Religion, Theology and the New Atheism
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.
Of course we can study religion in various ways, and not all of us want to be anthropologists. Some of us have some reasonably close familiarity with well-known religions, their beliefs and practices, and for some of us, the problem with religion lies right there, in the beliefs those religions espouse, and the practices that they engage in. If you read someone like Christopher Hitchens, for example, he is most concerned to point out that the great monotheisms, like Christianity and Islam, that base themselves on scriptures held to be revealed, are, in fact, and show themselves to be, undoubtedly human creations. And that, in itself, is a serious criticism of this kind of religion, for they claim to be so much more than that.
This is precisely the point that Kitcher makes in his argument from symmetry. Religions, which form their beliefs in similar ways, in which people are inducted in similar ways into religious belief, which make similar (parallel) claims about the world, can scarcely think of their belief and practice systems as in some sense ordained, as they think, by God. They must be human creations. There are simply too many of them. And this, says Kitcher, is really the strongest argument against the truth of religious beliefs.
However, we seem to be right back where we started a couple weeks ago, where I, or someone else, says that this is the kind of thing that we mean whe we speak about religion, and these are the reasons why religions, so understood, are really not credible – and therefore, we go on to say, since these religions are big, immovable objects in the middle of national and international affairs, we need to have some clarity about the limits of religion in the public sphere. And we do. When Taseer was killed in Pakistan, I said it was religion that killed him. No, Mary Helena said, it was theology. Well, fine it was theological religion, and most religion around the world, with the exception of marginal types of animism that have not been systematised and theologised, is theological. It makes claims about a god or gods, and about those being in relationship with the world and with human beings, and their making demands of human beings and their societies. These are good things to oppose, even if you can define religion in various ways.
There is, of course, Philip Kitcher’s idea of religion as an orientation, and, as I say, I’ll come to that, but meanwhile we are still faced with the big theological religions and how to deal with them, because they are becoming a menace in public life. They have big agendas, and they are very effective in lobbying for their favoured view of human life and society, views which very often will lead to a diminution of freedom and rights. They are worth opposing.
But some people think that the New Atheists are just too obnoxious in the way that they speak about religion and oppose it. When Scott Atran came to an atheist conference in California in late 2006, he was horrified by what he heard. Here was an expert anthropologist of religion listening to people who were concerned with the way that Islam and Christianity functioned in the societies of which they were a part. They were not anthropologists, and had no intention of becoming anthropologists. Like Mary Warnock, who is much more positive about religion and its role in society, they wanted to see religion take a back seat in the public sphere, instead of threatening us with theocracy, which is what they are still doing. Muslims are increasingly making demands that their religion be respected in special ways. The pope is demanding that laws be passed acknowledging the primacy of Roman Catholic morality regarding abortion, end of life, homosexuality and various other things. These are theocratic demands, and they are demands which need to be dealt with in fairly peremptory ways.
As I understand it, this is what the New Atheism was primarily all about. Its task, as the prime movers in the New Atheist movement (if that’s what it was) saw it, was to oppose the kinds of intrusions that religions were increasingly making in public space. The whole thing was prompted by the terrorist attack of 9/11, because that was the main thing in Sam Harris’s mind when he wrote The End of Faith. It is a sustained argument against religious faith. It’s a long time since I first read the book, but some of the points that he makes are still very powerful. And one point that he makes is to compare the religious terrorists of 9/11 with the way that a lot of Americans believe. They too believe, Harris says, that there are some fantastic things which we can, and should, believe without evidence. That’s what the guys who flew the airplanes into the twin towers thought too. Isn’t that dangerous? Another important point that he makes — at least from my point of view, because it is central to my interest in opposing religion — is that “[f]aith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering.” (168) It condemns harmless things, and it demands that people endure suffering for absurdly trivial reasons, like the lovers who were stoned to death by the Taliban in Afghanistan recently, or like the thousands that die every year in distress, pain and existential agony.
The New Atheist claim is that religion should stay out of the public sphere. We don’t want to be ruled by other people’s religious beliefs. There is simply no ground for them, no basis upon which they can be shown reasonably to be true. Religious beliefs are often, as Baggini says, pernicious and false. People are free to believe them if they wish, but they should not be permitted to impose them, without alternatives being provided, on young people, who should be helped to learn how to think reasonably about things, and make choices freely and for good reasons.
The fact that a significant proportion of young Muslims in Britain think that apostacy from Islam should be punished by death is an indication that something is terribly wrong, that they are not learning reasoned ways of understanding society and the rights of individuals, and how they should be respected. If we cannot speak out against this kind of religious fanaticism, and if we allow it to govern what happens in our societies, then we will end up with the kinds of violent instability that characterises lands where these kinds of belief are dominant.
Perhaps religion is not going away. I’m not convinced that that is true, but it may be. There certainly seem to be places where religion is of secondary concern to a majority of citizens. These places seem uncommonly peaceable and prosperous, so perhaps religion either flourishes where people are not prosperous, or religion actually contributes to conditions which lead to diminished wealth and opportunity. Perhaps it is a combination of both, mutually reinforcing. However, I see no reason why those who do not share religious beliefs should not encourage, by lives lived well, as well as by argument, that people are better off without religion. And that is what I take New Atheism to be about. We would be far better off without belief in supernatural beings and their dealings with us. These beliefs tend to make us less concerned about truth, less concerned about those who do not share our beliefs, and sometimes less interested in life here on earth, the only life that any of us, despite all the religious beliefs to the contrary, are likely to have. That religions are allowed to destroy so many lives in the names of their gods is one of the most horrifying aspects of religious belief. That they should, in the name of their gods, ruin anyone’s chance of happiness here on earth in the only life they will ever have, is contemptible, and needs to be opposed with great determination. People should understand that religions are completely private things, and should not be forced on others, either by upbringing or by law.