That is not to say Leiter’s argument is watertight. The claim that religion deserves no special exemptions from generally applicable rules may be right but not because there is anything particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief? Aware of the difficulty of defining religion, Leiter devotes a section of the book to the question. His discussion is more sophisticated than many on the subject but he still draws a categorical distinction between religious and other beliefs that is difficult, if not impossible to sustain. Among the distinctive features of religious beliefs, he maintains, is their insulation from evidence. Religious believers may cite what they consider to be evidence in support of their beliefs; they tend not to revise these beliefs in the light of new evidence, still less to cite evidence against them. Instead, their beliefs are part of what Leiter describes as a “distinctively religious state of mind . . . that of faith”.
The trouble is that it is not only avowed believers who display this state of mind.
…Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in world-view to be itself a cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human lot is an act of faith. Illustrating Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious believers.
If religion does not deserve a special kind of toleration, it is because there is nothing special about religion. Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency. The practice of toleration – and it is the practice, cobbled up over generations and applied in ethics and politics as much as religion, that is important – is based on this fact. Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted and many of them absurd. At bottom, that is why – in a time when so many people are anxious to believe they are more rational than human beings have ever been – toleration is so unfashionable.
Years ago, I would have read this and bristled over the facile equation of atheism to religion. And if that were his main point, I’d probably still react that way. But the more interesting —and true — point here is the almost banal reminder that, insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, we don’t actually have any meaningful idea what would happen if the whole world adopted western-style atheism. People might no longer be stupid in uniquely monotheistic ways anymore, but I think it’s a safe bet that we would just find new ways to express our bottomless reserves of stupidity. The point is not that we shouldn’t care about pursuing truth or making improvements; the point is just that we can observe how the same perennial themes of human nature reassert themselves even when, especially when, we pride ourselves on our supposed accomplishments. The Greeks were on to something with all that stuff about hubris, no less so for having expressed it in mythological story-form. As certain segments of the online atheist community have made brutally clear this year, reasoning your way to the nonexistence of God is not necessarily any protection against being insanely stupid in other ways.
How do people react when they’re actually confronted with error? You get a huge range of reactions. Some people just don’t have any problem saying, “I was wrong. I need to rethink this or that assumption.” Generally, people don’t like to rethink really basic assumptions. They prefer to say, “Well, I was wrong about how good Romney’s get out to vote effort was.” They prefer to tinker with the margins of their belief system (e.g., “I fundamentally misread US domestic politics, my core area of expertise”).
A surprising fraction of people are reluctant to acknowledge there was anything wrong with what they were saying. One argument you sometimes hear, and we heard this in the abovementioned episode, but I also heard versions of it after the Cold War. “I was wrong, but I made the right mistake.”
More and more, I find the kind of issues explored by authors like Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, the Brafman brothers, Thaler and Sunstein, Chabris and Simons, etc., to be far more interesting and pertinent than the details of ideological differences.