Column | Sept. 25

Religion isn't stupid

By David Hammer

We do not pretend to understand the occult forces that drive student group advertisement. Lately, however, things have taken a turn for the Cartesian. First was club swimming’s endearing “I swim, therefore IM” leaflet. Next was a provocative poster from the Princeton University Society of Humanists (PUSH): “I think, therefore I am Atheist.”

As members of Princeton’s interfaith group, the Religious Life Council, we understand how challenging it is to capture our peers’ attention and to recruit new members. (Believe us, interfaith has never had the panache of, say, club swimming.) A worthy cause is all too easily lost in the fray, and so we sympathize with the need for posters that appeal to our classmates’ wit or to their burning passion for early modern philosophy.

Regardless, words have weight, and we think PUSH’s words in particular are unfair both to our religious peers and to the banner of humanism. We assume PUSH doesn’t quite mean them — that they’re just being glib and that we’re just being grumpy. But that said, “I think, therefore I am Atheist” reflects a widespread attitude that merits attention.

There are, of course, important criticisms of religion and of religious institutions, which should be discussed vigorously. A religious community, like any community, has the potential to advocate unreflective dogma, objectionable moral doctrines, superstition and belief in empirical falsehoods. These features should bother the religious and the non-religious alike. But another criticism of religion — manifest in these posters — is gaining purchase among some otherwise thoughtful people. It is, unfortunately, quickly becoming a default criticism: that religious people are unthinking and disengaged, that religion is essentially “stupid.”

We think this argument is unsound. When we say someone is religious, we have not in that very breath said they are soft-minded. Many people of faith — including many people on this campus — are well aware of the intellectual arguments for and against religion. They struggle with them, and in turn, determine for themselves where they think the balance lies. We would do well to dispense with the simplistic idea that religion is always and everywhere an intellectual “crutch,” but we can only do this through sustained engagement with real, religious people.

The alternative is to freeze constructive conversation before it begins in earnest. But that is a disaster. Religion, we think, is too important to ignore, whatever your beliefs. Religion can be profound and beautiful and morally edifying. Religious people can be thoughtful and interesting and worth engaging. We should examine religion together and ensure that our most cherished views — whatever they may be — are not dictated by prejudice or fear.

We hope you go to PUSH’s meetings.  We hope you ask your friends to bring you to their religious services and that you try to unearth what religion means to them. We hope you attend a Shabbat dinner. We hope you check out Diwali at the Chapel, a celebration of the Hindu festival of lights. We hope you ask questions that matter and seek out a diversity of possible answers. We hope you think and, therefore, decide for yourself.

David Hammer is a philosophy major from Darien, Conn.  He can be reached at dhammer@princeton.edu.

Endorsed by every member of the Religious Life Council (rlc.princeton.edu):

Allegra Wiprud ’14, Hindu
Arjun Dhillon ’15, Sikh
Ari Satok ’14, Jewish
Arielle Davidoff ’14, Jewish
Asmod Karki ’16, Non-religious
Bina Peltz ’15, Jewish
David Hammer ’14, Atheist
Emma Synder ’15, Episcopalian
Farah Amjad ’16, Muslim
Henrique de Freitas ’15, Buddhist
Jihad al-Jabban ’14, Muslim
Kate Wadman ’16, LDS (Mormon)
Kristin Wilson ’14
Kujegi Camara ’15, Muslim
Lauren Hoffman ’15, Jewish
Mallory Banks ’16, Southern Baptist Christian
Naomi Lee ’15, Buddhist
Paarth Shah ’16, Jain
Rebecca Dresner ’14, Jewish
Safeeyah Quereshi ’16, Muslim
Sam Watters ’15, Seeker
Sarah Qari ’16, Muslim
Vanessa Mosoti ’15
Victoria Chung ’14, Seventh-Day Adventist Christian
Wardah Bari ’16, Muslim

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