By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Some guy named Bruce Sheiman has a new book out called An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion Than Without It, and all of the sudden the media find that atheists come in a variety of flavors. Here's an excerpt from a USA Today article on the topic:
The old atheists said there was no God. The so-called "New Atheists" said there was no God, and they were vocally vicious about it. Now, the new "New Atheists"—call it Atheism 3.0—say there's still no God, but maybe religion isn't all that bad.
Faith provides meaning and purpose for millions of believers, inspires people to tend to each other and build communities, gives them a sense of union with a transcendent force, and provides numerous health benefits, Sheiman says. Moreover, the galvanizing force behind many achievements in Western civilization has been faith, Sheiman argues, while conceding that he limits his analysis, for the most part, to modern Western religion.
This is not news. Atheists have always come in many flavors, some tolerant, some not so tolerant, and so on. And while I agree with one of the author's premises—that religion produces a lot of positive benefits—I'm not sure I agree that society is better off with it than without it.
Most importantly, religion creates communities for people who might otherwise be quite isolated and lonely. Church (or temple) is a networking opportunity one simply can't find in atheism or agnosticism or animism. It's also a support group that more independent thinkers haven't found a way to successfully duplicate. If they had, there might be more atheists in the world than believers.
But there are some very nasty side effects that religion brings with it that I'm not sure if one were to tally up the lists of "positive" and "negative" effects of organized religion, would place one squarely in the positive category.
For example: war. If there were no Hindus and Muslims to fight each other, perhaps India and Pakistan would not be on the brink of war. If Jews and Muslims/Arabs hadn't been at it for millennia, maybe there would be no conflict in the Middle East. If only Sunnis and Shiites got along—and they are two different versions of the same religion—Iraq might be much more unified, as would other places in the Middle East.
So yes, churches provide respite, comfort, community, and even help during disasters to parishioners. But if we tally up the number of those slaughtered in religiously based wars, I'm not sure the outcome is positive.