secularism.

This brings us to the third category of harm, that is, harmful consequences to others flowing from religious doctrines. These harms typically result from attempts to shape laws and public policies to reflect religious beliefs. For example, in the United States, religiously motivated individuals provide much of the support for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, prohibiting stem cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth.  In other countries, the pernicious influence of religion is even more evident, with religion providing the justification for the subordination of women, the suppression of nonreligious education, and the denial of personal freedom.

With respect to this category of harm, wouldn’t it be beneficial to persuade the religious to change their beliefs? The answer to this question is a heavily qualified “yes.” The answer is qualified because, especially in Western countries, there are many religious who do not seek to utilize religious dogmas as the basis for public policy (perhaps because there isn’t much room for dogma in their religious beliefs). Along with humanists, they believe that we should have a secular state and base public policy on secular concerns and empirical evidence. 

It is not so much religious belief in and of itself that is of concern to us, but the mindset of all too many of the religious that their doctrines should be reflected in the laws and regulations that govern us all, and, furthermore that they need not provide any justification for their support for a particular public policy other than “God says so.” If we are to have a truly democratic society, we need most of the people to break free of this mindset.

For some, that may mean they must first stop believing in the supernatural, because their religion so pervades their thinking and their life that they cannot conceive of reasoning about ethics and policy matters in secular terms until they stop believing in spirits. Of course, these are precisely the religious individuals who are the most difficult to reason with, so the odds of persuading them that their religious beliefs are unfounded are low—but the probability is not zero.

To sum up: If religion were entirely a personal matter, the religious beliefs of others would be of little concern to us. What we are principally concerned with is support for secularism. We want a secular state, we want nonbelievers to be treated fairly and equally, and we want public policy to be free of religious influence. To achieve these objectives, it is not necessary to convert all, or even most, of the religious. We simply need to ensure that a sufficient number of individuals are committed to the principles of secularism. Granted, that might require persuading some religious to become nonreligious — because they would not accept secularism otherwise — but only relatively few.

Thomas Jefferson got it right when he wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The beliefs of the religious, however absurd they may be, should be a matter of concern only to the extent the religious are motivated by their beliefs to harm others. 

Comments:

#1 Anne C. Hanna on Thursday March 24, 2011 at 4:13pm

Here’s another harmful consequence of religion: the pervasive belief in our society (promoted by almost all religions, even the nicey-nice liberal ones) that faith without or beyond evidence is a virtue, rather than a deep and terrible vice.  This belief corrupts the training of children, making it difficult for them to learn to analyze serious problems by finding out what’s true and acting on it, rather than by asserting what they want to be true and then distorting the evidence to fit when challenged, or simply dismissing challenges as “not what I believe”.  Adults whose analytical skills are distorted in this fashion are a deadly threat to our democracy, because they are unable to participate rationally in decision-making processes which affect us all, and are easily swayed by fearmongering to do terrible and destructive things.

It’s the religious mindset itself which is dangerous to us all, not just the content of particular beliefs or specific issue advocacy.  On this ground alone I think it is essential for all sane people to work as hard as we can to oppose and erode it.

#2 Darrick on Thursday March 24, 2011 at 8:04pm

Anne makes a good point. Apart from religion, other irrational beliefs share common characteristics such as faith-over-reason, appeals to emotion and authority, groupthink, logical fallacies and a sense of self-righteousness and/or persecution by nonbelievers.

Alternative medicine, New Age woo, anti-vaccine attitudes, and a general antipathy towards science and technology - just some examples of potentially harmful beliefs that are related to the religious mindset, and often given tacit support by a culture that fails to hold reason, evidence and critical thinking in the highest regard.

#3 drstrangelove on Thursday March 24, 2011 at 8:35pm

Religious belief encourages an innate credulity.  They encourage anti-science leanings.  Modern societies are science based.  Anything pushing people away from science will move us backward, away from all the practical gains that we’ve made as result of science and technology.

#4 Randy on Thursday March 24, 2011 at 9:37pm

You’ve failed to convince me.  I simply direct you to observe the US.

It is certainly a good thing (in itself, not just as a means to secure rights for the non-religious) to have more of the population be non-religious. 

While we all hold false beliefs, few of those beliefs dominate our lives the way religious beliefs do.  If we can rescue people from that confusion, that’s always a good thing, in itself.  Further, if we can teach people how to avoid being ensnared in false beliefs again, that’s even better.  Last, if we can prevent people imposing false beliefs onto their unsuspecting or unwilling children, that is the most important goal of all.

#5 ALF (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2011 at 2:07am

I’m as much: a Catholic as a Jew, a Christian , an Anabaptist, a Lutheran, a Unitarian Universalist, and a Quaker too.  I like the Quaker view, as silent witness’s we bare our burden in the proof resulting from our actions.  Actions seem to speak louder than words, and unless you wish to break the silence, your actions will be a statement thats born witness too. So Act out/Speak up if need be, but in reality be what you seek so when you get there you’ll feel at peace.

#6 Anne C. Hanna on Friday March 25, 2011 at 3:53am

That’s nice and all, ALF, but does it actually mean anything and/or have anything to do with the post it’s ostensibly responding to?

#7 L.Long (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2011 at 8:20am

Faith is one thing, belief is very similar.
And both are private and I could care less.
Religion, however, is something else.
Here you have gangs that not only share similar beliefs but beat those beliefs into others either thru violence, laws, or both. Even those nice little amish (said with disdain) as they also use force of a kind.
So, so long as they do not try to force their delusion as fact-they are welcome to it but I wouldn’t want my daughter or son to marry one.

#8 Michael De Dora on Friday March 25, 2011 at 10:28am

“The beliefs of the religious, however absurd they may be, should be a matter of concern only to the extent the religious are motivated by their beliefs to harm others.”

Well put. I couldn’t agree more.

#9 David (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2011 at 10:52am

Well said Dr. Lindsay.

#10 Simon (Guest) on Saturday March 26, 2011 at 3:54pm

I agree somewhat with the post, but I think there are several caveats.

Whilst we all hold false beliefs, these beliefs are I think more dangerous where the misconception is widespread or shared, rather than just an individuals misunderstanding.

Take for example the founding of the state of Israel. This was something devoutly wished by some rich and powerful secular Zionists, but would it ever have happened without the religious Zionists and their bizarre but widely shared pseudo-historical stories about Jewish history (roughly speaking the old Testament). Clearly not.

Self harm is rarely limited to the individual, few individuals are without dependants or family or others who might otherwise benefit if the individual made better decisions.

The piece also assumes one has a secular state but this is endangered especially if one particular delusional belief take a majority or large minority position. Then they’ll start eating away at it with things like “under god”, “in god we trust”. Clearly these wording break the establishment clause by undermining polytheistic religions (which of the gods do we trust in, and which of the gods is above us - enquiring polytheists want to know?).

I’m envious of your secular state anyway….

#11 Stormy Fairweather on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 1:30pm

Unreasonable people are a danger to society, and reason is one thing that faith has no use for.

Ergo, religious people are a threat to society.

#12 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 5:31pm

Beyond what Ronald says, the one area in which American religions do worry me is a belief in American exceptionalism. But, liberal (theological, not necessarily political) Xns seem to hold to that as much as conservative Xns.

#13 Anon (Guest) on Monday March 28, 2011 at 1:44pm

Religious people might be tough to deal with at times, yet that does not mean we need to stoop to their level and force our opinions onto them. by merely acting and behaving well in our daily lives is enough to prove to these people that there is a life without god

#14 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:23pm

Thanks to everyone for their comments. I have a few observations by way of response.

Anne and some others make the point that religion is not just a matter of having false beliefs, but of arriving at those beliefs through poor (or no) reasoning and this failure to use critical reasoning is a problem in itself.

I agree that many religious fail to utilize critical reasoning, and this is not a good thing.
However, this failure to reason about religious matters does not necessarily bleed over into thinking about other issues. (@Stormy Fairweather: I think this is the flaw in your admirably concise argument.) Some who are religious “compartmentalize.” That is, they are capable of, and do apply, critical reasoning in other areas of their lives. They just give religion special treatment. They’ll accept God on faith, but will carefully consider the arguments for and against buying a Prius or supporting military action in Libya. If they are willing to debate and discuss public policy issues on the merits and use reasoning that’s accessible to everyone, then the fact they give religion a pass is regrettable, and should be criticized, but persuading them to give up religion may not be a priority.

As I emphasized in my post, to the extent some religious are “unable to participate rationally in decision-making processes” (to use Anne’s words), that is a serious issue, and may warrant efforts to persuade them of the folly of religious belief. However, we need to recognize that not all religious share this defect and, furthermore, to ensure appropriate democratic discourse and policy decisions only most, not all, citizens need to keep religion out of our laws, regulations, and policies.

@ Randy: Religious beliefs can pervade a person’s life, and shape how they see everything, as I acknowledge in my post. But there are some religious who are tepid in their beliefs and engage in religious practices infrequently. These individuals often hold views on policy issues indistinguishable from those held by nonreligious individuals. For these lukewarm believers—and surveys indicate they are a substantial portion of the religious—conversion just isn’t that important. Would it be better in some sense if most people were nonreligious? Sure, if for no other reason than the number of people holding false beliefs about supernatural beings would decline. But a more practical objective would be to ensure that a solid majority of people recognize the validity and importance of keeping religious doctrines out of the realm of policy.

#15 drstrangelove on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:46pm

I argue with people everyday about all manner of uncritical thinking.  Much but not all of it is related to some fundamentally supernatural nonsense.  Some of these people do not consider themselves religious.  Lurking underneath most of these flawed ideas is a religious sort of thinking.  Many times these people will say: “anything is possible”.  One such person is a former high school science teacher.  He is open to all manner of questionable ideas such as alien abductions, “2012”, quantum mechanical effects where macroscopic observers change the outcome of everyday events.  I cannot prove it but I suspect much of this “you cannot say that such and such is not possible” is a result of this whole “you cannot not tell people they are wrong about religion” edict we have in this country.  It basically endorses the concept that “people can believe anything and no one can claim otherwise”.  I’m afraid that we atheists are the only ones saying “some things are not possible, they are rejected by the basic laws of Physics, we need to use logic and evidence and common sense to determine what is possible” and to not stand as firm as possible on this point is to backslide and to allow all of this ridiculous thinking to persist.  I think it makes any country that continues in this manner less competitive in our increasingly technologically based economy.

#16 Anne C. Hanna on Monday March 28, 2011 at 8:16pm

Ronald,

I agree with drstrangelove.  This stuff goes well beyond religion.  And even if that weren’t true, to say that some (in my experience extremely small) fraction of religious people are able to keep their religiously-infected thinking mostly quarantined into the religion segment of their brains and mostly away from from the rest of their decision-making processes is not to say that we shouldn’t pursue the complete eradication of this mind virus by all reasonable means.

For one, it’s absurd to suggest that anyone is truly capable of such perfect double-think to the degree that their religion never has any harmful effects on their real-world decision-making.  Religion for most people includes a set of deeply-rooted assumptions about how the world operates and what one should do as a consequence.  The whole *point* of a religion is that it informs a person’s moral choices at a very fundamental level, which means that religious people’s moral choices are corrupted at their very core by their willingness to base their lives on irrational beliefs.  If someone’s religious beliefs are, conversely, so rarefied and effect-free as to have no meaningful consequences for their moral decision-making, then I have to wonder in what sense they can be said to have any substantial religious beliefs at all, as opposed to just a vague nostalgia for things that sound like religion.

And then there’s the question of whether it’s really terribly wise to leave any reservoirs of this virus lying around in our society.  Even if we manage to get the thing temporarily quarantined into the supposedly safe little corner of “beliefs that don’t affect people’s actual behaviors” there’s no reason to believe that it won’t just fester there and break out again at some future date.  There’s no reason to assume that beliefs which currently seem to have no impact will remain that way.

In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the unchallenged existence of such supposedly harmless beliefs might actually fertilize and support beliefs which *are* harmful, as it seems to me they already do.  We see far too often the supposedly meritorious minority of rarefied “my God isn’t like anything you can actually argue against” theologians being used to legitimize and defend the much more harmful beliefs of the majority from us evil Gnu Atheists.

I say that belief without evidence is bad news even if that particular believer isn’t doing anything particularly bad with it right now.  You never know when a belief that didn’t used to matter too much might suddenly start to matter.  Better just to get your thinking right from the start, and much better that we explain that forthrightly to people rather than lying to them in the hope that it might make them hate us a just a little bit less.

We’ve got the moral and intellectual high ground here, and there’s no reason to surrender even a scrap of that high ground to patent nonsense.  That is, there’s no reason to do so unless one is secretly hoping to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by carving out a space for the the cruel and childish fairytales of our species’ embarrassing youth in the bright and free world which we are just beginning to learn how to build.

#17 gray1 on Monday March 28, 2011 at 9:21pm

This was a thoughtful writing evocative of many worthy followup comments.  Foremost is what WE believe (whoever we are) and the continuing ability to express such beliefs freely and openly whether or not such is in the mainstream.  It is with good reason that the First Amendment came to be number one.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This is all very well and good, however it is amazing how much latitude is generated in the differences between what is deemed a conservative as opposed to a liberal interpretation of the same few words.  I suggest that many viewers of this site would have no problem “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” while at the same time fighting tooth and nail for the precious words of freedom that follow those in particular.

These words were originally drawn up to ensure freedom of choice as to religion and later interpreted to also address the question of “irreligion” whereby Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion. 

I suppose the converse should also hold true but (not being Justice of the Supreme Court) that would be my personal and unqualified guess.  Nevertheless, I am in favor of the rule of law as opposed to the rule of mob which brings us to the reason for the Second Amendment, but I digress.

If there are any scriptures which should be held as sacred to an atheist, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights would have to top the stack.

#18 Anne C. Hanna on Monday March 28, 2011 at 9:42pm

gray1, I suggest that this:

I suggest that many viewers of this site would have no problem “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” while at the same time fighting tooth and nail for the precious words of freedom that follow those in particular.

is pure and unadulterated bullshit.  Who here has called for preventing religious people from freely exercising their moronic beliefs?  All I (and I suspect almost everyone else) want to do is argue vehemently against the holding of those beliefs, and convince as many people as possible that those beliefs are bad things, until religion has reached the same status of disreputable but technically legal personal habit as nosepicking.  I want to see religion become something that the few benighted souls who still feel compelled practice it practice shamefully and in private where no-one can see them.

I would never want to see religious people sanctioned legally, any more than I want to see nosepickers sent to jail, but I do hope that eventually the world will see the day where it’s near-universally recognized that allowing unvetted ideas play any meaningful role in one’s worldview is a rather disgusting violation of proper mental hygiene, and certainly not something one would ever want to admit to in public.

But of course, I only feel this way because I hate the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and freedom in general.  Right?

#19 Reavix (Guest) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 6:22am

What sadness and despair in the posts.  What I see are bitter, hurting people who are desperate to find peace and meaning outside of God.  This pursuit is empty and leads to anger and ultimately hostility.  In the end you will realize (and already know deep inside but don’t want to admit) that nature itself teaches there is a God.  The fact is that God loves you but sin separates us from God.  Everyone is guilty of sin, Romans 3:23.  However, God sent His son Jesus so that we could have forgiveness of our sins and live in fellowship with him through the blood of his son, John 3:16.  Repent and turn from your wicked ways and there is healing and forgiveness.  I John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  You will never find peace apart from God.  I’m praying for all of you.

#20 The Moderate Gadfly (Guest) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 1:06pm

@Anne C. Hanna.

“We’ve got the moral and intellectual high ground here, and there’s no reason to surrender even a scrap of that high ground to patent nonsense.  That is, there’s no reason to do so unless one is secretly hoping to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by carving out a space for the the cruel and childish fairytales of our species’ embarrassing youth in the bright and free world which we are just beginning to learn how to build.”

Hitler thought he had the moral high ground too. And so did Stalin as he went about killing all of the religious believers in the Soviet Union.

There is a totalitarian, absolutist whiff I detect in your comments that frankly—even as a fellow non-believer—scares the hell out of me. Especially when you talk about having the “moral and intellectual high ground.”  Just how far would you be willing to go to secure a society where everyone has been disabused (divested?) of their religious beliefs? America is a pluralistic society, and as “gray1” points out above, there is also a “free exercise” clause contained in the First Amendment as well. Just as atheists should be free from having to endure the pressures of evangelical proselytizing—like the knock that comes on the door Saturday morning, so should religious individuals who do not seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of society be free of pressure from atheists seeking to impose *their* (metaphysical) worldview.

It should also be pointed out that recent studies show that a vast preponderance of those who identify as religious are moderate, professing liberal and progressive positions on most hot button social issues. We don’t have to convert people to atheism to secure a more progressive, humanistic society, nor should we try.

#21 Anne C. Hanna on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 1:31pm

Gadfly:
Thanks for actually reading my comment, you know, the one wherein I said that I’m very cognizant of the importance of legal protection for people’s right to believe whatever dumb shit they want, I’d just like to, you know, convince everyone that they should be embarrassed to believe dumb shit.  How totalitarian of me to think it’s important to seek truth, to strive to convince others to agree, and to look forward to a day when that belief becomes the majority view, and the alternatives are seen as an outdated embarrassment,  flat-earthism is today.  And, really, who needs concentration camps to strike fear into the hearts of one’s opponents when one has the terrorism of logic and assertive language on one’s side?

Furthermore, thanks for simultaneously Godwinning yourself while quoting one of the stupidest fallacies in the book.  Do you really believe that thinking one is right is the surest sign that one is wrong and/or dangerous?  If so, I hope you’ve got the intellectual integrity to be mighty cautious about stepping onto boats.  After all those scientists are so damn confident the world is round that in reality there’s probably a pretty serious risk of accidentally sailing off the edge if one goes too far from land…

Reavix:
LOL.  I can tell how much peace you’ve found in your life from your desperate need to troll atheists showing off your supposed spiritual superiority.  Thanks for the offer and all, but I’d rather have the confidence that comes from the pursuit of useful knowledge than fragile “bliss” of willful ignorance.

#22 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 2:49pm

@Anne: Thanks for your additional comments.

Regarding your observations, I think it’s important to keep two things separate. One is the willingness to criticize religious beliefs by any effective means, whether it’s an article, a cartoon, a slogan or whatever. As someone who helped bring about Blasphemy Rights Day, I agree wholeheartedly that religion should not be immune from criticism, whether it’s fundamentalism or so-called moderate religion. So don’t lump me in with those who think liberal theologians should be given a pass.

However, the amount of effort to put into attempts to persuade the religious to give up their beliefs is a separate question. Except in the instances I mentioned in my original post, I don’t see conversion attempts as a priority.

Our different perspectives may be informed by our experiences. Unlike you, apparently, I know many religious for whom their religion is just a “vague nostalgia.” Sure, they’ll say they believe in God, and they’ll bow their heads in prayer when someone says grace, but that’s roughly the extent of religious influence in their lives. In most other ways they act the same as secular individuals.  Whether they persist in these limited religious beliefs and practices because they’re conformists, people who like to cling to old, comfortable ways, or just people incurious about religious issues, it doesn’t much matter. And I don’t really care because their thin, residual beliefs have no effect on me or on secular policy-making.

Granted, if religion had the characteristics of a virus, as you suggest in your metaphor, it would be a different case. Like smallpox, strenuous efforts would then have to be made to eliminate it. But I’m not convinced by that metaphor.

#23 drstrangelove on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 7:35pm

Let me state my thesis more clearly:  Religiosity and the tacit acceptance of Religiosity leads to a way of thinking that can be summed up as: “anything is possible”.  This happens not only with the seriously religious but also with most all of us even those who do not consider themselves especially religious.  This “anything is possible” attitude is naive and does not fit with the basic lessons of science and engineering.  If we do not rally against acceptance of religion then we effectively encourage “anything is possible” ism.  From “anything is possible"ism springs all manner of nonsense.  I do not accept that all this can be firewalled off through compartmentalism.  As a result we are a much more credulous society then we would be otherwise and this opens a possible downward path in terms of standard of living.  If seems that even pointing this out elicits such a reaction, maybe due to the societal pressure to entertain all ideas, no matter how preposterous, that comparisons to Hitler and Stalin leap out…?

#24 Anne C. Hanna on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 8:16pm

Ronald,

I think the part where we disagree is right here:

And I don’t really care because their thin, residual beliefs have no effect on me or on secular policy-making.

I think that those thin residual beliefs do have an effect on me and on secular policy-making.  When people don’t question religion (even if they don’t believe it in any deep way) they don’t understand the importance of maintaining a secular society.  Consequently, they acquiesce all too readily to (and often even applaud) the encroachments of more serious religionists on secular politics.  I think you’re not really recognizing this point and I don’t understand why.

Personally, I know plenty of people who are only very vaguely religious and I’ve seen the danger of even this vague form of religion in many of their attitudes.  For example, I had a discussion just the other day with a family member who said he was “not really religious, but believes in *something*”.  We were talking about the Pledge, and I mentioned that I didn’t think it was such a good thing to have students reciting it in schools, particularly the “under God” part.  He promptly began rolling out all sorts of unexamined tropes about how the U.S. is “founded on Christian principles” and so it’s perfectly okay to have Christianity invading our government (including in ways that go far beyond the Pledge).  It was clear that he hadn’t really thought about this—- he didn’t have any kind of substantial response when I explained how wrong he was.  Instead he’d just absorbed it unthinkingly from the vague “moderate” Christian culture in which he was immersed.  If I hadn’t argued with him he might have lived his whole life with these assumptions unchallenged, voting this way and teaching his elementary school students (he’s a teacher) that this is the way things should be.  (And he may still live his life that way no matter what I say to him.)  Can you really tell me that beliefs like his aren’t dangerous?

#25 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 11:05pm

@Anne and @ModerateGadfly (siblling?)

Agreed. I’ll take my atheism more middle of the road.

Look at top Gnus
1. Harris, despite a philosophy PhD, is pretty clueless about philosophy
2. Myers and Stenger, among others, are clueless about principles of logic, at least, refusing to accept you can’t prove the existence of a negative.
3. All three, and other top Gnus at times, are guilty of “scientism.”
4. Harris also appears to be deeply quaffing neocon beliefs in his anti-Muslim tirades.
5. Stenger and Myers, and maybe somewhat Dawkins and a bit Hitchens, often seem to prefer confrontation for confrontation’s sake to dialogue, not just with religious people, but with the likes of Eugenie Scott, Josh Rosenau, etc.

Folks like that not only make me skittish of “gnu atheism,” they make me skittish of using word “atheist,” period, the same way Michael Shermer and his libertarian pals make me skittish about using the word “skeptic.” (Oh, and I’m by no means alone in both concerns.)

#26 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 11:09pm

@Anne and Moderate Gadfly

No, Anne, YOU “Godwinned.” That was a legitimate comment by MG. True, Hitler wasn’t an atheist, although he surely wasn’t an orthodox Catholic any more. Stalin, though, WAS an atheist. I’m sure Mao was in that neighborhood too.

Gadfly is right on one big thing. Atheism is ZERO guarantee of moral superiority. Ignoring fundies’ claims about Hitler, but NOT so much about Stalin (yes, he went to an Orthodox seminary but he WAS atheist as dictator of the USSR), we’ve not seen very many moral monstrosities by atheists simply because of the smallness of numbers to date in world history.

So, get off your ... no other word for it, irony intended ...

Self-righteous Gnu Atheist high horse.

#27 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 7:48am

Oh look, another “Gadfly” who has nothing to say other than a recitation of the same tired old non sequitur insults people always throw out when they want to delegitimize “New” Atheism but aren’t capable of making a substantive argument against any of the New Atheist claims.  Go ahead and provide some evidence and specifics to back up *anything* you said in your comments, and then explain how any of it is even remotely related to anything we’ve been discussing here, and I’ll gladly engage with you on that level.  But until then, your entire output here is no better than religion as far as I’m concerned—- unsubstantiated and irrelevant nonsense.

#28 The Moderate Gadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 10:29am

“non sequitur insults people always throw out when they want to delegitimize “New” Atheism but aren’t capable of making a substantive argument against any of the New Atheist claims.”

Every response you bring to your critics is dripping with bitterness and rancor, and this gives me some insight into your inflexible and absolutist psychological disposition vis-a-vis religion and the religious. That stated, there now exists a MOUNTAIN of carefully argued, carefully considered criticism and disagreement with the overall posture of the new atheism, almost ALL OF IT from fellow non-believers, so your claim above hardly holds water, at least with me. When I embraced secular humanism I didn’t check my mind (or my ability to think critically even about the humanist/atheist/freethought movement) at the ideological door.

#29 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 10:59am

@ModerateGadfly, and @Anne

Exactly. I bring a skeptical attitude to *everything,* as best I can. And, I certainly don’t become a Gnu “cultist,” which I think many PHarungulacs, at least, are.

Sorry, Anne. Presented plenty of evidence. Read my Amazon review of Harris’s book if you want TONS more. Or read Massimo Pigliucci’s.

On the morality, 20 million killed by Stalin? 30-million-plus by Mao? Evidence right there that atheism’s no guarantee of moral superiority.

No “insults” involved. Other than the ones you seem to continue to bring to the table.

That said, you don’t seem to want a *discussion,* Anne. Nor do you seem to want to practice that skepticism MG mentioned.

Finally, “flip” your “eliminationist” comments. If you did so, you’d sound a lot like a fundy Xn.

#30 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 1:16pm

Moderate,
I’m being sarcastic towards you because you’re being a troll.  Become a serious disputant like Ronald Lindsay and I’ll treat you seriously.  For example, you could try presenting even a small portion of the mountains of carefully argued blah blah blah, or even a link to it.  And then of course I’ll be obligated to point you toward the even larger mountains of carefully argued rejection of accommodationist nonsense which you appear to have completely neglected in your supposedly critical examination of the subject.  Until then, I see no reason to greet your buzzing with anything other than a flyswatter (haha).

Socratic,
I’d be glad to read your reviews if you’d bother to *link to them*.  I’ve really got no interest in trolling through even the 299 Amazon reviews of his most recent book alone, much less all the other books he’s written, in order to find and critique yours.

On the morality question, who says that atheism guarantees morality in and of itself?  I sure didn’t.  I said that seeking evidentiary rather than faith-based beliefs is an essential cornerstone for morality.  Maoism and Stalinism were as irrational as any religion, and as drstrangelove has noted, we’re opposed to *all* irrationality, not just religious irrationality.  So, your comments on the subject have yet to rise above the usual level of completely pointless non-sequitur.  Basically, all you’ve said is, “New Atheists are meany-pants who should shut up because Stalin wuzzanatheist too!!!1!ONE!”

(See that?  *That* was an insult.  Not the stuff I said before.  You oughta learn the difference between playground snottiness and simple blunt language.)

You’re sort of right that I don’t really want a discussion with you, because you’re making it increasingly clear that you don’t have anything to say worth listening to, and you aren’t open to being convinced either.  The only reason I’m talking to you at all is in order to explain to the fence-sitters exactly how disingenuous and content-free your arguments are.

Finally, please explain exactly which of my comments were “eliminationist” and exactly how.  And then go ahead and “flip” them and cringe at how “strident” and “shrill” they sound if it makes you happy.  Of course, unlike the “fundies” (interesting choice of dismissive and dehumanizing nomenclature there, Mr./Ms. Eliminationism-and-Insults are bad…), I don’t call for anybody to be tortured for all of eternity in hell, or burned at stake, or imprisoned, or silenced, or anything.  I just want to discomfit their minds a little bit until they realize the importance of changing their beliefs.  And, unlike the “fundies”, I don’t base my confidence in my views on an imaginary old white bearded d00d in the sky, I base it on evidence and reason, and all I ask is that others strive to do the same.  I patiently await your careful explanation of precisely how such views, and the assertive expression thereof, translate to “fundy”-equivalence and eliminationism.

#31 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 1:36pm

And, wow.  What a goddamn pointless tangent.  Can we get back to discussing the original point of the post here, or does anti-New Atheist ranting really have to engulf every single internal discussion in the community?

#32 The Moderate Gadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 1:48pm

@Anne C. Hanna.

You’re the perfect example of the kind of simplistic, shallow, embittered, philistine, barbarian creep the new atheism has attracted (in droves), and hence, now stands for. And the reason for my complete rejection of it. I agree, no point in continuing the discussion. BTW, I hope you don’t mind that i chose to exit at your level—I couldn’t resist.

#33 Ronald A. Lindsay on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 2:01pm

Thanks to all for the additional comments. The debate is vigorous, with occasionally more heat than light being emitted, but overall the exchange of views has been informative.

@Anne: To answer your last question to me(comment #24), a person, such as the family member you mentioned, who wants to impose his religious views on others is harming, or trying to harm, others, as my original post states. This would be true even if the beliefs in question were “moderate” or relatively unstructured religious views. So we don’t disagree about that. Nor do I think you should have refrained from criticizing his beliefs.

I think you and I differ in the extent to which we believe most people who are nominally or vaguely religious pose a threat. So we differ on how we read the evidence. Not sure we can resolve this disagreement here, but I would ask you to consider the fact that there was not an atheist (as far as we know) among the Founders yet many of them obviously believed in a strict separation of church and state and in secular government.  And today, given that nonbelievers are only 10% to 15% of the U.S. population (on a good day), we could not maintain respect for freedom of conscience without support from religious individuals. Similarly, although religion still continues to influence our laws and our policies far too often, it doesn’t always do so, and the success in keeping religious doctrines from dictating our laws is not due solely to the efforts of nonbelievers. Clearly, there are religious people who accept secularism.

Anyway, this is likely to be my last response here, so you can have the last word if you want. Need to go on to tomorrow’s post, which you may find more to your liking (it’s on blasphemy).

#34 The Moderate Gadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 2:13pm

@Anne.

I apologize for the harshness of my last post. It was a bit over the top but not completely without merit. Anyway, someday you might consider venturing out of your new atheist polemic comfort zone and try reading some more objective material on anthropology and psychology of religion and statistical analysis on what the religious landscape in America really looks like today.  You might be surprised at how few actually believe in “an imaginary old white bearded d00d in the sky.”

#35 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 3:06pm

I’ve been reading back through the comments here and I just realized that I was so annoyed by “Moderate”‘s Godwinning that I failed to critique his risible statement that religious people should be shielded from atheist arguments because atheists would prefer not to have JWs at their door at 9AM on a Saturday.  This one was especially hilarious coming, as it did, on the heels of his claim that we Gnus don’t respect the First Amendment.

And then there was his questionable assertion that most religiously-identified persons are socially moderate or liberal.  I’d be interested to hear his explanation for how this “fact” squares with the way the U.S. electorate is consistently nearly 50/50 split between Republicans and Democrats.  Given the way these parties operate, it’s a no-brainer that the vast majority of the Republican electorate is religious, while the preponderance of non-religious people vote Democratic.  (I’m sure we could dredge up statistics on this if needed.)  You would think that from the combination of these two facts we could deduce that the majority of religious people in the United States actually lean conservative, or are at least very easily persuaded to vote for conservative politicians.  I would suggest that the heavy Republican reliance on religious identification dogwhistles is a big part of the reason why.  If this is true, it would seem that turning people away from religion *is* essential to moving American society in a more progressive direction.

#36 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 5:06pm

Test?  My posts don’t seem to be going through…

#37 drstrangelove on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 6:23pm

I do not see how one can be an atheist and use the term “scientism”.  I’m fairly sure that one or more of my religious and/or super-naturalist friends have accused me of this.  I do not see how someone can be an atheist and yet have major problems with Dawkins AND Hitchens AND Harris AND Stenger AND ....  What, on earth, has convinced you to be an atheist?  And all the hand-wringing about not pushing the religious towards the light…?  To do so makes us Nazis…?  Wow!!!  It takes the breath away!  I told my story about a high school SCIENCE teacher who believes in all manner of nonsence and accepts the notion that “anything is possible” and it gained no traction…?  (I understand that this is not strictly an indication of the dangers of religion but it’s all wrapped up together).  Bewildered…

#38 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 6:43pm

Ronald:
Sorry to hear you won’t be able to converse on this post any more, but I hope you’ll at least get a chance to read what I say, because I think there are a couple small points you missed on your last comment.

For one thing, this family member of mine *wasn’t* trying to impose his views on others.  Instead, he was supporting the imposition of others’ views (which he claims not to share) on all of us.  And the reason he was supporting this is that he buys into the whole “faith without specific bad acts is at worst harmless and at best a good thing” meme that’s floating around in society, and Christianity’s never done anything bad to him personally that he knows about, so he doesn’t see what’s wrong with the notion that the U.S. is a “Christian nation”.  And the mushy middle of the road in our country is full of people just like him.  Instead of religion, some of them will say, “What’s the harm in homeopathy?”, and others will say, “What’s the harm in psychic readings?”, and so forth.  And, as countless CFI activists and others have tirelessly argued, these things *are* harmful, even if they’re entered into by willing participants.

But the worst is when they try to get their claws into our politics—- after all, what’s the harm in having a prayer recited at the beginning of every Senate session?  Isn’t that a nice thing to do?  If we make it all non-denominational and stuff, isn’t it just a charming and essentially positive expression of our shared humanity?  And, really, what’s the harm in going a bit further and bringing in a bit more religion while we’re at it?  After all, isn’t religion a good thing?  What’s the harm?  And those people who don’t agree with this must be nasty, untrustworthy curmudgeons, so maybe we should make some laws to sanction them and protect the rest of us nice people from their meanness…

The fact that so many people fall so easily for this kind of nonsense is the reason that it’s essential to intellectually delegitimize not just extremist religion, but *all* evidence-free belief.  Until we do, those vaguely religious people in the middle who don’t see the harm are going to happily cheer the extremists on as they slowly chip away at everyone’s freedoms.

Second, in regard to the founders’ religious beliefs and so forth, I’ve never contended that religious people can’t sometimes support secularism.  Hell, the Seventh Day Adventists are practically fanatic about church-state separation, and the Baptists were a big part of getting it put in place to begin with.  And I’m happy to work with them on that.  I’m simply arguing that we can’t *rely* on them to always do so, any more than black people can always rely on white people to stand up against racism.  If we want rationality to win the day, we have to stand for it forthrightly ourselves, because people who celebrate “faith” are by definition failing to consistently promote rationality.

#39 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 7:15pm

Oh, I forgot to respond to Moderate.  Let’s rectify that…

Moderate, my deepest, most heartfelt apologies for using a bit of hyperbole in referring to people believing in “imaginary old white bearded d00ds in the sky”.  I should have recognized that you’re so fixated on caricaturing me as an Evil Narrow-minded Atheist Hitler that you would seek out the most malicious possible interpretation of my every little rhetorical flourish.  If I’d thought a little more carefully about your predilections, and been willing to triple the length of my post, I would have also added in things like “imaginary ageless omni* ineffable indefinable indescribable being who cares very deeply about preventing you from enjoying your naughty bits”.  Or maybe “imaginary being which is so vaguely defined as to be inaccessible to any kind of meaningful evidentiary or logical examination, and which gets even further envaguened away from the evidence every time somebody comes up with some new disproof but which makes people who believe in it (whatever the hell it is they’re believing in) feel all warm and fuzzy inside”.  Perhaps that would have helped you understand the breadth of my experience with and disdain for religion a little bit better?

Oh, also, I should mention that until you stop laying your attempts at condescending bullshit amateur psychoanalysis on me, you are welcome take your aspiring sanctimony masquerading as an apology and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Anyway, I think that about covers what I had to say to you.  Have a nice day.

#40 drstrangelove on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 8:16pm

@Anne C. Hanna

A joy!  Thank you! 

#41 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 8:54pm

@Anne ... “just saying” about the Amazon reviews.

But, if you do want to read (of course, I’m a “guest” so you’ll have to note the workaround on the URLs)

My review of Harris, on my philosophy-related blog:

#42 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 8:58pm

@Dr. Strangelove:

First, full snark intended, I didn’t know there was a school, or a catechism class, for becoming an atheist.

Second, people like Bob Carroll and Massimo Pigliucci, not just me, have used the word “scientism” about all those people. If you don’t grasp what the word “scientism” means, Google away.

Third, more seriously, like John Loftus and a few others, I’m an atheist with a graduate divinity degree:

wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/03/how-and-why-i-became-atheist-part-3 DOT html

#43 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 9:03pm

Anne, sorry, didn’t fix my URL workarounds correctly.

1. My take on Harris’s Immoral Landscape: wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/02/sam-harris-immoral-landscape DOT html

2. And my take on PZ conflating skepticism and atheism: wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/11/too-bad-pz-myers-cant-write-unbiased DOT html

3. And, how Harris (yep, he claimed this yearsssss ago) and others are wrong when they say Buddhism is not a religion: wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/05/buddhism-is-religion-and-is DOT html

That said, I’m not holding my breath over you looking at, or even glancing at, any of those.

To riff on Moderate, I think you, like a fundy Xn, kind of like being in a “cocoon.” In fact, I’ve even used the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” before. I’ve also used the phrase (not my own, it has a long history) “village idiot atheist.”

Have a day. I won’t tell you what kind. I may do so depending on if and how you respond.

#44 drstrangelove on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 9:13pm

@SocraticGadfly

The intended meaning of the word “scientism” is reasonably obvious, thank you.  You missed the point.  I think it’s a word for Religious apologists not atheists.

You’re missing my other point completely, as well.  You seem to disagree with many, maybe all, of the prominent atheists,  I don’t see how you can have so many disagreements and still be an atheist, something convinced you but it doesn’t seem to be any of the most logical reasons, the sorts of reasons presented by Dawkins, Hitchens, .... You understand that atheism means not believing in god, right? 

You might want to google the word “atheist”.

#45 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 10:30pm

Socratic, I do appreciate you actually following up with links instead of Moderate’s descent into even-more-childish insults and faux pearl-clutching.  I’ll give those a look-see tomorrow.  But, as I told Moderate, please have the courtesy to keep your psychoanalysis to yourself, otherwise I’m going to return the favor.

Also, I am unimpressed by degrees in unicornology, even graduate degrees.  You’re going to have to do more than wave credentials (particularly *that* credential) to get much traction with any atheist who has even the slightest hint of self-respect.

#46 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 11:04pm

Well, okay, I couldn’t resist a brief skim of your links, Socratic.  It looks like… one is you claiming that PZ Myers is a mean intolerant person because he supposedly posted a skewed internet poll in an attempt to misrepresent people’s opinions about Gnu Atheists imposing their will on other poor innocent skeptics, when actually the poll was a *parody* created by *someone else* which PZ *linked to* in order to mock a pointless notroversy generated by anti-Gnus because they didn’t like the fact that a certain skeptics’ conference had “too many” (whatever that means) prominent Gnus as speakers.

And the other two are you ranting about Sam Harris, with whom I agree about very little other than that religion is bad news and we need to work on getting it out of our collective heads.  (Interesting side note here: Gnus are a very diverse lot, and picking a few nits off of one of us doesn’t actually mean you’ve done anything like discrediting the whole enterprise.)  I’m not even sure I can be arsed to defend Harris from you, particularly since none of the stuff of his you’re critiquing really has anything to do with what we’ve been discussing here, except for the bit where you beat on the same dead old “atheists are responsible for Stalin (or whoeverthehell the most convenient bogeyman is)” horse again.  Oh, and then there’s the thing where you wave around the word “scientism” a lot without ever bothering to define it or explain exactly how Harris’ work displays it.  So maybe I’ll care more about this in the morning, but given that you seem to be less interested in addressing my substantive points above and more interested in showing off how cleverly you think you argued against people who aren’t here to defend themselves, probably not.

I also can’t help noting that in your post about Harris and Buddhism you use some very mean and intolerant language.

On the illogic side, if you try to wrestle more fully with what Buddhism, and allegedly the Buddha, meant by “not-self,” you see just how logically full of crap he and his religion were and are.

I just can’t understand why you insist on staying so wrapped up in your cocoon full of Hitler and hate.  It must be very sad for you, and I hope you get better soon.

#47 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday March 30, 2011 at 11:28pm

Heheh, okay, one more snotty remark and then I’m done for tonight.

Socratic, I can’t help noticing that you say on your blog that you were raised fundy Lutheran.  As I am sure you are not aware, the only truly sophisticated theology is that of Roman Catholicism, and if you haven’t studied that I really don’t see how you can claim to have the philosophical chops to make a decent intellectual case against theism.  I, on the other hand grew up Catholic, and I used to take that shit *way* seriously, so when I went atheist I had to argue with the motherfreaking *Scholastics* in order to make good my escape.  Your Reformed Latter-Day Missouri Synod Lutheranism, or whatever you call it, is just another one of those interchangeable johnny-come-lately dime-a-dozen piddly-shit Protestant knockoffs that any schoolkid can take down with a withering glance.  So I’d say that if anybody in this crowd’s got the philosophical cluefulness to be a serious atheist this means it’s me, not you.  Right?

Okay, I can’t write this bullshit with a straight face anymore, so whaddya think?  Can we quit waving our figurative genitalia at each other and argue seriously now?

#48 paul_w on Thursday March 31, 2011 at 8:29pm

What country does Ron Lindsay live in?

I live in a country that’s a democracy inhabited by mostly religious people, and it shows.

I live in a country where most of my gay friends can’t get married, and may lose their children if their partner dies.

I live in a country where the right to even early abortion is continually under threat from people who think that a blastocyst has a human souls.

I live in a country where crucial stem cell research has been slowed tremendously by people who don’t know what a stem cell is, but think a microscopic dot of nonsentient tissue is a human being with a right to life.

I live in a democracy where pretty much nobody involved in this discussion would be allowed in any important position in government.

Yeah, you.  You can’t be president.  You can’t be mayor, or a councilperson.  You likely cant be sheriff or, in some states, judge, if your political opponents know you’re irreligious.

You probably can’t get on the school board, but fundamentalist Christians can, and do.

You are de facto disqualified, by majority rule and the fact that the majority thinks it’s very important for the people running the show to not be like you.

In my country, religious conservatives—-and not just fundamentalists, but mainstream religious people—-are so powerful that for years now, they’ve been ensuring that tens of millions of people in Africa will unnecessarily die of AIDS.  They’ve made sure that foreign aid money is not used to distribute condoms, in the midst of the HIV epidemic in subsaharan africa.

Tens of millions of people will die because of that, and several times that many will be orphaned, and live in squalor.

Think about that.

In my country, religion is so politically powerful that it corrupts the educational system in many ways, including ensuring that most kids don’t get adequate sex education, which quite predictably makes many problems worse, while trying to make them magically better—more teen pregnancies and unwanted children, more sexually transmitted diseases, etc.

Where I live, the large majority of people don’t believe in evolution, for religious reasons.  Many think that the world is only a few thousand years old.  Most of the others don’t believe in evolution by natural selection, as scientists do—-many accept that species change, but think that God has a lot to do with it, intervening to create special species like human beings, or at least rigging the whole thing ahead of time to get the desired outcome.  Teachers know that, and generally do not actually teach evolution as scientists understand it.

And around here, many people who are not traditionally religious believe in pseudoscience, largely because they still believe the same basic metaphysics as the religious majority.  They’re dualists, and believe in supernaturalism even if they don’t call it that, and realize that it conflicts with science.  Many think that there’s something like a life force, which their chiropractor can adjust the flow of, or that somebody can modulate when preparing a homeopathic remedy.  Most believe in a soul, which spiritually elightened practitioners of various disciplines can use to this or that good effect.

In my personal experience, most otherwise promising potential romantic matches are doomed, or seriously impaired, by this sort belief.  If you’re an atheist and a materialist, you are not qualified to date most people of the opposite sex, and if you do, you have a lot of explaining to do, or a lot to talk around, and a lot of weirdness to hold your tongue about.

In my country, religion is a litmus test in politics, and the majority rules.

I live in the United States of America, one of the most religious countries in the developed world.  It’s a very different place from Sweden or Britain or the Netherlands.

Which of those countries does Ron Lindsay live in, where most people’s religious views don’t matter much to nonreligious people?

#49 drstrangelove on Thursday March 31, 2011 at 10:58pm

@paul_w

Well said!

#50 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday April 01, 2011 at 5:11am

@paul_w: What blog post were you reading? I never asserted that religious doctrine does not influence political views, public policy, or treatment of nonbelievers. Indeed, I specifically address the harms flowing from religious belief, using some of the very same examples you mention. I stated: “These harms typically result from attempts to shape laws and public policies to reflect religious beliefs. For example, in the United States, religiously motivated individuals provide much of the support for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, prohibiting stem cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth.”

So, who, exactly, are you arguing against?

Of course, the fact that many religious allow their doctrines to dictate their view of public policy, does not mean all the religious do. Take same-sex marriage. Depending on the poll, support for same-sex marriage is about 32% to 40%. But confirmed nonbelievers (those who are willing to say there is no deity) are only about 10% of the US population. So fairly simple arithmetic can inform us that there’s a substantial chunk of religious individuals who accept same-sex marriage. In fact, some surveys indicate age, not religion, is the most reliable predictor of support for same-sex marriage (in other words, a religious person in her 20’s is at least as likely to support same-sex marriage as a nonreligious person in her sixties).

Of course, we want to eliminate religion’s privileged position; of course, we want to end discrimination against nonbelievers; of course, we want to keep religious doctrine out of our public policies. Those goals are set forth expressly in CFI’s mission statement. The question is how to achieve those objectives.

@Anne: since I had to come out of retirement to say a few words to Paul, I owe you a brief response. Again, I agree with much of what you say, with our differences coming to how pernicious we regard religion. Does a religious belief have the inevitable effect of causing a person to support polices that are logically and factually indefensible?  I don’t regard this effect as inevitable; you seem to think it is.

But look at your racism example. You suggest that whites cannot always be relied upon to reject racism. True. But some whites (in fact, I would wager now a majority) can be relied on to reject racism in most cases. Only about 12% of the population is African American. If other groups did not reject racism, we‘d still have segregation. And just as we don’t have to make everyone black to end racism, I don’t think we have to make all the religious nonbelievers to achieve a just, secular society.

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