As I said yesterday, I’ve recently started to study philosophy (among other things) at NUIM. The lecture this morning touched upon a subject that I’ve discussed at length with DTE (he of the guest posts) in the past.
Most people hold beliefs that they’re unwilling or reluctant to critically examine. Call them what you will – presuppositions, assumptions, cherished – but most people have them. I certainly do, although I like to find them and question them quite rigorously whenever I can. Theists are frequently charged with holding an undue amount of these beliefs, usually in regard to their entire religion. While I think this is generally true (there’s an odd but widespread phenomenom where intelligent people become completely irrational when their religion is criticised), it’s something that atheists certainly aren’t immune to.
I think that religious emotion, the things people feel when they pray or visit a church, are universal. How people express or trigger those emotions obviously varies widely, but I doubt many people would claim to have never experienced them. Just as ‘religious emotion’ doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with religion, so ‘religious thinking’ (credit to DTE for that one) doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with religion.
What do I mean by ‘religious thinking’? Consider what I’ve seen described as the ‘single issue wonk’. These are people who latch onto a particular issue, usually a political one, and defend it rabidly. Any criticism will incite a torrent of rage and counter-arguments, usually of the hysterical variety. Ardent Obama or McCain fans seem to fall into this category a lot, as do many so-called ‘values voters’ (pro-life or pro-choice proponents are particularly bad). When I say that these people think religiously, I mean that they hold beliefs about certain issues in a way very reminiscent of how religious people hold beliefs about their faith. Reason generally doesn’t have much to do with it, and they’re likely to defend their beliefs on emotional grounds.
When I first started to communicate with other atheists, I was overjoyed to find a community that appeared to treat nothing as sacred, where everything at all was open to question and close scrutiny. As time went on, I discovered that there were a numer of taboo subjects and opinions. I didn’t agree with most of these, but I was quite shocked at the harsh reaction to those who did. Atheists will claim that they’re capable of and willing to examine any belief, any proposition, as objectively as they possibly can, but this isn’t really true. Ironically, some atheists become religious about their atheism, reacting to the merest suggesting that they’re wrong with explosive animosity.
The reason why my philosophy lecture brought all of this to mind is that the lecturer suggested that we lay aside our presuppositions for the time being, in hopes of either returning to them on a firmer foundation or of abandoning them and changing ourselves entirely. That willingness to change is what differentiates those who think religiously from those who don’t; if an atheist is really as capable of objective consideration as he or she claims, they shouldn’t be afraid of abandoning their atheism and becoming a theist if it seems like a reasonable thing to do. Yet I’m convinced that many atheists would be appalled at the mere suggestion.
One reason could be that so many atheists are deconverts from various religions; they’ve already gone through a momentous change, and probably do not like the idea of doing it again. Another is that anyone who defines themselves partially or in whole by a belief is going to be very reluctant to give it up. (This is a bit of a problem, as both DTE and I think that atheism needs to become more community-oriented if it’s to spread and survive – more on that some other time.)
On the other side of the coin we have theists who either refuse outright to critically consider their beliefs or who concoct elaborate delusions to convince themselves that their beliefs are not irrational (Creationists, I’m looking at you). Which of the two is ‘worse’? Most atheists would say that the religious-religious is the worst for society, but that may simply be their own prejudices (unexamined and uncriticised) speaking again. Personally, I don’t think that one is any worse than the other; they’re both a threat to a democratic society.
(NOTE: Substitute ‘Christian’ in the title either for whatever religion you belong to or, if you’re an atheist, whatever religion you’d least likely to be compared to a member of.)