“Sophisticated” religion — if sophisticated institutional, dogmatic religion is really possible — dragoons an army of very simple-minded believers to do its dirty work, to put pressure on governments, to harangue and condemn free societies for their supposed moral failings and excesses, without recognising that one of the results of free societies will be extremes, and that, to rid ourselves of those extremes, we must destroy the freedom too. The religious think that without the governing hand of religion, free societies would collapse into chaos. So far I have seen no reason to believe this true. But religions are not simply altruistic organisations which only want what is best for people. Religions are instruments of power, and those who lead them are both conscious of the power they wield, and also very sensitive to any diminution of that power. Part of the reason for the extremely strident responses of the religious — as well as those who are not religious, but for social reasons take religion’s part – to the apparent success of the new atheism in capturing the attention, if not the allegiance, of so many, is the minute sensitivity of religions to any loss of power or threats to it. It was in this vein that the following remarks – slightly edited – were made.
While I agree that live and let live is a nice slogan, and sometimes we should just heed it, it seems to me that, when religions are making something of a comeback on pretty unstable premises, and think that it’s okay to impose their will on the rest of us, we should, from a practical point of view, oppose them. I think there are strong moral reasons as well to oppose religion and do everything in our power to minimise the damage that they do to so many people who look to religion for the kinds of answers and comfort that no one can really provide, though religions, of course, claim that they do.
Democracy is a surprisingly fragile thing, much more fragile than the big religious institutions that underwrite beliefs which become, in their working, part of the very fabric of the individual, waking and sleeping — so democracy and free societies need to be defended. Many people died for the freedoms that we enjoy. I’d like to hang onto them for the next generation, and we won’t, if a lot of religious people have their way.
What troubles me most about people like Woods is the serene assumption that the new atheists are simply untutored barbarians without any sensitivity for the refinements of “serious” religion. But the so-called “serious” religion that he has in mind, all very vague and humanistic, is precisely the kind of religion that is on the wane. Liberal Christianity has all but collapsed. Even in a church like the Church of England, one time bastion of liberal Christianity, with the likes of John A.T. Robinson, David Jenkins, Don Cupitt, Maurice Wiles and others, evangelicals who read their religion almost as literally as American fundamentalists have become very prominent, and liberals are now an endangered species.
Sure, there’s a level of “village atheist” simplicity in some of the things that the new atheists say, but that is in part because the defence of Christianity, in the hands of people like Alister McGrath, Arthur Peacock, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, and others on the “sophisticated” side, and Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, and others on the American fundamentalist side, not to mention the widespread influence of fundamentalist Islam, is itself surprisingly simple-minded. If the new atheists temporise every time they’re faced with a theological proposition, and if they give in to the simple trick of saying that belief is a complicated psychological phenomenon, then they’ll never put their case, which is, quite simply, that the world would be better off without totalising forms of life which would abridge the freedom of others if they could.
My own concern is immediate and pressing. I believe that it is religion, almost entirely, that is keeping the door closed for those who are suffering greatly as they die to receive the assistance in dying that some of them would welcome. Just knowing that when you are dying or in chronic distress there is a way out that does not pass through the dark rooms of extreme pain, distress and existential despair would be, I believe, a source of strength to all of us. My wife died early, because there was no other way to assure that she would not be trapped in her body, without the ability to carry out her own wishes. I find it hard to forgive the religious for their obstruction of the right to die. Make that impossible. And this is an ongoing clash, and I won’t stop clashing with religion until the religious recognise that they have no more right to obstruct my right to die than they have to obstruct my right to express myself freely. For me this is a fight with no quarter. Religion must give up its claim to control my life — as it controlled my wife’s — or I go on fighting. When it has retreated to the private sphere where it belongs, then, and only then, will I relent.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was so vague and uncertain about how to defend the resurrection and the so-called virgin birth, had no hesitation in getting up on his hind feet in the House of Lords and arguing against the right of people to die as they choose, instead of going through the whole disintegrative process of disease and dying. It was that speech that precipitated the relinquishing of whatever “faith” I had left, whatever it means to speak of faith. Vague and woolly when it comes to faith, he had no question when it came to morality. When I called him on it, he wrote back in such a way as to minimise the number of people who die in extreme suffering and indignity, and to magnify the vulnerability of those who are quite capable of speaking for themselves. At least he wrote back. The Primate of my own church, who used, I think, to be a friend, never responded to my letter.
So this is very personal, as well as being a general and real concern of mine, that religions will, if they get the chance, exercise as much power over others as they can get their hands on. And religions are always questing for power. They are missionary enterprises. They want converts, numbers that will give them more political and economic clout. So they need to be opposed with every fibre. We know what religions are like when they do hold the reins of power. They already have too much. They should have no more power than the Lions, the Rotary or the Kiwanis clubs, and not nearly so much as the Masons.