Reflections on a Basilica Part 1: Why Skeptics Need More Empathy

Posted on October 25, 2011


I’ve been out of town for the past five days, and so today I don’t have very much to say about Occupy Edinburgh. There are upcoming posts on the subject, to be written once I’ve revisited the encampment, but for now I’m going to finally give in to something we all knew was coming ever since I got accepted to a university across the pond. That’s right: for the moment, Earnest and Jest is a travel blog. But bear with me-this travel story has a point to it.

I spent the weekend in Belgium. Lots of interesting and fun things happened on the trip, but seeing as beer, chocolate and waffles are much more interesting to eat than they are to read about, I’m going to stick with some reflections on the Sint Pieters Basilica in Ghent:

I am familiar with the feeling one gets when walking into an immense religious building. I have known since childhood the totally overwhelming feeling of smallness brought on by the massiveness of the enclosed space and the intricate detail on every little surface. What was new to me in this case was that this was, to my recollection, the first time I have entered such an elaborate place of worship since renouncing my own Christian faith. It was an interesting experience. The stock photo above shows the view of the altar as it would be seen by a member of the congregation, but I dared not venture that close to the front of the altar. It didn’t feel right. The space depicted in the picture above was built for the approach of the faithful, and I felt like I would be violating that sacredness if I got too close.

So I kept my distance, and walked around to see the altar from behind the statues in the corner. There was something somewhat poetic about that perspective. Had there been a mass underway at the time, I would have had a different perspective on it than the worshippers. From my position to the side and back of the altar, I would be able to see behind the scenes of the mass, and perhaps thereby notice something about its conduct that is hidden from those in the pews. But that extra knowledge comes at a price: from my remote viewing position, I would be shielded from the full intended emotional impact of the service. Such is my life as a nonbeliever: I can think critically about religion, but I have abandoned any capacity to feel as a believer feels when placed in a setting so carefully designed to arouse their sense of awe and wonder.

Of course, this information is nothing new to atheism. Though the wording is somewhat condescending, Richard Dawkins’ statement that religion can be seductive constitutes an admission of what I have described above. But rather than allow this information to affect his normative views on religion, most public atheists continue to reject religious belief on the grounds that it is somehow epistemically offensive. This is Richard Dawkins’ main line of attack as best summed up by the following quote:

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.

I’ve been waffling for some time on the question of whether I agree with Dawkins on this, but as with so many difficult ethical issues, the resolution came from an emotional experience rather than a rational one. The awe I felt in that church, despite not believing in any of the symbols carved into the walls, was but a small fraction of the happiness created by such places when they are full of music and ceremony and people who truly believe that their sins are being absolved in the presence of their creator.

What Richard Dawkins, PZ Meyers, Jen McCreight and their cohort fail to realize, and what was only recently driven home for me, is that this comfort is of high ethical value regardless of its epistemic value. I can accept the (dubious) argument of the radical atheists that religion is objectively wrong, and it will make no difference to the fact that cathedrals and the churches they service make millions of people happy every day. Regardless of what I might think of the truth of the words said there, I cannot make any effort to rob religious adherents of their spiritual solace while still calling myself an ethical person. I may confront the ethical transgressions of religion by arguing against the truth claims made therein, but there is no reason to do so if no ethical transgression is present that can be directly tied to the religious belief in question.

My more pluralist readers may find it patronizing that I feel a need to prove this premise. It is, from the perspective of some very common and entirely defensible worldviews, self-evident that the beliefs of religious adherents should be respected. But this has not been how the skeptical movement has developed and so religious tolerance must be constructed anew within a skeptical context. I hope that is what I have done here. Skepticism as a political force is relatively new, and so it still has to construct from scratch many of the ethical maxims that established intellectual traditions take for granted. It does not yet have all the tools it needs for a coherent ethical worldview. What it is most lacking, to my mind, is empathy. Perhaps Dawkins, Meyers and McCreight should spend more time in cathedrals.

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