Thursday, September 17, 2015

An atheist defends the intelligence of believers

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It's been said of Roman gladiators that they were required to kill their opponents but not required to hate them. In the best intellectual tradition, people have fought against each other in the arena of the mind while maintaining warm personal relationships with each other in the shelter of society. One particularly good example of this was the long-standing friendship between the skeptical Socialist George Bernard Shaw and the Catholic liberal G. K. Chesterton. A more recent example would be the amity between the great Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and Pres. Ronald Reagan, who exchanged sharp words over policy by day and swapped stories over drinks by night.

I can't call Sincere Kirabo a "friend", but I can certainly give him some warm applause for a post he wrote in his Patheos blog Notes from an Apostate, "Why You Sound Ridiculous Claiming Religiosity is a Mental Defect". "Suggesting people are religious because they are dimwitted or suffer from a fabled religiosity-induced mental illness is a lazy, unthinking way to dismiss behavior one cannot identify with," says Kirabo, who urges his fellow atheists to "cease promoting such embarrassingly ignorant ideas."

I recently had a discussion on social media speaking to the unsound nature of ... arguments that use ableist and denigrating language to describe religious people. Because I adamantly opposed these uncharitable assertions that take an unnecessary and harmful route to delegitimize religiosity, I was branded an “enabler” to faith in the spurious and supernatural. But what does research suggest concerning this matter?
I’ve long been an avid reader of material that meticulously investigates mind perception, religion, and the “how” and “why” of religion. For this reason, I confidently stated that any individual belonging to the knowledgeable intelligentsia would laugh such notions out of the building. This caused me to think on two things: One, I doubt those who disagree will diligently explore facts that contradict their worldview (as the Darwinian Golden Rule suggests we do for the sake of intellectual honesty). Two, why not seek out experts to prove (or disprove) my stance? And so I did.

Kirabo emailed over forty academics who had some expertise in issues dealing with cognition and religion, of whom thirty-five sent back replies. All thirty-five rejected the proposition that religiosity was a product of mental defect, some curtly, some with a little nuanced qualification and reference to studies. Kirabo was open about his own atheism and phrased his question bluntly ["Is there any merit to the assertions that religious belief is the result of either mental deficiency (retardation, stupidity, etc.) or mental illness?"]; many of his respondents were just as open about their own atheism even as they dismissed the assertions. The most brusque of the responses called the claims "silly", "mindless", and "untenable"; one psychologist said, "I would not take anyone who made that sort of argument seriously."

Christians are capable of their own kind of nastiness, I freely confess; for instance, I find it particularly irritating and un-Christian to even suggest, let alone assert, that atheists are evil by the mere fact of their atheism. Ideas have consequences, of course; and if Christianity is true, then there are implications for the person who dies rejecting God. However, they're no grounds for us to pass judgment on the souls of individual non-believers. Many arguments turn on questions of good and evil; some atheists reject the Christian God because they don't perceive Him to be "good" as they understand the meaning of good.

Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, "There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing." Substitute atheism or religion for the Catholic Church, and you will have a paraphrase that's equally true. People hate neither atheists nor Christians so much as they hate caricatures of atheists and Christians, caricatures they'll insist are representative regardless of all evidence to the contrary. Science itself isn't safe from abuse or misuse, by zealots both religious and irreligious eager to assert tribal superiority. Worse, philosophy and religion are two of the few remaining topics in which well-educated experts must struggle to be heard over the blithering and bombast of complete bluffers and rank amateurs (like me); indeed, patently philosophical questions are heatedly debated by people who dismiss philosophy as "a complete waste of time," as "a bunch of people's subjective opinions."

In the midst of our vicious, godawful culture wars, it's good to hear people on the other side who say, "Hey, those people over there aren't monsters; they're not moral defectives; they're not idiots." It's good to hear someone forcefully declare that the "faith-heads are idiots" claim is not just unscientific but sheer bigotry. And so I thank Sincere Kirabo for standing up for us. He and I may never agree on anything else. However, we do agree that, while we may disagree, we don't have to think each other the worse for that disagreement.