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The good atheist

May 8, 2011

This article argues that atheism deserves more respect, pointing out that non-believers compare well to believers in various regards, and that secular nations do better than religions ones. I’m a bit skeptical of the notion that lack of religious belief, even when from a rational perspective, necessarily leads to brighter children, happier adults, and whiter teeth. Within our society, atheism correlates with intelligence and education and so many other attributes that it’s hard to tease out what effect it has by itself. And while I approve the secular democracies of the modern west, I’m also aware that they have existed but a short time. History is long, and unlike Francis Fukuyama, I am skeptical about our ability to predict it. It can be tempting to think that knowledge everywhere and always is a benefit, and that superstitious belief everywhere and always is a harm. But that is just another kind of myth. Sometimes it’s the case. Sometimes not. Only evidence tells where. Knowing the truth doesn’t always set you free. If it’s easy to point to how religious belief can tie theologians in knots justifying absurdities, it’s also easy to point to its possible benefits.

To the honest and rational mind, the benefit or harm attached to a belief has no bearing on whether belief is justified. Belief motivated by benefit becomes a myth, one that sets the believer on the course of protecting that benefit by rationalizing what they believe. The honest course is to follow the evidence, whether or not that results in belief or benefit. Clifford staked out that path; James and Pascal were the philosophical progenitors of “don’t worry, be happy.”

Not all believers are biased against atheists. Though it is a prejudice taught from many pulpits. Perhaps some preachers dislike atheists for the same reason some ranchers dislike vegetarians: it irks them to think that their product isn’t a necessity of life. A letter from his law partner, recently sold, tells how close to his chest Lincoln had to keep his own religious beliefs. The 1754 engraving shows David Hume, whose 300th birthday was Saturday.

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