Religion is neither irrational nor just infantile superstition

Jamie asks:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with atheists and theists. I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of the species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off. He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure these odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Craig Skinner

The view of Dawkins, Hitchens and other “new atheists” that religion is irrational and based only on ignorance and superstition, and will fade away in the bright light of modern scientific understanding, is tedious and misleading. Plenty of well-educated and science-savvy people are religious. The two components of religion are the religious impulse and religious practice. The first is a feeling that there is something purposeful behind the world of everyday appearance augmented by scientific understanding. The second, religious practice, is communal activity based on shared beliefs about the source and nature of that purpose for us. None of the religious people I know relies on the flawed cosmological, ontological, design and moral “arguments” for god’s existence (many havent even heard of them). Rather, for them, belief in god is a basic belief around which other beliefs are fitted. Just as for atheists, disbelief is basic and other beliefs fit around that. In neither case is the basic belief irrational. And deciding the matter is not like deciding whether, say, string theory is an advance on QM/GTR. Belief in god is not another scientific conjecture about the natural world (the “God hypothesis”), so using evidence about this world plus, say, Bayesian analysis, to estimate the probability of god’s existence, is misplaced. And likening belief in god to silly beliefs, in fairies say, doesnt help either. All we can say is that if god exists his existence is necessary, and if god doesnt exist his existence is impossible. But we dont know which it is. And that doesnt mean it’s a 50/50 shot, or that it’s highly improbable one way or the other. We just dont know full stop.

Of course, in our attempts to grasp the nature of what is behind the scenes (if anything), all kinds of fanciful notions arise, and since some conflict with others, they cant all be true. But this doesnt mean it’s all nonsense or irrational superstition. Theism (and Deism) are just as respectable as atheism.

For the record, I’m an agnostic, and against denouncing or killing each other, or forcing our views on others, over something nobody can be sure about.

Finally, for a less militant and less shallow atheist view than that of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, try Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief, Harvard University Press (2017).

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