Monday, November 24, 2008

Faith is Better Than Atheism

From Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, the story of Rabbi David Wolpe, a former atheist who turned to faith, and wrote a book called Why Faith Matters.
It is interesting to experience, in the same week, both Wolpe’s book and Religulous, Bill Maher’s cinematic assault on organized religion. Maher, a caustic comedian and TV host, also turned his back on religion in his teens. “I hated church; it scared me,” he says near the start of Religulous. He also says, somewhat inconsistently, that he found religion “boring” and that it “wasn’t relevant” to his life.

Like Wolpe’s book, Maher’s movie raises questions about faith; unlike Wolpe, Maher isn’t interested in answers. Religulous is a profane, condescending, and often funny rant against religion -- Christianity especially, but also Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam. Maher’s mocking documentary promotes the idea that only oddballs, cranks, and nincompoops can take religion seriously. That’s a fairly easy case to make if you focus, as Maher’s interviews mostly do, on oddballs, cranks, and nincompoops: the Puerto Rican cult leader who claims to be the Antichrist, the pothead in Amsterdam with his marijuana “ministry,” the misfit rabbi who embraces Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the young-earth creationist who teaches that human beings and dinosaurs co-existed.

It’s also easy to portray faith as a goofy fairy tale if you spend your time deriding tales of ancient miracles -- a burning bush! A virgin birth! A prophet swallowed by a fish! -- but never pause to acknowledge the far-fetched improbabilities inherent in atheism.

Maher characterizes religion as “fantasy and nonsense.” Yet atheism is no guarantee of enlightened rationality. In a study released this past September, researchers at Baylor University found that adherence to “traditional . . . religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams [foretelling the future], Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead, and astrology.” By contrast, those who reject traditional religion -- “self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious” -- are “far more likely” to believe in superstition and the occult. Or other nonsense: Maher, for example, claims that aspirin is lethal, doubts that the Salk vaccine eradicated polio, and has praised the horse that threw Christopher Reeve.
This, of course, brings to mind Chesterton’s famous aphorism: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing -- they believe in anything.”

And Jacoby failed to mention (since this seems like ancient history now) the nastyest and most destructive belief that many 19th and 20th Century atheists held: Marxism.
So it is unsurprising that Maher sees only the foolishness and evil that religious people, like all people, are capable of, and misses entirely the extraordinary good that religion engenders. As Wolpe notes, numerous researchers have found that “religious people are happier, more charitable, have more stable families, and contribute more to their communities.” They are less likely to suffer depression or commit suicide, to use drugs or be involved with crime, to drink to excess, or to smoke.

The Los Angeles Times reported last year on research showing that people without faith were less likely to help a poor or homeless person than religious believers. While both were equally likely to describe themselves as “good citizens,” their charitable practices were strikingly different. Americans of no faith donated an annual average of $200 to charity; active-faith adults typically contributed $1,500. Even when church-based giving was subtracted from the mix, religious Americans donated twice as much to charity as the nonreligious.

It is no coincidence that so many hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, and aid organizations have been started and sustained by religious groups. “We are creatures designed to flourish -- to heal and to help -- when we believe,” Wolpe writes.
Normally, we wouldn’t bother to debate religous belief, viewing it as an individual matter. But aggressive and hostile secular people, including both those like Maher and the gay lobby, have dragged it into the public arena. So if they want to debate, they can have a debate.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Matt said...

I share your belief that Bill Maher is an intolerant bigot. However,Even though we find Maher foolish and wrong, for such people as Maher, why debate with them? He's just a self-righteous fool, and he probably cannot be rational on this issue. I've not seen the film he's released, but I'm sure it's rather silly. There are more serious and more rationally approachable critics of faith, we should debate with them I think.

5:37 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

There are more serious and more rationally approachable critics of faith, we should debate with them I think.

No doubt this is true, but on this blog, or in the pages of the Boston Globe (were Jacoby appears) the norm is pretty much to engage the culture as it comes to us.

No doubt, if you should be lucky enough to take Michael Wreen's class in the Philosophy of Religion, you would get arguments (from both atheists and theists) more subtle and sophisticated than I publish here.

But I'm here to engage the culture.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Wion said...

Fair enough.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Richard Carrier responded to the creationist piece that Jacoby linked to ("The Crutches of Atheism" by Guy Cramer):

http://preview.tinyurl.com/6peyjq

5:53 AM  
Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

Good lord, this post is a walking talking straw man. I'm not even going to get into the absurdity of your "far-fetched improbabilities" of atheism link except to say that the guy actually suggests that e. coli is a simple life form in the context of what was likely the first life form, which is laughable on it's face. He might has well have argued that a lion was the first life form. And either way, that all would require that your god is less complex than e. coli. More here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/addendaB.html#Ludwig

But what's really absurd about your post and Mr. Jacoby's article is how fast and loose he/you play with definitions. Nobody would ever suggest that atheism is a guarantee of elightened rationality. The Baylor study is flawed because the group of believers HAS TO believe in superstition at a level of 100%, just as a group of astrologists has to believe in superstition at a level of 100%. Those groups are defined by their belief in superstition. You can't just take astrologists and UFO believers and lump them in with a group you call "atheists" and say it's full of "believers." And then you go to the Marxism nonsense. Atheism didn't cause Marxism. The true enemy here isn't religion or Marxism. It's dogmatism. When people become dogmatic about things, bad things happen. Religion is just the most common thing that people become dogmatic about, but obviously Marxism was a tragic counterexample.

I guess I don't like this division between "believers in God" and "those that don't believe in God." It would be fairer to devide us into "people that believe things without evidence" and "people that require evidence before accepting ideas." In other words, I'd put the astrologists and Marxists on your team, not mine.

Also, Bill Maher is funny. He's a comedian.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Samuel Skinner said...

"Yet atheism is no guarantee of enlightened rationality."

Ad Hominem Tu Quoque Fallacy

"religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams [foretelling the future], Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead, and astrology.”"

But when you add in things like life after death, the value of faith and belief based on feeling, not fact, they jump to 100%.

"but never pause to acknowledge the far-fetched improbabilities inherent in atheism."

You do realize that not all combinations are possible, and many in fact occur automatically? Chemistry makes the odds a LOT better. Not to mention the first forms of life were simple chains of replicating RNA- not as complicated as E Coli in the slightest.

"And Jacoby failed to mention (since this seems like ancient history now) the nastyest and most destructive belief that many 19th and 20th Century atheists held: Marxism."

Which was also held by Christians as well- heard of Helen Keller?

"So it is unsurprising that Maher sees only the foolishness and evil that religious people, like all people, are capable of, and misses entirely the extraordinary good that religion engenders."

Appeal to Consequences Fallacy

"The Los Angeles Times reported last year on research showing that people without faith were less likely to help a poor or homeless person than religious believers."

And now, the study:

"The survey of 1,055 people indicated that atheists and agnostics tend to be younger and are more often male and single."

So it isn't comparing believer versus atheists, but young people versus older people. And guess what? Young single men tend to have less money, less ties to the community and more prone to being... well, stupid.

Nice that the only study you could find was flawed.

4:14 PM  

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