Believers: Should atheists promote religion to improve society?

A deist friend of has pointed me to a couple of articles by atheist Theodore Dalrymple: Why Religion Is Good for Us and What the New Atheists Don’t See.

I find these articles both fascinating and puzzling: a self-confessed atheist praises religion for imbuing the lives of millions with meaning, purpose and morality, while castigating recent atheist writers for their simplistic belittlement of religion. Dalrymple’s perspective is best summarized by the following quote:

Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment.

I appreciate Dalrymple’s call for personal responsibility, but it strikes me as patronizing for an atheist to say that society needs religion to be decent. Does Dalrymple not consider himself to be decent? If so, how has he managed to maintain his own decency without religion? Does he feel that he has somehow managed to rise above the need for religion while the masses still require it? If so, can they not benefit from the same insights that have allowed him to live morally without religion? He does seem to have a high estimation of the intelligence of the underclasses; why not leverage that intelligence to lead them to an understanding of the benefits of morality without supernaturalism?

I’m writing this post primarily to elicit feedback from believers concerning Dalyrmple’s approach. For which kind of atheist do you have the lesser respect: one who sings the practical benefits of religion or one who advocates putting religion behind us? Before answering this question, perhaps imagine temporarily for the sake of argument that there really are no gods. Also take into consideration Paul’s thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

In short, do you appreciate being told by an atheist like Dalrymple that, even if your religion is untrue, you should go ahead and maintain your faith because of its contribution to your sense of meaning and morality? Or would you prefer that atheists encourage you to leave your religion if God does not exist?


Geonite said...

Once again I have to ask "where do Christians get the idea that the Bible is a "morality" book?"

The more I learn about Christianity the more I know that it is not based on Judaism. Judaism does not claim that the Bible is a morality book. Where do Christians get that idea from?

Laurel said...

Presumably, Dalrymple is an atheist because he believes God stories to be untrue. His position that one must be religious in order to be a truly good person appears to me to be a claim that being a truly good person is dependent upon believing untruths---which seems to me to be a claim that those things humans consider to comprise goodness and decency are dependent upon deception, which seems to me to be an impossible claim.

MrC said...

There surely are people who find comfort in the belief of a loving god. Some of those people would (I imagine) feel loss if the comfort of belief in a loving god was replaced by non-belief. I would not want to take that away from them in that case.
On the other hand, religions do not seem to be good agents of change if change is needed to improve the human condition.
So no, I don't think atheists should promote any religion.

Laurel said...

P.S. I'm currently reading Philip Zuckerman's book, "Society Without God," in which Zuckerman describes his research in Scandanavian countries in which belief in a theistic God is minimal and yet the people living in those countries possess a high degree of happiness as well compassionate attitudes toward others, and support strong social safety nets. Zuckerman doesn't argue that non-belief makes Scandanavians compassionate and decent human beings, but only that societies can be decent, compassionate and nurturing without belief in God. Zuckerman's research certainly appears to refute Dalyrumple's conjecture.

A Hermit said...

Andre Comte-Sponville raises this issue in his "Little Book of Atheist Spirituality"...he makes a distinction between religion. which we can do without, and communion, which we need. He also advocates what he calls "fidelity" rather than faith; ie a recognition of the and respect for the positive aspects of our religious tradition without surrendering to the idea that these are products of anything divine.

Chuck O'Connor said...

No, not when religious people are promoting Intelligent Design, opposition to stem cell research and stand in the way of gay marriage.

Alan Clarke said...

Q: Should atheists promote religion to improve society?

A: The religion of atheism shows strength of mind, but only to a certain degree.

edson said...

Well Geonite, I'm a christian and I concur with you that the bible is not about morality, at all. Or to put it more clearly, the core message of the bible has so little to do with morality.

Morality is the state of human consciousness of knowing what is right and what is wrong. We are all born into this world knowing what is right and what is wrong. What religions or some cultures can do is to simply influence positively or negatively this state of moral consciousness. At this Christianity, based on the spiritual and moral epitome of the founder of Christianity and given that those who call themselves Christians stay loyal to the leadership of Christ, certainly this is an excellent way of how Christianity could lead some people to become better in a society.

The problem with Atheism is that there is no legendary historical or contemporary figures who could be emulated as represantatives of moral epitomes. And please remember that we humans are very sheepish and need at least someone to show as the "way". It will be utterly wrong to deny that, for we have seen quite numerously that a society without leadership, of any field or level, will be dysfunctional. In politics we have presidents or Kings to govern us, in Science and literature we have Nobel Laureates to inspire us, in families we have Dads and Moms. So does when it comes to morality and spirituality.

Christians have legendary historical and contemporary figures to show us the way, inspire or motivate us. If I give out my inspirational figures in terms of spirituality and morality, historical and contemporary, and as a Christian, it all starts with Jesus then Paul. My contemporary inspirational figures are Billy Graham and My Dad (I regard him as the best father on Earth). Well, these four figures have played a great role to shape my morality, spirituality and my world view in general.

Unfortunately for neo-atheism, the parallel story is so diffuse, with unscertainty and ambiguity. All they do is to attack the story of other groups of people (ie Christainity). Well, I think Darwin brings a very good start but his story has nothing to do with spirituality and morality, which is by far very important to the sustainability of humanity as civilizations. And therefore I conclude that not only should atheists promote religion (for religion term is too general) but rather should re-evaluate their world view and perhaps respect and recommend Christianity, or otherwise give a better alternative at these matters.

Brother OMi said...

good question.

Religion is like a tranquilizer. It keeps a good number of people docile and peaceful like.

I remember listening to this guy's testimony. He pretty much listed his rap sheet for the crowd.

After he was done, I was glad he found Jesus (then again, if he broke into my home he would have eaten a 9mm) because he sounded like he would harm alot of people if he continued on the path that he did.

And I told him so...

Alan Clarke said...

Edson wrote: The problem with Atheism is that there is no legendary historical or contemporary figures who could be emulated as represantatives of moral epitomes.

Edson, atheism draws upon a rich heritage:

Sigmund Freud - A heavy cigar smoker, Freud endured more than 30 operations during his life due to oral cancer. In September 1939 he prevailed on his doctor and friend Max Schur to assist him in suicide. After reading Balzac's La Peau de chagrin in a single sitting he said, "My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more." Schur administered three doses of morphine over many hours that resulted in Freud's death on 23 September 1939. (source)

Charles Darwin had agnostic underpinnings but nevertheless, he is loved by atheists:

Charles Darwin - The strain told, and by June he was being laid up for days on end with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress such as attending meetings or making social visits. The cause of Darwin’s illness remained unknown, and attempts at treatment had little success. (source)

Modern-Day Atheist Leaders:

Richard Dawkins & P.Z. Myers - Evolutionists

William Provine - Cornell Professor

I was kicked off of P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula site because my moral standards were substandard. So as you can see, there are indeed "moral epitomes".

Baritonobasso said...

The first-cited piece by Dalrymple (I have not yet looked at the second) is a load of shite. Here are some of his statements:

"Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society." --Obviously, Dalrymple lives on a planet where no religious leaders defraud their followers, carry on scandalous private lives, or molest children put into their care. And Dalrymple must think that there is nothing egotistical about fancying oneself to be a mouthpiece or instrument of God.

"The secularist is often embittered by the inevitable dissatisfactions of human existence, which are so much at variance with his infinite expectations; by contrast, the religious person appears to have a mature understanding and acceptance of disappointment and limitation. He is not like a child who is continually having his toys snatched from his hand." --One would like to see the evidence on which Dalrymple speaks so assuredly of what "the secularist" and "the religious person" are like, as if each were a homogeneous type. Or rather, there is no point in asking after evidence, as Dalrymple is obviously just consulting his prejudices and trusting that his readers will share them.

"The religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity." --I have to confess I don't really understand what Dalrymple is talking about here; least of all do I understand why it is, as he says, "superior" to have no more compassion for those who have suffered terrible misfortune than for those who are happy and prosperous. I can, however, understand how such an idea of compassion would fit right in with support for, e.g., tax structures that favor the rich over the poor.

"For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God." --Once again, Dalrymple's generalizations are infantile. Why should we believe that "the secular person" holds such a naive idea as that "man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances"? As for the idea that "the religious person believes man is born with original sin" -- well, golly, here I was thinking, in my naïvety, that that was a specifically Christian doctrine (and not even one that all professed Christians accept). Now I learn from Dalrymple that it is in fact held by "the religious person" in general! Or is it just possible that when Dalrymple talks about "the religious person," he is really just talking about those who share a particular range of religious views that he favors?

"The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one." --This is pure horse shit. I don't know who this "secularist" is who divides humanity into the class of victims and the class of victimizers (as if "the secularist" were incapable of recognizing that some victims are themselves victimizers), but we know from the previous quotation that Dalrymple's "religious person" is a Christian; and it is not (like Dalrymple's gaseous claims) a bit of armchair sociology but a fact of doctrine that the Christian divides humanity into believers and unbelievers, and holds that only the believers are "saved."

The whole piece is a string of empirical falsehoods, groundless generalizations, bad inferences, and prejudices disguised as observations.

DJ Wilkins said...

The idea that people who are not theists have no human sources of inspiration would be laughable if it weren't so sad to hear seriously considered. For we "mere humans" the whole of the human race is on the table offering us sources of inspiration - even religious people (not that there aren't many heroic and moral examples out there that are decidedly living lives set apart from religion.) When you realize that all the things that people gain in terms of meaning and moral direction from religion breaks down into universal aspects of the human experience - the need for a sense of a place in a larger story, a vision, clear sense of right and wrong, community, meaning, a heroic quest, to be making a difference - whatever it may be - and that people get this both through religion and otherwise - you see that all inspiring people from a "mere human" perspective are available as sources of inspiration for you. The tribalism of religion might have some religious individuals limit themselves in some way as suggested here. Those who are without a religion have no reason to limit themselves so.

Gandolf said...

Hi edson.

You said "We are all born into this world knowing what is right and what is wrong"

You are telling me that a new born baby automatically as of birth already knows right from wrong.

Please would you explain more!.Hopefully you will have already used some unbiased logic in deciding to agree with this opinion you seem to hold.As to me personally it would seem rather foolish if logic evidence and proof etc, has simply been overpowered and overridden by faith.

Because personally i have yet to see even (one) new born baby thats been ((born) with any knowledge of any morals),and so needs absolutely no guidance from its parents or peers or from the society that surrounds it.

For instance i have yet to meet (a) baby that intrinsically knows not to pinch or bash its mother,like when it decides it needs feeding el pronto.Or one that already knows at birth that loving your neighbor is of any benefit.Or that stealing is a vicious circle that often ends up effecting us all in the end.Or that adultery can sometimes be the cause of the end of many marriages.

Im quite willing to learn to agree with your opinion if it actually adds up to evidence and proof thats seen.

Gandolf said...

The group part of religion maybe does have many benefits in helping bring parts of society more together.But at the same time i personal feel it also depletes those very benefits also in that often to be properly accepted humans need first to be seen as being part of that particular special group and so then being at least part of the cause of intolerance and separation etc in the process.

When maybe this world is very much in very dire need of much more tolerance acceptance and inclusiveness overall.

I personally find it so sad that some humans really believe they could never ever really learn to be more understanding caring and tolerant of folks in general,without reading some book.And i suggest this faithful type thinking cannot be much help to the world in making these things ever likely to be that possible either.

But in saying that i suggest that the worldwide actual beliefs in the many gods (if all gods are actually false),is really much more dangerous than the fellowship part is.

Some folks also say oh but faithful folk give to many charities etc.

Im left quietly asking myself just how honestly giving and charitable these folk actually are,if without the use of a book they would automatically be so likely to then not give a damm.

goprairie said...

What is better for society? People who believe it doesn't matter if you die or others die because you will have eternal life? Or people who get that when it's over, it's over? People who can mess up relationships and never aplogize or can be thankful to someone but never tell them because it will all be okay in heaven? Or people who get that this is it and they better get it right? People who think that dead people are called home to a better place or people who get that the dead people are gone and they might want to prevent more accidents or illnesses like the one that cut that person's life short. People who pray for a god to fix stuff or people who work for it on their own? People who attribute their failings to inherant sinfulness that they will be forgiven for or people who hold themselve acountable and try to do better next time? Religion makes a scoiety of sloppy thinkers who truly believe in a myth, a fairy tale, who accept impossible illogical things as real. HOW can that be GOOD for society? Tell me one 'good' thing religion does for society and I can tell you at least three better ways to do that thing. Social bonds? Clubs based on common interest. Involvement in local govnernment. Regular neighborhood parties. Charity? Non-religous volunteer groups that focus on the real issues and needs as the core thing, not as a side hobby. Youth groups that learn charity as a regular part of life. Social groups that pick a charity to work on annually. There is nothing that religion does for a society that is good for it that cannot be better done outide religion. Makiing allowances for religion just for the side-effects is silly. Go directly for the side effects and leave religion out of it.

Allie said...

I absolutely agree that if my faith in Christianity is futile, there is no value in sticking around merely to somehow be a better person. Obviously this is just my reading of the Bible, but unlike Geonite, I don't think of the Bible as a "morality book", and I don't think the statements it does make on morality can be read in isolation from its statements on faith.

Possibly the point that Dalrymple is making which is valuable is that giving up on faith leaves a kind of vacuum which society will fill in some other way, and we should be careful how we fill it.

However, I personally plan to stick with faith for the foreseeable future :)