An Atheist Defends the Value of Religion

An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It

This article was in The Washington Post in Sept 3, 2009

By Bruce Sheiman author

As an atheist, I approach religion much like an economist. I believe religion persists in our market-based culture, despite the prevalence of secularism, because it provides net value over and above its required investment, and because it beats competing belief systems in the same value proposition. I evaluate religion in terms of its pragmatic usefulness to humankind and seek to answer the question posed by William James: “Grant an idea or belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?”

Atheism is a bankrupt ideology on empirical grounds: Its benefits simply do not come close to covering its opportunity costs. Religion, by contrast, offers the vast majority of people a high-value transaction: Its enduring benefits far outweigh its costs. Religion persists, in short, for the reason that it provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Thus, by book “An Atheist Defends Religion” is not mainly a critical examination of the New Atheism. Rather, I am making a broad statement about the affirmative role of religion in the contemporary world and what is lost in a purely secular conception of the world.

For centuries, the theism-atheism debate has been dominated by two positions: hard-core believers fervently committed to their faith in a living God; and militant atheists vehemently driven to repudiate the Divine. The time has come to admit that after more than 2,000 years of back-and forth proofs and counterproofs, this debate has reached an insolvable impasse. The question about the existence of God can never be resolved to either side’s satisfaction. But the discussion need not end there. We are still left with the important issue of the value of religion. And this is a debate that religion can win. “An Atheist Defends Religion” redefines the terms of the debate, offering a new direction and perspective.

I am not a person of faith: I do not feel the majesty or mystery of the Holy. But neither do I stridently repudiate God. Indeed, there is a part of me that wants to believe in God. That makes me an “aspiring theist.” And I want to believe in the Divine because, on balance, religion provides a combination of benefits — moral, emotional, aesthetic, psychological, existential, communal, and even physical-health — that no other institution can replicate. These are the essential qualities that make religion so enthralling, enriching, enlightening, and enrapturing. They explain how we achieve our fullest humanity only in religion.

The question I present is not whether God exists, but whether the world is a better place because people believe God exists. This book, as a consequence, is not a defense of God; rather, it is a defense of the belief in God and of religious belief in general.

Being an atheist is not something that I or any one else rationally or deliberately chooses. I did not think through all the competing belief systems and chose unbelief. It is just something that I am. I must admit, however, that the more I understand the world as revealed by science, the more I find the materialist and reductionist explanation for our human destiny terribly devoid of depth, value and meaning. This offends not my religious sensibility (of which I have none), but my existential vanity – the strongly held personal view that my life counts in the grand scheme of things. As a consequence, I am an atheist who is sympathetic to religious aspirations and who is prepared, if not to defend God, then to defend the belief in God.
A mature view holds that religion is more about meaning and purpose than facts and events. Through religion, we experience the mundane as miraculous and the normal as numinous. Religion teaches us that our lives have inherent worth and that the world is shot-through with value. Paul Tillich said, “He who enters the sphere of faith enters the sanctuary of life.” And that is because the core preoccupation of religion is the preservation and perpetuation of human existence.

More than any other institution, religion deserves our appreciation and reverence because it has persistently encouraged people to care deeply – for the self, for neighbors, for humanity, and for the natural world – and strive for the highest ideals humans are able to envision. And there is no more eminent ideal than religion’s clear declaration of human specialness and the absolute sanctity of life.

Faith is one of the most powerful forces in human development and a strong impetus to personal transformation and collective progress. Religion’s misdeeds may make for provocative headlines, but the everyday good works of billions of pious people is the real history of religion, one that parallels the growth and prosperity of humankind. There are countless examples of individuals lifting themselves out of personal misery through faith. In the lives of these people, God is not a delusion, God is not a spell that must be broken – God is indeed great.

The debate about the existence of God is neverending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence.

The take-away from this book is that religious experience is the essential human experience. Mine is a human-centric evaluation of religion. By any empirical measure — defined in terms of theism’s practical impact on individuals, society, and culture — religion is profoundly beneficial.

In the end, “An Atheist Defends Religion” cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

Bruce Sheiman is the author of the new book “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion than Without It.”

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