Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World, by Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan (Durham, N.C.: Pitchstone Publishing, 2017, ISBN 978-1634311267) 151 pp. Paperback, $14.95.
Some atheists embrace missionary work. They maintain we should strive, through peaceful persuasion, to eradicate belief in gods. There are no deities, and everyone, including the religious, would be better off if these false beliefs were discarded.
But careful consideration of this goal suggests that it may be neither a prudent nor a critically important objective. There has been a noticeable decline in religious belief in many developed countries, but this may be due more to improved living conditions than to efforts at persuasion.
Perhaps more significantly, it’s not clear that belief in the existence of supernatural beings is, in and of itself, something that should be the focus of our concern. People are mistaken about many things. Why should it especially trouble us that some people are mistaken about the existence of deities? Arguably, it’s more important to motivate people to employ critical thinking and to adhere to evidence-based reasoning in general; then, over time, they may relinquish their mistaken beliefs, including their belief in deities.
Or so argue Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan in their engaging new book, Sharing Reality. Haley and McGowan contend that a frontal assault on theism may not only be unsuccessful but counterproductive. Moreover, the frontal assault strategy ignores the fact that the beliefs of many religious groups and individuals have evolved significantly over the past several decades, both with respect to the specific content of their religious beliefs—miracles? Who said anything about miracles?—and their acceptance of scientific evidence. We atheists and agnostics should nudge them further along the path of science instead of shouting “There is no God!” The principal thesis of Sharing Reality is that promoting science and secularism is more important and more useful than attacking theism directly.
I’m sympathetic to this thesis, in support of which the authors present concise, cogent arguments. I’m also all in on the goal of promoting science and secularism. There are many reasons for this, including the facts that, as Haley and McGowan point out, lack of understanding of science is not confined to the religious and scientific ignorance can be deadly—for the entire planet (consider the continuing rejection by many of the reality of climate change). One virtue of Sharing Reality is its numerous practical suggestions on how to promote acceptance of scientific reasoning and evidence.
That said, let me note a few concerns. Haley and McGowan are more sanguine than I am about the inevitability of the religious rejecting belief in God once they accept scientific reasoning. Part of their optimism appears to derive from their view that they can ease the religious away from God by telling them they can be an atheist and religious too. Look at all those Humanists and Unitarians who call themselves religious. This tactic results in the weakest section of the book, where the authors argue for a definition of religion broad enough to encompass an Elks Lodge, if not those sharing an Uber ride. Sorry, but the traditional definition of religion, which emphasizes the transcendental character of religious beliefs (thus including nontheistic Buddhists), still works and plays an important role in distinguishing religious from nonreligious groups and beliefs.
The importance of this distinction is underscored by a troubling recommendation the authors make near the end of the book, namely that the public schools should, in principle, teach that there is no God, afterlife, or souls. The authors acknowledge that such a teaching program is not a practical reality at the moment, but that’s only because a political majority does not accept scientific reasoning in all matters (what the authors call “evidism”).
There are a few problems with this recommendation: First, this position may just reinforce the views of some religious that science and secularism are stalking horses for the end goal of teaching atheism in our public schools. They’ll conclude that the soft sell approach of Sharing Reality is merely a velvet glove masking an iron fist. Second, what would be the occasion to talk about God in the classroom anyway? Those who adhere to church-state separation have argued persuasively that children can receive a complete education without prayer and preaching about God. There’s no need for schools to address the God question. And if there’s no need for schools to address this issue from one side, there’s no need to address this issue from the other side either. Last, one of the key rationales for church-state separation (see, to name one, John Locke) is that the state has no competence in otherworldly matters. A secular government concerns itself exclusively with secular matters. To claim that the state can arbitrate matters of religious belief makes Haley and McGowan allies of those who have favored established religions, from Thomas Aquinas to today’s Christian nation advocates. Strange bedfellows indeed.
These flaws, however, do not materially detract from the merits of this well-written, thoroughly researched book. Indeed, the fact that it presents arguments that will spark discussion and debate underscores the content-rich character of this timely book.