CHARLES WEBSTER: Is being religious more arrogant than being an atheist?

OPINION

I was recently taken to coffee by an older man (a medical doctor who also holds a Master’s degree in apologetics) who has been trying to re-convert me to Christianity for some time. He is a nice man with good intentions.

He also told me with a straight face that I should “first believe in Jesus and then I would know that Christianity is true”.

If you consider that believing actually means a confidence that something is true or likely true, he was effectively telling me to “believe, so that I believe”. I found it sad, coming from someone with so much wisdom and life experience. He claims to value truth, but proudly promotes a path that negates any honest search for that truth. I was gobsmacked at his effective admission.

“Not all religious people are like that!”
“That’s not the [insert deity] I serve!”
“You’re just biased against all religious people!”

These are the sorts of responses I get when I write about religion being harmful or point out specific atrocities like paederastic priests or suicide bombers. Those who do object in this way seldom stop to think about what I might actually mean or why I would broadcast such a seemingly absolutist generalisation.

NOT ALL RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE BAD

Of course, I know that both religious people and atheists can be good and bad and are capable of both actions (and I would argue there is no good thing for which religion is a requirement). But the reason I think all religion is harmful is because they are all built on inherently poor thinking. And poor thinking is a harm in itself.

There is no rational path that I have seen to believing in a god. People might have valid reasons for why they are believers – mostly because of who their parents are and where they were born. But somewhere along the line their belief is (in every case that I’ve been presented with) built on a cracked foundation with a series of logical fallacies like confirmation bias, "begging the question", presuppositional logic and circular reasoning. There is no way that has yet been demonstrated to “know” that any gods exist; not without diluting the definition of truth and knowledge to the point where they are indistinguishable from lies, delusions, or superstition. We would have to sacrifice any progress towards evidence and reason-based truth that we’ve made as a species.

SELLING FAULTY TAPE MEASURES

The thing about a faulty tool is that everything you make with it ends up being faulty. And the bigger the thing you make, the bigger the fault tends to be and the greater the risk. If you’re in the building trade and you value a solid foundation and a safe structure, you have to make sure that your tools are absolutely as reliable and accurate as they can be. Get the measurements wrong and the results could be disastrous. If you’re building a shack, it might fall on you and your family while you sleep. If it’s an apartment block, the loss of life would be more calamitous.

And so it is when religious conceptions of morality are applied to important topics like politics, abortion, the death penalty, LGBTQI issues or sex before marriage that there is a problem. The faulty tape measure’s relatively small error is multiplied by the size of the structure it is applied to, and many people are hurt or destroyed.

If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, for example, you are probably not killing gay people, oppressing women or knowingly promoting harmful superstition. But you are engaged in the same faulty thinking that allows for those things. And it’s harmful.

GREATER CLAIMS DEMAND GREATER RIGOUR

In epistemology (the study of knowledge), if you value truth, you should be subjecting your beliefs to the most rigorous standards possible. The bigger and more important the belief, the more rigorous and uncompromising your tools and your standards should be. Yet it seems to me that religious believers do the opposite. The claims they make are potentially the most important ones of all and yet when evaluating them they discard the standards of truth, evidence and reason that give us the most reliable path to truth.

The standards that have brought humanity its most important progress are sneeringly dismissed as “scientism” and “another form of ‘faith’" (in empiricism, naturalism and others). We are told to abdicate our morality to a higher power for which there is no good evidence. We are told it is humility to do so and arrogance to insist that such important claims should be subject to more scrutiny and not less. We are told to build skyscrapers of belief using tape measures that confuse metres and centimetres with feet and inches – or perhaps, more aptly, cubits.

No, dear reader. Arrogance is brazenly and stubbornly asserting that something is true without sufficient evidence. Humility is saying “I don’t know” until the evidence is found. Truth has to be distinguishable from falsehood. It just matters too much.

Charles Webster is a former news journalist and is now a corporate communications consultant for an American multinational. He completed an undergraduate degree in communications and English and later Honours and Master’s degrees in philosophy. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesjwebster.