Atheists: Valuable to religion or a “spiritual cancer”

I’m always slightly amused when members of a religion start debates about whether atheists have some legitimate purpose or should be allowed to exist. Even the ones who argue the point in the affirmative usually argue from a perspective of self centeredness and presumptiveness.

I ran across such an article today by Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic Priest. Rolheiser validates the existence of atheists by pointing out that we pick apart bad religion.

In his monumental study of atheism, Michael Buckley suggests that atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad religion.  It feeds off bad religion, picks on bad religion, and picks apart bad religion.

If that’s true, then ultimately atheists do us a huge favor. They pick apart bad religion, showing us our blind spots, rationalizations, inconsistencies, double-standards, hypocrisies, moral selectivity, propensity for power, unhealthy fears, and hidden arrogance. Atheism shows us the log in our own eye.

I find it a bit self centered that he promotes the value of people who are atheists because they critique the “bad” parts of his religion. In any case, how exactly do we tell the difference between good and bad religion? Rolheiser seems to be a more moderate religious believer, so I probably would agree with him on many more things than I would with a fundamentalist. However, while I tend to agree with more moderate religious people on social issues I still find some of the reasoning and philosophy that they employ to be questionable if not outright false. So is our standard for “good” religion based on actions or philosophical clarity? If I were to require both I’m not sure I could name a religion I could call good.

He argues:

Finally, most important, the real response to bad religion is never secularism or atheism, but better religion!  We need to be more consistent, both in private conscience and in church practice.

This claim is only true if some version of religion is true, which amounts to the entire debate between the theists and the atheists. Perhaps the best religious belief is to not believe at all. Further, the only rule he lays out here is consistency, and it is possible for beliefs to be consistent but entirely false.

He continues:

What is better religion? How do we recognize better religion? We recognize true religion in the same way as we recognize true beauty and goodness. They’re self-evident when they appear.

It’s self evident? If it were self evident then why do so many people disagree? Not just atheists, but does he really think all the proponents of “bad” religion know they are wrong but just pretend otherwise? Many of the proponents of what he might call “bad” religion would think Rolheiser’s religion is the bad one. In fact, I actually found Rolheisler’s article via an article written to criticize Rolheiser, which was posted on the religiously conservative Renew America website. It is written by Matt C. Abbot, but I use the term “written” loosely since 90% of the article is block quotes from a Catholic priest and the Catechism. If you found Rolheiser’s thoughts on atheism were insulting then check out Father John Trigilio Jr.’s criticism of it.

Atheism is an intellectual and spiritual cancer. Imagine if physicians began to praise disease and injuries because they challenge us to appreciate good health. How can the denial of God be good for religion and for personal faith? Our enemy’s enemy is not de facto our new good friend. Likewise, just because atheism exposes the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of bad religion, that does not transform the intrinsic evil and error of atheism. Just as cancer is a physical evil, atheism denies an innate truth that there is indeed a God (Supreme Being, Prime Mover, Necessary Being, Creator, et al.).

It would be like praising the devil and evil in general, as one could contend that they make us acknowledge and appreciate God and goodness. The denial of God’s existence is an error; it is a false argument and has no merit

Trigilio thinks our existence is a cancer, I care not if he thinks it a spiritual cancer since I don’t believe there is such a thing as “spiritual,” but to call it an intellectual cancer is to imply that atheists are either stupid or evil. Then Abbot goes on to quote what the Catechism says about atheism as if that is the final word, which I suppose for him, as a Catholic, it is. I suppose I shouldn’t expect much more from Abbot, since on the same site he has also published an article interviewing an M.D. who is a professor of psychiatry and who also believes in demonic possession. (I know who I won’t be going to for medical advice) I may write a separate post about this.

While I disagree with him, at least Rolheiser ends his article by trying to give atheists some credit.

Atheism is a parasite that feed offs bad religion. So, when, like today, atheism takes on a particularly nasty aggression, perhaps we need to examine more closely what this mirrors inside of religion.

To some extent he is right, people who are members of more extremist religions are likely to reject such beliefs and then religion all together, and atheists are also likely to be louder in the face of harms being done explicitly in the name of religion. However, I disagree with his attempt to paint atheists as nothing more than reactionaries or some sort of yang to his yin. His argument sound a little bit too much like the typical claims that people become atheists because they had some bad experience with religious people. Atheists are our own people with our own thoughts, we aren’t here just to help you fix the flaws in your religion.

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