"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, January 9, 2012

Interest in the Beliefs of Others

I have written before about personal offence and whether one should ever criticise the beliefs of others. However, I have seen discussion lately -- mainly on Reddit -- about whether or not atheists should care about what theists believe. One can generally ask -- why should anyone ever care about the beliefs of others?

There are a variety of reasons that people should care about the beliefs of others.

First, a generic statement that must be put at the beginning of any such discussion. Atheism is the explicit lack of belief in a god. Whether this is to the denial of the existence of one (as in strong atheism) or the mere suspension of belief until positive evidence is provided (weak atheism), atheism is a reaction to a pre-existing belief system. It's true that the word can be used in its most inclusive form to include people who haven't even heard of the concept of a god, but usually people who present atheism-as-opposed-to-theism do so as a reaction to some set of beliefs or doctrines. This isn't necessarily a reason to disparage either atheism taken broadly or the New Atheist movement.

Theologian Denys Turner has termed Richard Dawkins' style of atheism an "inversion" of theism, and, regardless of whether this is fair, one wonders whether that is actually a criticism at all. It is probably a trivialisation of Dawkins' view, but a view being identical to the inversion of some other view isn't the same as its being false. One still has to take the additional step of showing that the inversion is false. In fairness, this isn't to say that Dawkins is all that knowledgeable on theological or philosophical nuances, a criticism that is often levelled at him (and perhaps justifiably so.)

That the New Atheist movement (or Secular Humanism) is a reaction against traditional religious or theological positions is not necessarily to the discredit of New Atheism (or Secular Humanism.) Consider postmodernism as a reaction to modernism. Or Rudolf Carnap's work on the meaninglessness of metaphysical language as a reaction to the work of scholars like Martin Heidegger. Or Albert Einstein's formulation of Special Relativity as an alternative to the then prevailing aether theory of electromagnetic radiation. Academic movements based on a reaction to a preceding idea or movement are not only not unheard of, but have occasionally had a tremendous amount of success.

What this does tell us is that any discussion in this movement will probably prominently feature arguments against theistic views. Just as Carnap needed to begin his essay "Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language" with a discussion of Heidegger's view, New Atheist literature necessarily discusses prominent organised religions. In the United States, where approximately 82% of people are Christians, this means, at minimum, a discussion of Christianity.

There is simply little else that the movement consists of. Atheists may hold several different positions (or mixtures thereof):

-New Atheism
-Secular Humanism
-Unitarian Universalism
-Secular Buddhism
-Secular Judaism

But no atheist is obligated to believe any of those things, and all that any atheist is guaranteed to share with any other atheist is lack of belief in any gods. It's not a cohesive position to be held on its own accord, but rather the rejection of certain kinds of beliefs for a wide variety of reasons.

There is simply no belief qua atheism, but there can be beliefs held by people who are also atheists.

I will next argue why Christians should care what other people believe. I start here because most often I see Christians asking why atheists care about the beliefs of others. Why, for example, is atheist literature so full of comments being critical of Christian doctrines? To contrast this, I will first talk about why Christians should be critical of the religious or philosophical views of others (which they sometimes are not, possibly due to modernising and/or liberalising influences from beyond the purview of their particular doctrines.)

This argument is more or less applicable to any number of religions or philosophies. I raise a few doctrinal points specific to Christian proselytisation, but there are similar points that can be made from the perspective of any number of different religions.

Most Christians feel that non-Christians are doomed to hell because they have not been saved. If one is not going to try to convert me, then one is essentially saying that one doesn't care if I spend an eternity of time being tortured simply because I don't believe the same things as they do. That's immoral -- one has the obligation to try to save the people that one meets from imminent danger if one recognises it and they do not; ergo, Christians should care.

A good analogy can be made with a burning house:

1. If Cindy doesn't alert Bob to the fact that Bob's house is on fire then Bob will die.

2. If (1) then Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

3. Therefore, Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

Implicit in (1) is the assumption that Cindy knows that Bob's house is on fire. If she did not, then she would not be morally obligated to tell Bob. But given both the ability to tell Bob this life-saving information, the ramifications of not doing so, and the knowledge that Cindy has but Bob lacks, Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house being on fire.

A fortiori, if Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house's fire, Christians are morally obligated to tell non-Christians about their beliefs. Why? Because being tortured for eternity is infinitely worse than dying in a fire.

But it doesn't end there. There are also scriptural reasons for at least defending one's own beliefs when they have been questioned. 1 Peter 3:15 states (in the NIV translation):

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

Thus, Christians should defend their position when asked about it. They are both morally and doctrinally obligated to do so. Of course, they are also told to "do this with gentleness and respect", so that there is a tension here between the moral obligations arising from their convictions and their doctrinal duties.

I can think of two additional reasons why Christians should care:

--Believing false things is potentially dangerous, because people form their actions in conjunction with their beliefs. If one believes something that is false, then they could act in a way that is harmful either to themselves or to others. Note that this is true of everyone, religious or otherwise.

--For scientific reasons or out of curiosity. If one thinks that position x is true, then one needs to ask why position y is so prevalent. For instance, what were the social/cultural/etc factors that led to the successful propagation of other religious movements? Why do some people reject the idea that there is a god? How do we give an account of these sorts of things that is consistent with the available empirical data?

For an atheist, like myself, there are also several reasons why one would care about the beliefs of others. Some of these overlap with the reasons given above, but there are some additional reasons as well. Some of the reasons that I care about the beliefs of others are:

-- The beliefs of people drive their actions. If they believe things that are probably false, their actions might have a negative effect either for themselves or for others. As one person said, because religious people vote.

-- I'm interested in people and what they believe. That's true no matter who they are, but Christianity is a large part of my culture and the history thereof. I want to understand it because it's interesting.

-- I'm interested in philosophy, especially philosophical debates. Theology (and arguments against theology) presents an interesting area for me to flex those muscles. Actually, some of the most famous breakthroughs in philosophy -- the development of modal logic for example -- were developed for theological reasons. Even if I don't agree with these thinkers, I still enjoy reading them.

-- I'm interested in anthropology. Religion is one of the most fascinating activities which human beings do. I like to observe religious ceremonies and to talk to believers to find out how their cultures work, what their traditions are, and so on. If one doesn't believe that any religion is true, there are a plethora of really interesting social scientific questions to be had here -- what is the actual origin of religious experience? Why/how do people speak in tongues or seem to have seizures in certain Pentecostal rituals? Why do vodouisants in West Africa and in the Carribean seem to become possessed by the Loa? Or, for that matter, the apparent production of Zombis in Haitian Vodou? How did the Bible, one of the most famous books on Earth today, come to be? Or the Koran? In cultures that only have oral traditions, how do they maintain such a broad volume of religious knowledge (such as the Australian aborigines and their highly nuanced Dreamtime mythology)? How is that people can be inspired by cultural or religious ideas without even believing in the ontologies they embody, as actor Hugh Jackman was in his experience with Australian Aborigines? Why did the supernatural have such a strong hold in the minds of early people? What was the mechanism by which these sorts of beliefs resonated so strongly with people? If one thinks about all of the religions on Earth that one doesn't believe in, one must realise that there is a startling scientific question posed by all of these varied beliefs.

-- How did religious beliefs come to be and why are they so prevalent? Whatever one's religion might be, I'm interested in it for similar reasons. Of course, certain religions -- like western monotheisms -- have a larger effect on the culture in which I live than others do. For this reason, it's often more important to understand those traditions. But one should also study the diversity of religious beliefs in the world so that one can understand how one's own culture biases oneself. As an example, people living in the West often assume that the words "religion" and "faith" are synonymous. However, not all religions have a conception of the word "faith". Nor do all religions have a conception that their religion exists as a body of knowledge in competition with those of others, something that often frustrates Christian missionaries entering groups of indigenous peoples (for instance, such peoples often do not understand the idea of replacing their beliefs with Christianity; they will often include Christianity in addition to their local traditions. One example was the reaction of the Pueblo tribe to Spanish missionaries in the early 17th century, as excellently presented in PBS documentary God in America.)

One of the things that might not have occurred to religious people is that a lot of atheists are actually really interested in religion. For many of us, it was examining religions (and the questions that religions raise) that caused us, more so than anything else, to become atheists. It is sometimes said that the best way to convince someone of becoming an atheist is to study the Bible.

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