Roger Paine
(Busselton, Western Australia)

(Investigator 146, 2012 September)

Of late I have been enjoying participating in a local newspaper debate on matters of religion and faith. I come down firmly on the atheist/sceptic side.

One aspect of the discussion that bothers me is the ethics of my challenges to their faith-based statements: What if a person has nothing much going on, other than the faith to which they have been wedded for decades? What if that and only that is where they derive their wellbeing, their happiness and their meaning? Do I, ethically, have a right to attempt to bring down that faith by tearing apart their arguments?

Religious door-knockers are fair game, of that there is no doubt. They are dealt with, generally, in the privacy of your doorstep, but writers of letters to the editor engage in a public forum for anyone to read. The question as to whether some measure of sensitivity is justified is the one I'd like to consider.

One letter writer seemed dismayed "that it is now necessary (for those who would) to defend the faith". I think it is not an unreasonable necessity: The religious have had it their way since our earliest ancestors began the discussion by attributing agency to natural phenomena. Only comparatively recently has there been any call to account to which dismay and the taking of offence has widely been the reaction. Is the argument to be dropped for the sake of the vulnerable?

The history of public discourse harks back to Socrates and beyond, it is an exercise in freedom that must be respected and protected.

Sartre's observation that people tend to ask advice only of those they know will tell them what they want to hear should be taken as a caution and conscious effort should be made to avoid that trap, but many don't and churches, especially, don't seem to encourage it. It is important that people, of any persuasion, engage civilly with those with whom they do not agree: to do otherwise risks dubious ideas fomenting into dangerous ideologies or dubious plans into financial disasters.

Consequently, religious door-knockers are welcome at my house – I ask them how long they've got. It seems a shame that a couple of young Mormons, for instance, should be destined only to see the universe through the narrow window of their creed. If they are young enough to change, the universe will mean more if they loose their faith. No problem.

But what of the 60 year old woman who lives alone, husband gone and no children, embedded in her church for 30 years or more? What happens if she looses her faith? What does she stand to gain?

Is it fair to say that those who lose faith do so primarily because they have found something greater? Losing faith in the power of Reiki to mend a broken thumb and going to a doctor instead, is movement toward greater understanding. It might mean you feel an acute loss at having to chuck out your Reiki books, ditch your crystal collection and stop spending your money on charlatan psychics but that is just sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion.

 In reality your loss is your greater gain. Same goes for Religion; people hate to admit they've been wrong for the most part of their lives.

Surely doubt is the greater poison. If your faith can be swayed by argument, you are probably already experiencing a cognitive dissonance – that feeling that just around the corner lies the dreaded existential abyss and the absurdity of it all ('what-do-you-mean-the-tooth-fairy-isn't-real?' syndrome).

You get over it.

Alain de Botton's “Religion for Atheists” suggests there are many positives to religion and that non-believers appropriate those positives. We should, it would provide believers with a safety net for the leap into the non-existent void.

It is certain that faith is of great value to many but is that reason to place it beyond critique?