I’ve been reading Frans de Waal‘s very interesting book The Bonobo and the Atheist. The book gives a riveting account of the morality of the bonobos (and other primates), and also some theories of how human morality may have arisen.
Frans de Waal is an interesting kind of atheist – a very different kind of atheist to me! For one thing, he consents to Alain de Botton‘s famous line:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”
For me, “Is it True?” is precisely the most important question you can ask about a religion. I suspect this is probably the case for most people reading this, whether believer or skeptic – why else would you bother reading an atheist blog?
I think you could really only accept de Botton’s view if you were convinced that either all religions were obviously false, or else that it didn’t matter if one of them was true. I’m sure my readers will differ on the first point, but probably not on the second one. Many religions teach that you will suffer for eternity if you make the wrong choices – it matters a great deal if one of those religions is true!
De Waal’s feelings about the kinds of atheists who would reject de Botton’s view is nicely summarised in this passage from Chapter 7:
To insist, as neo-atheists like to do, that all that matters is empirical reality, that facts trump beliefs, is to deny humanity its hopes and dreams. We project our imagination onto everything around us. We do so in the movies, theater, opera, literature, virtual reality, and, yes, religion. Neo-atheists are like people standing outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic. How shocking! Most of us are perfectly comfortable with the duality. Humor relies on it, too, lulling us into one way of looking at a situation only to hit us over the head with another. To enrich reality is one of the most delightful capacities we have, from pretend play in childhood to visions of an afterlife when we grow older. (p 204, emphasis added)
“Neo-atheists” are described as killjoys, who want to ruin the fun of others who just like to play make-believe games, or watch movies. They’re the kind of people who would point out that the bride is not really the most beautiful woman in the world!
But is it really like that? Personally, I don’t have a problem with the typical religious believer who believes because it gives them solace to think that they’ll see their lost relatives again, or because they find nature even more wonderful by imagining a beautiful designer of rainbows and sunsets, or even because they are moved by the spine-tingling harmonies and echoes of a Catholic mass in an ancient cathedral. But I do have a problem with the kind of believer who insists that others must share their views, or who acts on their views in destructive ways.
To continue with the movie theatre analogy, if I saw a group of movie-goers honestly upset by the belief that Leonardo DiCaprio had really drowned, I would want to reassure them that this was not the case. If I saw a drowned-Leo-believer acting aggressively towards drowned-Leo-skeptics, I think it would be important to step in – even if, for some reason, the believer thought it was extremely important for everyone else to come to share his views. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. In both cases, knowledge of the truth is far from just a boring little detail. On the other hand, if I found a group dedicated to a belief that the events of the movie were all true, but whose beliefs did not have any adverse effects, then I’d feel no need to explain otherwise.
I should probably finish by saying that I also don’t have a problem with believers who want to share the “good news” or, perhaps more accurately, warn me about the “bad news”. Such people are simply concerned for my well-being, whether their concern is well-founded or not. It can, of course, become irritating if the believer won’t take No for an answer, or if they like to knock on your door early on a Saturday morning. While I don’t think their religion is true, I can certainly understand why they would want to tell me about it. (In fact, I was in their shoes only a few years ago.) A religious believer is very rarely the inventor of the religion, so the religion itself bears more of the blame than the believer.
Religions affect people differently. Some are content to let the good teachings lead them towards a more moral way of living, but others become obsessed with “spreading the word”, even to the point of violence. If religion was abolished, people in both camps (and all in between) would have one important factor motivating their behaviour removed. Is that too much of a price to pay? I don’t claim to know the answer to that question.