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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Atheism vs. Religion: An Overview

The debate between atheism and religion hinges on a simple disagreement over how to approach religious belief. For atheists, religion must be understood scientifically, like any other phenomenon. For theists, religion must be embraced without science.

Arguments against atheism follow three main points. First is the claim that science and reason cannot answer important questions about the meaning and value of life. Atheists argue that all meaningful questions about life have scientific answers. The feelings that drive and give meaning to human life can be defined in biological terms as products of evolution.

Other theists claim religion is not about answering questions at all; it is about feelings, not facts. God is to be felt, not understood. Atheists argue that feelings should be studied scientifically and do not require belief in anything we cannot understand. Some atheists argue that it is impossible to believe in something one cannot understand; many theists agree, and thus prefer to use the term "faith" to describe their religious attitude.

Finally, some theists argue that science also rests on faith; like religion, it can neither be proved nor disproved. Atheists say science is different because it makes testable predictions and, unlike religion, science does not require faith in anything beyond human comprehension.

The disagreements between atheists and theists are played out through ongoing political and legal tensions involving, for example, abortion, stem-cell research, and the teaching of evolution in public schools. There are also issues involving the harmonious integration of individuals from different, often incompatible, religious backgrounds. Consider, for example, the political and social tensions arising from Muslim immigration in Western Europe. As a result of these political dimensions, the debate between atheism and religion is often a battle between competing forms of authority.

According to atheists, religious authority lacks accountability because it does not rely on evidence. Without any basis in science, religion is said to be irresponsible and dangerous. Atheists support this view by citing the historical prevalence of religious wars and the violent and repressive nature of many religious traditions.

Theists often contend that science is irresponsible and dangerous because it places no value on human life and cannot offer moral guidance. They refer to horrors performed in the name of science by Nazis in the early half of the 20th Century, and claim that religion does more for humanity. For example, there are indications that religious individuals do more to help the poor and give money to charities. Atheists in turn point out that atheists tend to have very strong moral principles. People do not need religion to provide moral guidance; instead, they can attain positive moral values through secular institutions which nurture their biological instincts.

Interestingly, the question about moral authority is empirical and can be answered with statistical and biological evidence. Atheists often acknowledge the moral wisdom imparted by many religious traditions. They also emphasize that scientists have begun to uncover the biological and evolutionary roots of morality.

The political debate between atheism and religion involves a spectrum of views, with extremists on both sides promoting intolerance of the opposition. Agnostics and religious moderates define the middle ground. They say religious beliefs are entirely personal and should not influence public policy, and regard those who disagree as extremists or fundamentalists.