Browsing through the topics on this forum I have been struck by how many take the form of ‘challenges’ to religion. All of these threads, rely on a certain assumption, an assumption that seems central to many, if not most, atheist critiques of religion. This assumption is that religion can be reduced to a set of propositions. Some of the most commonly addressed of these include:
Scripture is historically/scientifically accurate.
Humans have immortal souls.
God is required to justify morality.
The obvious reason for reducing religion to these kinds of propositions is that they can be easily undermined through argument. We can show that there is no basis for the claim God exits or that we can in fact justify morality without reference to God (a forteriori we can even point out that the concept of God fails to justify morality in the first place!)
All of this is great; in fact a nice little industry of atheist advocates (Dawkins, Harris, Dennet et al.) has been given life. Similarly an industry of theist apologists has emerged (Lane Craig, DeSouza etc…) who spend time trying to defend the propositional truth claims of religion.
However for most religious people this debate seems to have little impact. Put bluntly the project of atheist advocates like Dawkins seems to be changing relatively few minds (though it has been a notable number of ‘closet atheists’ who now feel emboldened to ‘come out’ – and for this Dawkins and co should be applauded). Yet in general religion has been largely unaffected.
What is going on? It seems that there are a few options. Either:
(a) Religious people are inherently stupid and cannot understand argument.
(b) Religious people are burying their heads in the sand or simply have not heard the arguments.
(c) People’s religious belief is not propositional; and the undermining of propositions like “God exits” is insufficient to undermine religion.
Now probably all three are true of some people. Doubtless we can find examples of religious people who lack the mental capacity to understand argument – though we could also find atheists who are equally stupid; as far as I am aware there is no evidence linking religion to lower IQ – certainly in my own experience I have found no reason to link religiousness with stupidity. Similarly we can probably find many religious people who are unaware of sceptical argument; my guess is that in nations where education is sporadic and underfunded this may be true of many people.
However my suspicion is that for most theists option (c) is the reason that atheist critiques have little impact. In fact this should not surprise us. If we look at the life of religious people we find, in most cases, that those of a religious persuasion were brought up in that religion. In many cases this is augmented by religious experiences of one kind or another. Even more significant is that fact that religion is primarily about praxis; it is about ritual activity – worship, prayer, meditation, charitable works, ethical problem solving etc… Finally religion is re-enforced by strong community activity and cohesion.
Let us imagine a Christian, for the sake of argument let us make her a university graduate. This morning she got up and prayed which made her feel peaceful. She then had breakfast with her family whom she loves and who love her and are also Christian. She sees a homeless man on the way to work and recalling the story of the Good Samaritan buys him a coffee which gives her a wonderful sense of having done good. At work she is irritated by a college but remembering Jesus’ teaching of love is able to suppress her anger and in doing so manages to resolve the problem well. On her way home the light striking the summer leaves gives her a sense of the numinous beauty of God’s creation. Before bed she logs onto WWGHA and reads a thread about how the teleological hypothesis - that the universe is designed - is unjustified.
It seems to me naïve in the extreme to suppose that her faith would be substantially affected; even if she saw that the argument against the teleological hypothesis was correct.
It seems to me that if we really want to advocate atheism (for the record I am not wholly convinced we should be); the kind of rational attacks on the propositional aspect of religion is completely insufficient. Religion is not merely a set of beliefs it is far more integral to a person’s experience, their ‘way of being in the world’.
Much affection as I have for this forum I suspect a lot of the atheist advocacy on here is a waste of time…