This piece is unusually long for a blog entry, and I've been working on it for some time. It contains the results (so far) of what is basically a side-track of a process of thought still in progress regarding the nature and values of secular societies.
The last decade or so has seen a revival of an increased public antagonism between self-proclaimed representatives of religious and non-religious people. The "New Atheism" movement (which mostly - if not merely - repeats Hume's and Russell's and maybe even (God forbid!) Nietzsche's classic criticism of religious belief and institutions, beefed up with some recent science) has become the stuff that fame is made of, thanks mainly to Richard Dawkins, and entered the world of populist politics through debaters such as P.Z. Myers. On the activist end, we have the conscious provocations such as the Danish Mohammad cartoons, which through the predictable reactions of outrage among many Muslims lead us over the religion side.
For these reactions, as we know, were not only about expressing a sense of humiliation, but about making claims on other countries not to apply their own laws, but rather let their policies be dictated by religious doctrine. Similarly, high-placed and influential religious leaders have sharpened the tone as regards their claim to authority considerably in general – also in relation to other religious movements. Just a couple of years ago, the current Pope openly declared all variants of Christianity except the one preached by the Roman Catholic Church to be false doctrines, thus reclaiming a sort of implacable position many of us would have believed irreversibly dated within educated Christianity. In several instances around the world, other Christian as well as Muslim, leaders have been on the offensive (and quite successfully so) to have the sort of freedom of religion statutes that are a part of the constitution of most developed countries protect them from abiding by laws otherwise applicable to citizens, e.g. this Swedish case regarding hate speech against homosexual people, alternatively, to have laws protecting religious freedom protect only the affirmation of religious belief, like in this recent Polish case. On a grander scale, we have the claims of predominantly Muslim leaders and countries to have so-called defamation of religion be declared as a human rights offense by the U.N. More subtle is the recent uptake of the so-called post-secularist claim that societies not based on or enforcing religion of some sort fail to meet fundamental "spiritual" needs of their citizens, thus cautiously pushing for a return of of the idea of the primacy of religion in politics, as well as for the return of doctrinal rather than informational religious public education.
In total, this highly infected situation of multi-level polarised public antagonism, makes it difficult for people like myself, who have some trouble feeling at home in any of the opposing camps. Or, rather, on my part, who usually describe myself as totally devoid of any religious inclinations, it has become so due to some of the recent rhetoric on the new atheist side. I say rhetoric, because I have not been able to reconstruct it as a piece of carefully made rational reasoning, but rather as a strategy of simplification employed to deflect public opposition and to attract sympathy among the already converted. It creates a sort of "either you're with us or you're against us" set-up that I personally find just as manipulative as I did in my youth when my hesitation to participate in the then highly pastoral end-of-school ceremonies held in the local church was responded to with accusations of not caring about moral values, lacking a sense of spirituality, wanting to destroy nice traditions, and similar things. Or when, in my, at the time rather conservative, home town I dared to openly express left-leaning political ideas and immediately was met by the "so you want to have it as in the Soviet Union" response. This has led me to ponder a bit what a well worked out rational atheist line of reasoning should look like, and this is what this comment is about.
A lot of the atheism-religion/secular-pastoral antagonisms (including the so-called culture/science wars) are as indicated above about claims to valid societal authority, and I will not be saying much about that, besides pointing out that religious belief is not automatically a claim to political authority or privilege, and that the issue I will be commenting on is central also for the political angle on the atheism-religion antagonism. That is, although there are indeed various brands of fundamentalist and creationist religion around, it is perfectly possible to be religious without being fundamentalist or creationist. Actually, in my part of the word, this is the rule and in several other parts as well, as far as I know. Instead, I want to focus on a concept that is as central for any atheist as it is for any religious believer, namely the concept of (theist or deist) religious belief itself. And I want to sketch a bit about what happens if you investigate this concept through the lenses of philosophical analysis and rational thinking and apply this to the atheism-religion antagonism. My reason for this take is the following: the basic tenet of any atheism is to claim that (theist/deist) religious belief is false, and if this opinion is to be the result of a rational argument it better rest on a clear definition of what it is denying. By the same token, secularism, which is often expressed as the idea that religion and politics should be kept separate would need a clear concept of religion to be open to rational assessment. Of course, the same holds for any attempt to study religious or non-religious belief scientifically.
I will soon get to the last mentioned point, but first I want to comment on what is or may be at stake when assessing (a) religious belief - that is, what methodological presumptions we need to make. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins mounts an argument to the effect that such an assessment has but one dimension, namely that of probability. This is a very important argument of the book, since it is here that Dawkins sets the scene for all of the other arguments in favor of atheism that he presents. The main point being made is that all opinions regarding religious beliefs can be neatly plotted on to a probability-ascription scale, and in this way Dawkins finds himself able to discredit the classic position of agnosticism, famously supported by, e.g., Russell and several of the logical empiricists. In one simple sweep, he thus creates the polarised situation of "either you're with us or you're against us": Regarding a "belief in God" (I'll soon get to what that may be), either you plot yourself on the end of the scale between 0 and 0.5, thus being an atheist, or you position yourself between 0.5 and 1, thus being a theist, but also in need of arguments for your probability ascription (this while the atheist merely needs to disprove those arguments to justify his probability ascription). The only room for a sort of agnostic position given in this scheme is the 50/50 probability-ascription and this position, as Dawkins correctly notes, is a severely vulnerable one. I, however, would like to add that it actually doesn't merit to be called an agnostic position in the first place. Let me explain.
There certainly is a probability-version of agnosticism when looking shallowly on, e.g., the logical empiricist's position that neither the affirmation nor the denial of deities and other supernatural or metaphysical entities can be supported by rational arguments. However, the reason why the logical empiricist's held this position goes deeper; holding out the incomprehensibility (in terms of lack of a unique set of empirical truth-conditions) of all descriptive claims referring to concepts of this sort. This comes close to my own relation to claims of this type: I usually simply don't understand what it is that I am supposed to confirm or deny. This goes for the deities described in various scriptures, as well as those figuring in the many so-called proofs of the existence of God. The propositions are simply not precise and informative enough for me to be able to operationalise their truth-conditions (to be a bit technical), i.e. to identify what exactly I need to investigate in order to get hold of arguments logically connected to these propositions (observe that I'm not assuming a hard-boiled empiricist epistemology here!). So, I'm sorry, Richard Dawkins, I'm afraid that I cannot place myself on your probability ascription scale with regard to claims regarding the existence of God. And I very much wonder if Dawkins really would be able to present any claim presented by any religious believer capable of being so placed on the basis of scientific evidence. That is, with one notable exception that serves as a spring-board over to my next point: Some people do seem to make extremely precise religious claims, such as some of the nuttier creationists, that in detail presents an alternative natural history of the universe, earth and humanity - I'm quite happy to adopt the atheist position there. But, then again, these people are not very representative of religious people in general. So, one might ask, what would be so representative?
An old friend of mine used to describe herself as believing in God. When asked what she meant by that more exactly, she started to describe a very old, bearded man with a kind smile and warm eyes who was sitting on top of a cloud looking down at her. I asked, pointing at the sky: "Do you mean that you think that there really is such a person sitting up there on one of those clouds?". She answered: "Not really, but I like to think about that, it's important for me to muster up that image in my mind now and then, it gives me calm and reassurance". This sort of answer, which I have been receiving repeatedly when asking people identifying themselves as having a religious belief or faith about what their belief consists in, takes me over to the next part of a rational analysis of the religion-atheist antagonisms. This part puts into question whether the atheist really gets it right when assuming religious believers to hold beliefs in the strict, technical sense needed for the atheist arguments to be relevant. So, what then may be involved when people utter statements or sentences containing words like "God" and "exists", that philosophers and scientists are prone to interpret very literally – as conveying an ambition to make a very precise description of reality?
With this question, I finally arrive at that which was declared as the subject of this little essay: the concept of religious belief. I've already argued that, to the extent that the sentences used for communicating such a belief really expresses the affirmation of a descriptive proposition (that is, a semantic entity with truth-conditions), the object of that proposition is as a rule (but with notable and ridiculous exceptions) so unclear that its truth-value is impossible to assess on rational grounds. What I now add to this suggestion is the idea that, actually, these sentences very seldom express such affirmations – at least not in the simple way needed for the atheist position to be easily confirmed.
This is no news, of course, to people involved in the empirical study of religion as a human and social phenomenon - so-called religious studies. Rather, from this perspective, the idea of applying one single identifier of what makes for a religious belief is generally taken to be a misnomer – religion and religiosity is preferred to be analysed as a complex notion, where the various constituents falling under the notion are at best united by something reminding of the Wittgensteinian idea of family resemblance. Nevertheless, some chief ideas perspectives can be broken out and systematically analysed. However, among these we will not find the idea of religious belief necessarily involving the affirmation of a descriptive proposition conjecturing the existence of something transcendent or non-natural. This since, if expressions of religious beliefs are to be taken literally, as expressing the affirmation of some descriptive proposition, such an interpretation needs to include also religious ideas that don't include such elements, but quantify over (and involving the worship of) natural phenomena, systems, regularities, etcetera. To the extent that, on such an interpretation, a religious belief can be given a clear descriptive content, it may be assessed rationally in terms of probability. However, as observed earlier, when involving reference to transcendent or non-natural objects, these are as a rule too poorly defined to make such an assessment possible. So interpreted, therefore, it seems to me that the rational view is that religious beliefs are either mostly false (attributing features to nature which are clearly not there, such as plans and wants to mountains or planets), or impossible to assess in terms of truth and falsity (this truly agnostic position, I claim, would apply to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike under this interpretative scheme). In other words, the atheist – new or old – seems to me to have a problem of rationally justifying his/her position here.
Another way, to try to separate religious belief from other beliefs – still assuming that "belief" is here interpreted as the affirmation of a descriptive proposition – is to emphasise the nature of the conviction involved in the holding of the belief. When atheists, humanists, skeptics talk about what's irrational about religious belief, it is often underscored how religious believers seem to be unmoved by reason. In fact, within some religions the idea of faith is celebrated to involve exactly that: the believing in something in spite of apparently strong reasons to the contrary. Now, obviously, to the extent that religious belief actually involves this element, it is indeed being targeted by the atheist lines of argument. However, so is all other examples of dogmatic belief, be it political, scientific, or what have you. Moreover, religious belief that is not dogmatic seems to stay untouched by this way of characterising religion, e.g., strong traditions within Christianity where the notion of doubt is as essential to the faith as that of belief.
However, the empirical study of religion also presents a number of other ways of conceptualising the phenomena captured by the words "religion" and "religiosity". One of these, not sursprisingly, is the expressivist interpretation: rather than affirming descriptions, being religious is about liking certain thoughts, practices and social contexts bound together in a package, and religious beliefs simply expresses this liking. The description of her religious belief given by my old girlfriend referred to above seems to fit rather well here. And, under this interpretation, religious beliefs have no truth-conditions, so there is nothing to affirm or deny. A related interpretation that indeed gives religious beliefs truth-conditions, is the subjectivist, where the belief is taken to be a description of the mental states of the holder of the belief. This seems to be a rather common way of being a religious believer in contemporary forms of religiosity found in many developed countries; a person has experiences of particular profoundness regarding a unity, meaning or even beauty of a certain realm of reality (not seldom nature) and gives this experience the name "God". However, for an atheist to falsify a religious belief understood in this way, a very different arsenal of arguments than those commonly mounted is needed. What would be needed is an argument disproving the actual presence of the described state of mind, or the naming of that state of mind. On this interpretation, atheism is probably a very weak position, and most religious beliefs are probably true.
There is a further interpretation that come close to the example of subjectivism above, but that cannot be classified as either subjectivist or expressivist (but neither as the affirmation of a descriptive proposition conjecturing the existence of something transcendent). When asking people who describe themselves as religious what is involved in their belief, I've often encountered descriptions of familiar phenomena that I find myself to be highly sympathetic to, with the slight difference of not using words like "God" to summarise them. This is not the case of people merely expressing or describing private mental states, they are talking about things "out there". On my understanding what goes on in these cases is that a person senses that there is some sort of order in or explanation of phenomena that he or she is unable to fathom (again, often regularities or structures in nature) and gives the unknown order/explanation the name "God". There are probably further explanation of why they choose that particular name (while I and others don't), but the bare bones of the religious belief here seems to be this act of naming, so maybe nominalism would be a good term for this particular variety (not to be confused with nominalism in metaphysics or the philosophy of language). Again, unless an atheist can produce an argument to the effect that this naming violates some rationally prescribed rules, most religious beliefs interpreted in this way are probably true (especially if viewed from the perspective of science).
All of these attempts to make the notion of a religious belief more precise concentrate their clarifying efforts to the semantic content of the belief, or closely related mental states of the believer. However, an increasingly popular analytical take on religion and religiosity employed within religious studies is what we may call the functionalist one. Roughly, this perspective tries to understand religion as a social phenomenon rather than as a worldview (much as science studies look at science), and as a result it is the pragmatics rather than the semantics of religious belief that comes into focus. The functionalist analysis of religion goes something like this: some complexes of customs, practices, institutions etc. are called religions by the people involved in them. To understand these complexes as social phenomena we need to look at the various functions they perform for these people, and this goes for the various parts of the complexes as well. Let's start by looking at religion generally, using these spectacles, thus asking what religions are for.
Some of the answers to that question – such as Marx's and Engels' famous characterisation of religion as the opiat of the people – concentrate on overarching social and/or societal functions. But since what I try to understand at the moment is not so much how religions affect societies and history, but what is involved in a person holding a religious belief, I will put that perspective aside for the moment and instead ask what function utterances of statements we normally take to convey religious beliefs have. Some of it, I presume, has already been touched on when describing the expressivist analysis earlier. However, in the context of religious belief in relation to religions seen as social complexes of the sort just outlined, it is obvious that religious belief is about more than expressing the mere liking of such a complex. Rather, I would suggest, although expressing such liking is a part of the pragmatics of religious belief, there is a salient social dimension to this liking. It's not only that the believer likes his/her religion (i.e., the complex of customs, practices and institutions in question), the belief also expresses a commitment to it and, I would suggest, a sense and signal of belonging to the group of people that like and are committed to the same religion. The function of such signals are mainly to coordinate groups of people in joint social practices and to hold these practices together over time. So far, religious belief is no different in this respect than a large number of other linguistic behaviors, such as cheering for your team, singing the national anthem, saying those things that are supposed to be said at family gatherings, and so on. For a functionalist, to get a more specific idea about religious belief the analysis has to be complemented by a look at what functions the religion in question is performing for the religious believer. This, of course, may vary a great deal. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the following functions are among the more central, playing a key role in attracting people to religions and holding them together over time: confidence and reassurance, social security, belonging and togetherness, moral guidance and a sense of meaningfulness or purpose.
One may note, of course, that all these goods may be attained through the participation in social complexes normally not called religions. However, from a functionalist point of view, this difference regarding commonly applied terminology is a shallow one and of minor concern. Rather, what we learn is that those social complexes normally called religions are far from alone in performing a religious function for people. In fact, this serves to partially explain some of the other aspects of religious belief touched on earlier, such as expressivism, subjectivism or nominalism. Thus, from a functionalist perspective, it becomes rather difficult to separate statements normally taken to express religious beliefs from other statements expressing the liking of, commitment to, and a signal of belonging in relation to any sort of social complex that performs the typical religious functions for those attached to it. This can be a sports team, a political party, a societal system or organisation, your neighborhood, and so on.
Obviously, atheism, when analysed from this point of view, becomes a rather incomprehensible position, since, for the functionalist, atheism may be as much a religious belief as deism/theism. In fact, lots of statements of committed atheists on forums for atheists, "humanists", "skeptics", "rationalists" and such confirm that this is actually the case – in the case of Humanism (the institutionalised movement), not surprisingly, since it markets itself as a secular religion. One of the issues frequently discussed in these contexts is namely how a person who do not affirm any descriptive proposition regarding the existence of something transcendental can still have beliefs and experiences that makes life meaningful, confer a sense of unity, belonging, and so on. Religiosity in the functionalist sense is obviously as important for atheists as it is for deists/theists.
So, where do I land after this long flight? Well, obviously, atheism is a relevant position with regard to religious beliefs adequately interpreted as affirmations of descriptive propositions. However, except in the case of very precise such propositions, atheism would seem to be quite weakly supported in comparison to bona fide agnosticism (not the half-baked Dawkins version, that is). In one case (subjectivism), deism/theism seem to have stronger support than both agnosticism and atheism. What is more, though, regarding many cases of religious belief, and many ways of explicating what religious belief is about, atheism seems to be plainly beside the point and, according to the functionalist reading, even paradoxical. Of course, this does in no way imply deism/theism to be a more confirmed position. On the contrary, what we see is that deism/theism seem to have very little to do with matters of the truth and falsity of propositions aiming at describing the world, and when they have, agnosticism or (in some uncommon cases) atheism has the upper hand of rational support.