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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Letter to the editor: Response to column “Thank God for religion”

I am generally a calm and peaceful sort of fellow, but Sam Hoel’s Feb. 28 column “Thank God for religion” filled me with uncharacteristic frustration and anger. The entirety of the text felt like one long insult to ethical atheists such as myself, and revealed the author’s complete ignorance in every subject discussed.

Hoel’s claim that “religion is essential if you wish to hold humanity to a universal standard of morality” ignores centuries of progress in law and philosophy. His summary of “nature” as “dignity is given to the strong, and death comes to the weak” suggests a failure to understand basic biology. His implication that virtue stems only from religion is a slap in the face to virtuous atheists, and makes me wonder if he has ever even met one. His claim that the UC Davis Principles of Community are “firmly based on a religious foundation” (I thought this was a secular university?) is as nonsensical as it is insulting: should people of different religions, then, be held to different Principles of Community? Should nonreligious people be exempt?

The column’s entire premise is founded on outdated and pretentious ideas of moral absolutism; that “right” and “wrong” are set in stone and anyone who disagrees is in error. But moral absolutism leads to stagnation and inflexibility, and inhibits growth and change. Does Hoel really believe that his culture knows more about “right” and “wrong” than any other culture in the world, past, present or future? What arrogance! A simple survey of history shows that morality shifts with every generation, and it would be the height of folly to pretend that our generation just happened to finally get it right. Two hundred years ago slavery was “right”; one hundred years ago barring women from voting was “right”; fifty years ago imprisoning gays for being gay was “right.” I wonder what Hoel thinks is “right” today that his descendants will find just as shameful.

Furthermore, Hoel’s assertion that “religion universally decrees” that people should “treat each other with dignity” is insane. I will gladly agree that there are many religious people who do treat their neighbors kindly, but the word “universally” actually means something. If religions universally promote this dignity, why don’t we see every religious person take action against institutionalized indignities such as slavery, prison brutality, racial segregation, gender discrimination and marriage bans? Moreover, why is religion often used to justify many of these? Yes, religion can be used to encourage beneficial behavior, but it also can be and has been used to encourage very harmful behavior. Or does Hoel think that “universal” means “for white male heterosexual Christians”?

I have one final question for Sam Hoel. Your religion makes many specific claims about the nature of reality. Are these claims true or not? If they are true, then let them stand on their own veracity, not on their supposed effect on human behavior. If they are false, then please do not insult humanity by suggesting that we can only be kept in line by lies and threats.

Barnabas Truman
UCD Alumnus and Friendly Atheist


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