Moderate Religion as emotional support

An important question for modern atheists is the extent and the way in which we should deal with religious people. If we should criticize all types of religion, or if some should be given a pass. This is a short response to one major point which is usually brought up, that of emotional support. It is more or less a direct response to the following response to criticism by PZ Myers.

It would be foolish to say that religion doesn’t have an emotional effect on people; it does for most of the world. There are many people, as in the example Mr. Asma gives, who without some sort of emotional support wouldn’t be able to deal with things that happen in their lives. But a key point that he avoids is what kind of religion, what sort of beliefs, these people turn to for their emotional support. There are different types of religion, with different types of belief, which one could turn to. This is the real crux of the issue, since no one can deny that people need the support. It is of course easy for anyone who is an atheist to reject fundamentalist religion as the means of this support, because their beliefs, be it in creationism or literal interpretation of their holy book, preclude them from a rational discussion on the issue. We are then left with the divide that is present here with PZ and Mr. Asma, the divide between New Atheist and Accomodationist. That is, should the moderate religious people be free from the same sort of attacks that are laid out against fundamentalists, and should they be given a sort of free pass because of the function they perform for society.

This is a difficult question to deal with, because depending on what view is taken it can lead to the alienation of a large group of people who could be helpful in reaching some of the goals which most atheists strive for. The simple way, and the way I would say should be taken, to deal with that question is to let them help. Since this doesn’t really have much to do with the article we’ll just look at one example quickly and leave it be. In the case of secularization, which many moderate religious people are in favor of, we should by all means allow them to help, but that doesn’t mean they should be free from all criticism. You can still have them as an important part in campaigning for something that both groups believe in while criticizing them for their beliefs which are unfounded. This is of course not an uncontroversial view, but, for now at least, will be left at that.

The emotional needs of people can clearly be met in many different ways, be it through religion or through other ways. The problem with giving moderates a free pass because they help people is that it is just creating an arbitrary divide. A divide between what all, or at least almost all, atheist would denounce as wrong, the fundamentalists, and those who the New Atheists and Accommodationists disagree about. What is it that really makes a religious person a moderate? In many cases these so called moderates still hold many views which would be undesirable to most non-religious people.  These could range from moderate Catholics who while not believing in the bible as the inerrant word of God, which few Catholics actually do believe since church doctrine can supersede the bible, still hold views about sex education and gay rights which would make many people balk. You also have the moderates who only hold that certain parts of the bible are meant to be taken literally and some are meant to be taken allegorically. This discussion obviously holds for non-Christians as well as Christians, it is just easier to write about the bible and Christianity since it is the religion I probably know the most about. This is the view taken by many moderates, we are disregarding the complete arbitrary nature in which verses are chosen as Gods word since we aren’t discussing the truth of religious belief but the purpose, and unfortunately contains some issues.

The problem with holding some verses of the bible as truth is not only a very shaky rational position to hold it is one which leads to , for many of those who hold it, unseen consequences. By holding certain parts of the bible as truth they give credibility to those who would take the whole bible as true. They will agree that the parts explaining Gods composition as the Trinity are biblical truth, and this gives the fundamentalists something to hold on to. It is only through the massive base of Christianity and Christian beliefs that people who would read the bible as the true word of God can exist. They can see how many people believe at least some of the things, the basic foundational ideas, that they do and it gives them far more credibility among those they are trying to convert, and those who just follow the words of their preacher.  I’m of course not saying this is the intention of the moderates; almost all of them are just as appalled as I am about the actions that these fundamentalists take in the name of religion. By not taking the bible as the work of fiction that it almost certainly is they bolster those who take it to extremes, just as anti-vaccination activists who only say that some part of the vaccine is dangerous bolster those who believe that vaccines cause autism.

If that type of moderate by virtue of its existence lends credence to those who take religion to horrible ends, what then can be said about religious beliefs for dealing with emotions. This is where groups which do provide this emotional structure without holding a stance on the bible as Gods word. There exist groups like the Unitarian Universalists, who by not supporting any particular view on the bible as fiction or truth allow people to have their religious emotional help without the side effect of supporting fundamentalism. There are also many non-religious humanist groups which through different means provide this same kind of emotional base for people. So there can still exist religion which helps people, without the harm caused by even moderate believe in Christianity. Of course there is also the way that PZ himself defends his views, that “ “it makes me feel good” is inadequate support for a complex set of beliefs about the world”, but that is another question in and of itself.


~ by Chris Stevens on January 27, 2011.

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