Anybody who has been following my writings knows that while I take a humanistic approach to most topics, I’ve consistently been critical of the New Atheists and their root-and-branch rejection of religion. I recognize that (with certain exceptions) many people’s religions make them happier, more compassionate people; and if they are, I don’t see how anyone would gain by convincing them otherwise. My parents were such people, and as they declined towards death I was perfectly content to let them believe they would soon be in Heaven.
But there is one point on which I agree with the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens view: It’s dangerous to make a place in your mind for divine decrees that are not to be questioned. If a mistake makes it into that citadel at the center of your worldview, it becomes immune to the ordinary processes of correction.
For example, if it somehow it got into the secular part of your mind that 2 + 2 = 5, you’d eventually catch on. You’d make mistakes, screw things up, and after you’d seen enough of those errors, you’d recognize what they all had in common. “Maybe 2 + 2 isn’t 5,” you’d say. “I need to take another look at that."
But now imagine that such an error made it into your divine-decree citadel: "God said: 'Two plus two equals five.' The heresy that 2 + 2 = 4 is a construction of the Devil, designed to drag us down to Hell."
Now you would screw up the same things that a similarly mistaken secularist would, but you wouldn’t learn from your mistakes. Every time the thought surfaced that the problem was in your arithmetic, you’d say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” You’d look for something or somebody else you could blame for those screw-ups, and you’d keep making them.
If you want to see this process in action, look at gay rights.
A couple generations ago, the conventional wisdom said that homosexuality corrupted society, and so society was justified in punishing homosexual acts and refusing to recognize homosexual relationships. Just about everybody believed that — or at least they seemed to in public — and so it was hard to think otherwise. There was a circularity to it, as there often is when an idea isn’t seriously challenged: Gays stayed in the closet, most straights believed they didn’t know any gays, and so the idea that society could tolerate gays without being damaged mostly went untested.
But over the last few decades, gays and lesbians have been increasingly more visible, more recognized, and more tolerated. As a result, we now have evidence to look at. Overwhelmingly, that evidence shows that there are no ill effects to tolerating homosexuality and homosexual relationships. Again and again, the falling-sky predictions of traditionalists have not come true. Boston, for example, has allowed same-sex marriages since 2003. So by now the resulting social breakdown really ought to be showing up in statistical comparisons to Bible-belt cities like Houston or Atlanta. It doesn’t seem to be.
Straights who know same-sex couples are seeing the same thing anecdotally: It looks a little weird at first and your early interactions may be a bit clumsy, but before long you start to wonder why you ever thought something had to go wrong.
As a result, by now just about everybody who held their homosexuality-corrupts-society belief in a secular way has looked at the evidence and abandoned it. It just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. And without that belief, there’s really no secular justification for punishing homosexual acts or refusing to recognize same-sex relationships.
But people who are anti-gay because God-says-it’s-wrong have not changed their views. Instead, their predictions of societal doom and divine judgment keep stretching further and further into the future and getting more and more bizarre. Anything that goes wrong — from 9-11 to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy — somehow connects to gay rights. The more evidence piles up against their views, the more shrill and strident they become.
How long can this go on? Well, if the struggle to deny evolution is anything to judge by, centuries. Once a mistake gets into the God-says-so citadel, it’s very hard to get it out.
And that’s got to make you wonder if you should have such a citadel at all.