Atheists should be tolerant of religion

Recently, there was an NPR story by Marcelo Gleiser on how scientists should respond to people’s anxiety about science and God.  Jerry Coyne responded in a post asking if faith should ever not be contested (excluding dying grandmothers and such).  In his response, Coyne referred to a famous quote by Karl Marx.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

The reasoning here is that religion makes oppressed people more tolerant of their condition.  Remove the mechanism that placates them, and they’ll demand real change from their condition.  Like many nonbelievers, I have to admit to having felt what I thought was the truth of Marx’s words here.  However, I no longer think Marx was right about this.  Indeed, I think I’ve turned sharply against it.

My evolution away from it started with a series of posts by the evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber.  Barber points out that, on a country by country basis, religiosity is inversely proportional to GDP per capita.  In other words, the poorest countries on Earth are the most religious.  The richest are the most secular.  (With outliers like the US, but the relationship holds across US states.)  There are lots of exceptional people who transcend this, but they are exceptions to the broad statistics of populations.  Barber refers to religion as a “security blanket”.  But in processing his posts, I realized a better phrase might be ‘coping mechanism’.

People are not miserable because they are religious.  (Well some are, but that’s not the direction of causality for most people.)  Most people are religious because they live poor hard scrabble lives, lives where they have little power over what happens to them, or are anxious by nature.  Their religion is often their coping mechanism.

But wouldn’t removing that coping mechanism incite them to improve their situation?  Maybe, but this reasoning sounds perilously close to the same reasoning conservatives often deploy to resist unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other assistance programs.  Deny people this aid, the reasoning goes, and they’ll be motivated to improve their situation.  Sound familiar?

Both lines of reasoning assume that people aren’t already motivated to improve their lot.  If you don’t make that assumption, then removing aid (welfare) from people only makes them more miserable and the climb out of poverty harder.  It seems reasonable to assume that removing their coping mechanism (religion) would probably simply increase their psychological burdens and also make that climb harder.

This implies that to succeed at making a more rational society, first economic security and equality must be secured.  Selling cold hard rationalism to people without these benefits will have limited success.  It doesn’t mean you can’t sell  your world view, only that there should be a sensitivity to people’s circumstances and their readiness to hear it.

A couple of quick notes.  Some religious believers may read this post as being condescending.  It’s not intended to be.  The truth is that non-belief is, for most of us, a luxury.  All of us should be cognizant that if our lives had turned out differently, if we had lost the lottery of birth and been born in poorer circumstances, we would likely need religious belief as much as anyone.

Finally, this isn’t an argument to tolerate fundamentalism, biblical literalism, faith healing, or other destructive practices.  Where science clearly contradicts belief, or where those beliefs are clearly destructive, they should be contested.  Nor is this an argument to tolerate encroachments on the separation of church and state.  Tolerance, after all, is a two way street.

5 thoughts on “Atheists should be tolerant of religion

  1. Thanks ‘SAP’, I had missed that post at WEIT. I agree overall having had my own reversal upon 1)learning how fundamental the cognitive mechanisms are that give rise to supernatural belief and 2)that it’s more the case that our beliefs choose us, so to speak, rather than the reverse. There but for circumstance go I indeed.


    1. Thanks amanimal. That’s an excellent point. Strangely enough, it’s one that Richard Dawkins made in ‘The God Delusion’ in arguing that atheists shouldn’t be blamed for their lack of belief. But it applies just as much in reverse.


  2. Marx was incredibly patronising, and not just about religion! He talks about “the people”, meaning “other people, not me.”

    As for tolerance, we all need to be tolerant of others, but not necessarily tolerant of their beliefs or their behaviour.

    Pointing out defects and problems with religious belief isn’t necessarily a way to motivate people to make more of their lives (although religious fatalism can be a problem), but teaching people to think and question and to acquire scientific understanding can be a valuable tool for people to better their lives. Without that, how can you ever hope to overcome ignorance and prejudice?


    1. I totally agree about Marx.

      On tolerance, I guess I’m inclined to be tolerant of their beliefs and behavior if they’re not demonstrably harmful. I agree on teaching critical thinking, but I think it’s a strategic mistake to make it a forced binary choice between critical thinking versus all their coping mechanisms. I think we should be willing to accept half a loaf when the alternative is no bread at all.


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