I am a firm believer in keeping an open mind to as many sides of a debate as I can stomach, particularly because an having an informed opinion demands that I actually be informed. As a result of a posting on Jewschool, I visited a website called Atheists of Silicon Valley because I enjoy a good dose of intellectually combative anti-theism with my morning cup of coffee. No, seriously. I am always up for a good, intellectual argument on behalf of atheism, which is why I’m buying Richard Dawkins’s new book. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read the content of the Atheists of Silicon Valley website, expecting a rousing, provocative, and deeply challenging assertion of the truth of atheism and instead found this statement: “Millions of people have been killed in the name of some god, and most wars have had religion as a central cause…Religion is also at the root of most of today's international problems. Just imagine how much more peaceful the world would be without beliefs in gods causing so much strife.”
So many rhetorical issues, so little time.
First logical fallacy: religion is not theism. So if the purpose of the site is to refute theism, then using religion as a straw man subverts the legitimacy of the argument. Second logical fallacy: religion is a reason/excuse/justification for violence, but cannot be proven as the cause of such violence (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). Scripture, the OT, the NT, the Quran, are all sources for this justification. The excuse for the Crusades was Christianity, but the reasons behind the bloodshed were political, economic, and imperialist. Violence would exist without religion to provide its reasoning. I know this assertion to be true because history provides a myriad of examples of explicitly or tacitly atheistic systems (or systems in which God was beside the point) that were used as justification for acts of violence. The most blatant example is the mass murders that occurred under the purview of the
Innumerable crimes against humanity were committed by the Church. Is that because the concept of theism is inherently flawed and propels people to violent acts? I cannot understand how a belief in an epistemology of the world based on an over-arching ordering principle inherently causes evil acts. At its basis, pulling back the veil of religion, theology promotes, not precludes, science. The distance between religion and science in the modern world is a false dichotomy perpetuated by those uninterested in human progress. Theology isn’t inherently wrong; stupidity is inherently wrong; ignorance is inherently wrong. People who believe in God, whatever the content of that belief, are not inherently flawed; a system that perpetuates the belief that to believe in God demands a rejection of modern science is a system that is inherently flawed. Because religion has historically undermined scientific pursuit, is that a reason to dismiss it out of hand? What of the scientific, philosophical, and literary advances that flourished under the Islamic Golden Age? Islam, at one time, housed the greatest scholars of the age, at a time in which Christian Europe was enveloped in the Dark Ages. The current, fundamentalist flavor of Islam is not inherent to the religion, but rather a violent response to economic and social pressures that have been housed in religion. I am not arguing that theism is not a belief that exacerbates the violent tendencies of humanity, that religion does not give humanity a structure through which to express its basest notions. I am arguing simply that the Atheists of Silicon Valley have not proved their point adequately.
In his Slate interview, when Richard Dawkins asserts that teaching your children that God exists is tantamount to child abuse, he does not further the dialogue between an entrenched religious right and a atheistic scientific community. The first flaw in his argument (as with the Atheists of Silicon Valley) is that he conflates theism with religion. Specific religious systems, particularly those that encourage blind faith and dismiss dissent, are antagonistic to science and intellectual pursuit. Likewise, specific political systems, particularly those that demand loyalty and punish opposition, are antagonistic to science and intellectual pursuit. Human beings create systems that constrain creative and intellectual expression. These systems are wrong, but the motivation to create a system that organizes our world is not.
Dawkins’s second flaw is his narrow definition of deism/theism. In the slate.com interview, he says, “…the divide comes with whether you believe there is some kind of a supernatural, personal being. And I think deists, as well as theists, believe that.” He’s right, at least according to the OED, that deism entails belief in the existence of a Supreme Being without the burden of revealed religion, whereas theism promotes belief in a deity and may be taken to imply revelation. He’s wrong that this deity has to be a personal being. Some theists believe that this Supreme Being is independent and personally involved, with reason and will. Some believe that revelation entails God descending on
At the root of scientific inquiry is the belief that the world works, that some organizing principle orders the world, a principle that we are capable of discerning through use of our intellectual faculties. This ideation of science is congruent with the basic ideation of religion: deriving order from chaos. At its base, the ancient wisdom literatures suggest that through inquiry, we can order our lives according to the way that God ordered the world, thus living more fully and cleanly. This impulse to uncover the mysteries of the universe is no different from the scientific impulse to achieve those same goals. If my theology rests on the conception that the world is ordered and at some level makes sense and if I find it useful to call that order, “God,” then how is that harmful? Only when I use these beliefs to construct a religion that condemns other beliefs and then use that religion as justification for crimes against humanity, only then is theology harmful.
One last point: argumentum ad ignorantiam goes both ways.