Are atheists immoral? Does religion cause conflict? Is religion always opposed to science? Paul Hedges considers common topics of disagreement between religious believers and atheists, in his new book Towards Better Disagreement. We caught up with him to find out more.
What motivated you to write Towards Better Disagreement?
I think the main thing would be in response to what are often called the New Atheist debates. There is a very polemical and antagonistic stance which exists between religion and atheism, or more correctly between a number of prominent and influential spokespeople on each side. This colours a lot of the current discussion and perception, but I think a lot of people are not clearly in one camp or the other. A lot of the debate tends to be either very polarised, or quite simply wrong, and ignores the very real common ground that exists.
The book encourages readers to explore their stance on religion vs atheism. Did you find that you questioned your own position while researching for and writing it?
Yes, absolutely, I’m glad you asked that question. I was pretty clear when I started that the area of dialogue and exchange between atheism and religion needed to be covered. As such, I was pretty sure that some common ground existed, without ignoring very real differences and disagreements. But as I read and researched around these topics, and also started putting things down in writing, it raised a lot of questions for me.
Some of these things were perhaps issues I had had in my mind for sometime but never really fully worked through. I would always tend to put myself in the religious box if asked, rather than the atheist one, but on so many grounds I often found myself agreeing with a lot of what the atheist arguments seemed to say. Of course, there are lots of bad atheists arguments out there too, but I don’t think that agreeing with atheism that typical religious arguments don’t add up is something religious people need to be defensive about. Likewise, I think atheists can realise that lots of stuff they label as “religious” isn’t simply backward or crazy but based in very rational or natural human behaviour. I would say that as a result of writing this book I have a sense of having a foot in both camps in terms of having strong sympathies with some of the arguments and positions of both atheists and those who typically call themselves religious.
You cover a wide range of topics in a comparatively short book (less than 200 pages). Was it a challenge to do so, and how did you decide which were the most vital issues to explore?
That is a good question. Partly the areas I covered are those which interest me, but also I looked into quite a few areas that just seemed to keep coming up in the debates, and so I think they are things which people are either interested in or are just hot topics in the discussion. To some degree too I draw from things I have taught at universities, and if things seem new, important, or interesting to my students then it suggests to me that perhaps a wider audience will want to know about it too.
I actually also asked a group of my friends, former students, and other people to read and comment on bits of the manuscript as I went along as well so this provided some good feedback as I was writing in terms of what fascinated people, what they felt could be cut out, or areas they thought were of interest. It’s always good being able to run some things past part of your audience first.
Was there anything that you discovered while researching for the book that particularly surprised you?
The research for this book is something that went over quite a few years, and so there were a number of surprises. For instance, I was aware that the medieval development of science involved many Christian and Islamic thinkers who believed that the universe was built by a creator and so it would be ordered and coherent. This provided a foundation for actually starting to explore many areas that would lead to modern day science. However, I hadn’t realised how this influence went well beyond the medieval period and that the areas of life which we today call science and religion were so intertwined up until very recently. Indeed, the whole idea that there is a conflict between them, and that this has always existed, is very much a very recent myth founded in the nineteenth century for polemical reasons and not based on any solid evidence. However, it is such a natural part of our worldview and assumptions that I was shocked at how wrong it was.
I was also challenged on some of my assumptions about Islam, and this is something I go into within the book. Especially as I have had to teach about this at university, I have needed to really read up and fact check lots of assumptions, and also my own existing assumptions and prejudices – as Islam was not one of my main areas of expertise.
You argue that there is no natural antagonism between religion and science (atheism) and yet it is more commonly thought (in Western society at least) that atheism is the direct antithesis to religion. Why do you think this is?
There are quite a few reasons for this, and I will just mention a few here as well as some reasons there are problems with them. One is the polarisation of debate of recent decades especially in a Western context. On the one hand, the so-called New Atheist approach has received a lot of publicity. One reason it is termed “new” is new because it is more directly hostile and antagonistic to religion than many atheists have traditionally been. Whereas in the past atheists have often viewed religion as maybe a harmless superstition, it is been portrayed by figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as a positive evil, and a menace to human society and well being. So, on the atheist side we have seen a marked dichotomy of reason, science and atheism against religion and faith. Meanwhile, on the religious side, spreading especially from the United States of America, we have seen an often anti-intellectual and anti-science brand of what we can call fundamentalist Christianity. Prominent and influential voices on both sides of the debate have a stake in promoting this stark dichotomy. Indeed, while certain forms of religion and certain forms of atheism do make an antithesis, and science gets dragged into this, it is not the only way to look at things.
As I discuss in the book, the Protestant forbears of today’s anti-science fundamentalist Christians supported the heliocentric worldview of Galileo and others (that is the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way round) which some people see as an assault on a biblical worldview. Indeed, one of the most important early Protestant leaders, John Calvin, developed a theory known as “accommodationism” which meant that the Bible was accommodated to the worldview of those who first heard it. As such we shouldn’t assume it is a scientific textbook. This we need to remember is long before anybody ever assumed that religion and science could be in conflict, and his theory wasn’t really designed to deal with this but other matters about the cultural knowledge and understanding found in the Bible. So this shows that here no natural antagonism exists in areas which often seem controversial today.
Again, another way a distinction is drawn is the argument that religion is responsible for a lot of violence in the world today. A lot of media reporting can lend credence to this. But once you start analysing the situation with a bit of depth and stepping back from the heated rhetoric it is not so clear. Lots of the so-called religious violence is happening in places which are extremely politically unstable, and not for reasons to do with religion. Of course, for the actors involved calling on religion is a powerful tool to help build their narrative and credibility, just as at various times over the last century people used nationalism, Communism, or many other powerful tools to build their justification for war and violence. Again, if we look at many people drawn to the so-called Islamic State it has been observed that many of them don’t really have any background knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, a background of petty crime and an escalation of that is a far more likely route to terrorist radicalisation than devout attendance at a mosque.
However, it seems to suit the media to portray a story of Islamic terrorism against a secular West, which helps build into a sense that religion is dangerous, if not pathological, while being secular and atheist is rational and peaceful. Most people are not aware that the world’s largest Muslim organisation has condemned Islamic State and terrorism in the name of Islam, that the vast majority of Islamic scholars and many leading Islamic organisations in most Western countries have likewise issued condemnations, and that across the Middle East many meetings of religious leaders and scholars have done similar things. This simply does not make the headlines, and in most cases not even the middle pages of papers or small stories on TV. As such, a common narrative is allowed to develop in the mainstream discourse which is not based on facts, analysis, or understanding.
Again, we need to see that a lot of the discussion is based around what are often Western assumptions about monotheism. So, religious people believe in a big creator God, while atheists deny such a deity. But what about Buddhists who also deny that any creator God exists? Or traditional Confucianism which can look to some type of force in the world, sometimes termed Tian, which means both “sky” and something like the Western term “heaven”, but does not see this as a personal deity, and which sometimes seems to imply some sort of natural force or power in the universe, like the forces of nature. Here, we do not see the stark antithesis between belief in a personal creator God and the denial of this. So again, it is a particular historical, philosophical, and social context which can make the differences between religion and atheism, or religion and science, seem natural or inherently antagonistic, when it is not necessarily so.
Why do you think there is a need for a book that presents a neutral overview of the religion-atheism debate?
I think my answers to some of your previous questions will have addressed this to some degree, but I will emphasise some specific points. First, there is so much misinformation out there. Even very intelligent and well qualified people, on both sides of the debate simply get the facts wrong, distort them, or really don’t care what the facts are because they already know that they are right. On the atheist side many people seem to take ignorance of religion as a kind of badge of honour to show how little regard they have for it. Meanwhile, on the religious side we see people, maybe with PhDs in certain kinds of theology, but who haven’t studied religion from a really academic point of view spouting their views. As such, when it comes to facts and the truth, there is precious little of it in sight when high profile debates take place or books get written. Certainly there is some good work out there, but more often than not people stand in one corner or the other and use whatever evidence they find to try and make their case. As such, for somebody to try and stand in the middle and present two sides is unusual. How often do we stop and think: well, on this side they think this and they have some good points, and on that side they have this opinion and it is pretty solid.
I discuss something in the book called Confirmation Bias which is the tendency we have to fit any new information into what we already know or think. As such, we tend to ignore ideas or evidence which doesn’t fit our worldview, or slant new information to fit into our preconceived ideas. Everybody does this, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, agnostics, it doesn’t matter who you are, or how clever you are, it is a simple facet of the human mind and how we process information. Learning normally only really happens when we are ready to try and overcome this, and challenge our existing ideas. I hope that a book which tries to take both sides, and look at the different viewpoints and assess the information as impartially as possible can help out here.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
At the risk of sounding somewhat corny, and simply repeating my title, the ability to disagree better. I am hoping that my readers are ready to stand back from their built-in prejudices – we all have them – and say: “Well, let me see what the other side has got to say about this”, or “I think this is right, but do I really know it is”. Once people stop mudslinging and start listening then real dialogue can take place. Also, when people are prepared to question what they think they already know, or what they think should be the case, then they can appreciate what merits the other side may have. I discussed this in relation to Confirmation Bias in answering your last question, and I think that holds good here. So, if people are prepared to think again about what they think that will be a good take away.
Thanks very much for asking me these questions, and I hope the readers of your website will find it interesting and useful.
For more information, or to buy the book, please follow the link.