#1: Atheism is the “Null Hypothesis”
All religions share the fundamental belief that there is a layer of reality above and beyond the physical world as we perceive it with our senses. Different religions may disagree about particulars, such as what kind of beings inhabit this layer or whether humans can enter it after the death of the physical body, but the idea that it exists has been common to all human societies as far back as we can trace.
Atheists often describe their position as the default “null hypothesis,” placing the burden of proof entirely on the theistic side, and invoking the maxim commonly ascribed to Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But the atheist position could, with equal accuracy, be stated as “All human civilization worldwide, since the dawn of history, has been based on an error.” Now that’s an extraordinary claim!
#2: Two Conflicting Doctrines Can’t Both Be Right
Here, atheists tend to fall into the same trap as religious fundamentalists: Either the Bible is true or the Qur’an is, but it has to be one or the other. Departed souls are either reincarnated, or else go to heaven or hell; it can’t be both. (Well, according to the Buddhists, it can: they see heaven and hell as possible destinations for a future incarnation that will last for eons, but not forever.) Faced with conflicting doctrines, the fundamentalist concludes, “My belief is true and the others are false,” while the atheist concludes, “They are all false.”
But this “either/or” approach overlooks another fundamental principle of religion: that “now we see as through a glass darkly”, that the Subject of discussion is so far beyond the scope of human comprehension that we can only speculate about Its true nature, and our understanding of It, as long as we remain within the limits of our mortal faculties, will always be imperfect. To claim a monopoly on knowledge of It, or to dismiss It entirely, are equal and opposite errors.
#3: The Opposite of “Religion” is “Science”
The “conflict” between science and religion is artificial. There need be no quarrel between them, as long as religion leaves pronouncements about the natural world to the experts, and science acknowledges that there are aspects of life and the universe that can’t be tested in a laboratory.
“Scientist” is a profession, and “religious” is a statement of personal philosophy. A person of faith can be a scientist, but is not required to be; a better analogy might be a classical musician. When you go to a classical concert, you don’t expect to hear a lecture about a groundbreaking discovery in acoustical physics. You don’t even expect to hear a hitherto unknown piece by Beethoven or Mozart. What you expect is to hear a well-known work, written centuries ago, brought to life in the present moment. The life of faith is the same way: The canon was set a long time ago, but new performers are always bringing new interpretations to it – not on the stage, but in everyday life.
#4: Faith is the Result of Childhood Indoctrination
Secularists tend to agree with A.C. Grayling that “we are all born atheists” and that religious faith comes into being as a result of childhood indoctrination (which Richard Dawkins charmingly compares to “child abuse”). By this logic, however, one would expect religious belief, like childhood beliefs in fairies or Santa Claus, to fade away as the child’s age approached double digits, when in fact, it tends to increase over the course of a lifetime. This assumption also fails to explain conversion (either from one religion to another or from non-belief to belief), as well as children of secular families who become religious later in life (which, though it may not happen as often as Dylan Matthews argues, happens often enough that any theory about the psychological origins of religion needs to account for it).
#5: Religion Does More Harm Than Good
If a potential criminal sees a police officer and has a change of heart, no one else could possibly know about it. If a police officer helps a lost child find the way home, only the child’s family would be likely to know about it. But if a police officer shoots an unarmed citizen, the whole nation will know about it. And if enough such stories make the news, some people will inevitably conclude that the entire police force is corrupt.
In the same way, when religions are functioning as they should, the good they do often either goes unnoticed or is, by nature, unnoticeable. A recent survey showed a marked lack of awareness, even among church members, of church-based community services such as feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners, and helping resettle immigrants. (Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that Christians are under explicit orders from their Founder to do their good works quietly, without fanfare.) But when a self-styled religious group or individual commits an act of violence, the media’s guiding principle of “if it bleeds, it leads” ensures that the story will make the front page. And it attracts more attention than if the same act had been committed by someone acting on purely political motives, in the same way that police violence is more horrific than ordinary crime, because it constitutes a betrayal of principles: “If we can’t trust those who are sworn to serve and protect the people, whom can we trust? If an institution dedicated to peace and justice turns to violence and oppression, in whom can we place our hope?”
But is it reasonable to conclude that the world would be better off if these institutions were scrapped entirely? Montreal – no one’s idea of Sin City – was plunged into chaos in the 1969 Murray-Hill Riot when the police went on strike for just one day. If the extremist wing of atheism had its way, and the fabric of religion were one day to unravel completely, what else would fall apart along with it?
If atheism is serious about its self-appointed task of subjecting myths to critical scrutiny, perhaps it could profitably start with its own.