Post Author: Bill Pratt
Four times in the past year I have heard the following kind of statement from atheists: “Religious people are dangerous because they think they have answers to ultimate questions.” Twice these comments were uttered by personal friends of mine, and twice I heard them expressed by atheists in debates that I listened to via mp3. The first few times I heard the comment I didn’t think much of it. The fourth time, however, has bothered me enough that I need to respond.
What are the ultimate questions that religious people think they know the answers to? Generally, these are questions like the following:
- Where did the universe come from?
- How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
- Does God exist?
- What happens to us after we die?
- What is the purpose of our lives?
Atheists seem to be alarmed by the fact that religious people think they have answers to these questions. The argument is that people who think they have answers to these questions are often dogmatic, uninterested in reason, irrational, arrogant, and exclusionary. The flip side of this argument is that people who claim to have no answers to these questions are open-minded, reasonable, rational, intellectually humble, and inclusionary.
The first thing that strikes me about this argument is that it is a bit disingenuous for atheists to claim they have no answers. Many of the atheists I know seem quite sure that their answers to all five of the ultimate questions above are correct. They can be just as dogmatic, unreasonable, irrational, arrogant, and exclusionary as the most extreme religious fundamentalist. Just read through the atheist comments on my blog posts, and you’ll have all the data you need.
Secondly, it strikes me as strange that anyone would frown upon a person finding answers to ultimate questions. After all, these are the kinds of questions that mark the major milestones of human life. Birth, marriage, and death all inspire us to ask these questions. Our judicial system and our political discourse wade deeply into these issues. They are foundational to the human experience and they are what drive us forward in our pursuit of truth. To tell a person that they should never think they have answers to these questions seems supremely cruel and unreasonable. It’s like telling a man thirsting for water that there is no such thing as water – he must be content in his thirst.
Is there a legitimate point to be made by atheists? Yes, but not about religious people, specifically. The danger, in my opinion, is not that some people think they have answers to ultimate questions. No, the danger is when a person has answers and they completely shut off their mind and refuse to consider any other views, whether that person is religious or not. Those kind of people exist on all sides and I agree that they are worrying.
When thinking ceases, the search for truth ceases. All of us have some false beliefs, and therefore we all need to be corrected. If we refuse the chance to ever be shown our false beliefs, we endanger ourselves and everyone around us, for truth has consequences. Here I can agree with my atheist friends.