I know it’s a bit unfair to take one of my comments and elevate it to the status of a post, but it seemed to me probably worth saying to a wider audience. But I’ve just come back from a day of being unplugged, and I thought I should have something to continue the discussion. We have been discussing the relationship between theology and religion, Mary Helena Basson very spiritedly defending a definition of religion in which religion is separate from theology, in which, indeed, theology is seen as undermining religion. Indeed, religion, for Mary Helena has to do with the spiritual, with all the good things, like love, joy, peace, beauty, and so forth, all the “spiritual” values that we recognise as good. Of course, religion so understood seems to encompass everyone, for we all have spiritual moments, moments lived in the shade of those values, whether it has anything to do with “religion” as we commonly understand that word. And this is my jumping off point for the following brief reflection.
My interest in Kitcher’s critique of the New Atheism began with this post over at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. In response to that post — and it was much longer ago than I had imagined — I wrote the following (the first part is a quote from Jerry’s post):
- “Kitcher is guilty of assuming that most people are not sophisticated or educated enough to handle the burden of life without the crutch of religion.”
I think that is a mistake. I don’t think that’s what Kitcher is saying at all. I think what he’s saying is that, even those who don’t need the crutch of religion, those who have turned religious beliefs into mythical tales, still find sustenance in religious community.
Thanks to Charles Sullivan. The documentary on assisted suicide in Oregon, “How to die in Oregon” has just won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Charles also points us to the following review of the film in the New York Times:
Unflinching End-of-Life Moments
PARK CITY, Utah — Most screenings at the Sundance Film Festival here are mob scenes — half-frozen film lovers in a mad dash for limited seating, reporters skittering around in search of news nuggets, agents pacing the aisles.
None of that hubbub was on display at the Sunday premiere of what is without question one of the most difficult-to-watch movies of the festival, this year or any year: “How to Die in Oregon,” a documentary from Peter D. Richardson about physician-assisted suicide. The film opens with a man dying of cancer on camera.
Read more ….
As someone who faced, unflinchingly, the harsh reality of holding in my arms someone I loved more than life itself as she was dying, this is so very important. I have often flinched in the years since that day in June 2007, and could never have done what I did without Elizabeth’s good humour and courage in the face of death, but it is good to see that these issues are being taken seriously and addressed with compassion.
[This is a must-read account of Jerry Coyne's encounter with Methodists in a sky-scraper church with a steeple on top!]
People like Elaine Ecklund are always urging scientists to “dialogue” with the faithful, expecting that it will benefit both of them. (What people like her really want, of course, is not benefits to science but more tolerance of religion.) I haven’t been averse to such dialogue. Although I certainly don’t think it’s going to improve my science, and have no illusions that I’ll convert religious people in a short conversation, it is a learning experience. And I just had one yesterday, participating in a discussion group at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. A while back, senior pastor Phil Blackwell emailed me that the church’s reading group would be discussing Why Evolution is True, and invited me to join in. I did so gladly.
The church itself, located in the Loop of downtown Chicago, is pretty amazing. It’s actually a skyscraper about twenty stories high, with a steeple on top!
Read more ….
I’m going to start with Mary Helena Basson’s definition of religion, because I think it is important to foreclose on the direction that would enforce on us. Here it is:
My basic definition of religion – a definition that I have previously articulated is:: Religion is our human capacity for spiritual values – however individually we might define our spiritual values. Spiritual values = non-material values. love, kindness, charity, compassion, empathy; meaning, purpose, depth, sense of life, spiritual as opposed to material values; joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity; a sense of what is does not have to be; hope, etc. The intangibles that give our species a sense of life as opposed to mere existence.
By that definition, everything is really religion, because everything significant about human beings is, in some sense, mental, and most of us think about the mental as, in some sense, non-material, though people like Dennett would (rightly I think) say that the brain and mind are somehow identical.
However, if the word ‘religion’ is going to pick out anything of importance, instead of waving rather nebulously towards “non-material values … [like] love, kindness, charity, compassion, empathy; meaning, purpose, depth, sense of life,” we are going to have to do better than this. Quite aside from this, I’m not sure that I understand what it is about values like “joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity” that is particularly material. [For a correction of this see the comments. There is what seems to me an odd break in MH's list, and it follows through with 'joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity', which are also spiritual.]
This is the continuation of a conversation which was started under the post “Julian Baggini and the New Atheism.” The discussion was beginning to become shapeless and directionless, so I am going to try to put another spin on it. The underlying question is about the definition of religion, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. As I have said before, we are never going to achieve a definition of religion that will satisfy everyone. But we need to begin somewhere.
For, even if, as Mary Helena has said, the issue is to ascertain, as far as possible what can be learned about the phenomenon of religion in human existence, we still have to know what religion is. That’s logically prior. That’s why I quoted many days ago the opening rough definition that Atran provides that gives at least a provisional idea of what it is that he plans to investigate. The investigation itself can’t tell him what religion is. That has to come first, in order for him to identify his field of study. Obviously religions comprise more than just theological ideas, because everyone knows that religions also include practices, rituals, reverence for sacred spaces, persons, books, things, and so on, but it does include, as Atran points out, belief in or commitment to conterfactual worlds of supernatural agents, and these are usually unpacked in terms of beliefs of various kinds, and sometimes even theological systems based on those beliefs. But what we can’t do is not have any conception of religion to start with, because that would mean that we had nothing to investigate, nothing that determined the kinds of thing we are trying to explain.
I spoke in an earlier post about Asma’s random shots in the dark. By that I was referring to his complete failure to understand what the New Atheism is all about. He seems to think that if we could find a therapeutic religion, that didn’t have the dire consequences of the big monotheisms, that that would be wonderful, and, since these poor people struggling on the edge of survival in the developing world cannot do better than the consolation of imaginary things, we should simply accept that this is a good solution to the miseries that these people endure day in and day out.
Asma mentions Marx, where Marx tells us that religion is the opiate of the people, but he doesn’t go on, as Hitchens does, to remind us of the context of Marx’s famous and often misunderstood saying. An opiate is needed because life is miserable, and we need something to dull the pain. But the opiate is really only a way of concealing the chains that bind us, says Marx, decorating the chain with flowers in order to delude ourselves that life is okay, after all. But, Marx says, the real task is to break the chains that bind us, so that we can pick the living flower. Asma says, “Leave the people in chains, but at least leave them their imaginary garden.” The atheist says, “Let’s break the chains, and help them grow real flowers.”
In the New York Times this morning (27th January 2011) Nicholas Kristoff, in an article entitled “Tussling over Jesus,” addresses himself to the conflict between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Roman Catholic health care. We have all become familiar with the case of the woman at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, and of the dispute with the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmstead, over the hospital’s decision to save the life of a woman even though that meant terminating the woman’s pregnancy. The nun who made that decision, Sister Margaret McBride, was excommunicated for her part in the life-and-death drama that unfolded in the hospital, and the hospital has refused to give assurances that it would not do the same thing again, should the situation arise. Bishop Olmstead accordingly stripped the hospital of its Catholic credentials because of what he considers its contumacy, since he is the only one entitled to interpret Catholic moral doctrine in his diocese, and all Catholic institutions must be subject to his Apostolic authority.
Other Catholic hospitals have refused to stop providing tubal ligations for women who ask for them, and in consequence have been stripped of their Roman Catholic credentials by a church increasingly presided over by conservative bishops — a shift which began in the pontificate of John Paul II. In some cases, where women have given birth in a Catholic hospital, they are required to go elsewhere for tubal ligation, if they wish it, since Catholic hospitals often refuse to provide such services, since it is, according to Catholic doctrine, strictly against the moral law to sterilise either the man or the woman, thus interfering with the primary purpose of the sexual act, which is, according to the church, the procreation of children.
[This post has been substantially edited two or three times.]
In view of Charles Sullivan’s comment below — which is obviously the reason for this particular Jesus and Mo cartoon, and my reason for including it here — there is part of a London Times comment on Lady Warsi’s speech and the reasons for people’s concern about Islam, here at richarddawkins.net (“It’s not a phobia — it’s rational to fear Islam”). The article itself is behind a paywall.
I was listening to Rachel Maddow last night about the increasingly ugly “Islamophobia” in the US. I agree. There probably is an increasing amount of anti-Islam feeling. But how much of this, I wonder, is sparked by the fact that, because of widespread threats, Islam is the one religion that cannot be discussed and criticised freely anywhere in the West? This is very dangerous. So long as the threat posed by radical Muslims means that people dare not speak freely about Islam and their fears of Islam, those fears can only grow and intensify. In the Globe and Mail this morning (27 January 2011) there are estimates as to the growth of Muslim populations in North America and Europe (as well as around the world). One person suggests that this will prompt alarm, and there will be “rhetoric” about the threat that this poses. Her solution? Can the rhetoric!
We have a young, vibrant, very engaged youth community,” she said. “Their faith is intertwined with their self-identity, and so to continuously identify that faith as a very violent ideology, incompatible with democracy – that rhetoric has to be checked.
But people should be positively encouraged to speak freely about their fears. Social fear is not allayed by imposing checks on freedom of speech. The only way social consensus can be achieved is through free speech, and if we had more of it, we would all get some idea as to what is acceptable, socially, in how we find identity through our religious traditions. Unless Muslims in the West wake up and recognise that only freedom of speech will resolve some of the uncertainties that people feel, and do everything in their power to defeat the radicals in their midst, the tension can only grow, and speeches like Lady Warsi’s will remain words in a vacuum that is filled only with hysterical rather than rational speech – quite aside from the fact that Lady Warsi’s words themselves failed to address real problems, or even, in some cases, contributed to them, as Edmund Standing points out so well — see “Warsi’s Wasted Opportunity” over at Butterflies and Wheels.
Julian Baggini has gone on record to oppose the so-called New Atheism. He has called us shrill and strident and excessively hostile to religion and religious believers. After his atheist sermon in Westminster Abbey in October last year, the Guardian published a piece by Baggini entitled “Atheists and Believers can get along” in which, amongst other things, he said the following:
If being an atheist meant being anti-theist, then I would not be one. I am an anti-dogmatist, an anti-fundamentalist, yes. But I have no hostility to theism as such, and have no desire to strip all theists of their faith. Of course I think theists are mistaken, but no one should be automatically hostile to everyone they disagree with. Hostility should be reserved for the pernicious, the wicked and the harmful.
And then he goes on to speak of the anti-theist variety of atheist who is an enemy of religion. But he does not consider himself one of those. In fact, he suggests — what may, in some respects, even be true — that a greater enemy of religion may be the dogmatic, fundamentalist type of religion, and that reasonable religious people have more to fear from this kind of religion than from atheists like himself.