By Wilson Carey McWilliams
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Additional resources for The idea of fraternity in America
There are no gods and certainly no God. But you also believe that some extant religious traditions have preserved much of the institutional infrastructure for good and decent lives. You could not intelligibly believe that the cultivation of faith is more important than the growth of ethical understanding. Still, you regard religious upbringing as a very valuable means to the latter, perhaps among other good things. That viewpoint is the sort of thing a socially conservative atheist might pick up through a credulous reading of Alasdair MacIntyre (1984); it could certainly lend support to the initiation thesis in some version or other.
But it will be a repellent option to those unbelievers who are like believers in wanting to live in light of the truth. We need not give up that ideal just because we think there is no true religious creed that shows us how we should live. The claim that edifying falsehoods are every bit as good as edifying truths has some superficial appeal, but I doubt that anyone could reflectively accept it. I suspect that no one really thinks there is no important difference between enjoying the love of a faithful spouse and enjoying the mere appearance of love and fidelity from a spouse who really gives neither.
The one who learns that only poor wretches deny the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is in much the same boat, or so it must seem to the unbeliever. A familiar line of thought, inspired by Eisenhower perhaps, might seem to save the initiation thesis at just this point by discounting the distortion to understanding that religious upbringing induces. Suppose that, while we take the claims of religion to be false, we do not take these claims seriously enough in their own terms to think that their truth or falsity matters.