This isnt going to be about why I dont believe in God. Nor is it going to be anywhere near all my thoughts on religion. I just want to stake out my position on the question: to what degree should religion be tolerated, and to what degree should it be opposed? Is it like race or gender, so that opposition to a belief different from ones own is bigotry? Is it like politics, so that the rights and wrongs depend partly on what you want and what you stand for? Or is it like science, so that there is a truth of the matter and other positions are factually false? And can everyone please at least pick one of those and stick with it, rather than being like My religion is like my race and youre a bigot if you dispute it, but other peoples religions are like their politics and I hereby declare my opposition to them because I dont want them to be true?
Ive been drafting this post on and off for a while now. I started it when Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post on the four major goals of the atheist movement, of which she endorses three, the exception being working toward a world without religion. I agree with most of what she says, but somehow the whole thing doesnt quite sit comfortably in my head. (By contrast I agree completely with what she said recently about Sam Harris, though admittedly because its just what I already thought.) Of all things, whats drawn me back to it is that, in the small choir I sing in, were now practising a setting of Thomas Hardys 1915 poem The Oxen for the upcoming Christmas concert. But Ill get to that. Let me try and collect my thinking by catching hold of the single sentence in Libby Annes post that I have the biggest problem with:
A world without religion would not be a world without problems, especially when we remember that some of the greatest atrocities of the past century were carried out not on the basis of religion but rather by the state (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot).
In the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth, self-contained communes based on a philosophy of communal sharing sprang up throughout the United States. All of them collapsed from internal tensions, the ones guided by socialist ideology after a median of two years, the ones guided by religious ideology after a median of twenty years.
People who have not themselves been religious often suppose that religious beliefs are held on a separate plane from everyday beliefs, that they are believed in a different sense, that they are sophisticated and not crude, or some other polite synonym for But they cant actually think that, can they? I assure you they can, and do. I believed Jesus of Nazareth came alive again after dying in exactly the same sense that I believed Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and invaded Britain. I believed God and Satan existed in the same sense that I believed the Prime Minister and the Governor-General existed. I believed God spoke to me when I prayed in the same sense that I believed my friends spoke to me when I picked up the phone of course God put thoughts into my head rather than producing sounds, but that was a minor detail.
I wonder if this is what people mean when they say that Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists are just as fundamentalistic as the people theyre criticizing? I mean, the non-religious people who say that. The religious ones mean that evolutionary biology (or at least some of its basic concepts, such as the power of natural selection to produce complex functionality without purposeful intervention) is as insecurely-grounded as religious propositions, in which they err. But I think a lot of non-religious people who make that accusation define fundamentalist as someone who thinks religious beliefs are matters of fact; if Im right about that, then their definition includes the great majority of the people they think theyre defending. I hasten to add that Dawkins position on certain other matters is indeed highly problematic, but that doesnt bear on his atheism or on his arguments for it.
For myself, when I was a Christian I preferred the Dawkinsian approach to the everybodys beliefs are valid, reality is relative, whats true for you is true for you dodge. Both made me cross, but at least the out-and-out atheists afforded me the dignity of a counter-argument. At least to them I was an adult, worth engaging with on my own level. The all beliefs are valid people always left me with the impression of having been patted on the head and given a sweetie.
This is where that Thomas Hardy poem comes in. Its short enough that I can quote the whole thing. The premise is apparently a local folk belief that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the cattle kneel down in remembrance of the infant Christ in the manger.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock;
Now they are all on their knees,
An elder said, as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearth-side ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen;
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
Come; see the oxen kneel
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,
I should go with him in the gloom
Hoping it might be so.
Libby Anne advocates, and practises, speaking out against oppressive beliefs she gives the idea that wives are to submit or the belief that homosexuality is sinful as examples, and you can certainly find plenty of material on her blog if youre looking for counter-arguments to those. Heres the thing, though: both those beliefs are genuine beliefs. I never believed in wifely submission, but Im afraid I did once believe that gay sex was a sin. Admittedly, I abandoned my religion piecemeal over a couple of years, and I think that was one of the first pieces to go, after creationism and maybe my belief in Satan and demons. But when I did believe it, it was not something arbitrarily tacked on to the rest of my faith, not something you could remove without dislodging other things, as indeed ended up happening. Discarding it cracked the foundations of my confidence in the moral authority of the Bible and threw into disarray my safe, tidy map of Gods ordained plan for sexual relations. My moralized homophobia had been enmeshed in beliefs which on the face of them were harmless. In the same vein, I have seen the apparently benign belief that marriage is sacred anchoring the abhorrent proposition that people owe their spouses sex, the connection being that if you have to be faithful for life, then if your partner loses interest youre never getting any ever again, and thats cruel.
My family were and remain theistic evolutionists; I became a creationist at age 12 as a way, I realize in hindsight, to try and establish a separate identity for myself (it lasted about six years). So I dont have first-hand experience of how creationists raise their children. But we were somewhat exceptional in our church in that regard. Creationism is another genuine belief. While Bill Nye is absolutely right about how far off it is from reality, his suggestion presupposes that its adherents are only pretending and when it comes to their kids education theyll start being serious. Well, theyre not pretending. Did Nye think about what we need your kids sounds like to someone who believes evolution is a Satanic conspiracy?
Once in a while I get people that really, or that claim they dont believe in evolution... And I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world thats completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, thats fine. But dont make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.Libby Annes most popular blog post demonstrates that most people who oppose abortion on religious grounds believe only superficially that human embryos are people. If that belief were heartfelt, American Evangelicals and Catholics would be pouring billions into preventing miscarriages, and still more into research on what stops zygotes from implanting, which on their view kills 75% of the human species. Also, theyd enthusiastically advocate contraception. Their actual priorities, by Libby Annes analysis, show that the heartfelt reason is to make sure women who have sex outside marriage dont get off the unwanted pregnancy that God ordains for their punishment.
But thats most believers, not all. Some people do believe in their hearts that abortion is murder. And in moral philosophy, mass murder is the paradigmatic scenario where violence against the perpetrator is justified, indeed obligatory, to prevent greater evil. Paul Jennings Hill believed from his heart, and killed Dr John Britton in 1994. Scott Roeder believed from his heart, and killed Dr George Tiller in 2009. If we say, as we so often lazily say, that Muslim suicide bombers kill people for Islam, then in all consistency we must also say that Hill and Roeder killed abortionists for Christianity. Of course most Christians who tell pollsters that abortion is murder dont kill abortionists, and most Muslims who tell pollsters that jihad is blessed dont become suicide bombers. Exactly what makes the exceptions, I think takes us outside the scope of this post. But I would have to say that Hills Christianity drove him to kill Dr Britton, and Roeders Christianity drove him to kill Dr Tiller, while fully acknowledging that Hills and Roeders Christianities were not the same as other peoples Christianities. Likewise, when people blow themselves up for Allah, it may be over-simplifying to say that Islam made them do it, but I think we must acknowledge that their Islam made them do it, because thats what they themselves insist in the messages they leave behind which of course doesnt mean we need dismiss the importance of geopolitics or Western racism in the formation of their Islam.
If all these repugnant practices are predicated on genuinely held, factual beliefs, then opposing the practices means disputing the beliefs. Gay sex isnt wrong, evolution isnt made up, abortion isnt murder, and jihad isnt Allahs will. Of course there are ways and ways of disputing beliefs. A flat No, youre wrong is rude. A bald claim to superior knowledge is an assertion of dominance, as most people know by instinct and I, having a social disability, have had to learn consciously and painfully. But as with other such utterances, there are polite, non-domineering ways of conveying the same message; and provided this etiquette is observed there is nothing offensive, in any non-religious domain, about correcting someone on a matter of fact. If a child tells you theyve figured out that trees waving cause the wind to blow, like great big fans, are you insulting them if you gently reply Actually, Im pretty sure its the wind blowing that makes the trees wave? If a friend lets slip that they think Auckland is the capital city of New Zealand, which I imagine would be an easy mistake to make if you didnt live here, are you persecuting them if you make a show of looking it up and then announce No, its Wellington?
When I was a Christian I thought people who had heard the Gospel and didnt believe it were destined for Hell. To argue against my religion was to attempt to drag me to Hell too, and as you can imagine I didnt listen very open-mindedly. But the same belief drove me into exactly that kind of argument in the hope of helping rescue somebody from Hell. It was heartfelt, you see; whereas my belief that we all deserved Hell wasnt, that was just a bit of sophistry to get past the contradiction of a Hell created by a benevolent God. I would be polite, or at least I thought I was being polite, when people framed their disagreement in terms of What I dont understand is... but the moment a note of scorn or impatience entered the conversation, I felt I was being attacked. My self-identity rested on my relationship with God. Without God, how would I be me?
From which I wish to draw two lessons. First, attacks on my religious beliefs made me fear that my identity was under threat; second, that fear was unjustified, because I left the faith and Im still me. Opposing religious beliefs does not cause anywhere near as much harm as their adherents would claim. So the basic principle I propose is that we treat religious beliefs the same as non-religious beliefs. That is, we should speak the truth where necessary, backing up our arguments with facts and logic. However, youll notice there that I said facts and logic, not ridicule. Its often difficult not to sound sarcastic when youre dealing with ideas that seem a long way from reality, and religious ideas tend to stray further from reality than secular ones because of their immunity to correction; I think theres a limit on how much we need to police our tone, but we do need to ground everything in evidence and reason. Mockery isnt an appeal to evidence or reason, its an appeal to common sense. And some scientific concepts are quite as foreign to common sense as religious ones think relativity and quantum indeterminacy, or better still, think Darwinian evolution and its designerless design. Professional creationists have perfected the art of the content-free sneer. We neednt stoop to their level.
Now if we stick to that principle, are we working towards a world without religion, or are we living and letting live? That depends entirely on what you mean by religion. Ive no objection to living in a world where people sing Latin hymns in echoey churches, meditate before sculptures of the Buddha with bells and incense, or dance around campfires at the full moon playing hand-drums and wearing only body paint. I also think people should be allowed to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea or that Jesus rose from the grave or that Muhammad went up to heaven on a flying horse, if thats what the evidence available to them suggests to their minds. But if religion means the thing where you have to believe one thing and not another to get to heaven, or to be a good person, or to belong to your family then hell yes, I want to see a world where that is gone. Sign me up.