Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Religion is for atheists?

In an unusual article in The Guardian (reprinted in SMH) Dylan Evans describes his brand of atheism as one that "values religion; treats science as simply a means to an end; and finds the meaning of life in art." This struck me as a bit odd, and probably incongruous with my view of the world.

The idea of valuing religion appeals to me. I was raised Catholic, and have many fond feelings for the way my family practised (and now practise) their religion, and its importance in their lives. I try to convince my atheist friends that religion isn't all bad (I want to show everyone the Father Bob Maguire bit in John Safran Vs God).

Science is a means to an end, but it also (probably) provides a truthful description of the world - or at least as accurate a representation as we can currently master.

Art is good, but does it really contain the meaning of life? Maybe. I guess if art reflects the mind of the artist, and if together all artwork reflects a large range of human emotions and perspectives, we could say that the meaning of life is in these emotions and perspectives (because we don't believe in God), and the best way we know about them is art. I don't really agree (because I usually get more of a buzz from words than pictures, and my "meaning" probably comes from my relationships with other people), but it's a consistent explanation.

Evans continues:

"When I say that I value religion, I don't mean that I see any truth in the stories about gods, devils, souls and saviours. But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science - in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man's heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind. My kind of atheism sees religions as presenting potent metaphors and images to represent human aspirations for transcendence. It is only when these metaphors are understood as such, and not mistaken for literal statements, that the true value of religion is revealed."

It seems rather strange to suggest that the true value of religion can only be experienced by those who don't believe in it. Science can certainly analyse religious belief - indeed, many psychological theories of belief are quite interesting - but perhaps religion is better at reflecting (though certainly not explaining) the minds of those who believe it. However, well, so what?

Evans again:

Religions are beautiful things, but their beauty can only be truly appreciated when they are seen as human creations - as works of art...Atheists who attack religions for painting a false picture of the world are as unsophisticated and immature as religious believers, who mistake the picture for reality. The only mature attitude to religion is to see it for what it is - a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality, and which only a child would reject for being false.

Well now he's insulting everyone, and that just isn't called for. Of course atheists attack religions for painting a false picture of reality - because religions claim to paint a true picture, and that simply isn't the case. They might paint pretty pictures of certain aspects of the minds of religious people, but they claim to do much more, and people are hurting from both the scientific and moral tenets of religion. Children living in bible-belt USA don't deserve to be taught that creationism is a valid alternative to Darwinian evolution. Think about the place of women, homosexuals and other minorities in some religions, contraception in the third world, circumcision, etc. Isn't that what we should be talking about?

Moreover, Evans seems to be ignoring two important issues - the value of scientific investigation and respect for the beliefs of others. Freedom of religion is just as important to atheists as it is to religious people. I expect other people to respect my atheism, even if they don't understand it or agree with it. Evans forgets this when he calls me, and a bunch of others with different beliefs, unsophisticated, immature and childish.

Finally, from the comments to the original article:

Many are embarrassed by the vehement nature of some attacks on religion but religion as art form is a bit hard to take. What art causes crusades, pogroms or intifadas? I'll choose the anti-religious, pro-science Dawkins any time. And microwave ovens, computers, antibiotics, anaesthetics and vaccines, rather than liturgy, circumcision, infibulation and fantasies of heaven and hell.
Michael Rennie

Religion may be "art, which only a child would mistake for reality", but I fear there are billions who still make that childish mistake, and thousands ready to kill to uphold their literal interpretation.
Peter Forbes



  • Criticising religion always throws up a lot of contentious issues, probably because so many people out there are very much devoted to their religions.

    The comment by Peter Forbes rings true to a certain extent, but I don't think you can just dismiss as "childish" something that so many people hold dear and live by.

    Bizarre article!

    By Anonymous Guy, at May 04, 2005 4:17 pm  

  • Your comment reminds me of a paragraph I included the first time I wrote this post this morning. I accidentally lost half the post (don't edit stuff in a web browser) and had to re-write it, forgetting that paragraph.

    I've put it back in at the end, so I can pretend it was there the whole time (well, except for this comment - real super-sleuths will be able to figure it out).

    So thanks. And you're right - there is much more value in trying to understand each other than in throwing insults around.

    And thanks also for putting me on your blogroll - that's very cool.

    By Blogger Anne, at May 04, 2005 10:52 pm  

  • No problems!

    By Anonymous Guy, at May 05, 2005 9:28 am  

  • Very nice piece. Also glad to hear you cat has recovered.

    I was thinking on the idea that science couldn't provide meaning in the same way as art, and only provided facts. Useful facts, but not as useful as the profound facts that art provides.

    I think this is true if you define science only in terms of mathematics and physics, but if you define science to also include psychology, sociology, anthropolgy, history, all the softer humanities sciences etc, I think it does provide ways to understand life and answer the question, "What is life about?".

    Thus, science can provide profund truths to questions such as "What is the meaning of life".

    By Blogger DC, at July 08, 2005 2:29 pm  

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