A response to Peter Bowden’s “God, Atheism, and Human Needs”
Jan. 24, 2008
The idea that human beings universally need some form of mythological belief has been one of the mainstays of the defenders of faith for centuries. They claim that even if god doesn’t exist or religion causes violence and hatred, it’s acceptable because it makes some people feel better about the harsh realities of life. This is a multi-pronged deceptive ploy used to abdicate themselves from any responsibility for those actions and to keep people thinking that their assertion is correct.
Many people have either been raised without theistic belief or have abandoned theism and discovered even greater meaning and value for their lives. Peter Bowden assumes in his article “God, Atheism, and Human Needs” that proponents of atheism such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfray, and Dennett must provide “deeper insight into ourselves, our needs as human beings, and ways to conduct our lives.” In essence, a replacement for, rather than the elimination of, religion. Life does seem much simpler when all of the answers are handed to you on a silver platter (or aged papyri), but it eliminates the worthwhile exercise of introspection and discovery that one must engage in to formulate their own self-concepts, needs, and morals.
This makes Bowden’s claim that atheists are “[avoiding] a fundamental quest of the human race” even more absurd. Figuring these things out for oneself is infinitely more important, and difficult, than accepting an ancient dogma in its stead. Perhaps the reason why so many are opposed to self-examination is because it is exactly as I described it—exercise. It can be excruciatingly difficult to step outside of yourself, examine your beliefs, and dissect that which lies beneath your exterior. If one has been inculcated with the notion that whatever resides in there is dirty, depraved, and evil, that urge to integrate your beliefs and behavior will be furiously resisted and likely satiated with religion.
Being told that your worldview is incorrect and that it’s going to be a difficult process to regain your bearings once you realize that there is no grand plan for your life will often be interpreted as an attack. Even if doing nothing more than pointing out the harm that has been done under the auspices of piety, the news will not be received with accolades from the religious. Compartmentalization and rationalization (as in the psychological phenomenon) are fundamental aspects of maintaining any faith-based belief in the face of contrary evidence. Despite the common perception, it is not viciousness which compels us as atheists to speak out against religion. It is with the hope that we can help those who live under the ever-looming spectre of god’s presence to stop accepting the illusion of freedom and truly experience it.
Bowden points out that one of the charges frequently leveled against religion is its bellicosity. The reason that argument is so oft-used is because it is true. Religion has been the impetus for more violence than any other single reason throughout history. Was the acquisition of territory, resources, and power often a corroborating justification? Of course. Religion is unique, though, in the sense that it literally dehumanizes those with different beliefs, similar to the way that racism does. The adherents of a different religion are literally inferior to their opponents, and too often the drive to appropriate their land or wealth is intensified and rationalized by the division between the two groups. Evangelism has long been used as a cover for the usurpation of power from native inhabitants. After all, god would want to civilize the savages, now wouldn’t he? Certainly, religion is not the sole force, but it is definitely a contributing factor, and one that could be eliminated.
The two arguments that can be proposed to counter the case that the hazards of religion outweigh the benefits are the comfort and meaning it supposedly provides people and that religious groups may help less fortunate people. The latter is true, but only within certain confines. Missionaries who traverse the globe “helping people” often do little more than proselytize, and their aid may depend on your acceptance of their doctrine or willingness to attend church services. In the case of the catholic church in sub-Saharran Africa, it can actually be detrimental. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters may have similar prerequisites, although not all do.
Bowden asserts that “atheists are not into helping others in any organized way.” This is demonstrably false as there are more and more secular charities arising every day, but why would one expect there to be large charities funded by what essentially amounts to a non-group of people? Atheists are individuals with no churches and, until recently, little social networking. On an individual level, though, atheists are some of the world’s largest contributors to charities around the world. In fact, the number one philanthropist on Earth is an atheist. Ever hear of Bill Gates? How about Warren Buffet? That being said, I would encourage people to gather together and contribute in whatever way they are able, not to promote a group or a name, but to create a better world for every person. We are all united in the sense that we are humans sharing this planet, and that is infinitely more important than allegiances to imaginary dictators.
Bowden then comes full-circle back to the comfort/meaning/reason for living argument by claiming that we need a reason for being, that reason must be something “beyond the normalities of our daily lives”, and that religion provides it. First of all, I don’t know that making the claim that needing a reason for being is a fundamental attribute of human beings is entirely accurate, but it is plausible that most people desire that kind of affirmation.
This argument falls on its face in the next two steps, though. Why must this meaning be something greater than the daily activities in which we engage? Is life not made up of a series of days filled with these “normalities”? Normalities such as pursuing a career or education, caring for children, or just making it through this existence? What if there is no “greater purpose”? Will civilization suddenly vanish or will people adapt to being the agents in their lives instead of the pawns in a cosmic chess match? Furthermore, I will submit that religion only provides a façade of fulfilling either of the preceding “needs”.
Whether religion is an evolutionary adaptation making sense of a discordant existence or a spandrel of such processes, coming to terms with reality would only be the next step in our development. Holding on to the crutches that we once needed after the cast has been taken off is counter-productive, and as long as we do so, we will never run. Life can be frightening, bewildering, wonderful, and tedious. It can be mysterious, magical, and ordinary. It can be all of those things at once. Making up answers where there are none is not the solution, and in fact, prevents one from seeking answers themselves. Atheism is not the destruction of the quest for meaning—it is the necessary starting point for the journey.