Mark Steel is half right… nobody will abandon religion simply because an atheist bangs on about science

I generally like Mark Steel. He is usually funny and happens to take a political stance in his comedy that appeals to such as me. I was interested to read his piece in today’s Independent in which he (rightly) argued nobody is going to abandon religion simply because “some atheist is banging on at them about science”.

Steel is apt to recognise religious belief – as with almost any other firmly held position – is more than a mere matter of assent to facts/ideas (delete according to your predisposition). He comments, “dealing with the intricacies of people’s ideas requires more than yelling science at them” and offers the example of the anorexic who believes they are fat to underline the point. What passes as obvious for one may seem totally irrational to another specifically because of the intricacy of belief and the presumed facts each one of us deems “properly basic”.

He correctly points out the issue with the modern atheist appeal to heinous acts committed by those who profess religious belief. He states:

isn’t it the actions of these people that are vile, not the religion itself? Unless your attitude is: “Those priests are a disgrace. They sexually abused children, covered it up for decades, then to top it all they give out stupid wafers in their service. How sick can you get”?

This point rather hits at the heart of the issue. Richard Dawkins has argued the heinous acts of several atheist dictators had nothing to do with their atheism whilst simultaneously wishing to maintain the heinous acts committed by Roman Catholic priests were somehow prompted by their religion. For many of the New Atheists (cf. Christopher Hitchens’ God is not great: how religion poisons everything), the attitude is precisely the one stated above.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see Steel observe “I spent a morning at a Sikh temple recently, where 4,000 free meals are provided for anyone who wants one” whilst pointedly remarking “if you turned up at Richard Dawkins’s house with 4,000 mates, I’d be surprised if you all got a meal out of him”.

For all that, Steel’s piece is to be commended. It is funny, endearing and recognises the truth that religious belief – in fact, belief of any sort – is more complex than simply assenting to a series of ideas. Somebody once remarked (and I forget who it was now, so I can’t honestly credit it), the means by which we reach conclusions is a convoluted and intricate exercise influenced by many things. Reason is merely the device we use to convince others we are right. Often, we expect others to conclude  by reason alone when, for most of us, it is but one of many tools we use to reach conclusions.
Here, however, is where I think Steel is a little unfair. The very title of his piece presumes that the religious are scientifically deficient. Equally falsely, he tacitly gives rise to the view that science is the primary form of knowledge (as opposed to other areas that handle issues science cannot and upon which science is often based e.g. philosophy). For all his denunciation of Richard Dawkins, his concern is more that Dawkins patronises believers, has a problem in principle with all religion and clearly ignores the good that many religious believers do. This rather conveys the belief that atheists are the guardians of science and reason whilst believers – who should nevertheless be entertained in their fanciful views so long as they do no harm to others – are not. Steel’s concern is not the specific beliefs of Richard Dawkins but the patronising and/or aggressive rhetoric he employs. It is not his views with which Steel finds a problem but the tactics Dawkins uses to convey them. Ironically, this is rather patronising.
Steel says he finds the “contradictions of religion” confusing – as well he should! The example he cites of a guru continuing to fight a battle having had his head chopped off plays directly to our Western, post-enlightenment sense of that which is “properly basic”. Of course that could never happen, says Steel, but look at the good these Sikhs are doing in a community setting, offering meals to people. It’s the as-long-as-they’re-doing-no-harm form of patronage; “yes, their views are ridiculous but look at the lovely things they do as a result”! At least Dawkins doesn’t patronise like that.
It is true that belief is a complex thing and represents more than mere assent to a set of ideas. It is also true that reason is but one of many tools we use to reach conclusions. However, that does not mean religion itself is baseless and one must park one’s reason to be a believer. I equally don’t believe a guru fought a battle after his head was chopped off. That’s not because I simply dismiss it as something that could never happen (a position Philosophical Naturalism and Atheism are forced to hold). Rather, if there are good grounds to believe in a God (and, without rehearsing them all here, I believe there are) all sorts of possibilities are open to us. Nevertheless, I don’t believe this did happen because of the positive reasons to reject it (again, all of which I will not rehearse here).
By contrast, Christianity is not a religion beset by presumption and story-telling. Scripture itself records God inviting us to “reason together” and the very basis of Christianity – the spark that ignited it as a movement – was based on the evidence for the resurrected Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles argued that their hope – and the whole basis of Christianity – stood or fell on the evidence for that one event. Establish the resurrection as a fraud (as many have tried) and Christianity dies overnight. Establish it as fact (in my view, the historical facts are extraordinarily compelling) and Christianity is based on far more than presumption. It compels us reasonably, philosophically and historically.
Where Steel is undoubtedly correct, it will take much more than atheists banging on about science to convince religious believers to abandon their beliefs. Interestingly, Christians recognised this fact long ago. Whatever the compelling reasons for Christianity (and I believe there are many), Blaise Pascal noted nearly 400 years ago, in his Pensées, that reason was but one step (and not even the first one) on the road to belief. No doubt this is where New Atheism is going wrong, merely “banging on about science”, but is probably where a lot of modern evangelical Christianity gets it wrong too.