It is not specifically religion I oppose as an atheist. I oppose fanaticism—and the way certain kinds of religious tenets seem to make people more vulnerable to it. I oppose spreading the idea that knowledge is gained by authority or revelation to the exclusion of the scientific method. I oppose the dehumanizing in-group versus out-group dynamic many religious communities create. But if a progressive religion (Unitarian Universalism or Ethical Culture, for example) does not entail that kind of thinking, then I fail to see how its existence perpetuates the kind of harm fundamentalism does. In fact, such progressive religions are in a unique position to criticize the harmful aspects of wrongheaded religious thought. This is a vitally important role.
Further, many religions are moving toward more critical, reason-based thinking in general, and I support that. United Methodists, for example, emphasize a fairly balanced approach to belief that involves weighing experience, scripture, tradition and reason, and are doing a better job of being engaged in the world in an ethical way as they continually re-evaluate their conclusions using this method. This is not so different from the way I approach my beliefs about the world—particularly in ethical decision making. I often begin with having an emotional experience that tells me something feels wrong about the world. I’ll read more about it—not from religious scripture, but from writings I find authoritative (such as particular philosophers, scientists, or humanitarians whose credibility is evident in their work). I look at history and how progressive people in the past have responded to various ethical challenges (these progressives constitute my tradition) and then I make, as best I can, a reason-based assessment. If more people adopted this kind of well-rounded analysis, it would benefit our world. And I do not think it would matter whether those undertaking such analysis were religious or otherwise. As atheists, we should be clear about what we oppose within religion, and not seek to oppose all religion simply because a community of people chooses to use the word.
I am particularly concerned about the baby-out-with-the-bathwater tack because we are clearly damaging our ability to effect change when we refuse to work with progressive faith communities. We need to stop being antagonistic to all people of faith and to all values that motivate people of faith—and in fact, where those values align with our own (and they often do; we are all people, after all) we should find ways to work toward living out those values together. Obviously, where religious people advocate for ways of thinking that cause detriment to the well-being of our human family or our planet, we need to boldly speak out. If someone is doing something good and is motivated to do so by religious values that themselves cause harm, we cannot ignore that harm. For example, while the Catholic Church does some of the most amazing, compassionate and effective charity work on the face of the planet, the Church also teaches ways of thinking and ways of viewing oneself as a human being that cause serious pain and damage. And when evangelicals do compassionate charity work but at the same time lobby to keep real science education out of schools, thereby undermining the ability of the future generation to cope with the major challenges they will face (climate change, overpopulation, poverty)—challenges that cannot be solved without creative scientific thinkers—we cannot allow the religious perspective that empowers the erosion of science to go unchallenged.
But when we are willing to work with people of faith, we gain a credibility with them that allows us to speak out against the harmful aspects of religion—and religious people are willing to dialogue with us in ways they would not if we wrote them off entirely. When we become utterly dogmatic in our anti-religious stance, we are undermining our own values of reason and compassion. And we are undermining our ability to see religious human beings as human; the dehumanizing “us” versus “them” mentality causes too much harm to the human family for us to entertain it. We can do better—but we have to be willing to think clearly and compassionately and perhaps even take some risks in trusting that religious people, if we give them the opportunity, can do better, too.