Religious people and atheists agree on at least one point: leading a moral life yields positive results. The difference between them is how they perceive those results; religious people see them as a reward bestowed upon them by a supernatural God — a colorful sticker on their report card, while atheists see them as the natural byproducts of living ethically.
The Islamic philosopher Averroes would have recognized this. He didn’t think everyone was capable of thinking philosophically. In fact, he thought that only a handful of the most educated and intellectually gifted should even try, and the rest of the population, the “masses” as he typically calls them, should study religion. To Averroes, the Qur’an didn’t give an unquestionable account of the truth; it gave the average person a reasonable facsimile of the truth portrayed in a metaphorical, storybook way, because that was the best they were ever going to do.
The religions are, according to the philosophers, obligatory, since they lead towards wisdom in a way universal to all human beings. Philosophy only leads a certain number of people to the knowledge of intellectual happiness, and they therefore have to learn wisdom, whereas religions seek the instruction of the masses generally.
I don’t agree with Averroes that certain people are incapable of understanding philosophy; I can’t. After all, I make my living doing a show about philosophy where I try to break down abstract philosophical concepts into bite-sized, digestible pieces that anyone can understand. Maybe what Averroes would say if he lived in modern times and was exposed to modern science is that most people are not incapable of understanding philosophy; they’re just unwilling.
Humans often take the path of least resistance. From a survival-oriented perspective, it makes sense. If you need water and you have two choices: the stream directly in front of you or the stream on the other side of that dangerous chasm over there, which one is more reasonable?
In today’s world, we live in a media maelstrom. With all of the TV shows, movies and video games at everyone’s fingertips, is it reasonable to expect most people to contemplate the nature of existence? Is it reasonable to expect them to contemplate each individual virtue and arrive at their own personal ethical doctrine? Again, the question isn’t whether most people are capable; the question is whether they are willing to.
Religion is typically made up of two parts. First, an ethical doctrine. Second, an incentivisation scheme (if you don’t follow the ethical doctrine, here are the terrible things that are going to happen to you). The atheists I’ve met usually don’t disagree with the ethical doctrines of most religions; they disagree with the incentivisation scheme. If most people in today’s world are either unwilling or too busy to weigh the pros and cons of each individual virtue and independently arrive at their own conclusions, is religion really an institution that needs to be abolished?
I know what you’ll say. “You can’t point out all of the good and none of the bad! What about the intolerance and brutality carried out in the name of religion?” I would say that that same intolerance and brutality is carried out in the name of other things too. Innocents bombed in the name of the United States. Black people hung in the name of white supremacy. Red Sox fans beaten in the name of New York Yankees fans. I would say that what you are truly against is tribalism, and people using it as an excuse to marginalize other groups of people, neither of which is a requisite of being a religion.