I’m not a big fan of religion. I like Stevie Wonder’s lyric: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” Religion, it seems to me, is precisely the act of believing in things that you don’t understand. And all too often, it’s not only the believers who suffer. They enthusiastically inflict suffering on those around them.
I have a friend who is quite insistent that my disinclination to show respect for religion is a form of dogmatic belief. If I understand her correctly (it’s hard to be sure), she feels that I’m insisting that I’m right, insisting that the rest of the world ought to believe what I believe.
I’m pretty sure she’s way off base. Really, the only thing I believe is that concrete evidence provides a useful corrective for unbridled fantasy. In the absence of concrete evidence, fantasy is all too likely to lead to confusion, hurt feelings, suffering, and outright cruelty.
I remember Richard Dawkins explaining the distinction this way (and I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the exact quote handy): “I’m a scientist. When someone shows me evidence of the existence of a God, I will change my mind. The difference between a scientist and a religious believer is that religious believers will tell you quite explicitly that no matter what the findings of science may be, they will not change their beliefs.” Dawkins goes on to quote a prominent religious figure as saying that no matter how much scientific evidence there might be for evolution, it would never shake his belief in the story of creation as put forth in Genesis.
The difference between my view and the view of a religious person is precisely this: I’m willing to change my mind. Just as soon as any convincing evidence of the existence of a deity is brought forward, just as soon as that evidence is examined by the best minds in the most probing manner and is found to withstand scrutiny, I will start believing in God. I would be delighted to do so. Subject, I suppose, to some qualifications depending on what may prove to be the actual characteristics of this God. I would be less than delighted to believe in the savagely bestial God depicted throughout the Old Testament.
It may be worthwhile to remember that quite a lot of scientific inquiry, over the course of the past few centuries, has been undertaken by men of religious faith who were industriously attempting to find physical evidence for the existence of God.
What I do insist is not that I am right, but that rational discussion of such issues is appropriate, meaningful, and beneficial to all concerned. I am not willing to sit back and say, “Oh, well, everyone is entitled to their opinion on this subject, and no opinion can be judged preferable to any other. Your religion is just as likely to be correct as my skepticism.” No. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to put forward a statement about the existence, potency, intentions, or virtue of an invisible being, you will need to be prepared to defend that statement in a rational manner. If you’re not able to manage that, then I have no need to apologize for considering that you’re quite likely wrong. And not only wrong, but silly and possibly dangerous.
What I have found, now and again over the years, is that my willingness to put forward my views, incomplete and provisional though they may be, can be alarming or at least a source of nagging discomfort to people who are ill-equipped to analyze or discuss such views. Or perhaps the difficulty is that while they have more than enough intellectual equipment to defend their views rationally, they’re all too aware that their views cannot be defended in any rational manner, being entirely based on sentiment rather than on rational thought.
Insisting that I’m wrong (or that I’m dogmatic) and then declining to defend their own views in a detailed and logical manner may be comforting to them, in some obscure way, but I find it both sad and annoying. If you can’t show me exactly how I have misunderstood, how am I ever going to learn anything new?