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Community Commentary: Atheist's arguments narrow, redundant

January 24, 2012

Bruce Gleason's columns, including his latest on evolution and creationism ("On Faith: Where did we really come from?" Jan. 13), all make the same simple arguments:

1) Intelligent, thinking people don't — or shouldn't — have any religious beliefs.

2) The world would be a much better place without religion.

According to Gleason, religion is nothing but superstition, some sort of primordial holdover from pre-modern times. Atheism on the other hand, is rational and leads not only to human progress, but to a more moral populace.

In Gleason's zeal to de-convert his readers, he is prone to errors and rather naïve arguments, often relying on unreliable sources like Wikipedia for his definitions and evidence. Or perhaps he doesn't actually have an empirical source for his claims.

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For example, in one column he claims that atheists comprise 15% of the U.S. population, which he says is 54 million people. Not only is his math wrong — 15% of the U.S. population is actually about 46 million people — but according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the proportion of the U.S. population that does not believe in God is only 5%, with those who identify themselves as "atheist" making up an even smaller number, slightly more than 1% of the population (3.75 million people).

Notwithstanding these kinds of errors, he is correct that religion has created many problems over the millennia. Yet the one-dimensional nature of his arguments ("religion is bad, atheism is good") prevent him from taking into account the complexity and variability of religious belief, practice and expression, and how these influence the actions of religious people in their daily lives.

Religion matters not only in individual lives, but also in the collective life of the public square, and as with anything, brings with it both good and bad consequences. Making simplistic arguments that religion is either good or bad, or that the world would be a better place without religion, doesn't get us anywhere in understanding both the power and role of religion in the world.

Religion remains the primary means through which people around the globe understand themselves, their place in the world and how they should act in the world. We can all sit in our religious — or nonreligious — communities and say how stupid others are for believing or thinking as they do, but that won't do anything to help us understand each other or to make the world a better place.

Whether we believe in God or not, we need to move beyond the perspective that most people share with Gleason, that religion can be understood in purely binary terms — as either active or quiescent, personal or public, good or bad — and do the hard work of understanding how religion matters (or doesn't) in the daily lives of individuals, communities and nations.

RICHARD FLORY is a Newport Beach resident.

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