While trundling around Usenet, I stumbled over a piece of spam by a religionist with the subject “What have atheists ever done for humanity?” The question struck me as interesting, not because of its contents but because of the way it frames the conflict between the religious and non-religious worldviews. The poster wants to provoke the following line of thought: ‘What have atheists done for humanity? Well, let me think of some famous atheists… hmm, nobody really comes to mind. I guess there were the Communists, and Madeline Murray O’Hare. Gee, I guess all we’ve gotten from atheism is mass slaughter. Wow, I guess religion really must be a good thing!” And, indeed, he is correct that overt atheists are pretty sparse on the list of great benefactors of humanity. But does his conclusion follow?
The problem comes from the way the distinction is framed: religion versus atheism. But is this the right way to think of the dispute? Atheism, per se, is a purely negative doctrine. It indicates the lack of a specific kind of belief. But men act on the basis of what they do believe, not what they don’t. I’m an atheist, but that isn’t the essential defining characteristic of my beliefs. Fundamentally, I’m an advocate of reason. Atheism is a derivative consequence, not a primary. I don’t believe in God because there is no rational basis for doing so.
If you reframe the question in terms of reason and faith, the entire playing field changes. What has reason ever done for humanity? In a modern industrial society it’s difficult to identify a concrete value that doesn’t flow from reason. Science, technology, medicine, industry, political freedom — all are children of the age of reason. (Stephen Hicks has a nifty diagram of the connections in his book Explaining Post-Modernism; on-line version available here.) Now consider the contrary question: What has faith ever done for humanity? The era of history in which faith was most dominant is aptly named the Dark Ages — a time when the average lifespan was approximately 30 years and everyone existed in what we would today consider grinding poverty. Disease ran rampant, literacy was extremely rare. Heretics were burned at the stake. Men who took their faith the most seriously, like Saint Francis, would use rocks as pillows, drink laundry water, and sprinkle sand on their food to dull the taste.
Reason is man’s basic means of survival. In essence, the answer to the question “What has reason ever done for humanity?” is “Allowed it to live and prosper.” The answer to the question “What has faith ever done for humanity?” is “Led it to suffer and die.” The religious men whose actions benefited humanity created those benefits to the extent that they acted rationally, i.e. to the extent that their faith did not interfere with their reason.
Attempting to think about this issue in the terms laid out by the religionist is futile. The setup leads down a blind alley to a false conclusion. The lesson is that one should never uncritically accept the terms in which an intellectual opponent wants to frame a debate. Concepts matter. Don’t let your enemies pick the ones you use.