I was motivated to write this article by two conversations I over-heard in a cafe. The first one took place between a group of Christian students who were busily ‘denouncing’ evolution – it was the word of Man, meaning that it must be flawed; the Bible, they all agreed, had the right answers about how life came to be.
The second took place between two stern middle-aged men, who both agreed that the various kinds of head-gear that Muslim women wear ‘ought to banned’ because they were ‘barbaric’.
For me, the two opinions shown by these two groups of people sum up a general trend for over-simplicity, aggression and other failings in our (by which I mean at least the English-speaking world’s) current discourse on religion – a trend found on both ‘sides’, at least outside of the academy and among the popular press. This bothers me as an atheist but more over as a human being:
I have always had friendships with people from the whole spectrum of religious belief, and I have a firm conviction that much of what is said against religion today misrepresents the values which these people hold, at least as much as the claim that atheists are all like Hitler (or Stalin, or take your pick) misrepresents me.
I myself won’t attempt to say what the religious really do believe, but I will use this opportunity to point out some common platitudes and slurs employed – disappointingly, given their own history of persecution – by some of those with whom I share the quality of atheism.
So who am I talking about?
The obvious big-name atheist is Richard Dawkins, and indeed it is from this author’s pen that much of today’s over-simple analyses flow. Now before I tackle what this author says in his famous book The God Delusion, I want to point out the things he gets right.
In his earlier books, such as Unweaving the Rainbow and The Ancestor’s Tale, one finds a scientist at the top of his field explaining, in an endlessly enthusiastic and easily understood manner, the principles of evolutionary biology; we also find this same scientist’s frustration with attempts, in certain American states, to interfere with the teaching of evolution in school science lessons.
This frustration is entirely legitimate. The job of a science lesson is to teach students what, according to the scientific analysis of the world, appears to be the truth about it, and it is no devaluation to say that the Christian Bible is not a work of science – to be this it would have to conform to certain very specific rules about the conduct of experiments and peer-review, to name just two of the many tests scientists have to pass.
Of course, Gulliver’s Travels is also not a science book, and it also cannot be taught as science (or gymnastics, or music); in neither case are we claiming that the book has no potential value apart from that, or that it is wrong for those who value it to do so. And we are not claiming that the Bible is the same kind of book as Gulliver’s Travels.
The trouble starts with The God Delusion, for it is here that Dawkins goes on to assert that religion consists of the same literal belief exhibited by the Creationists. Both Dawkins and the Creationists seem unwilling to accept that this literal belief is a misreading of Biblical texts which were understood, in their own historical time, to consist predominantly of myths and stories – to be, like all myths and stories, valuable but separate from logic and history. Further, both Dawkins and the Creationists seem unwilling to accept that even someone who is a Christian is under no compunction to treat them as anything other than this.
That there are legions of humane, intelligent and perceptive theologians and philosophers who have worked in (or from) the frame-works of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and that Dawkins seemed to have ignored these authors in his book, was pointed out by commentators such as Alistair McGrath and Terry Eagleton. To this Dawkins responded by saying that one did need to have a degree in Leprecology to disbelieve in Leprechauns.
This is true as far as one’s own belief and one’s duty to truth are concerned, but were one to go on to write a book about those-who-believe-in-Leprechauns it would surely be important to know first what it was that they actually believed in. Indeed, the entity that religious persons believe to exist is usually conceived of as rather different from a Leprechaun (the Dawkinisan slang of ‘Sky Fairy’ also fails to account for this entity or entities).
This major motif – the accusation that all the religious hold a kind of belief (Biblical literalism, scripture as scientific fact) which they in fact do not, and the correlative attempt to claim that the non-Creationists are not Christians at all – is echoed in Christopher Hitchens’ claim in God is not Great. Hitchens says that Martin Luther King Jr., the famous Civil Rights campaigner, was ‘not a Christian’, because the behaviour of Martin Luther King does not fall within the parameters that Hitchens has decided are equivalent to Christianity.
This stance – all Christians are bad, Old-Testament style, and if you show me a good Christian I will show you that they aren’t a Christian – is dogged and unhelpful. It ignores the fact that human beings, being complex, are capable of criticising things like segregation, and at the same time as this, being motivated by mythical stories or belief in some kind of entity.
This only helps the Westboro Baptist Church and other such groups. If such people are told that they are the only true Christians, and that the intelligent, progressive Christians are not true believers – it only confirms their own sense of self.
This creates a dangerous system of priorities where the secular or atheist person is always seen as better, or where the religious person must lose their religious side before being taken seriously. Yet one can be a perfect atheist, and still be racist; one can be strongly religious, and committed to women’s rights.
The Hamas Charter may be full of mystico-religious language about ‘the Jew’, but this does not strike the objective observer as any worse than the perfectly secular language of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘acceptable risk’ and ‘neutralisation of threats’ used by the IDF and the Coalition forces in Iraq to excuse their attacks on civilians.
This brings me on to my principle complaint: that among today’s big-name atheists – those atheists with a message simple enough to be palatable to the media – there seems to be a dogmatic belief in ‘Religion’ as something which causes conflicts, rather than being also or instead a symptom of conflicts; ‘Religion’ as a causus belli, which is everyone’s enemy and must be eliminated.
Here I must make the obvious caveat that there are of course millions of instances where religion had a role to play in a war, a massacre, an invasion, a purge, or in preserving a generally poor quality of life for a population. Be this as it may, there is a huge difference between seeing the true role that religion had to play in any given historical event, and positing it as the root cause of that event. To do so is to commit a falsehood as unhelpful as claiming that devils pretending to be intellectuals are the cause of all wars (and if we only ousted them, there could be peace).
Why? Because the true base which determines human behaviour is always economic.
It is my contention that wars are fought primarily over things like land, money, food, and power; religion provides a group identity, but any other ideology – such as nationalism – would do the same thing in the same situation. Any serious study of ‘religious conflict’ past and present, be it in Palestine, Kashmir, the Americas or anywhere else, will bear this out.
I will not go to the extreme of claiming that religion is basically benign, but I will put forward the proposition that, all else being equal, different groups of people can find ways to live peaceably together regardless of their religious identities. Where there is plenty, differences matter less.
Because the problem is economic, the solution is not to wipe out religion but to sort out the political problems on the ground. And that doesn’t mean large, powerful countries ‘sorting out’ other people’s problems for their own gain.
For example, the wars in Europe during the Reformation, while involving schismatic differences between Protestants and Catholics, were also caused by political divisions, new technologies and other developments at the time; the development of the modern nation state, double-ledger book-keeping and the discovery of the New World all had a major role to play.
We should not be so quick to believe, as some of the combatants did, that they were fighting over the soul. The religious argument as to whether the Bible was to be printed in Latin or the vulgate was not enough of a controversy, on its own, to start a continent-wide crisis; that happened only because such things changed the power balance in the collapsing Holy Roman Empire.
I am not arguing for a slip into complacency. It is always good to be vigilant, but being over-vigilant about religion can involve complacency about other factors.
Further problems arise when we consider the correlatives that must come along with a belief that religion really is the causus belli of wars. For, if one really believed that religion was the root cause of all war, one might argue that war on religion was somehow equivalent to peacemaking; likewise, unfair discrimination against the religious might be excused as an attempt to eradicate the source of unfair discrimination.
In our era we can see this sort of mistake being made every day. To believe, as we are encouraged to do by the press and the simplistic arguments made by the aforementioned authors, that the 9/11 hijackers were motivated solely by theories about the correct way to enter paradise and what one might find there, or by a frothing irrational hatred of ‘America the Great Satan’, is to conveniently ignore Mohammed Atta’s true motivation for the project: revenge against the Americans who were propping up his political enemy, Egypt’s corrupt president Mubarak. Of course, killing several thousand people going about their daily business was wrong; it was a colossal mistake ethically and politically.
The point is that the American government really was and really is propping up Hosni Mubarak, as well as hundreds of other bad politicians who happen to be American-friendly.
This behaviour, coupled with the American Cold War policy of knocking out left-wing figures in the middle east and central asia and shoring up conservative groups like the Taliban, is why there are ‘so many Islamic terrorists today’, and as long as we ignore this and refuse to deal with it, believing as Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins would have it that the current wave of terrorist activity to be simply an expression of irrational hatred to be expected from ‘the religious’, or to believe with Martin Amis that we are ‘hearing from Islam’, we will keep the economic and political conditions that lead to terrorism firmly in place.
I am an atheist, and stand against defamation and oppression of atheists – but there is no reason why such principles should only apply to those who share my innocuous philosophic preference. The enemies of truth are always on the look-out for a scapegoat.