An Atheists Concession to Religion
OP - April 03, 2019, 01:28 AM
An Atheist’s Concession to Religion
My concession prompts itself especially during the holiday season when widespread merriment and exchange of best wishes briefly sweeps away my skepticism and doubts. Not wanting to be a kill Joy I freely offer greetings of Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Eid-Mubarak and any other celebratory gestures appropriate to the location and community.
“What a hypocrite” my friends reproach me. But I have rationalized to myself that since I do not believe in God there is no harm in joining others in religious celebrations. Should I feel guilty for faking celebration? But as many philosophers and sages through the ages have advocated isn’t the pursuit of pleasure and happiness intrinsically desirable? And, as far as guilt is concerned on this matter, it is best left for the realm of religion and psychology. As for the religious origin of celebrations one can ignore it: religion is not like a bacteria or virus that can infect someone from occasional contact, I am secure in my non-belief to worry that associating with religious practitioner might somehow attract me to God and His schemes. An Atheist has bigger challenges, primarily to realize oneself and to convince others that religious beliefs are based on falsehoods that affect their lives negatively.
Prayers are quite a different matter, for they require a certain amount of sincerity of belief on the part of the disciple. Nevertheless, I see no harm in being pragmatic, nominalist and situational without betraying an underlying commitment to Atheism. At the same time once cannot ignore the misdeeds that have religious paternity as they emerge with such frequency in our time. There is much to pick from instances of priests engaged in sexual abuse or financial misappropriation such as a pastor who asked his parishners to do fund raising for him to buy a private plane costing $56 million. Then there is a wide category of activity that causes serious harm to oneself and to others, such as prohibition against abortion, contraception, divorce and religious terrorism. Here, an Atheist can set up a criterion for what religiously tainted activity he can indulge in without compromising his commitment to Atheism. One can participate in those events that bring pleasure and happiness in one’s life and to the community with which he may have deep cultural roots. But religiously sanctioned acts that injure individuals and groups should strictly remain outside the domain of compromise and accommodation. A case in point: for many years when I returned to my native Pakistan, my mother beseeched me to go to the Mosque: especially for Friday prayers. Being on the road to the high horse of Atheism I, of course, ignored her requests. But in later years I realized that my mother’s pleasure was more tangible than what she believed in, namely, the After-life, Heaven and Hell, etc. So I started going to the Mosque which gave my mother immense satisfaction. Likewise I have often enjoyed going to church on special occasions to hear the music or participate in singing celebrations at Hindu or Jewish temples. On these occasions an Atheist can have a clear conscience: he does not need a sincere belief in the words or purported reality behind the words. His action may be considered pragmatic n the sense that he is supporting his relatives, friends and associates in their happiness or grief; notwithstanding the religious form and attitude of those he joins.
Agreed, the explanations given so far can be viewed as a rationalization of my deeds that can be validly criticized. Rationalization, it is important to mention, is finding supporting arguments and evidence after the conclusion has already been drawn. Reasoning on the hand looks at the evidence and draws appropriate conclusion in accordance with the rules of derivation usually determined by logic or scientific methodology.
But the most significant area where Atheists have to make a major concession to religion is concerning right and wrong, as well as, good and bad. True ethics and morality of most religions is a mixture of uncompromising commands, on the one hand, and vague, contradictory, confusing guidelines on how to live one’s life on the other. Now, the thing that distinguishes a religious person from a secularist or an Atheist is his passion and commitment to the cause. An By contrast an atheist, as observed first hand, is mostly interested in the intellectual conviction of his belief. Aside from a handful of individuals in Atheist organizations, the majority of self-identified Atheists prefer to remain silent and even hidden, considering dramatic cases of Atheists confronting dangerous attacks including murder. Their reticence is also understandable given that believers constitute the vast majority in the world and Atheists are in a negligible minority. Furthermore, most organized religions encourage passionate commitment to their faith and even demand that they proselytize to others. Atheism and Secularism, on the other hand, is based on dispassionate reasoning that does nothing of this sort and is not known for motivating people to action.
So, by far, my most important concession to religion relates to acts and motivation as they pertain to doing good In general. When one looks around in the world there’s a large number of people who do good in the name of religion. From a bunch of octogenarian nuns tying themselves to a nuclear plant fence, or Jewish activists resisting Israeli soldiers, to ordinary Muslims providing aid and shelter to victims of terrorism, we see religion providing positive incentives and guidance. This lesson was once brought home to me at a U.N. support meeting for Haiti after the earthquake where I was surprised to discover many religious organizations on the list of participants. During a discussion about the disaster, I rebutted l the peachy participants who vociferous l pleaded that the disaster was a manifestation of God’s wrath and that only He could bring relief. I argued that at religion had nothing to do with the disaster and as an Atheist I viewed it as a disaster that only people can solve, not God. Though I was intellectually right, I know that religious people and organizations played a more significant role in the relief work than Atheists. On other occasions I have found no problem in marching with the clergy in antiwar or other political campaigns. But some extreme Atheists, in particular the New Atheists, argue how not tolerate mixing of a religious message with a secular and Atheistic one. For example they decry the work of Mother Theresa in India since she invoked Christian principles in her work and preached the virtue of poverty.
Likewise, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins condemn religion without reservation as evil. Never mind that evil is a key concept of religion used primarily to denounce anti-religious phenomenon but, more importantly, the very fact that religion has flourished through millennia in one form or another is a clear indication that it contained some beneficial elements. In the present era, good deeds done in the name of religion is further proof that it continues to contribute to the betterment of humanity within narrow limits. I do not mean to imply that religion does not have negative aspects or one should not combat it. Far from it: in fact I would venture that religion has a deeply erroneous world-view filled with beliefs that can never be substantiated by facts and reason. It also oppose the religious s systems of ethics and morality, mainly relying on mistaken view of facts and reality, that are harmful to people. Restrictions on divorce, sanctions on sexuality, demands for prayer and communal life-practices are some domains of life that are negatively affected by religion. Atheists do well in targeting these ills and advocating remedies. But that is not the entire story. Two examples show the glaring lack of support — Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the richest individuals in the world finance and manage a major philanthropic foundation. Both are non-believers but their attitude towards religion never shows up any where in their work, why? It would cost them nothing, is it that like most non-believers they think that religion is an insignificant nuisance in living and advocating a meaningful life. It seems that the first task of an activist movement would be the education and enlightenment atheists and non-believers themselves.
Someone could argue that a distinction between religion and people doing good deeds should be made and I may be excused for praising people for their acts of kindness and generosity but not their religion. But that would be the whole point of Atheistic campaigns, if they were materialized, namely, to teach and advocate this distinction. However, as things stand, there is no such distinction in the minds of ordinary people. Strictly speaking there is no religion without followers, though, for many literalists, religion is identical q to the scriptures that is then practiced by its believers. In teaching courses on World Religions I brought home the point that most scriptures are ambiguous and open to various interpretations, which in fact lead to corresponding divisions. No religion has an unambiguous scripture that can serve as a point of reference for determining good and bad morals or check how things are supposed to work like a car maintenance manual. In fact each religion has, out of necessity, given rise to a variety of theological interpretations of scriptures that in turn lead to differences in practice. This is how Protestants, Catholics, Sunni or Shia have their unique package of scripture, its interpretation and practice.
As far as commitment and passion is concerned an Atheist has a superior standing compared to religion. Atheism being based on facts and reason has secular ethics at its backbone. However, some Atheists impressed by facts or scientific knowledge mistakenly think that their ethics can be derived from facts and reason alone. Deriving an ethical system from facts has been a shining but an unattained goal of philosophers; but, as David Hume pointed out “is” statements are quite different from “ought” statements,” that is, there is nothing in facts and reality itself that tells us that something ought to or ought not to be done. But at the same time, facts and reality remain s a bulwark against superstition and religion, in the sense that ethics and morality has t o cohere with hem. An independent value system needs to be superimposed on facts t o determine what situations are good or bad. Religion does this by invoking a God who has ordained a value system for people to follow. Humans, in the religious scheme, have no say what values should be applied. Atheism with its close association to secularism and humanism allows human interest to play the dominant role. Not only do Atheism and humanists affirm that humans have the freedom to determine their own conduct, it also places total responsibility on them. Religion, by contrast has an asymmetrical assignment: external God decides what is good or bad for man but holds him responsible for all his conduct- a terribly untenable situation. Incidentally, this approach responds to the common reproach in general public: if not God what then? In addition: can there be a morality without God? A word of caution is required at this point. Some have criticized humanism as being narrow-minded and biased by favoring human interests in its value-system and showing a bias for human species at the cost of other species sometimes termed as “speciesism.” Humanists could rake a defensive posture by pleading guilty to it. After all the humanist movement has expanded to include the interests of other species as well as the nature by invoking the umbrella concept of “guardianship,” which oblige s them o protect and nourish by the same imperative as they do to children and the infirm.
With several meta-ethical theories (competing theories on how to determine ethics and morality) secular ethics is in a commanding position to guide people to undertake actions with greater confidence than religion. Theories like utilitarianism, de-ontology, virtue ethics, environmentalism and feminism can be articulated and defended without invoking an external authority or spiritual phenomena. This should give them as much — if not more — passion and confidence as religion but unfortunately does not. My concession to religion, in effect, amounts to a call for Atheists to emulate religion in its activism. Atheism has much to commend for itself and is best suited to carry humanity forward in close association with secularism and humanism. But first Atheists should get out of bars, cafes, classrooms and conference halls and get engaged get with real life issues. It is also a prescription for Atheists to stop being insular and embrace the warmth o the masses.