To anyone stopping by choiceindying.com it must seem as though my principal aim is to argue against, and do whatever damage I can, to the religious project. I have no illusions about the degree of success that I should expect from any such venture. Religions are monolithic, deeply entrenched culturally, and still retain the unquestioning respect of the majority of people in the world. My little contribution is not likely to make very much of a dent in religion’s social standing, and it is doubtful that the pope or other Christian leaders, or the leaders of any other religion, will lose much sleep over the things that I write here day by day.
Nevertheless, the kinds of things one reads about regarding the role that religion plays in the world should convince any reasonable person that the task, though it seems hopeless, is a necessary one. Some of the outrageous laws that are being passed in various states in the United States, about the status of the embryo, or on the teaching of bogus “science” in science classes, or the spectacle of the Catholic Church intruding itself into public space in order to continue its oppression of women — such as the proposed oppression of women in places like Honduras — or the suppression of freedom in every Muslim country in the world, not to mention practically every Muslim community in the free world: these are reminders of how necessary it is that we go on opposing religion in season and out of season, and why we need to ignore or lambaste people like Alister McGrath, who, in a recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation op-ed piece, “The Future is not looking so ‘Bright’ for Atheism” — which has got to be one of the sillier pieces that this silly man has published — took the stillborn project of using the word ‘Bright’ as a positive way of referring to nonbelievers to suggest, falsely, that the growing marginalisation of the term is a sign of the flagging fortunes of atheism. It only needs to be pointed out that McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, prefigured the most dramatic rise in militant unbelief for over a hundred years, to recognise how out of touch McGrath really is. Despite his credentials, this is a man not worth paying much attention to. To go from teenage rebellious atheism to the writing of a three-volume “scientific” theology — which is about as plausibly scientific as reiki therapy — is an achievement of sorts, but one which, in the end, will fade into the deepening sands of time, unsung, and, I am sure, unmourned.
Of course, some of the things that McGrath has to say in his article, as Ophelia Benson pointed out in a recent post, are not only exaggerated for effect, but, not to put too fine a word on it, false, and reasonably known to be so. This kind of prevarication is normative for Christian apologetics, but just as unlovely, for all that. Take this, for instance:
Yet many media figures allowed themselves to be swept along in this tide of atheist euphoria, predicting the imminent cultural triumph of atheism. Brights were everywhere! Religion was in decline, while the Brights were on the rise.
This is simply risible. There was some well-justified confidence with the publishing sensations of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and certainly the numbers of unbelievers in many polls show a marked increase, but to suggest that “many media figures” were swept along in a tide of euphoria is not just hyperbole; it’s a lie. Of course, the new interest in atheism was newsworthy, but by and large ”media figures” reserved judgement, if they did not come out immediately with accusations of militancy, stridency, and fundamentalist intransigence, not to mention the repeated claim that the so-called “new” atheists — a much more popular designation — simply misunderstood religion, and were lamentably unwilling to inform themselves of its self-understanding.
Alister McGrath, however, is well-known (or should be) for getting his facts wrong. He is, perhaps, one of the sloppiest scholars ever to have achieved recognition for scholarship. I will only take one example from his book The Twilight of Atheism, which is simply riddled with errors. Central to his book’s thesis, that atheism is in decline, is the existence of the United States, where religion seems so robust and healthy. In his book he suggests that the American Revolution took no interest in atheism (28). But of course this simply won’t quite do, because atheism (or at least Enlightenment deism) did play a part, and arguably a determining part, in the American Revolution. Tom Paine, for example, was as close to being an atheist as you can get without jumping over that last hurdle — deism. The Declaration of Independence is clearly at the very most, a deistic document, as is the American Constitution, though both are through and through secular in meaning and intention. But to see the American Revolution, as McGrath does, as in itself a battle “between a compromised state church and a pure gospel church” (28–9) is surely pure malarkey. Thinking that this makes a fair comparison, McGrath goes on, astonishingly, to ask the question — does he pay attention to what he writes?! – in this connexion: “Was not Calvin’s Geneva, that city of God set upon a hill for all to see and imitate, itself a republic?” (29) And while the point that McGrath wants to make by asking this question is not clear, it is quite plain that Calvin’s Geneva was not a democratic republic, however much it may have dispensed with kings and nobility in its system of governance. But to ask: “And might not republicanism and the cause of true religion thus be united, where in England they were seen as divided,” (29) simply ignores the separation of church and state that is so important a feature of the American Constitution. What McGrath does is deliberately to muddy the waters, by siding with fundamentalist claims that the United States is, and was intended by its founders to be, a Christian nation. This kind of temporising with the truth is characteristic of this conniving apologist for an evangelical Christianity of the most mindless sort (however much it may pretend to intellectual sophistication).
The role that religion plays in the world, as evidenced by the kind of scholarly chicanery that is practiced by people like Alister McGrath and Karen Armstrong, and the theocratic paternalism of the Roman Catholic Church, as well, of course, as Christian evangelicalism, Salafist Islam, etc., is reason enough to treat religion with suspicion, but when atheists like Alain de Botton or Julian Baggini join forces with religion, as though, to quote John Shook, “there is nothing wrong with being religious,” and that it poses no threat to international peace and order or to civil freedoms, then it is necessary to reassert the fundamental principles of the new atheism, that religion is a problem, that it is not a harmless, and certainly not an unquestionably beneficial form of life and believing, but at heart a form of paternalistic theocratic belief based on a number of profound errors about the nature of reality.
Shook’s essay at the Centre for Inquiry is worth reading with attention. It is a critique of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, and the point that he makes is not so much to fault de Botton for recognising that there may in fact be social and psychological benefits that religious believers derive from religion that nonbelievers are bereft of, but that the suggestion that religion is of value even to atheists implies that “there can’t be anything that wrong with religion.” And then he continues on from there to mark the effect of that claim:
What a relief! If those who complain about religion the most, those loud nonbelievers, actually need religion (just what religious folks have always been saying) then religion’s supremacy remains assured. Religions friends are swiftly concluding that all the fuss over the New Atheism can just go away.
And then he goes on to point out that, while de Botton’s point is not new, how he goes about making it is. He commends religion to atheists by condemning the ideal of a society without religion:
He basically says [writes Shook] that secular society is devoid of ‘high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance.’ He can’t be looking at the same society that I see. From human rights to civil liberties enshrined in secular constitutions around the world, to the secular colleges and universities spreading the light of knowledge, and on to all the arts and sciences benefitting humanity in countless ways, I’d say that those worldly institutions and their entirely secular values have elevated human existence during the past 400 years far more than the last 40,000 years of religious domination.
That’s strong stuff and well said! And Shook ends with a challenge to de Botton: “If De Botton can’t agree, I dare him to publicly say so.”
And this is precisely why I write and continue to write critically about religion. When I read about the threat to women in Honduras, who will be forced, against their will, to bear children they do not want, to go through with every pregnancy, regardless of their effect on women’s lives, even if they are the result of sexual abuse, I deprecate all religion, and its impulse to impose its will on all others. (Let me add parenthetically that it does not matter how soon after intercourse conception occurs. The church may be wrong about this. But the important point is that, whatever happens, whether a woman wishes to continue with a pregnancy is her decision, and must be hers alone. Anything else binds women to the imperatives of others, and effectively enslaves them.) Not only do religions seek to control their own followers, religion seeks to impose the same limits on others. This is slavery, and reduces people to the status of puppets, puppets of religious leaders, who make the arms and legs of others move at religion’s bidding, and shape the lives of others by their own truncated vision of reality. As those who read this blog know, my main aim, as I say in the masthead, is Choice in Dying: Arguing for the right to die and against the religious obstruction of that right. Religion is the enemy, not the friend, of rational people. It corrupts the mind, and by doing so, restricts not only the freedom to think, but the freedom of individuals to shape their lives as well as their deaths, according to their own lights.
It may be true, as Alain de Botton claims, that there are psychological and even social benefits to be derived from religion, but the negative effects of religion outweigh its benefits, in my view. Religion is inherently anti-democratic. Many people ask, with some justice, whether Islam can ever be made consistent with democracy. I do not think that it can be, but this goes for every other religion. Only very liberal varieties of religion can be made to consist with democratic forms of governance and systems of human rights and individual autonomy, but they are not widely approved by religious believers, who believe, with some justice, that they are ways of having religion without religiousness. But who wants religious religion? Only those who have an interest in intruding into the lives of others, and who believe that, without religion, we are all going to hell in a handbasket. I believe that religion is, on the whole, a very bad thing, and that, with the will to do it, we can shape a society without religion that will give us most of the vaunted values of religion, without religion’s inevitable downside: believing falsehoods in order to claim authority for the cynical over those dumb enough to believe them. If that sounds a bit over the top, that’s just the way I’m feeling this morning, reflecting on the threat to women posed by the Roman Catholic Church, and on the suffering of the dying or those with incurable conditions whose life is more terrible than death itself, who are forced by the religious to suffer, by religious people whose only decisive argument is one that rational people cannot accept.