I just got done listening to the program, Equal Time For Free Thoughts, on Peace and Justice Radio 99.5 F.M. in which they were interviewing the founder and head of Black Atheists of America, Ayanna Watson, as well as Leighann Lord, comedian and poster person for African-Americans for Humanism National Outreach advertising campaign. I would highly recommend listening to the podcast on this link in order to better understand the context of this post. If you do choose to listen, start at around the six minute mark.
In the interview, the host asks a very interesting question that I think highlights the very core misunderstandings and misconceptions about religion that form the foundation of atheistic thought. He asks “If people were persuaded to let go of their faith-based thinking, how then is it liberating to become a free thinker and even more specifically in terms of a naturalistic approach to understanding ourselves and others is there real wisdom that this naturalistic approach offers that you are not getting if you’re going to Church?” This promulgation of this notion that being a free thinker is totally antithetical to being a faith-based thinker scares me, because it is patently untrue. I want to argue that it may often seem, on the surface, that faith-based thinking is inherently constrictive in its thought processes and it is this surface that atheists will cite when they make this argument. Leighann Lord’s answer to the question is a perfect illustration of my point. She begins by saying that there are benefits to letting go of what she calls “fuzzy thinking” and goes on to say that “if you are not depending on some mystical force or being to do things for you than you are leaving it to yourself.” She goes on to talk about “rolling up your sleeves and putting in the effort and not just sitting around and praying about it or believing that if it happens it was meant to be.” Now there is a big implication in these statements that seems to be based on the notion that if you are you are a member of the Church and believe in God that you are giving up your life to a higher power and not taking responsibility for driving your life path. This is not what Christianity teaches, and this is not what belief in God represents to people of faith. It is a commonly used and largely unfounded argument for Atheism used by Atheists to justify their faith…..the faith of not believing in God. Before dispelling these notions, I believe it is important to recognize the reasons why they pervade the community of ardent nonbelievers. But before even I do that I want to say that arguments of this nature are often very polarizing and play to people’s emotions, whichever side you are on. My goal is only to present rational arguments and not to insult anyone or make anyone angry. We must be willing to listen, but not listen blindly and always think through things rationally and this is what I will try to do here.
In my last post, I made the argument that atheism is born out of the specific opposition to religious radicalism, not religion itself. I also argued that religious radicalism is as anti-religious as atheism. Now how can that be? The statement, “Religious radicalism is anti-religious” seems to contradict itself. But one has to take a look at the effect of religious extremism on the world at large to truly understand why it is not only so anti-religious but also why it has fostered this counter cultural movement called atheism. I would prefer to tackle the latter question first. Now this is a subject that is very close to my heart, because, as I said in my last post, I used to be a staunch atheist until I realized that most of my arguments were largely based on misconceptions and misunderstandings about religion which I had developed not only through media influence but also from listening to my dad speak about his dislike of religion. My dad emigrated to America from Pakistan in 1980, and one of the main reasons he came here was his strong aversion to the Islamic conservatism of Pakistani society. Whenever he talked to me about his dislike of religion, he would make the same arguments that atheists today will make against Christianity…or in general…a belief in god. Here are a few, “Religion is just a way to control people and exert power”, “I can’t believe what I can not see”…”Look at the destruction that religion causes in this world in terms of places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, so wouldn’t we be better off without it.” Now I believed all these arguments because ya know he’s my dad and I saw my father as a very good and moral man, but also, and more importantly, I had no perspective and no true knowledge about religion to be able to make my own judgements that were solely mine based on my own reasoning and research and value judgment. I also was too young to care that much, and I never took the initiative to learn more until very recently. Consequently my dad’s preconceptions were my only lens into religion….well that and September 11th and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism…as well as learning about Puritanism and all the European religious wars from way back which really validated my dad’s arguments….so the point is my insight into religion was narrow, negative, and shaped by bias. And the big problem was that I didn’t really know anything about religion: the teachings, the holy books, the traditions, the origin of the belief in God. So, in retrospect, it was irresponsible of me to make a blanket, negative judgment about religion, without actually studying it for myself. But this is what we are so quick to do in today’s world. We become followers. It is too easy to be a follower. We must take the initiative to get the whole picture before we make a value judgment, because too often we are being influenced by forces we don’t even realize. I came to appreciate Christianity and what it has to offer not by blind faith but by logic and reason. Before that my conception of religion, was driven by blind faith….faith that my father’s words were true….faith that Osama Bin Laden was a follower of real Islam…faith that because Islamic countries were notorious for their maltreatment of women that must be what the Quran told them to do…..faith that science and Christianity are diametrically opposed to one another……faith that Christianity teachings rejected evolution and the big bang theory and believed the earth was thousands of years old rather than billions…..faith that the Bible was supposed to be read literally…..so many misconceptions I could go on and on and on. In this respect, religion was like a human being. People are so complex, and unless you really get to know a person, it is wrong to make blanket judgments and often there are misconceptions you have initially, that are often proven wrong by further getting to know them. You are constantly peeling back and peeling back to get to the how and the why. And often these revelations about a person surprise you, as I was very surprised in my discoveries about Christianity. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller addresses the prevailing culture of doubt in our society,
The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness, you must doubt your doubts. My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs in which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs–you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.
I commend two process to my readers. I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined “blind faith” on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them. I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith. At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility. Then there will be an understanding, sympathy and respect for the other side that did not exist before. Believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement rather than simply denouncing one another.
Now that I have addressed the general skepticism within the non religious community, I would like to get back to Leighann Lord’s specific comment regarding the Christian belief in God. She contends that people who believe in and pray to God are leaving their fate up to “mystical forces” consequently failing to take responsibility for their actions and supposedly having no motivation to better themselves. This assertion basically implies that that, to take a phrase from Keller, “Christianity is a Straitjacket” in it teaches that all human existence is up to the whimsy of an all mighty God. As a result, Leighann Lord is painting the picture of religion as, to take my own phrase, a “dictatorship over human minds and actions”. On the contrary, Christianity is the only set of beliefs I have encountered, non religious or religious, that holds human beings most accountable and responsible for their own actions. Let us examine this notion.
For just over a year the ruler of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has been waging a terrible campaign of indiscriminate killing against his own civilian population. His family has ruled with an iron fist for many years, and the people of Syria are fed up with dictatorship. The Syrian army has committed unspeakable atrocities including sending in tanks to shell whole neighborhoods, torturing approximately 800 children, and ordering snipers to fire on civilians in the streets of many major cities. The U.N. estimates that upwards of 8000 people have been killed in the vicious crackdown.
Now you ask anyone, believer or non-believer, if what Assad is doing is wrong, they will say yes. If you ask why, both will give an answer akin to “Humans have rights and it is wrong to violate those rights”. But just look at this statement. It is a view of human rights that has largely developed in the Western world. There are persons in this world and throughout history, one obviously being Bashar al-Assad, who have no qualms about violating human rights and yet we have this inner sense that what they are doing is wrong. So how can the nonbeliever explain this inner sense of right and wrong? How can the nonbeliever justify this sense of transcendent moral obligation? Where does the idea that every human individual has dignity come from? Timothy Keller argues,
If there is no God, then there is no way to say one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.” If that is the case who gets the right to put their subjective, arbitrary moral feelings into law? You might say “the majority has the right to make the law,” but do you mean the majority has the right to vote to exterminate a minority? If you say “No that is wrong,” then you are back to square one. “Who sez” that the majority has moral obligation not to kill the minority? Why should your moral convictions be obligatory? Why should your view prevail over the will of the majority? The fact is, says Leff, if there is no God, then all moral statements are arbitrary, all moral valuations are subjective and internal, and there can be no moral standard by which a person’s feelings and values are judged.
Now I ask you, when the international community decides to denounce what Bashar al-Assad is doing to his people, are they not judging his actions by an objective and external moral standard? Human rights are real. They are not subjective and they are not arbitrary and they do not derive from individual human beings. If they did, then the international community would have no right to denounce Assad. They derive externally from a force outside ourselves and that force is God.
Now I will ask you, is this “fuzzy thinking” as Leighann Lord puts it? Is is blind faith? No. It is logical thinking. It is just one of the many logical reasons for God’s existence. It may not be empirical or derived from the scientific method, but nonetheless it is logical. This is part of the why that I spoke of in one of my previous posts. Science can never explain why something is the way it is. It can only explain how. This does not mean science and religion are at odds. It means that they are two separate realms and that they deserve respect from one another.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Penguin Group USA Inc, 2008. Print.