March 31, 2006

A note on the function of religious belief

Amanda says the following in a short post on the prevalence of openly atheistic bloggers:

Godlessness and liberalism generally do go together, though, because I think that once you embrace a view of equality, you stop needing a god around to justify hierarchies. That said, it’s obvious that a minority of atheists start off as pro-hierarchy and simply try to find replacement religions to justify their arguments from authority–the Raving Atheist, for instance, is on that list....

Scanning the comments, quite a few people also have a problem with this. But, of course, I'm going to just run off immediately to philosophyland, rather than making some empirical point about how there are plenty of religious lefty folks around.

I think it's fair to say that a lot of atheists see a strong conflict between faith/belief/religion and reason/logic/science, and their atheism comes out of identifying very strongly with the latter camp. This is why so many atheists have the nasty habit of chunkling to themselves in their self-satisfaction about new believing in the magic en-bearded Ward Cleaver in the sky: any list of propositions, they think, that science doesn't sign off on is wishful thinking and superstition and should've been abandoned back in the Dark Ages.

But notice the implicit assumption: belief is a list of propositions, just like the content of a scientific theory. Over the past four years, I've come to the understanding that this is extraordinarily disingenuous, or at best an extreme oversimplification of the nature of belief. And atheists need to shake that view if we're ever going to get along with our lefty and progressive religious sisters and brothers.

Religious belief, particularly the form it takes among evangelicals, is the basic way the believer structures and represents her relation to the world as a whole. The belief that God loves and cares about you personally is a source of immense comfort and self-esteem for the believer: whatever else happens, you know that you're still important and loved, and that someone powerful is going to (help you) make things right. Belief is the way the believer situates herself in her community and organizes her life and values. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, faith is the way the self relates itself to itself and to the power which constituted it: for the believer, her belief and her self-identity are the same thing. (I serious think that any atheist who wants to truly understand Christianity needs to read Kierkegaard.)

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