The imperfection of the world is the theme of every religion which offers a way of escape, and of every sceptic who deplores the prevailing superstition.
Alfred North Whitehead, from Process and Reality
Some would say that the Devil is the cause of the world’s imperfections. Perhaps it was the cause of the Fall. Various religious traditions will have their own explanations, but in many cases, as Whitehead observed, it is a theme that is present in many religious traditions.
And yet the other part of his observation is that the ‘sceptic,’ that would be people like me supposedly, will try to argue that the world is imperfect because of the beliefs of those pious ones. Perhaps it implies that the world would be better if the superstitions didn’t exist. And while there are many people who argue thus, I don’t completely agree.
I have argued elsewhere and previously that I think that the existence of religion is a net loss for culture, but that there are some things good about religion. However, I don’t think that this implies that the problem is caused by religion per se. Rather, I think that religion is one of the symptoms of the problem.
And I am not quite sure what the problem is. I know that part of it is that we have brains that evolved to deal with survival and not truth, complex moral questions, and other things hat we found as we processed towards greater understanding and consciousness. We are prone to irrational thinking, blind spots in perception and attention, and bias. We see intention and agency where there is none, become emotionally and psychologically attached to worldviews in opposition to challenging worldviews, and we vilify the other. All of these are subjects of interest to sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, etc.
Religion is simply one of the older, more complicated, and more pervasive developments of such behavior patterns. And, being somewhat aware of these problems, they absorb the awareness of them as part if there framework; they interweave the imperfections of the world into the descriptions generated by the same behavior patterns that create religions.
Ah, but I’m talking about our perception of the world, not the world itself, right? Well, that’s exactly it. It is our judgment of the world that finds it flawed. We compare it to better alternatives and judge it lacking. (Some intelligent designer, eh?)
In any case that’s tangential. What I want to comment on is the sometimes overemphasis that atheists and other non-religious people will put on religion. I think that they miss the fact that all of us are subject to the same flaws, and that the irony is that sometimes we bring the same behavior patterns to whatever we are, which is why some people will say that atheism is a religion; because some atheists act in the same way as the religious people they criticize.
The fact is that this is a god observation in many respects. What the atheist should say, and often does and it gets ignored or misunderstood, is that we are not only criticizing religion. Many of us are concerned with the general problem of superstitious thinking, faith in things without evidence or in the face of opposing evidence, and lack of a willingness to accept criticism of strongly held ideas. Religion just happens to be, for many people, the elephant in the room.
My advice for atheists would be to keep in mind how you are continuing certain patterns of behavior that helped create the dogmas of religious belief. Consider turning around whatever criticism you give to other to yourself as well.
My advice for theists is, surprise, the same thing. Be aware of the flaws within your own thinking, and not just the problems with the world. Question, well, what you hold dearest!
I’ll end with a seemingly unrelated quote from an older source. When asked by Phaedrus whether he believes in the myth of Boras seizing Orithyia from the river bank, Socrates replies that
I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.
Perhaps these are wise words. In any case, I’ll say that part of my finding myself was to find that I am unable to accept the claims of faith around me. I simply share it because I think it’s important. If I am being ridiculous, then I’ll accept that charge. All is vanity….