I've spent a while reading this comment thread.
So, for my first post in months I will briefly explain why I choose to engage religion the way that I do.
You'd have to be on my Facebook to know this, but I usually engage liberal theists more than I do fundamentalist asswipes, and I've been asked many times why I choose to do this - after all, these liberal theists are usually my allies on most issues, and they are not the problem in society. So, why do this?
I'll tell ya!
1) Everyone already knows that fundamentalist religious belief is a huge problem. Most people agree on this. I'll attack fundamentalism as a matter of course, and I'll attack it when it rears its ugly head in our government (which is way more often than it should be), but it's something to which most reasonable people are already opposed. I mean, my evangelical young-earth creationist parents are against a lot of fundamentalism. I don't think that we need to make our case against that generally because it's just that fucking obvious to people who aren't deluded.
2) I dislike arguments in which atheists create religious strawmen that are universally fundamentalist. I don't think that there is an equivalence between Fred Phelps and Martin Luther King Jr. Pretending as if there is is both factually incorrect and morally repugnant, and is a discredit to the intellectual rigor of the anti-theism position. I don't think that all Muslims crash planes into buildings, I don't think that all Jews kill Palestinian children, I don't think that all Christians bomb abortion clinics, I don't think that all Hindus burn widows on their husbands' funeral pyres, so on and so forth, you get the picture. This is irresponsible arguing and does absolutely no good for either side.
3) Because of points one and two, I find it necessary to largely engage with the softer, kinder forms of theism. I think that those forms indirectly validate fundamentalism because they encourage precisely the kinds of irrational thinking that are the basis of fundamentalism - after all, if it's all subjective and if it's all different names that we call the same force or if the fundies are just cherry-picking Bible verses, there is no position that can posit that the fundies are theologically wrong. It is all equally justifiable when it's all relative from a theological position. The Christians with whom I happily ally myself on social justice and economic justice issues are cherry-picking from the Bible every bit as much as the fundies, but I happen to like the results of their cherry-picking better, and I can't say that I'm being intellectually honest if I don't criticize that as well. My main criticism of religion is not that it is violent because it is sometimes not, nor is it that it is hateful because it is sometimes not, nor that it is [fill in x blatantly socially harmful trait] because it is going to be, at least in a statistically significant portion of the population, not that way. My argument against religion is that it is irrational and is either empirically untrue or, more and more frequently, unfalsifiable. These arguments apply equally against the more insidious forms of kinder, gentler irrational thought as they do against the nastier, fundamentalist strains. The reason that I more frequently confront the former is because of the reasons given above. If your argument against the fundies is theological, there is an equally valid basis from which to make theological arguments against the good theists. You can't engage violent and bigoted religious practice from a religious standpoint because it all stands on the same empirical ground: none.
The bottom line is that we don't need a supernatural basis (I did not say "spiritual" because the word is too vague) from which to be good to other people, and refusing to engage the irrational grounds of this premise weakens our society and makes it easier for the fundies. Religion is basically a self-serving philosophy. If you are a kind person who wishes well for other people then you are going to cherry-pick whatever irrational explanation justifies the way that you are already inclined, and if you are a selfish, bigoted dick then you are just as certainly going to cherry-pick whatever irrational explanation will justify your oppression of others. I don't think that you need Jesus to be good and, if you're doing good because you are a Christian, I think that you're doing a discredit to yourself by attaching your good works to an ideology that has no basis in fact rather than on the inherent goodness in humanity; however, my main complaint is that you are justifying the fundies because of your lack of empirical basis for your works. They have the exact same justification for their nastiness - Jesus said so (or, rather, the Bible did), they just feel in their heart that to be gay is wrong, men and women are inherently different because God just made us different, fill in the blank. If you don't require a factual basis for your life philosophy then you're giving inches to the assholes.
I will also note that all people are irrational and that people can twist science to suit them, and that this has been done to great harm before, but the difference is that religion requires no justification outside of either a) "Holy text says so" or b) "I feel it in my heart." While people, being human, will certainly go with those kinds of arguments at times in science, the difference is that science is self-correcting, and eventually it has the tools to disprove and discredit those who would use it for ideological ends. Any tool, in the hands of human beings, can be used to do harm - after all, we're primates. However, the basis of science in physical reality requires that it demonstrate itself to be true, and this puts an end to irrational usages as quickly as the people who are using it are willing and able to do so. Religion and supernatural thinking do not have the same mechanisms, and this is why it is just as important, if not more important, to engage the theists who, because of the bent of their personality or experience, choose to use their subjective, unfalsifiable beliefs to back up their desire to do good. To refuse to engage the irrational beliefs of the good theists is to refuse to engage the irrational beliefs of the fundies, and also to disrespect the inherent good in the theists who cannot see within themselves to understand that they do not need invisible forces to impel them to do the good that they would do anyway. I believe in humanity more than that.
Or, what this commenter said (although I disagree with the assertion that all religion is anti-feminist, as my problem with religion is not its positions vis-a-vis feminism so much as its irrationality):
"Being a feminist and a religionist is cognitively dissonant, which is why some people are saying you can’t be both. For instance, there are people who assert that girls and women can’t do math. They claim that biologically men are more built for. They say women can’t think rationally and thus can’t wrap their heads around numbers, and they even have some statistics on their side. They can even claim a strategy of focusing on boys doing more math does good, because it doesn’t waste resources and provides more chances to those who can best take advantage of them. Those boys who got plenty of support in math over the girls in the class might agree with this.
Most feminists would, I think, disagree very strongly. They’d point out that there have been many capable women who could in fact do math beautifully, disproving both the biology and lack of rationality argument. Said feminists might then point out that that this ‘positive’ strategy cuts people out and still treats them differently, ending up to be nothing of the sort. This ‘theory’, they could point out, doesn’t have any evidence. It’s just a mess of unproven assertion, underlined by socialization and upbringing. It’s not a good thing, even if some parts of the population have derived a benefit; they could get that benefit in other ways without excluding others.
Then there’s religion. Any specific claim for any religious faction and in fact most spiritual thinking can be disproven; claims for the age of the universe, the benefit of prayer, any kind of divine retribution; all those have easy and consistent counterpoints, much like the assertion that women biologically can’t do math. The claim that moderate or vague religion helps more than it hurts? The same kind of societal and ethical structure could be achieved with secular humanism, without the downside of having to ‘save’ anyone (and thus assume they’re lost in the first place purely because the evidence doesn’t match up to Bronze Age fairy tales).
If you want people to accept the second claim without or even despite evidence, why not believe the first bit? Why not believe people who assert that women are naturally jealous, or need a strong male hand to guide them? There’s no more proof for your position than there is for theirs, and vice versa.
If someone from a deeply racist part of the South claims that black people can’t be trusted like white men, aren’t as smart and are more suited to manual labor, most of us here would disagree with this person and point out the parts where they’re wrong. We wouldn’t take that position on faith, no matter how strongly said individual believes in it. We’d conclude that repeated exposure to racism has ingrained these thoughts, not that black people are actually inferior. After all, he has no evidence and can even be disproven.
How, then, could you question and that person and then turn around and defend your own unproven assertions, despite their harm? And, if you’re willing to do that, why are you surprised when people worry about what other cognitive blocks you might have? You’re obviously willing to draw lines in the sand that you won’t think past or fully analyze, so why shouldn’t I assume that parts of your activism might be selfish and inconsistent as well?"