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Give Faith a Chance

by Jo Page on March 9, 2011

Part of the reason that I gave up reading the cadre of New Atheists self-styled as the Four Horsemen—Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—was that, charges of arrogance aside, they seemed to exhibit a kind of cluelessness about how religion works in the lives of many people.

I read The End of Faith. I liked it. I thought Sam Harris made important points that people who do espouse faith benefit from considering. And I recognize Christopher Hitchens’ right to claim that “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid,” though I don’t agree that those are mutually exclusive qualities.

But after a certain point, their very certainty just plain annoyed me. In spite of their claims to the contrary, it is a kind of arrogance to look down your nose dismissively at the varieties of religious experience. And indeed, I have been at many dinner parties where, if the subject of religion arose, it was handily scoffed at or, if it were revealed that I was an ordained clergyperson, conversation took a different turn, as if someone had discovered that there was one of them in the room.

So I was pleased to discover, in The Chronicle Review, an article by Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College (Chicago) calling atheists to take a more commodious view of religions world-wide. It seemed a fair article and a good corrective to the excess excoriation of religion that characterizes much of the New Atheism. The charge Asma levels is that the New Atheists’ arguments against religion reveal a kind of pro­vin­cial­ism on their part.

“If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas,” he writes.

And he goes on to cite Buddhism, animism and Hinduism as polytheistic religions (as opposed to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic systems that are the target of most New Atheist rhetoric) that play a central role in the lives of those in developing countries.

He doesn’t say that these traditions do or should substitute for reason, education, healthcare, economic growth. But he doesn’t dispute the value they impart to the society that looks to them. Asma writes:

“Religion, even the wacky, su­per­sti­tious stuff, is an an­al­ge­sic sur­viv­al mech­a­nism and sanc­tuary in the de­vel­op­ing world. Religion pro­vides some or­der, co­her­ence, re­spite, peace, and trac­tion against the fates. Per­haps most im­por­tant­, it quells the emo­tion­al dis­tress of hu­man vulnerabil­i­ty. I’m an ag­nos­tic and a cit­i­zen of a wealthy na­tion, but when my own son was in the emer­gen­cy room with an ill­ness, I prayed spon­ta­ne­ous­ly. I’m not naïve—I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when peo­ple have their backs against the wall, when they are tru­ly help­less and hope­less, then grov­el­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing with any­thing more pow­er­ful than themselves is a very hu­man re­sponse. It is a re­sponse that will not go away, and that should not go away if it pro­vides some gen­u­ine re­lief for anx­i­ety and ag­o­ny. As Rog­er Scruton says, ‘The consolation of imag­i­nary things is not imag­i­nary con­so­la­tion’.”

Asma would object to Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion “comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge” and would instead have us ask: how can we distinguish between benign and dangerous religious systems?

And while he readily acknowledges the atrocities and bloodshed caused by religions, he also reminds readers of the Khmer Rouge regime: “There is much good ‘med­i­cine’ in Bud­dhism (just as there is much good in oth­er re­li­gions), but if the Asian Com­mu­nists found you prac­tic­ing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of mil­i­tant athe­ism should ring a cau­tion­ary note: Re­li­gion is not the only ide­ol­o­gy with blood on its hands.”

Rather, he concludes, religions (as well as ideologies) should be judged by the usual criterion of experience to determine which are helpful and which are harmful faith systems.

He writes, “Re­li­gious ideas that en­cour­age de­hu­man­iza­tion, vi­o­lence, and fac­tion­al­ism should be re­formed or di­min­ished, while those that hu­man­ize, con­sole, and in­spire should be fos­tered.”

I came from reading the article hopeful that there was room for New Atheism to consider the possibility that faith can be beneficial, however much they may dispute the existence of a divinity; to quote Rog­er Scruton once more: “The consolation of imag­i­nary things is not imag­i­nary con­so­la­tion.”

But my optimism was short-lived. What followed in the online comments was a series of attacks on the author as well as rambling, anti-religious screeds (why is it OK to call people who believe in some kind of God “religionists,” a word clearly coined to be derogative) that seemed to be more about anger than logic, self-righteousness than open-mindedness.

The opportunity to have genuine compassion and reason-based dialogue is a terrible thing to waste.