Simplistic atheism like that of Richard Dawkins and others believing that insisting on naive empiricism is enough to discredit religion has been causing some backlash. I have even seen Facebook friends say that they have overcome their youthful hostility to religion, even while remaining non-religious.
This kind of atheism is certainly weak and counterproductive. It is weak because there any empirical tests, even the most impressive physical experiments, ultimately rely on non-testable propositions. Put differently, no proposition is ever tested purely in isolation. When one argues that a telescope shows that the Moon is not a perfect celestial body, but has craters, you are implicitly also saying that a telescope is a reliable way of learning about far-away objects, etc.
The naive-empiricist atheism is also counter-productive because humans often start sympathizing with ideas that are viciously attacked in poor ways. They start thinking that there should be something to them if the opponents use what seems like whatever intellectual means necessary to undermine them.
Bad atheism notwithstanding, I believe there are at least four far more powerful reasons why religions belong to the dust bin of history than the fact that there is no empirical test for the existence of god(s).
- Religion in the narrow sense is intellectually bizarre
In my view, Branislaw Malinowski correctly surmised that religion broadly conceived is a form of human intellectual response to a highly imperfect world. It indeed consists in searching for something ‘transcendent’ for consolation. It is certainly not bizarre because it would mean that humans are in a basic sense bizarre.
However, religion in the narrow sense of worshipping immaterial beings, especially the Abrahamic (originally mostly Zoroastrian) god, and claiming the existence of another world, IS bizarre because it’s based on several false concepts. For instance:
- The concept of immaterial. Already, Hobbes has powerfully argued that just because one doesn’t feel one’s thoughts as physical doesn’t imply at all that thoughts can exist irrespective of matter. I’m not even mentioning the silly mistake people made when they thought that gas was immaterial.
- The concept of perfection. The adjective ‘perfect’ merely expresses satisfaction with something in a concrete sense. For instance, when I say that the weather is perfect, I mean that there is no way it could improve to be even better for me. Claiming that something is objectively perfect is just a category error.
- The idea that the existence of the world we know and its basic features need to be explained. Oddly, this is where physicists trying to claim that the world came ex nihilo during the Big Bang are inadvertently putting themselves into a quasi-religious mindset.
I think Lee Smolin had that one covered, although his solution to the problem of physical laws is a non-starter, in my view. He rightly notes that when we explain something successfully it is always an isolated system. But we cannot go outside of the world and try to explain it as we may do with the human body or even with the world economy.
- As for another world, I am a big fan of the simple and damning question, ‘Where?’ If we set aside the abused mathematical metaphors of space-time as an extensible sheet of rubber, and start, as any thinker should from the basic features of the world, we have to accept that space is merely three-dimensional something that can be filled with stuff, ad infinitum. There can’t be another space separated in principle from the one which we are in. There is no other world.
Of course, one can say that, well, people need something like the belief in the immortal, immaterial soul, to accept the inevitable death. But we would never accept the same fairy tales in response to other imperfections and the childish impulse to explain them away. If someone tells you that scarcity can be cured through money printing, you’ll justly respond that she should wise up.
It can also be retorted that so many intelligent people take religion seriously that it just cannot be bizarre. But I believe that very intelligent people are sometimes merely very good at taking thoroughly rotten foundations and building beautiful edifices atop of them.
2. Religion Is A Powerful (Sleeping) Source For Legitimization of Really Sinister Stuff
It is true that many religions were and still are abused by states and evil actors like the Islamic State. Christianity was born as a sect of marginalized people, often slaves, but once adopted by a powerful government (of the Roman Empire) and its successors, it turned into a powerful totalitarian ideology. Every single religion has probably been used to justify authoritarian regimes, rigid social hierarchies (and even ghettos, castes, slavery and genocide) and massive interference with individual liberty. Even the newest religion of environmentalism has almost immediately been put to work by the extreme Left that was disoriented by the spectacular failure of socialism.
The fact that religions are so easy to hijack in this way suggests that it is not a coincidence. The reason for this is that any religion, regardless of its level of sophistication, is at its core based on claims that are, in the academic parlance, “pseudo-profound bullshit” (PPB). It is not easy to believe in PPB, even if you really want to, especially in the presence of those who don’t believe in at least the same PPB as you. Thus, there is a strong motivation to base PPB on very strong claims of authority, which is where busybody gods (instead of the early ‘explanatory’ gods) probably come from. And since for most people ‘the word of God’ and the threats of eternal punishment are not sufficient, there is a motivation to try to use social authority, even based on physical force, to at least get the non-believers to be less vocal or visible. And in the quest to attain this relief, there is a temptation to sacrifice quite a bit.
3. Religion Is A Poor Source of Meaning
I think religions even like modern Christianity have mostly been detrimental to believers, even where they didn’t involve overt imposition of beliefs on other people, support for rigid hierarchies and even slavery because ‘that’s how the world was created’ and so on.
They still largely teach people that their happiness is of secondary importance, and that life is in one way or another about fulfilling social roles, working and suffering with dignity. To see how subtly detrimental the effects of religion can be on individual lives read this fascinating series on how a Christian woman let a horrible predator harrass her for years and ultimately put her and her family in grave danger because she believed in universal foregiveness.
Religions can provide meaning to people but only because many people have been taught since childhood that the only way to find meaning is to accept it from a social authority. This is where, I think, people like Tyler Cowen get it wrong when they observe that those people who come from socially rigid contexts and who lose their religion fare badly, and religion should, thus, be encouraged at least for them. What people like Cowen miss is that the people in question (e.g. poor whites in depressed formerly highly religiously conservative regions) still seek fulfilment of an externally imposed social ideal. They still wait for coal to have a come back because, say, real men should work with their hands in tough conditions, not sit in comfortable, air-conditioned office spaces.
Instead, parents (guardians) should think about not instilling in their children externally-sourced, rigid structures of meaning. This is already largely the case for many children in many countries, and they do not appear to be worse off than their predecessors.
4. Even if religion in the broader sense is a basic intellectual response to the world, people should be taught to be cognizant and beware of it
Human intellect is subject to all kinds of errors, biases, negative impulses, etc. However, we normally do not say that the inevitable practical results of such intellectual frailities are desirable, and should be allowed to take systemic forms. We do not normally say that, for example, envy is neutral, let alone desirable, even though we are all certainly susceptible to it to some degree.
In the same vein, we are indeed primed to search for consolation in the illusions of the transcendental but we should be on guard against this tendency, including the worshipping of supposedly real collectivities like races, tribes, nations, non-antropogenic Nature, clans, bloodlines, etc.