Explaining Away Religious Disagreement: Part II

… in continuation from part one

This shoddiness magnetism is apparently strong enough to draw in folks from every position on the matter of religion. Every side in the debate is implicated; no side has the shoddiness high-ground. We see shoddy explanations offered by both Christians and atheists (I mention these two groups only because they serve as good examples, not because they are the only groups indicted in this practice), and there are interesting parallels and similarities to be found between the explanations of both these parties.

At the level of absolute shoddiness, there is the explanation of stupidity. The atheist is an idiot, many a churchman has said: the obvious is before him – the works of God, the incontrovertible testimony of Holy Writ, etc. – and yet he ignores it. The Christian is an idiot, many a atheistic community college professor has said: the obvious is before him – the problem of evil, the conflict between faith and science, etc. – and yet he ignores it.

At the second level of shoddiness – but not yet emerging from the mud – is the explanation of fear. Again, each side in the debate is implicated. An atheist once told me that Christian belief was the product of a fear of non-existence. He said this with a confidence that assured me that it had assured him, and he said it too with a tone of pity: he felt sorry for those Christians who were too weak to bear the reality that the present biological life is all she wrote. Sounding a similar note, a Christian – a Christian pastor no less – once assured me, with the same confidence as my atheist friend (though with a bit less pity), that atheists were atheists because they were afraid of divine accountability. There was again the charge of weakness: the atheist was not strong enough to bear the reality of a God who will shine the brightest light on his darkest deeds.

The parallels go on. Academics of the non-religious variety are particularly fond of explaining religious belief on the basis of an evolutionary-produced disposition to religious belief. Religious belief has the prominence it has because human beings are biologically-fitted in such a way as to be extremely prone to believe in God; and – they add in moments of honesty – because religious persons have not been able to get “beyond” this biological disposition, because they have not been sufficiently enlightened (or some such thing). In a perhaps-not-as-strange-as-one-may-suppose irony, many religious folks tell a similar story. “Unbelief” has the prominence it has, they say, because human beings are extremely prone to disbelieve in God – disbelief is a product of a “fall”, the deception of a devil, and so forth. And non-religious persons persist in their unbelief because they have not been sufficiently enlightened, “illuminated”, “regenerated”, etc. etc.

I am not here claiming that there are no stupid atheists, nor that there are no stupid Christians. I am not claiming that fear does not play a powerful part in many of our beliefs regarding religion. And I am not attempting to make any scientific claims regarding evolutionary dispositions, nor any theological claims regarding original sin or the devil or the work of the Holy Spirit. What I am claiming, however, is that all of these explanations are often offered above and beyond their actual explanatory usefulness (or appropriateness). They are used as sweeping generalizations (the scope is too large); they are applied in ways which ignore the complexity and variety of religious and a-religious belief (the explanations are too “thin”); and they are applied with a force strong enough for us to feel justified in not examining the nuanced reasons for the religious and a-religious beliefs of particular people, and a sufficiently diverse collection of particular people at that. This is why I call these explanations – as they are in fact practiced – shoddy.

… to be continued. Just once more.

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