What it comes down to is this: I am saying it is irrational to assert the existence of something for which you have no evidence. I acknowledge the possibility of a religion that avoids doing this, but in practice virtually all do make such assertions, and that is my primary philosophical objection to them. I really don’t think this very fundamental criticism hinges on detailed knowledge of (to take one item to which Christine referred) the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Indeed, since Christine wrote comedy professionally even before attending divinity school and becoming a history professor, I’m sure she can see why I might find it a bit amusing that someone would imply that the details of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 were in any way decisive in determining the rationality of professing belief in the unseen and unproven — though I expect I’m laughing with her, not at her. I had also forgotten that there’s an apostrophe in the anglicized spelling of Ba’al, I must confess, but I think that even without knowing a detail like that I can say that most religions — like most belief systems in general — discourage desertion from the fold (and whether they do so through “dicta” or “dictums” is also secondary, not that I am obliged to defend everything Sam Harris or Clara say).
And while Christine expresses frustration with having to tell me over and over again why she’s not professing belief in a bearded father figure in the sky, imagine my even greater frustration with having to say over and over again, as I have, that I know theists do not (or no longer, if ever) tend to believe in some literal bearded father figure in the sky but that I in any case think that belief in, say, a thinking yet non-corporeal creator-force is irrational (absent good evidence). Water down theism all you like, and it’s still the irrational profession of belief in something without evidence.
And the burden of evidence for something’s existence or non-existence surely lies with the person making the profession of its existence, so to treat theists and atheists as if they are making “equal” unproven claims is completely absurd — very much analogous to the view that if someone says, without evidence, that “Jones has committed a murder,” the burden of proof is now equally on Jones (who presumably says “I have not committed a murder”) — assuming, again, that there is no evidence at all against Jones.
The only reason the assertion of a God sounds remotely plausible — or more plausible than random, paranoid assertions that one’s neighbors are secretly murderers or that an invisible UFO is currently hovering, undetected, over the neighborhood — is that at this late date the assertion lacks novelty and so doesn’t strike us as terribly, terribly strange. If, by contrast, one were sitting with a group of people in a restaurant and one suddenly said, for no apparent reason, “The minds of the dead endure after death and form a phalanx of warriors locked in an eternal battle to invade a planet at the center of the Andromeda Galaxy,” no one would say, “Well, even in the absence of the slightest scrap of evidence for this extraordinary claim, we must treat this as a plausible assertion until we can mount an expedition to check.” The assertion could happen to be true, of course — and there could be a God (atheism does not mean the assertion with absolute certainty that there is none, only the absence of belief that there is one) — but there’s no obvious reason to treat either claim as an important probability or a matter worthy of serious thought, in the absence of some sort of evidence. Shirley MacLaine says without evidence that she is reincarnated from ancient Atlantis. Christians say God exists (or in some formulations simply “hope” God exists). Why treat either assertion with respect, beyond the basic civility due even the mentally ill?
There is a great deal we know about human psychology and why people might believe in something like the God-claim without it being true. Wouldn’t it almost be overdeterminism to suggest, given that the God idea so often comes packaged with moral harangues, childhood indoctrination, and promises of eternal life, that we must further posit that for so many people to find the idea appealing, it must be true? That’s a bit like saying “I can’t imagine any reason that people would be tempted to buy this product that’s advertised as a wrinkle-eliminating, age-reversing, brain-enhancing, cancer-curing elixir — unless all the claims about it are true.” Surely, the advertising alone would be reason to expect at least some people to be intrigued — and indeed potions that make subtle enough claims that they are hard to test in any one customer’s personal experience do sell well even without any good empirical evidence of their efficacy (true claims would obviously be in an even stronger position to win and keep loyalty, but truth is not the only way to win people over).
So the fact that people believe cannot be treated as evidence in itself that their beliefs are warranted — people believe all sorts of manifestly false things, some far more fervently than the average mainstream religious believer believes the claims of religion (witness the willingness of a handful of sad souls to die for the Hale-Bopp Comet cult, believing they would be resurrected and taken to an alien mothership and then to a better world).
I’m not sure what other lesson I’m supposed to draw from the admittedly diverse and complex history of religion — which Christine obviously knows far, far better than I do — than that religion varies radically but is almost always grounded in the unproven belief that some sort of non-corporeal entity exists, which remains the very fundamental thing to which I’m objecting. The occasional really nasty manifestations of that belief, such as suicide bombers, are secondary, though I think you can see why one might reasonably hope that humans who were taught not to believe in things for which they do not have evidence — such as a Paradise awaiting those who martyr themselves for Allah — would be at least somewhat less likely to become such monsters.
If we go around telling people it’s all right to believe in things without evidence, they will occasionally come up with some very strange and dangerous ideas — but their beliefs would still be irrational even if they did not manifest themselves in dangerous, socially destructive ways, and I don’t mean to imply for a moment that rationality and social utility are synonymous.
And if my objection to faith is that fundamental, it’s not clear to me why (beyond my general personal enrichment) I need to know or discuss the details of Christian history (I have other things to do, you know). My objection is not to Christianity in particular (though dwelling in the U.S., I think it’s fair for me to use it as the example closest to hand) but rather to all faith, whether in Jesus, fate, lucky rabbit’s feet, the eventual return of a manifestly-dead long-missing relative, psychic powers, “some greater purpose that must exist for this misfortune,” the eventual triumph of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the “inevitable” rise to fame of a talentless and long-struggling actor. Belief without evidence is irrational (even if once in a rare while the faith-fueled belief turns out to be true or helpful, essentially by dumb luck that does not probabilistically constitute a model for future rational thought).
Certain atheistic strains of Buddhism and other exceptions notwithstanding, then, I think I’m making a fair — though inevitably imperfect — generalization when I say: I object to “religion,” and I leave the details of religion’s varied forms and its rich history to professors like Christine to sort out if they so choose (if I’ve overlooked, for instance, numerous strains of Christianity that don’t involve the positing of a God, I’m delighted to hear about them, but I think it’s safe to say they’re exceptions and furthermore that their practical purpose is a bit unclear — though I’m willing to exclude such atheistic forms of religion, if any, from my sweeping condemnations of “religion”). What more should I say? Despite the leveling against me of charges of evangelism (a practice that, for the record, I’ve never objected to — I object only to spreading false beliefs), what more, or less, can I say without simply trying to curry favor? Religion’s starting premise is false (or at least there is no reason to think otherwise). It would probably behoove humans to try to tell the truth for a change.