Friday, April 9, 2010

How to Defend Atheism

In 1976, author George H. Smith (no relation) delivered a speech in which he stated:
The American child who grows up to be a Baptist simply because his parents were Baptist and he never thought critically about those beliefs is not necessarily any more irrational than the Soviet child who grows up to be an atheist simply because his parents were atheist and because the state tells him to be an atheist. The fact that the Soviet child in this particular case may have the correct position is irrelevant. So it's not so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. So it's no so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. So the issue of reasonableness pertains to the concern for truth, concern for the correct methodology of reasoning. And just because a person espouses atheism is no guarantee -- believe me -- that person is necessarily reasonable.

This is why I never crusade for atheism per se outside of a wider framework. Atheism is significant, to be sure. But it's significance derives entirely from the fact that it represents the application of reason to a particular field, specifically the area of religious belief. Atheism, unless it is ingrained within this greater philosophical defense of reason, is practically useless. When, however, it is the consequence of the habit of reasonableness, then atheism stands in opposition to the wave of supernaturalism and mysticism we are currently experiencing. In other words, irrationalism in any form it may occur.

Now what this means is that atheism will not get very far simply by attacking religious belief. Rather, we have to defend reason, first and foremost, and then criticize religion within that framework. If you understand that most people adopt religion for psychological rather than intellectual reasons, you will understand why I think direct, frontal assaults on religion rarely, rarely persuade anyone to atheism. If, as atheists have been pointing out for many years, religion is an emotional and psychological crutch, then you don't get a person to stand on his own two feet simply by kicking out the crutch, if for no other reason that the person will hold onto it for dear life. Rather, you must first convince the person that the crutch is unnecessary and even harmful. And then, you can convince him that he's able to get along much better off without the crutch. So you don't have to kick it out; at this point, he will simply throw it away himself.
Read the complete transcript of this excellent speech here.

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