Vincent van Mechelen


In Beyond the Believers, the columnist Sam Harris listed four 'silly retorts to atheism' which, according to 'im, were 'most in need of deflation by freethinkers'. (See Free Inquiry, 'February/March 2007', Vol.27 No.2, pp. 20-21 or http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=harris_27_2). To boost thinking about these retorts Free Inquiry started a contest in which the readers were invited to provide answers to these 'fantasies' in responses of no more than 200 words. No closing date was given and my own contribution, dated "62.14.2 / 24 March 2007 / ..." was, perhaps, received too late (or not at all).

Below you will first find each argument as formulated in Free Inquiry, and then my response. Words between square brackets appeared in an earlier version but were later deleted in order to meet the requirement of the contest with respect to the length of the text submitted. The comments which follow my response are about the winner's contribution. The four winning answers can be found in the 'August/September 2007' issue of Free Inquiry (Vol.27 No.5, pp.24 & 26, at present not accessible on the Internet).


Argument, as formulated in Free Inquiry:
"Even though I'm an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith."

Response (174 words):
    "It may be true that in some sense some people need religion. It is definitely true that if you do not need any religion yourself, you do not have the right to prevent other people from embracing a religious faith. Conversely, they do not have the right either to impose their faith upon you.
    It does not follow, however, that it would be wrong to critize their faith, for we have the right too, as persons, to utter criticisms, altho we should never, as fellow human beings, hurt the feelings of others merely to hurt.
    If a faith is based on one or more books that call for the real or symbolic, the literal or literary extermination, exclusion or discrimination of other believers or nonbelievers it is the right to respect others as equal persons which is itself being flouted. Then it is not only everyone's right but everyone's duty to warn humanity of the totalitarian, if not criminal, elements in such books and in the faiths that promote them as god-given or sacred."

Comment on the winning answer:
Patricia Guzikowski argues that people do not need religion, and then goes on to criticize religious faith for a number of reasons, while claiming that 'atheism offers so much more than religion'. 'Er answer does not provide any criterion for the question of how, where and when to criticize the faith of people who claim the exact opposite (or it must be with all possible means everywhere and at any time).


Argument, as formulated in Free Inquiry:
"People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims--political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point."

Response (197 words in shortened version):
    "Some argue that [everyone is an egoist or that] all [wars and] conflicts are mere struggles for some sort of power, but this is little interesting. What is interesting is to distinguish [egoists who derive pleasure from improving the world from those who do not, and] 'power strugglers' who employ their 'power' or authority to improve the world from those who do not. Similarly, it is not interesting that religion is only (or also) used for political, economic and social aims. What is interesting is that it lends itself well for the one sort of aim and not well for the other.
    It is precisely because religion is used as a rationale for other aims that its specific content is of such great importance. If, for example, men are motivated by a desire for a patriarchical society, they should not find sacred books replete with examples of sanctioned [aggrandizemental] androcentrism. Or, if those who own already too much [/those who already keep what does not morally belong to them in their exclusive possession] are motivated by a desire to acquire even more, they should not find sacred books that ask no fundamental questions about property rights.
    Whether some people are ultimately motivated by religion or not is beside the point. The point is that the content of a religious doctrine may but too readily invite them to use or abuse it for the wrong purpose."

Comment on the winning answer:
The Christianist Keith Merrick feels personally attacked and treats the argument not as a retort to irreligion or atheism but as a retort to religion. 'E introduces a fictitious 'John' who accuses 'im of all sorts of rationalizations. Merrick's cry from the heart is supported by examples rather than reasons 'beyond John' which might once first convince Merrick 'imself and then all others.


Argument, as formulated in Free Inquiry:
"It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science."

Response (196 words in shortened version):
    "The chance that those calling themselves 'religious' take metaphors literally and the supernatural for real is considerable. By asking further you may find out that they (say they) believe the universe was really created by one anthropomorphic being, or that one man really walked on water. Someone maintaining that there is no conflict between science and religion here may be a scientist in the lab but is a supernaturalist in the temple [(a hopeless case, therefore)].
    Yet, there are also those calling themselves 'religious' without pretending to claim anything about (physical) reality. They suggest they read sacred books the way we read literature [(and many a passage in such books is indeed great literature)]. So far, so good: no facts denied, no language violated.
    However, while science may be only about facts, the scientific attitude is ruled by values [/the scientific enterprise is susceptible to norms and values just like any other enterprise. Scientific thought itself can only be correct if it is ruled by values of thought] such as truth and relevance, values which play no ultimate role in religious ideology. Science must also draw [/It can only be correct if it draws] a sharp distinction between what things are and what they are said to be [or called]. 'Religious', then, may often differ from religious. It strains credulity a little bit too much to look upon all 'religious' doctrines as merely dealing with literature or symbols, and to thus conveniently define any conflict between science and religion away."

Comment on the winning answer:
I agree with the winner that science counts and any scientist will confirm that the winner's entry was longer than 200 words.


Argument, as formulated in Free Inquiry:
"Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time."

Response (187 words in shortened version):
    "Both the claim that 'religion will always be with us' and the claim that 'one day religion will not be with us anymore' are empirical claims which, at this moment, cannot be uttered by anyone respecting truth as a value in itself[, whatever the exact meaning of the claims may be]. The claims should not be made [/Neither claim should be made, not because we know (one of) them to be false, but] because we know nothing in this respect: [we have no way to prove that the distant future will be with or without religion, for] in the social theater we cannot simply extrapolate the past into the distant future.
    It is on the basis of empirical facts in combination with eternal or present-day values that the conclusion may be justified that it is better to oppose religion than to [further it by silent collaboration or to explicitly] promote it. It is, then, [/Granted that religion is indeed a cultural phenomenon which has on the whole more bad than good 'consequences', it is] not only worthwhile to contribute to its demise, if possible, but also to lessen its power and to make it stop imposing itself on the nonreligious. Those who even call this last thing 'quixotic' [/'delusional' do not recognize people's personhood and do not deserve our respect: they] do not care about the freedom and equality people have a right to.
    There is only one instance in which the strident opponents of religious faith might be blamed for wasting their time. It is if they could be sure that religion will cease to exist one day anyhow."

Comment on the winning answer:
Jennifer Kerns refuses to accept this it's an irrational world argument. Where would we be if (science) teachers stopped teaching, because (scientific) ignorance will always be with us? "When science is attacked," Kerns concludes, "we step up our efforts ... and we should do the same with our stance on religion". Such an admirable assertiveness deserves everyone's special attention.

©MVVM, 62-72 ASWW

Notes and Papers