[This, I'm afraid, was put together rather rapidly, since I must go out, so it may contain more errors than usual. However, it seemed to me worthwhile trying to say, even if it had to be in haste.]
Julian Baggini has now published his Heathen’s Manifesto, which he begs atheists to read. I wish I could understand the motivation behind it. It seems to be based on the premise that atheists, and new atheists in particular — an unidentified assemblage of nonbelievers who are, it seems, strident, obtuse, impolite, and seek to banish religion from the world — need to grow up, be sensible and kind, and ally themselves with their allies amongst religious believers, something that, so far, they seem disinclined to do. I sometimes simply despair when I read Baggini, because he never really identifies any of these supposedly rude, self-centred, self-praising atheists, nor does he provide an example of the kind of thing that he seems to object to so much. In order to say that we need a change in attitude, he has to show who is exhibiting the attitude he so much deplores, and the entire series on Heathen’s progress over the last six months or so never identifies any particular person as the kind of unbeliever who needs to change his or her attitude. What Baggini seems to have done is to accept that the strident responses of religious believers to the so-called “new” atheism are unquestionably justified. However, in my own reading on both sides of this divide, I have to say that the most caustic voices, the shrillest and most strident condemnations have come from the religious side of this particular divide, and Baggini has yet to show that this is not so. Indeed, it seems, based on reading every one of his Heathen’s progress series, and commenting on a fair number of them, that Baggini has read very little of what has been written by the new atheists, and practically nothing that has been written in response to them; and this, it seems to me, committed to reason and evidence as he claims to be, is something that he really needs to do, or, should I say?, really needed to do, before he undertook to write the series in the first place.
However, since this is, thankfully, the last in this ill-conceived project, let’s take Baggini’s manifesto and respond as civilly as we can. We will find, I think, that the whole thing is misconceived, and this can be shown without considering all twelve position statements. He suggests, to start with, that the problem is that our culture tends to see things in black and white, and leaves out the “moderate middle,” as Baggini calls it. “There is,” he says, “a perception of unbridgeable polarisation, and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse.” This, I think, is disingenuous. This is the way the debates began, so far as Baggini is concerned. In fact, so stale did the discussion seem to him from the start that he refused to read the books that he was complaining about, The God Delusion, god is not Great, and others, because, he said at the time, they had nothing new to teach him. How he knew that without having read them is the 64 thousand dollar question, but that is what he said. He seems, given the paucity of reference, in his Heathen’s progress series of articles, to what new atheists have said, to have maintained this moratorium on reading the new atheists.
But what would a moderate middle look like? And is a moderate middle what we should be seeking? Later in the manifesto — No. 10. Religion is often our friend — he says:
We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible.
Well, now you see how far off the mark he can get. There’s an article in this morning’s Globe and Mail by Karen Armstrong, the so-called “historian of religion” who does everything she can to understand religion in the most charitable way possible. The article is entitled “Islamophobia: We need to accept the ‘other’.” Armstrong takes it for granted that Islamophobia has reached a new virulent high. But Karen Armstrong, doing her best to understand Islam in the most charitable way possible, simply ignores what many people justly perceive as a threat from radical Islam, and opposition to radical Islam, and the fear that it generates, is also something which needs to be granted the same privilege of being understood charitably.
In a recent article posted by the British National Secular Society, by a Canadian Muslim, it is pointed out that thirty years ago nothing at all was heard from Muslims about Sharia law. Muslims came to the West to enjoy the freedoms that were available to them there, to find freedom of religion or freedom from religion. And yet radical Islam is making strenuous efforts to see Islamic Sharia, which as the author, Raheel Raza, states, while at one time may have been helpful in welding Muslims into a single religious framework, eventually became frozen in time, so that now it is a liability, and should not be considered foundational for Muslims:
But over time sharia was frozen, with no development, reasoning and logic and therefore started to stink – which is what happens when water is left stagnant. Eventually it became what we see today – man made law without ethical and moral boundaries, no regard for human life and specifically anti-women.
Nevertheless, as he Raza points out, there is a movement amongst radical Islamists, to impose this frozen Sharia on the West. It is worth quoting Raza at length:
Where has this politicization and distortion of the message left us? The Center for Islamic Pluralism undertook a study: A guide to Sharia law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe 2007 – 2009.
According to this study, the core argument of the Islamists pushing radical Sharia and parallel systems of law is that human law as represented by western canons can be superseded by the presumed-divine law embodied in Sharia, and therefore secular law may be avoided or violated at will.
So it’s no surprise that a Muslim group in the United Kingdom has launched a campaign to turn twelve British cities – including “Londonistan” – into independent Islamic states. The so-called Islamic Emirates would function as autonomous enclaves ruled by Islamic Sharia law and operate entirely outside British jurisprudence. The Islamic Emirates Project, launched by the Muslims Against the Crusades group, uses the motto “The end of man-made law, and the start of Sharia law,” and was launched exactly six years after Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured 800 others in London. A July 7, 2011 announcement posted on the Muslims Against the Crusades website, states:
In the last 50 years, the United Kingdom has transformed beyond recognition. What was once a predominantly Christian country has now been overwhelmed by a rising Muslim population, which seeks to preserve its Islamic identity, and protect itself from the satanic values of the tyrannical British government.
And then he goes on to say this:
… the people who wish to impose sharia in the West and are gaining ground for three reasons.
One, because there is a failed attempt to understand the psyche of radical Islamists and uncover their covert methods in blackmailing and coercing immigrants into their way of thinking
Two, there is deafening silence from the majority of moderate Muslims who are sitting quietly on the fence
Three, Western governments have failed because of their mistaken acceptance of dominant religious leaders as the sole legitimate representatives of Islam in the West, while ignoring women and the more moderate liberal voices.
Precisely the same kinds of things are said by Ibn Warraq in his Why the West is Best — a passionate and eloquent defence of the West, its accomplishments and its freedoms. This kind of thing has to be taken seriously, and trying to put the best construction on people’s beliefs, that is, trying to understand them in the most charitable way possible, is no help at all in reducing the threat that radical religious believing poses to our freedoms. Nor is talking about Islamophobia in this context a satisfactory response to the trends in the more radical Muslim community, and the corresponding silence of the moderates. Karen Armstrong has the ridiculous idea that religion is really about love and compassion. It’s not. It’s mainly about power, and until we recognise that religions are on a quest for power and dominance we will fail to deal realistically with the threat that religion poses to the world community.
The same goes for the increasing demands made by the Roman Catholic Church to see its moral understanding of things like abortion, contraception and assisted dying instantiated in law. The attempts that are being made in practically every liberal jurisdiction to harden the legal stand on abortion is the result of lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church and its legion of supposedly pro-life organisations. To allow the Roman Catholic Church to have its way on this would be to set women’s liberation back two thousand years. And the Roman Catholic Church is not alone in this. Islam is just as opposed to abortion and contraception as the Roman Catholic Church, and the two have supported each other in efforts by the UN to extend reproductive care to the poorest of the poor women in the world who are caught on the revolving door of pregnancy and birth, at the same time that the population of the world is ramping up to completely untenable numbers, if we are going to preserve a bit of the earth and its resources for coming generations. This is not something upon which to seek common ground.
Religious organisations like the Roman Catholic Church and fundamentalist Christianity, Islam and other conservative religious movements, which is where most of the world’s religious energy is concentrated today, are not moderate, but extremist, and trying to find charitable understandings of their positions is a recipe for disaster. Voices of reason need to be heard, and they will not be heard if we join our voices to liberal religious voices: there are too few of them, and they are outliers in their own religions. Liberal Christians are marginalised, and the fundamentalists have stolen a march on them practically everywhere. This does not mean that we cannot find common cause with them, but they must recognise how far they are from the core of the religious traditions of which they consider themselves to be parts. If they do not recongise this, then support for them is also support for regressive beliefs and practices with which no reasonable person should be associated.
To show how unrealistic Baggini’s conception of religion really is, consider the 11th plank in his Manifesto:
11 We are critical of religion when necessary
Our willingness to accept what is good in religion is balanced by an equally honest commitment to be critical of it when necessary. We object when religion invokes mystery to avoid difficult questions or to obfuscate when clarity is needed. We do not like the way in which “people of faith” tend to huddle together in an unprincipled coalition of self-interest, even when that means liberals getting into bed with homophobes and misogynists.
This completely misunderstands religion. One of the problems with liberal religion is that it fails to recognise religions as institutions whose aim is power and control. Instead, they do, in fact, try to put the most charitable construction on religious belief, and think of it in terms of peace, love, compassion and concern for social justice. These things are, indeed, the concern of some religious people, and much good is done by those who rate these concerns as central to their faith. But religious institutions, as such, are not about this at all. They, like businesses, are in search of power and dominance. That’s one of the reasons that religions tend to think of other believers as not only wrong, but condemned by God. The concept of god is used as a social counter in the quest for power, and until we recognise this, we will fail to understand religious institutions, and their dynamic.
This does not mean that all religious thought is pointless. There are profound and humane thinkers who are also theologians, and who think deeply and pertinently about the human condition and how it can be understood, and how humanity can be best served. There is no doubt that Baggini is right that atheists should not to dismiss everything associated with religion too hastily or too completely. This is a form of blindness that the new atheists could do without. Yes, theology is made up stuff, just as made up as much of Freud, but that does not mean that theologians, or Freud, have nothing of value to say about the human condition, and it is important for us to bear this in mind. At least some theology and psychoanalysis might be likened to the prose poetry of the human spirit, trying to put into words things that stand at the limits of language.
But religious thought is completely different to religious institutions and the question for social power and dominance that characterises them. It is at this level that what Baggini has to say seems woefully inadequate, and, indeed, naive. Baggini, it seems to me, having read his Heathen’s progress series of articles as they appeared, simply does not know enough about religion to speak of it as he does. He needs a closer familiarity, not only with some of the good things that liberals like Richard Holloway or Don Cupitt are saying, but with the history of the religions, and how they have functioned as the world’s power brokers, sometimes to human benefit, but very often for human ill. Much more needs to be said than Baggini ventures in this series. It was, I think, wrong-headed from the beginning, because he misunderstood and still misunderstands the sources of the new atheism and its concerns, and does not deal adequately with it, or with the religious response to it. First, he should read the new atheists books, and enter into some kind of dialogue with them, instead of persisting in his first impression, that they have nothing to teach him that he does not already know.