On Religion and Ignorance

I stumble across atheist rants every now and then, denouncing the evils of religion. Usually I smile in vague amusement and move on, but lately, something about the atheist anti-religious meta-narrative has bothered me. It took me a while to see it, but I think I’ve finally figured out what, exactly, has stuck in my craw.

The meta-narrative goes something like this: (1) those who practice religion/believe in a higher power are uneducated nut-jobs looking for a crutch to get themselves through life, (2) religion has brought nothing but pain and misery to the world, and (3) rational thinking would force people away from ritualistic reliance on revelation; reason should rule the roost (forgive my alliterative indulgence here). Therefore, we should divest ourselves of the fetters of religiosity and embrace the freedom of rationalism.

In short, theism breeds ignorance, but atheism brings enlightenment.

If you pay any attention to history, you probably spot several of the flaws in this line of thinking. To acknowledge the meta-narrative (and by “meta-narrative” I mean “bigger story being told”) truth, the commitment to a particular faith or value system has, at times, choked the pure exploration of knowledge for its own sake. The meta-narrative will point to the story of Galileo for an example of this. In one version of this tale, the evil religious establishment (the Roman Catholic Church) suppresses the truth of the valiant defender of science and truth, against all reasonable observation. Another version of this tale exists: that Galileo, having previously been wrong about the nature of comets while writing in support of the pope, pushed his agenda of changing the nature of scientific inquiry too far by invoking some hot-button political issues of his day. Galileo, in one of his salvos, actually argued against some of the greatest scientific minds of the time—the Jesuits.

In other words, Galileo thought he was right (although it turns out he was wrong about several things, such as the nature of the tides and circular orbits), and made a rhetorical argument that skewered one of the most powerful religious and political rulers of his day (the pope). That ruler responded with brute force, crushing any chance Galileo had of actually dealing with the scientific issues he’d attempted to address.

I will grant you that the pope was wrong in using the church as an instrument to enforce his will. As a dyed-in-the-wool American protestant christian, I have the same objections to the behavior of some of the pope’s and their ties to (and abuse of) political power as many atheists. I suggest, in contrast to the meta-narrative, that the problem with this is not an issue of religion, but rather an issue of people with power. When you look over history, I believe the more accurate story is not the one which speaks of religions suppression, but rather the story of an engine of economics driving the tools and institutions of power (most often centered in organized religion) to carry out the will of a few. For example, I encourage you to reconsider the actions of Urban VIII in light of the debt and dissension he dealt with at the time of the Galileo affair.

Maybe there’s some truth to the idea of money and evil.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “On Religion and Ignorance

  1. As an atheist, but certainly not an “activist” atheist, I do not believe that religious people are ignorant nut cases. I know many very smart people who are religious and are dedicated to their religious and spiritual beliefs.

    In my opinion, those who are seriously religious are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. They are two different people within the same body. There’s the one side of them that is logical, rational, practical, and pragmatic. They need that side in order to manage to live in the real world. And then there’s the other side, which is based purely on faith in the supernatural, in mythology, in mysticism.

    My realm is the former…the logical, rational. I don’t dwell in the land of faith and mysticism. That’s my choice. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-religion. I subscribe to doing, feeling, thinking whatever it takes to get you through the day, and if religion helps you achieve that, good for you. It doesn’t make you ignorant.

    I’m commenting here for only one reason. I want you to know that being an atheist doesn’t necessarily make you anti-religious. It’s just that you have made a rational choice to not be religious.

    • I want to sincerely thank you for both reading my post, and for interacting with it. I appreciate diverse and differing viewpoints, especially when given with such rational discourse as you have done. I also appreciate the opportunity to clarify my unintentional correlation of anti-religion and atheism: I don’t believe that it’s a necessary one.

      I’m going to suggest that we all live in a world of faith in one way or another. Most of us subscribe to atomic theory, and yet I have never met a person who has actually seen an atom. We instead rely on the faithful witness and testimony of those we trust. Further, we rely on the instruments to do our measuring, which basically give us the results that we expect to get. Rather than opposites, I’d say faith and reason fill in the gaps where the other falls short. They are compliments, rather than opposites.

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