One thing that religions typically do — although certainly not the only one — is to make claims about how the world works. How important are those claims to what religion really is, and how we should think about it?
PZ Myers has posted a very interesting letter from Stephen Asma that talks about this issue. Asma earlier wrote a critique of New Atheism in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which PZ responded, but I think the new letter is more interesting than the previous salvos. Russell Blackford has also chimed in.
This is a very healthy discussion to be having — moving a bit beyond the caricatures of atheism by believers, and of religion by atheists. Much of what Asma says I find quite persuasive. The crux is something like this:
My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. And while it doesn’t do very much for me and other skeptics (I prefer art), I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people.
Asma wants to consider the aspects of religion that are closer to those of art or literature than those of science. There’s no question that religions have beneficial effects along with their bad ones. If we’re being rational about it, we should try to understand how those effects work, even if our only agenda is to find some sort of acceptable substitute.
If we were starting from scratch I would put it this way: some of the sense of wonder and anticipation of possibility that defines us as human is often categorized under the heading of “religion.” We can raise questions about the truthfulness of religion’s attempts to describe how the world works, while at the same time respecting some of the careful thought that religious people have put into understanding the human condition.
But … there’s usually a “but.” I have to wonder about these attempts to completely downplay the role of truth-claims in religious belief. In my experience, when I hear someone arguing that the important aspects of religion are moral or aesthetic, and the statements about how the world works are an unfortunate bit of historical baggage, it usually is not coming from a religious person, but rather from a sympathetic non-believer. My impression is that the way a religion views the world is actually quite important to a typical believer. I have in mind both very specific kinds of claims, that God created the world some number of years ago or that we are sorted into various afterlives depending on our Earthly track record, or more vague ones, that God allows the world to be or that moments of transcendence represent connection with a higher power. I don’t think these are unimportant to most religious believers, even most very sophisticated ones (I could be wrong).
And, needless to say, views about how the world works are very often central to the other aspects of religious belief. If you really believe in Heaven and Hell, you’d be crazy not to let that belief influence your view of morality here on Earth.
So, while I’m all in favor of understanding the nature of religious belief and also exhibiting a willingness to learn from believers who have thought long and hard about philosophy or ethics or what have you, I don’t foresee having a truly open and respectful dialogue without putting questions of how the world really works front and center. If we took a religion and removed from it any claims about how the world works, leaving a set of ideas about morality and human life, would it make sense to even call the result a religion? It would be more like a philosophy or worldview, and those are things that even we atheists are more than happy to engage with.
Still, we don’t always do a good job of that engagement. I look forward to the day when “atheism” as a worldview takes difficult emotional human questions more seriously in a public way.