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Should Atheism Be Universally Held?

Michael Martin

Should atheists want everyone to embrace atheism? Should atheism become a universally held view? Many atheists seem to think so. They maintain that since atheism is the true view, it should be held by all. This argument, which assumes that truth is an overriding consideration and that no other factors are important, has been challenged by Dmitri Tymoczko in his essay, 'What Good Is Religion?" in The Boston Review (December-January, 1997/1998).

Tymoczko believes that religion, although false, is useful. Indeed, at one point he says that religious beliefs are what psychologists call "positive illusions (p. 37)"--they can be beneficial to those who have them. He also believes that the truths discovered by science are "in some respects deeply disturbing: our universe has no moral fabric, provides little basis for personal immortality and contains striking divergences between deserts and reward (p. 37)." Accordingly, he thinks that there would be a serious loss if everyone were to embrace atheism. Tymoczko does not want to deny that belief in atheism has its own benefits. But he maintains that "the virtues associated with these two world-views may be evenly matched, in the sense that one will never overcome the other."

Tymoczko also holds that atheists benefit from contact with religious believers. One can "imagine atheists who particularly enjoy the company of religious people, taking a vicarious pleasure in their faith," he says. He adds that atheists should have tolerance of religious people, not simply because they respect their right to choose a religious life, but because of a deep appreciation of the actual content of religious belief and an aesthetic appreciation of the quality of religious lives. Believers are "society's dreamers" and atheists "should cherish them much as we cherish our own individual dreams (p. 41)." More important still, Tymoczko maintains that society benefits in that a more content-directed approach to religious tolerance "creates a strong bond between atheists and believers. . . [R]eligion and atheism are seen as part of a complete, well-rounded community--as two sides of a coin rather than two sides of a dispute (p. 38)." Tymoczko's vision of society is one in which believers and nonbelievers partake of a cognitive division of labor in which the two groups "embody different and incompatible cognitive values (p. 41)."

Tymoczko rejects accounts of religious language according to which it does not refer at all or is purely metaphorical or should be translated into a secular idiom. Indeed, he suggests that religious language should be taken pretty much at face value. He also rejects the ideas that religion has real costs to atheists who are persecuted as well as to religious believers who fear eternal damnation, that religion is a tool of control of one part of society by another, that religion survives not because it is beneficial but for other reasons, for example people's irrationality. Provisionally setting aside these alternative accounts, he maintains that his "false but useful" account is a simpler explanation than the other ones. Only his position, he argues, clearly explains why religion continues to flourish. Furthermore, he holds that we should avoid explanations that make religious believers look unnecessarily foolish and that only his view does this.

I am in sympathy with Tymoczko's contention that truth is not the only value in matters religious. Indeed, I have argued in Atheism (pp. 30-35) that on rare and unusual occasions the benefits involved in believing are so great one should believe in God despite the falsity of the belief. But my position and Tymoczko's are miles apart for he apparently thinks that the occasions for holding false religious beliefs are numerous and common.

I also advocate complete religious tolerance. I maintain that religious people have the right to believe what they want even if what they believe is incoherent and absurd. But unlike Tymoczko I am not tolerant because I receive vicarious pleasure from believers' faith or have an aesthetic appreciation of their lives. On the contrary, on my opinion many religious views are not pleasing; indeed, some are morally outrageous. To cite one obvious example, many Christians believe that sincere and morally outstanding nonbelievers will suffer eternal damnation while moral monsters will go to Heaven so long as they accept Jesus on their deathbeds. In addition, religious lives are often aesthetically problematic in that the beliefs that serve as their basis are difficult to reconcile cognitively with the large amount of seemingly gratuitous evil and the existence of a good and all powerful God.

I also am skeptical about Tymoczko's thesis that atheists should cherish the believers' views because they -- the believers -- are society's dreamers. Somehow Tymoczko seems to have forgotten that religious dreams often invoke eternal damnation for atheists while positing a form of society in which women know their place, homosexuality is a sin, and Creationism is mandatory in the public schools.

There is no need to deny that religion has some good consequences. However, the history of religious wars, persecution, and repression certainly suggests that on balance religion has resulted in more evil than good. Tymoczko maintains that false religious beliefs would not have lasted if they were not beneficial, but this thesis is not credible. Many harmful false beliefs have lasted. Even now the acceptance of pseudo science and quack medicine whose harmful effects can hardly be denied is rife.

Tymoczko faults an atheistic worldview for lacking a moral fabric. Is he suggesting that atheists are committed to a subjective morality? As an Oxford philosophy student, he should know that moral objectivity is quite compatible with atheism and that a theistically based morality itself has grave problems. He also faults atheism for providing no foundation for personal immortality, but since Hindus and Buddhists do not believe in personal immorality, this is not a problem for atheism alone. Recall that Tymoczko is trying to show some advantages of religious belief over nonbelief, not advantages of Christian religious belief over nonbelief. Moreover, the Christian view seems unfair and arbitrary. Salvation through faith excludes millions of people who on account of their historical and cultural contexts could not have such faith and relegates to hell everyone from Jewish Holocaust survivors to Tenth Century Africans who did not believe in Jesus. Atheists seem on firm moral ground in rejecting such a view of personal immortality and in thinking that doing so shows no deficiency in their position.

This article first appeared in the American Rationalist, Jan/Feb 2001 and is republished with the permission of the editor.