Little did I know, when I sat down to write the following before going to the gym this morning, that this subject would be so thoroughly explored today in so many different places. Not only Butterflies and Wheels (as linked below), but also Russell Blackford’s Metamagician blog, Jason Rosenhouse on his science blog, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, and even Jeremy — “Look at her!” – Stangroom (credit to Jerry for Jeremy’s new nickname!) is getting in on the action (from a contrary perspective, of course — shoving it one more time to “Dick” Dawkins). And there are others, including Jean Kazez (who, at this point, I’m not prepared to take seriously), unlike Jason Streitfield, who writes on public displays of atheism in response to Jean Kazez. — And yet one more: Camels with Hammers.
Just one comment in response to Jean’s point that atheism does not provide for an objective morality, and that discussing this in public will not make atheism more publicly acceptable. In fact, the religious already think that atheists have no moral compass, and cannot have one, so it’s not going to make a lot of difference anyway. But of course religion doesn’t provide for an objective morality either. Just because you say it is doesn’t make it so. So, the status of morality will be just the same, whether you are religious or not. Besides, it is abundantly evident that religious “morality” is often sub-human, however objective religious people think their morality is. In fact, that’s precisely what I argue again and again. When religious people tell us that stoning women to death. or allowing women to die rather than perform an abortion, or forcing people to die in misery, or mutilating the genitals of boys and girls are commanded by their gods, then we need to ask them to think a bit more about morality, and what it is. Supposing that you have an objective morality is almost always a disaster, because if it really is objective, then, like the laws of the Medes and the Persians (as the Bible says), it can never change, and we must go on doing these awful things forever, and call them good. I’d like a little less objectivity, and a whole lot more sensitive humanity, anyday.
Over at Butterflies and Wheels a discussion developed (while I slept, apparently) about atheism and politeness. If we want to make a change we have to make nice with religion … That’s the idea. We’ve met the idea before, from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” campaign, to Mooney’s ridiculous posturing about the boorishness and unhelpfulness of the new atheism — no, the New Atheism: let’s stand proud! — done with all the artfulness of a boor — or a dick, as the case may be.
This simply misses the point. The whole point of the New Atheism was to oppose something intrusive and dangerous. It was, arguably, the religious atrocities of 9/11 that gave a fillip to atheism and made it new. Without that iconic event atheism would have gone on its boring way without making so much as a dent in the culture. But religion couldn’t stay put. It was losing ground. People were beginning to think of religion as well past its sell-by date. Church people watched with alarm as their numbers dwindled. Time for drastic action.
Surprisingly, it was the same act of terrorism that gave religion its leg up as well. Suddenly people began saying that god is not yet dead, that religion has lots to offer, and we need to cultivate good relationships with religion, even give them money so they can go on being good. But it wasn’t what religion had to offer that prompted atheism’s renewed energy or religion’s renewed claims. No. It was fear on one side and confident boldness on the other. Religion didn’t only look after the old, the dying or the homeless. No. Religion could blow up buildings and kill thousands at a stroke.
And then, after religion had done it, did people begin to recognise how dangerous religion could be? No. They began to speak of religion as compassionate and peace-loving! We were assured on all sides that knocking down buildings with airplanes filled with innocent people was atypical of that particular religion. In fact, we were told that the people who died in the twin towers were the real beneficiaries. They wouldn’t want to come back even if they could, Billy Graham told us.
It’s the old, old story. I think it was Chesterton who, when asked whether it was not true that Christianity had been tried and found wanting, replied that Christianity had yet to be tried. It’s a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy, of course. However, let’s take the events of 9/11 and ask whether they are the result of religion, specifically the religion of Islam. Someone may say — a number of people did say — that this was not characteristic of Islam. ‘Islam’ means, we were told, peace, and comes from the same root as the word ‘Salaam’ in “Salaam Alaikum”, a greeting with which you wish peace upon the other, to which the appropriate response is “Alaikum Salaam,” which extends the peace back to you. But, of course, that’s not what ‘Islam’ means, whatever its etymology. It means submission. But if submission can mean that you must kill thousands of innocent people, then, one wants to say, in a Wittgensteinian tone, that that’s simply too big of a mistake not to find some ground in the religion of Islam itself.
Now my purpose here is not to focus on Islam as a benighted religion — though that, of course, is what I think it is. Nor do I want to focus particularly on the benightedness of Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism either — though that, of course, is what I think they are. I simply want to affirm as clearly as can be that religion itself is a danger to us. All you have to do is to check out religion wherever it is powerful, and you can see how much danger it really is.
As Sam Harris says in his Letter to a Christian Nation, the problem with religion is the problem of dogma, that is, of beliefs which have no rational ground or justification. I would hate for Tara Bartholomew — who very bravely put her beliefs out there for all to see — to think that I am either belittling or ridiculing her, but when you list beliefs like that — which, even if they provide all the confidence in the world to go on living with hope and joy — you not only give hostages to fortune, you also make truth claims, and truth claims have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are dire. Beliefs may seem quite harmless expressed by one person. They can be seen as a kind of whistling in the dark, but their meaning vaults beyond the person, and intentionally or not, entangles other people in their web — a web of hopeful conviction and self-deception. And Sam’s point is that since religious belief has no rational ground, and is not held for good reasons having to do with the truth of religious beliefs, while it may be consoling, it is also “compatible with the most desolating evil.” (Letter, 48)
This should be blindingly obvious. Since Islam is still powerful in many of the places where it represents a majority belief, all one has to do is look and see! See how women are treated in Muslim majority areas of the world. See how people of other religions are being treated there. See how the quest for freedom has been, and is being, put down with cruelty and mindless violence. See how successfully radical Islamists have made publishers and broadcasters in the heart of free societies tremble and capitulate. This is religion in action, and all the reassuring words about religion as a source of consolation and community cannot hide this reality from us.
But the same thing applies to other religions, although, for the most part, Christianity has been forced onto the back foot — as AC Grayling likes to say. However, if we look at Chile or El Salvador, where the Roman Catholic Church is in the ascendant, and can get the absolute prohibition of abortion written into the law, we can see very clearly what it is like when religion pulls the strings and makes the rules. Read the New York Times article “Pro-Life Nation“, or the recent Guardian piece on Chile, to get an idea of what religion can do when it has the power to do it. Religion in power is an ugly thing, and religions are making a renewed bid for power.
So, let’s be clear. There is no place for religious dogma when it comes to making the rules by which we will be forced to live. No place at all! In fact, it still has too much place, too much power and influence. That doesn’t mean that we want to upset the apple cart to see where the apples will go. But it does mean that we should not make nice with religion. We should say clearly and loudly that religion has no place in the public square, even if religious believers do. Religion as a way of life and form of believing is perfectly entitled to protection, but it has no right to have its dogmas made into laws.
Of course, that’s one of the chief reasons why I write this blog, because in most countries there are laws, almost entirely religious in origin, which forbid assistance in dying. Margaret Somerville and others take the religious doctrine of the sanctity of life and try to secularise it. So we have the oxymoron of the secular sacred. Very often John Locke is dragooned into this debate, as though Locke’s liberalism is somehow authoritative for all later transformations of liberal societies.
John Locke rejected suicide, because he held that the right to life was inalienable, so, it seems, we must reject it too. But Locke’s belief in the absolute inalienability of life was based explicitly on theological grounds. We are God’ s property, and we may not dispose of our lives as we choose. The disposition of our lives is in the hands of God alone. But it is simply absurd, given Locke’s views on this matter, to suggest (as Arthur Dyck does in his book When Killing is Wrong) that society would simply fall apart if we stopped thinking of life as absolutely inalienable, even when we are suffering the torments of the damned. Nor should the fact that Hobbes based his whole political philosophy on the idea of the absolute inalienability of life determine how we should regard it now. Liberal societies are much more resilient than that, and Hobbes was simply wrong to think that the one natural law forbidding us “to do that, which is destructive of [our lives], or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (Leviathan, Chapter XIV [p. 84 in the Oakeshott edition]) is the only basis of civil society . What can, however, destroy liberal societies — and is on the way to doing so — is the intervention of religious dogma in the context of governance and legislation. This is theocracy, and it must be opposed with all the strenuousness at our command. And that’s why New Atheism must not make nice with religion.