Dear Chris Hayes:
It was mentioned in your show this week that Al Gore bringing up climate change in his film, he created push back. But I think it became a religious tinged issue, because several interested parties such as oil companies and companies in other industries that avoiding passage of laws intended to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change have reached out to allies including religious affiliated efforts. And for political actors that favor profits over protections, they are able to shape the religion and arguments to fit their self-interest.
This is very similar to how religions and politics changed due to the spread of chattel slavery in the colonies and later US states. Slavery was an industry that produced profits and particular lifestyle, and its defenders changed denominations or changed what their denominations preached. It so changed the religion that for the proponents, denying religion from their slaves overcame a natural religious disposition to proselytize.
So if religion can very easily change to meet the political and economic desires of political movers and shakers, the question should be asked, what is the point of religion? Rather than focussing on beliefs that are specific to religion, which I find to be an incomplete understanding of their role in our lives. I think that those that came from families or cultures where religions were equated with “god” beliefs, tend to conflate religion with “god” or “spiritual” faith.
I came from a tradition where religion was primarily a law and ethical concern and ritual practices did not have to be viewed as a faith practice. Atheism seems to be more of a concern of those from faith oriented religions.
This distinction, I think makes it easier to discuss how religion works within society. Rather than the common question of, “do you believe in God?”, the more interesting question is, “does god exist?”. It is more interesting, not because it would provoke an argument to answer it, but because it prompts more pressing questions like:
Can a person be a Christian whether or not god exists? (fill in any faith based religion)
I would posit that the answer is yes.
Can a person be an atheist whether or not god exists?
Again, I would say, yes.
You were getting close to this by separating the public versus private beliefs, but without the language to explain it.
What does it matter what a person believes? It matters on how they treat other people.
Atheism is more a reaction to Christianity than a reaction generally to religion in that not all religions are faith based. I think among atheists there is a fundamental belief in free will. Or hope that there is free will. An atheist would be hard pressed to answer the free will question in scientific terms. Rather they likely believe in it than know it, because it is core to our understanding of our existence and our ability to act. In this way atheists base their own actions on beliefs which may not be proven by science-not a crime, just a way to get through the day.
Although it may be that evolutionary biology may explain our natural tendencies in how we think about ourselves and how we act with others, I would think that we want to be able to not be bound on finding those out as a method of determining ethical treatment of each other. One of the basic misunderstandings of our natural disposition has been in what rational acting is. Science or more importantly our potential understanding of science, should not be the main influence in determining ethical treatment of others. This is where the dangers of atheism can creep in.
Understanding some people's desire for a god is part of a search to understanding what is outside of ourselves. And this is an important step toward ethics. In part seeing that each us us is described and defined by others (or the Other), can lead us to a more ethical approach.
What science can help with is understanding the effect of ethics as it influences political action. Will people be less likely to kill each other? Will that improve the economic and health outcomes. We see this in religious practice or non-practice, when it comes to birth control. Is it ethical to deprive people of birth control even as it seems to conflict with religious doctrine? Is the economic outcome an ethical consideration? How do these issues express themselves in political speech? And does religion practice and even doctrine change to meet ethical considerations as they have for centuries?
So, the question for me circles back to the core issue, how does belief act on or interfere with how people treat each other? Ethics are the core to society and religion in the sense that how we treat each other and how we are treated by others.
I would go back over the discussion you held today and consider how much your instinct was to promote your sense of ethics, of how you should treat each other. And not be as confrontational as Dawkins espoused being on issues that do not seem to impact how we treat each other/ethics. Sometimes you spoke in political terms of how to bring others around to your ethical interests without attacking their beliefs. That is an ethical choice as well, as opposed to the selfish/arrogant effort or the Machiavellian/ ends justify the means attitude.
I believe that we need to build a better language to get at these issues. I hope this letter helps.