Cliff: To your question: “And Derb, why is it wrong for atheists and agnostics to believe that religion can be a force for good?” If you can point me to anything I have ever said or written that suggested such a thing, I’d be obliged.
If you were to start a list of people who, while themselves atheist or agnostic, believed widespread religious belief to be a social and/or personal good, you would have to block out a weekend to get the job done. Confucius, Plato, the emperor Augustus, Ben Franklin…. This has been such a commonplace intellectual position that if you DID think it wrong you’d have to cross half the great thinkers & doers of history off your Christmas card list.
I did not object to Kristol’s (apparently) believing this; I objected to his, according to Ron Bailey, shiftiness and snobbery, which ARE wrong. If you go around earning fat lecture fees as a heavyweight public intellectual, you ought to be man enough to give a straight answer to a question as simple as: “Do you believe in God?”
And if that public intellectual truly is an atheist/agnostic yet fears to upset the social order by being seen to promote such views, there are well-mannered ways to finesse the issue, ways that ought to have occurred to a clever man like Kristol.
He might, for example, say something like this. “No, I don’t myself believe in God. I don’t believe that Christ was the son of God, and that he rose from the dead. Neither do I believe that Moses met God on a mountain and received commandments from him. I don’t believe that the Koran is the word of God, either; nor that Lord Buddha, or Shiva, or Vishnu, has any present reality, let alone any concern for me. I have no religious beliefs.
I regret this, though. From my observation, religious faith is a fine thing, a healthy and fortifying thing, both for the individual and society. Our lives and our societies would be poorer and harsher without it. In that spirit, I often participate willingly and gladly in events involving ‘ceremonial deism,’ even nursing the hope that by doing so, something of the faith of the religious might be made comprehensible to me, and lift me up as I can plainly see it has lifted up others…”
That would be the attitude of the “unwilling unbeliever” (Kingsley Amis’s description of himself–he actually said something very like the above). It is fair, honorable, and polite, and I think socially non-harmful. Kristol’s attitude, as reported, is, by contrast, a gross, albeit implicit, insult to his fellow citizens.