Atheism vs. Theism in Recent News

Afarensis recently posted a short review of the Newsweek article, The New Naysayers . A bit later, PZ Myers posted a more in depth discussion at Pharyngula.

The discussions at these two blogs are well-done and the comments are interesting, so I won’t attempt to duplicate what they’ve already accomplished here. Anything I could say would pale in comparison to either of these gentlemen and I highly recommend both of the links above.

I’d first like to list some videos that can be found on YouTube that have a fair amount of Richard Dawkins’ The Root of All Evil? There may be more, but these are the ones I’ve found and I’ve tried to list them in order:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AB2vmj8eyMk (Pt 1)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVQoxrrMftA (Teapot Atheists)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76UDVB-ofpI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmNjfpoRZpE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGeL1yFeK6I
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kcKInudkq4 (Pt 2.1)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T27Ef_xvYMs (Pt 2.2)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPBdz-TXlaI (Pt 2.3)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTKLM09FeNM (Pt 2.4)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwD9HOrjLRw (Pt 2.5)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGLPViVW5ms (Pt 2.6)

Dawkins was one of several figures that was discussed in the Newsweek article as issuing “bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.” Other atheistic luminaries mentioned were Daniel C. Dennett and Samuel Harris, authors of Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith, respectively. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is due out in October.

The question (sometimes the accusation) arises in many discussions with atheists, particularly on the Internet, is religion evil? Certainly the very title of Dawkins’ recent BBC series is suggestive of the question, though it should also be noted that Dawkins was against the title, The Root of All Evil? and protested. BBC won, but the inclusion of the question mark was their consolation to Dawkins. As an anthropologist, I find religion a fascinating topic. Clearly, humanity is hardwired to “believe” and to engage in magical thinking. The evidence is abundant to support this hypothesis and found in neurology, biology, and anthropology. That there are so many religions in human culture, both geographically and temporally, is suggestive that there are none which are genuine in their claims of supernatural agency.

But to answer the question of whether or not religion is evil would require two definitions: one of religion and another of evil. To define religion, I agree with Daniel Dennett’s assessment: “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” I won’t attempt to define evil, I think we can all come to some mutual agreement that evil means bad for you and others. But I’m afraid I cannot agree that religion, in the broad term of the word is “evil.” Certainly, there are those within specific religions that are evil and, certainly, there are those religious sects and cults that are evil in their deeds (most cults of Christianity and Islam come to mind). But religion on the whole is a social system and is not capable of being either good or evil.

Weinberg suggested that for man to be truly evil, religion is required, but I think this also gives too much credit to a social system. I do, however, think that religion enables the worst in humanity to come out and religion has traditionally been one of the main points of contention in wars and the justification for the persecution of “others.” Religion inspired civilizations of prehistory to build monumental architecture and develop agriculture. For that, ancient religion should be praised. But, in modern times, that same ancient religion is obsolete and getting in the way of the progress it once inspired. In the United States, the most religious nation in the so-called Developed World, those that consider themselves religious have all the problems they say are immoral: abortion, addiction, crime, adultery, etc. Moreover, religious superstition threatens the advancement of science and world peace. Crime in the United States exceeds that of the rest of the industrialized West -the secular states of Scandinavia, France, Japan and the like.

Sure. This correlation is casual. I admit it. But wouldn’t the religious have more ground to stand on if they were actually able to show that religion works? Instead, the religious act as though science and atheists are actually out to eliminate them and that atheists are organizing into some “movement” that will actively seek to destroy God and his believers. A recent study in the American Sociological Review (vol 71, April 2006) reveals that atheists are America’s least trusted group:

[t]hose surveyed tended to view people who don’t believe in a god as the “ultimate self-interested actor who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.”

Yes, atheists are self-interested. Einstein gave nothing to the world; Susan B. Anthony’s efforts were only for herself; Carl Sagan made no attempt to share his knowledge; and Abraham Lincoln was obviously only thinking of himself with the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. The religious of the nation don’t care that atheists aren’t out to get them and refuse to accept that atheism is only about not accepting a god based on critical thought and reason. They want a dichotomy. I’m with PZ, who closed his post linked above with:

Yes, let us choose sides. I’m on the side of enlightenment and knowledge and critical thinking and the rejection of dogma. Which side are you going to be on?