Against Religion (2007) by Tamas Pataki is a book that looks at what we know about religion and makes suggestions as to why people believe in the extant religions.It was read after listening to Pataki’s speech at the global atheist conference which was one of the best. Pataki stated that atheists should understand the beliefs of others and not just attack them.
Pataki states the 3 propositions that a) god exists, b) there are rational grounds for believing that god exists and c) if there are rational grounds for believing gods exist, they are the grounds on which most people believe in god. Pataki states that even if you believe a & b proposition c may be false. He is probably correct. Sadly the statement’s negation is not examined. It would be harder to look at why people don’t believe in God as the reasons are not codified, but it may also generally be as fallacious. Pataki uses these statements to justify his criticism of religion.
Pataki goes on to look how there has been a religious revival, which is a highly questionable statement. He does not give us census figures over time to justify it. Indeed some of his figures of the low numbers of people who participate in religion suggest quite the opposite. Pataki goes on to look at how people love god and how the god they construct tends to be a personal god which is quite interesting and makes good points. He then looks at narcissism and religious development and how people who believe in religion have various psychological flaws. The next chapter on the law and religion is fairly weak. Pataki doesn’t look at the growth of the common law and Roman law and how they both used religion to justify their own basis. He instead attacks religion and says how it is incompatible with the rule of law. This is a particularly weak argument given the rise of law in societies has almost always happened in religious societies.
The final two chapters are on sex and religion, which is sharp and points out the obsession that religions have with women, sex and homosexuality. It’s clearly true, but no positive reasons, i.e. that religion existed to codify relationships and enshrine them to enable children to be brought into the world are examined. Instead only a negative reasons are put forward. In reason and religion Pataki puts forward the idea that reason and belief are incompatible. Here he quotes widely for a variety of sources about the tensions between religion and reason.
Pataki is a well spoken atheist who has thought out his positions better than most. He is, however, unable to give much consideration to other reasons why the vast majority of people throughout history have been religious. Why waste all that effort and energy? Dawkins and others have suggested that it’s a byproduct of useful human facilities such as reason, but given that it still doesn’t explain why non-religious civilizations did not arise as they should have worked better than religious ones. A far better explanation is offered by the fascinating book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson. In it Wilson puts forward the idea that religions provide society with great utility.
Pataki’s attack on whether most of the people who believe in religion do so for negative and selfish reasons is short sighted. It is hard for people to accept that people who disagree with them often do so for good reasons. Pataki’s rejection of religion but acceptance of the validity of Freudian ideas is also somewhat comic. Freud invented cases, fiddled with evidence and is today ignored by scientific psychology. Pataki would have been well advised to try and consider what was positive about some people’s beliefs and why they held them. He is still clearly very well read and writes well and provides some food for thought for those of us who are atheists.