Does expressing atheist views just strengthen bellievers? This issue is raised in Cal McCrystal’s entertaining and favourable review of A.C. Grayling’s short new book Against All Gods.
Grayling (and the Independent’s reviewer) argue that the increasingly forceful activity of believers is a sign that religion is in fact in its death throes. The reviewer makes the point that militant religions define themselves by opposition.
…as in Northern Ireland where people gain religious strength and fervour from their adversaries
I wouldn’t dispute this at all. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a peaceful outcome, though, if Northern Ireland is the template. The medieval Inquisition shows what religion under threat is capable of. Of course, as always, religion can’t be abstracted from the social power relations that it expresses/ supports/ reproduces.
There isn’t something called “religion” that just exists in the realm of philosophy. It’s in the real world helping to unite particulalr social and political groups against others. It doesn’t matter what the ideas behind it are – Grayling’s garden gnome gods or McCrystal’s jellyfish deities would be as useful if they could just convince enough people to worship them and build a hierarchy.
And it may be that opposing religion usually makes believers more determined in their adherence and their will to impose their beliefs. This can’t be taken as an argument for just shutting up and letting religion wither away under the weight of its own stupidity, though.
Even if every non-believer in the world just kept their mouths clamped shut on any faith topic, there’s a whole world full of potential enemy faiths – or opposing sects of the same religion – or opposition groups in the same sect – that believers can define as the enemy.
I would like to think that this capacity indicates a general weakening of belief but it seems to have always been a general characteristic of all monotheistic religions, as well as most others. If this means that religion has always under threat from unbelievers, it’s hardly surprising.
Most people throughout history must have been sceptical, at least in practice. Otherwise everyone would have always followed all the precepts of their religions to the letter. (And even then, they’d have ended up having to be a bit sceptical given that religions are full of contradictory requirements.) If you really believed you’d be eternally damned to hellfire for taking God’s name in vain, there would be no such thing as swearing, for example.
So, if you know the emperor is stark naked, you might as well have the guts to say so.