“Ask an Atheist” is built on a dialogue with the community, and its greatest strength is the back-and-forth dialogue that the Nexus so generously facilitates. As a part of that process, in a recent article, the atheist stated, “the church system [has] hindered the progress of human rights and scientific advancement.” This is more than simply an atheistic position, but an anti-theistic one. Some among the community of readers have responded to this claim and others from that article.
The primary argument is that many of the greatest proponents of human rights have been Christian or even directly affiliated with the church system. This has little to do with the atheist’s claim, which is criticizing the system and the church, not individual members. If I claimed that the DMV is inefficiently designed, and someone responded by saying that many efficient people work there, they would not have refuted my claim.
It could absolutely be true that there are good Christians and that the Church is still bad. This is a variation on the “beautiful lie” argument. The deep commitment of moral people to something does not confer credibility to that thing, and regardless of the fact that many deeply moral people believe something, that does not make that thing moral.
Obviously, if I had a book with all the right answers, I could do only right by following it. But the truth is that no one has all the answers, and thus adherence to wrong or partial answers can impede societal progress. There is no shortage of historical examples of how the Church has impeded scientific progress.
Galileo Galilei is one of the most famous victims, who was given a life sentence for the crime of merely proposing an astronomical hypothesis which conflicted with the Catholic-supported myth of geocentricism. But ignoring active suppression, the fixation of great minds in silly, eschatological or teleological discussions, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is enough to make it obvious that the influence of the church on human progress has been negative.
There is no single trite cliché or book of aphorisms that can tell us how to live our lives, even if it were divorced from mysticism and as general as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Morality is a process, driven by constant disagreement over what ought to guide our conduct. One should not abide by a constitution that is impossible to amend, just as one should not abide by the Bible, Dianetics, the Quran or any other immutable text.
Another argument leveled is that religion has been a net positive influence on humanity as a result of the good works it has performed, which some believe outweigh the negatives. This is an assumption, built on our societal tendency to look favorably on religious belief. Essentially, the argument appeals to many because they believe religion is the way by which we are taught morality, which seems to outweigh nearly anything.
But this is yet another assumption, because religion is not the only way to communicate morality. The argument falls apart if one considers the possibility that he or she could derive his or her moral sensibility from any other source, as many do.
The worst offense of the theistic position is, however, the mischaracterization of the atheistic position. Some claim it is logical to assume that atheist includes justification for or an attempt to silence or suppress the religious. In fact, the atheistic position is based on discourse, discussion, debate and constant reevaluation.
To silence Christians is the last thing we want to do, as we hope to convey by this very format. The livelihood of this column is responding to the public’s objections to our position. On the other hand, religious belief by its very nature silences its opposition by the infallibility and immutability of its doctrine.
Writing “Ask an Atheist” this past year has been an amazing opportunity, and I know my fellow writers and I (and S.U.R.E. members! Meetings are Wednesdays at 6:30 in the UCen Harbor room!) appreciate the help the Nexus has given us, every step of the way. The chance to help make the sort of change we believe is so important and necessary, as well as to have our own opinions and beliefs challenged was more rewarding than I could have imagined it would be.
Your friendly neighborhood atheists and skeptics wish you all a wonderful summer and hope that you keep questioning!