What theists and atheists have in common, even where different types of theists don’t

Oct 30, 2011 Comments Off by

In a previous post I explained ways in which those who seek to exemplify religious tolerance are often still guilty of anti–atheist bigotry. Therein I gave an example of a reason moderates may feel they have more in common with religious extremists than they do with atheists; at least the religious extremists are religious. Anyone who dislikes this analysis might suggest instead some reasons it is the atheists with whom the religious moderates share more. Unfortunately, the details of what that might be aren’t reliably predictable, since “moderates” may not be moderate in every sense in which moderates can be moderate. Still, some plausible examples can be cited. Perhaps an appreciation of scientific fact can be shared (though, as I explained in Sophisticated my foot, that often doesn’t go as far as it pretends to). Perhaps another example would be a feeling ethics and/or politics should be secular rather than religiously conservative. Ultimately the thinks moderates can better achieve in their co–operation with atheists are those things all people should be able to appreciate and benefit from, whereas their co–operation with religious extremists will only help further sectarian religious goals, such as proselytising, religious bias in the law, and money in the coffers.

There’s another observation worth making on the subject of where theists may find themselves in better company with atheists than with slightly different types of theist. Consider the complete shortlist of religious beliefs a person has, and the set of all such shortlists across all people. Whether that set includes only real examples or all hypothetical ones, a theist and an atheist will disagree on the status of only one of those shortlists, namely the one the theist possesses. Two theists of even slightly different religious beliefs will disagree on the status of each of their shortlists, so on twice as many of them as in a theist–atheist comparison. This raises the question of how anti–atheist but religiously tolerant attitudes can coexist in one brain. I reviewed a number of reasons previously, but they were all as bad as one would expect following this line of reasoning.

Incidentally, it may be asked in passing why “religiously tolerant” critics of atheists do not want atheists saying any religious opinions are wrong, when they let religious people do just that. Take the issue, for instance, of whether Jesus was the son of God. Muslims have to think he wasn’t; the Koran twice says the view that he was is both false and liable to get you damned. Jews have to think he wasn’t; if he was, he was the Messiah they still insist they are waiting, and then they should be Christians instead. The difference is, Jews and Muslims can get away with such a verdict in a way that atheists cannot. And similar examples are prevalent. Take any religion, and it has a core view without which it falls apart and which is anathema to the views of at least one other religion. This bizarre arithmetic by which the admissibility of an opinion’s expression is contingent on whether one’s own religious beliefs need bigging up as well makes a mockery of a very popular school of “religious tolerance”.


About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on richarddawkins.net under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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