Hello, friends. I just got back from March for our Lives Milwaukee. What a brilliant display of courage and character here in my home state and around the world today! I’m proud of this nation’s youth and everyone who is listening to their wisdom.
And now, as promised, I bring you part two of my interview with Richard Wade. Richard answers letters in the Ask Richard column of The Friendly Atheist, and he has some pretty stellar insights to share. If you missed the introduction last week, here’s a link. Happy reading!
I read a brilliant bit in one of your interviews wherein you compared religion to heroin. Would you be willing to share that analogy with my readers?
Sure. This was in response to an interview I had with Dan Fincke a few years ago on his blog, “Camels With Hammers.” The question was about the widespread assumption that all people have a “built-in need” or a “void,” and the common assertion that religion fulfills that need, but atheism and rationalism cannot. I said that before we wonder what will best fill this alleged void, we should first question the assumption that it really is something built-in and intrinsic to people. Perhaps it’s the sense of a need that is actually created by the alleged solution.
Remember that the following is an analogy; it couldn’t actually happen: Imagine a hypothetical civilization where every person is addicted to heroin. No one knows life any differently, and no one has ever heard of anywhere where heroin is not universally used. It is legal, in abundant supply, and thought of as a good thing, a basic human need, because if they don’t get their next dose, the withdrawal symptoms, which include overwhelming anxiety and physical pain, are so terrible. That would be interpreted as the “void” or “need” that everyone assumes is natural and built-in to all human beings, because they have never had any example of people living happily without using heroin. Very slowly a few people grow in number who have somehow never used heroin or have somehow gotten off of it, and only they know that it is quite possible to live happily without it. But the rest of the people feel very threatened by even the suggestion of that idea, and so they view those people as dangerous deviants.
In the real world, we are kind of in that civilization’s predicament. We don’t yet have enough examples of large cultures that have for a long enough time been without religious ideas that soothe people’s childlike fears. People are afraid of death, of being alone, of living in a dangerous and uncaring universe, and of not knowing what is the right thing to do. They think that only religion can help them cope with these anxieties and solve these problems. But relying on religion may actually prevent them from maturing emotionally and intellectually so that they could find better ways to resolve their fears and solve their problems. Religious people see atheists as dangerous deviants because the idea of not having a god to somehow make all those things okay is very frightening to them.
It’s clear that people do have important built-in social, interpersonal, sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs, and atheists and rationalists are beginning to consider and experiment with what can fulfill those needs in better ways than religion. This is important in the long term, because if we don’t establish reason-based cultural norms that do this, people will just keep inventing new versions of religion and other magical thinking. This is similar to when heroin addicts get off of heroin. If they don’t find healthy ways to fulfill their emotional and social needs without drugs, they will switch to a substitute drug, such as alcohol or sedatives.
What do you consider to be religion’s most detrimental effects, both at the societal and individual level?
On a societal level, it’s divisive. Out of so many divisive things, be they race, national origin, culture, economic class, and many others, nothing divides as quickly, deeply, bitterly, and permanently as does religion. It divides nation from nation, it splits nations, it splits communities, it splits itself into tens of thousands of distrusting, resentful rival sub-sects, it splits families, couples, and it can even split an individual in two, like the terrible downward stroke of a broadsword. If an individual’s dogmatic beliefs conflict with his sexual orientation, he is in a painful war with himself, and that can even become fatal. What he heard in church with his ears about the outside world does not match what he can see with his own eyes. When his ability to think logically and rationally collides with what he’s expected to believe, he is troubled. He has the discomfort that is called cognitive dissonance. If he confides his conflict to the clergy, he’s often told to reject what his rational mind keeps concluding. He’s told to shrug it off and “just have faith.” If he is innately intelligent, that suggestion will only trouble him even more.
And so on an individual level, religion discourages careful thinking, or at best it will tolerate careful thinking as long as it doesn’t lead to conclusions that are contrary to dogma. It encourages people to be satisfied with simplistic, childlike explanations for things, and comfortable with a shrug about “mysterious ways” whenever observable reality doesn’t fit what must be believed, or what is believed has logical inconsistencies. In short, it promotes intellectual sloth and discourages intellectual integrity.
All that learned intellectual sloppiness, rationalized contradictions, indifference to absurdity, and tolerance for duplicity can generalize into all sorts of topics unrelated to religion. These effects on individuals go back into the social level when people with these attitudes are elected to public office and apply those attitudes to public policy even when it isn’t specifically about religion. Religion is the single biggest impediment to improving public science education, the single biggest enemy of government funding for science, and it is the single biggest reservoir of sexism, sexual bigotry, racism, religiously based hatred, and anti-intellectualism.
Are there benefits to religion that offset some of this damage?
There are benefits, but I think the drawbacks are too great:
- People claim that religion unites. It does that best in groups united against other groups from which their doctrine commands them to be divided. It provides “You are one of us,” but it requires “You must not associate with ‘them.’”
- In the form of a congregation, religion can provide a social structure, giving people a set of things they share in common, and regular contact with others who share those things. In many parts of the country, especially in rural areas, there are no alternative social resources except the local church. The cost of being accepted socially in those groups can be steep in terms of having to conform to narrower boundaries of opinion and behavior than other kinds of groups might require, and if an individual’s differentness is too far off the narrow norm, the rejection can be harsh. Also, as in the analogy above about the heroin-addicted civilization, the absence of any other resource does not mean that the only one that is available is the best one, or the only one possible. If religion is the only game in town for having a social life, it might be better to go to the trouble to build a secular alternative than to just give in to the monopoly.
- People claim that religion provides a moral structure. There’s no moral act done by religious people that cannot also be done by non-religious people, and observation of the most freely non-religious countries in the world, as those in western Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan, shows that their societies operate on high moral and ethical levels and enjoy higher levels of happiness and general human well-being by many different measures than do more religious nations.
- People point to religious charities. Charity can be seen as a function of morality, the moral principle of compassion put into action. As I said above, any moral act can be done by either religious or non-religious people. The question then becomes how much charity is done by either group. Religious people still far outnumber the non-religious in this country, and they’re often very well organized. So their charitable output is impressive and it greatly surpasses the non-religious contributions in simple sums. But when you look more closely at the numbers, it gets less impressive, and the statistics appear to be misleading. In many surveys measuring charitable contributions, donations made by church members to their own church are included in the overall amount said to be given to “charity.” I don’t think that money given to their own church that ends up going to pay the electric bill and repair the roof should be called “charity.” People chipping in to fix up their own clubhouse are not engaged in charity. Whatever money that actually goes to helping people in need, including both members and non-members, believers and non-believers is what is genuine charity. So seen in this light, the actual amount of true altruism per person I think becomes more equal between the two categories.
- People claim that great art and music has been inspired by religion. Yeah, I really like Handel’s Messiah, and Beethoven had a powerful spiritual component in his brilliant works that could be attributed to religion, and Rembrandt painted both religious and secular masterpieces of equally astonishing artistic genius. But there’s no reason to think that without religion, history would not have produced its secular versions of a Handel, a Beethoven, and a Rembrandt. Humanity produces geniuses regardless of religion, and there are sad examples where that sheer power of intellect and talent was wasted on religious pursuits as much as or more than was encouraged or nurtured by religion.
If an individual is deciding between a spiritual and an atheistic path, what advice would you offer them?
Most of the writers of the letters I receive already know where they stand, so I usually help them deal with the emotional and interpersonal challenges that come as a consequence of making that stance known to others.
But whether writing to me or face-to-face, if a person is still on the fence, I’m very careful to not influence them to go one way or the other. It’s an important decision, and the consequences can be life-changing, difficult, even painful. So it must be fully their decision. I have been with people who were right at the edge of being atheists, and I have never been tempted to nudge them over or nudge them back. That would be very disrespectful. My role is not to get them to be who I think they should be. My role is to help them sort out their thoughts and feelings so they can clearly see who they are.
The word “decision” is not really accurate here. People don’t really decide to believe or not believe. The roots of faith and the roots of doubt are deep. We can’t just turn it on and off at will like a switch. Rather than willfully deciding to no longer believe, someone from a faith background who is struggling with this comes to realize that they already stopped believing quite a while ago, but they had not admitted it to themselves.
There are two basic parts to the process of losing one’s religious beliefs, intellectual and emotional. The intellectual part is usually first and often rather quick, but the emotional part is often prolonged and filled with so much fear, shame, disappointment, and grief, that the person’s emotions will not permit them to be fully conscious that their intellect has already come to no longer believe. Even after the realization of their disbelief finally breaks through, they can go through a mourning process for weeks or months. It’s the loss of something that was very important to them. The reproach or rejection they often get from their religious family and friends generally make things worse. If they are susceptible to depression, things can even get risky.
So my general advice to people who are conflicted in that in-between place is to be lovingly honest with themselves. They should, without self-recrimination, fully acknowledge the extent of their doubt and their certainty. Fully acknowledge their fear, their anxiety, sadness, grief, anger, and perhaps even some excitement. Sort out how much of those feelings are from within themselves, and how much are about other people’s opinions of them. Sort out how much are they concerned with pleasing or displeasing others, and how much they are trying to be true to themselves. Sort out which of those two things is more important to them.
They should take their time, not rush, but they should not keep putting off thinking about it, or distracting themselves from it. The edge of a fence can be a very uncomfortable place to sit, and the many ways that we avoid thinking about something that must be faced can have negative consequences to our emotional and even physical health.
I can’t wait to share the final part of this interview next weekend. And remember, Richard would love to publish your question this month. Just let him know you heard about his column at Love over Religion. Thank you for reading!