Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, a Syrian philosopher who lived in the 11th century, once claimed: “The world holds two classes of men — intelligent men without religion, and religious men without intelligence.” In light of the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, we can see that many atheists paint religious people as intellectually inferior.
This attitude bothers me not because it stems from a deeply-held religious ideology, but because judging other people’s convictions as inferior, or worthy of ridicule, is a form of cultural imperialism. Having religion in your life doesn’t equate to believing that the sky is green, no matter what anyone says. It doesn’t mean that someone has indoctrinated you, reducing your intellectual capacity to naught. It doesn’t suggest that you’re avoiding the reality that your body will one day become plant food. It only means that you have a hypothesis about life that is different than someone else’s.
At this point, we can neither refute nor completely accept what religion and science have to say. Although we can easily disprove many tenets of religion, particularly the ideas that the earth has only existed for 6,000 years or that humans magically appeared on earth, as in the Catholic faith, we cannot completely accept science. None of us saw the creation of the universe or the birth of life.
It’s ironic that atheists are harnessing the same attitude that many believers still use to this day. In the past, religious people, particularly those in the Catholic Church, sought to minimize, even eliminate, threats to their ideology. Now both religious people and non-believers are proselytizing, bashing the other side.
This same attitude is pervasive throughout politics, weaving among cultures, leading to intolerance, war and colonialism. Consider how we discuss politics. We meet with people who share our ideas and philosophies and strategize on how to best the other side, whom we label as “wrong” and “misguided” on the nicer end of the spectrum and “lesser” and “idiots” on the more radical one.
Western civilization has done this by subjugating people it deemed as “inferior” — including Native Americans, Africans and South Americans — and attempting to civilize them. This “white man’s burden,” employing religion and Western morality as its compass, is a major cause of the world’s instability today, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
We need to consider the mistakes that humankind has made over the past centuries with regard to religion and colonization. No matter what we think, whether we subscribe to something we’ve read in a holy book or to science or some combination of the two, we need to embrace each other’s diversity of thought. Tolerance is the wrong word to use here because it only suggests that we are capable of putting up with others’ perspectives.
Religious people need to understand that many of their beliefs do not conform to what science proves. They must reconsider the attitude that they have toward non-believers, who can easily hold better morals and be better people than the faithful.
On the other side, atheists do not have all the answers. They must not repeat the same mistakes that religious people have made for centuries. This message applies to everyone: To be truly enlightened, we must embrace others and their ideas.