Sunday, 23 November 2014

The kind of religion I’m against

I am an atheist from a Christian family. Quite a few of my Facebook friends are people I knew from church back in the day, and most of them are still Christians if not necessarily still at that church. So quite often I get religious memes across my feed, and there will sometimes be religious conversation around the dinner-table when I visit my family. It seems to me that I exercise quite a noble degree of restraint on these occasions, continually refraining from passing critical comment, saying nothing in front of the children. But of course everybody feels that they respond better to annoyances than they really do, and that they themselves are less annoying than they really are.
This isn’t going to be about why I don’t 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 one’s 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 you’re a bigot if you dispute it, but other people’s religions are like their politics and I hereby declare my opposition to them because I don’t want them to be true”?
I’ve 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 doesn’t quite sit comfortably in my head. (By contrast I agree completely with what she said recently about Sam Harris, though admittedly because it’s just what I already thought.) Of all things, what’s drawn me back to it is that, in the small choir I sing in, we’re now practising a setting of Thomas Hardy’s 1915 poem The Oxen for the upcoming Christmas concert. But I’ll get to that. Let me try and collect my thinking by catching hold of the single sentence in Libby Anne’s 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).
Libby Anne, Atheism and Me
Libby Anne doesn’t say what theists tend to say, that these atrocities were carried out because of those respective dictators’ atheism. Nor does she include Hitler, who wasn’t an atheist, on the list. Nevertheless I must point out that there’s a big difference between established communism and established Christianity, and it’s this: communism only lasted seventy years. Religious institutions have much more staying power.
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.
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate p. 257
If the same forces are operating, then, we would predict that religious regimes would last on the order of seven hundred years, and this is indeed borne out by history. Religion can preserve oppressive systems long after political ideology has bowed to reason. Why? It’s always difficult to separate cause from effect empirically with complex social phenomena, so any answer to that question must needs be speculative. Religious beliefs tend to be held in communities defined by the belief itself, or practices arising from it. To reject the belief openly is to abandon the community. This, however, they share with many secular political ideologies. Religions also claim to make sense of the fundamental questions of life and selfhood (in Christianity, for instance, you have the soul, free will, and original sin). To doubt them, therefore, is to undermine your own self-identity. On top of that, their contents are unfalsifiable, on account of being supernatural. If your leaders have promised you peace and prosperity on Earth, sooner or later you’re going to notice that things aren’t working out the way they expected. If they’ve promised you peace and prosperity in Heaven, you won’t know until you’re dead.
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 can’t 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 they’re 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 I’m right about that, then their definition includes the great majority of the people they think they’re defending. I hasten to add that Dawkins’ position on certain other matters is indeed highly problematic, but that doesn’t bear on his atheism or on his arguments for it.
For myself, when I was a Christian I preferred the Dawkinsian approach to the “everybody’s beliefs are valid, reality is relative, what’s 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. It’s 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.
Thomas Hardy, The Oxen
Hardy doesn’t, in fact, believe that the cattle kneel down at Christmas. He just wishes it were true. He thinks it’s pretty. He remembers the belief with fondness. I imagine a large number of people who attend religious services, particularly the ones with beautiful churches and quaint ceremonial dress and choral music, do so more from Hardyistic nostalgia than actual belief. I sometimes attend midnight Christmas carol services myself in a similar spirit, for the flavour of the thing. But it’s got nothing to do with my past religion. My old church was a converted biscuit factory, our preachers wore smart-casual clothing at the lectern, and our music team led us in modern American choruses to guitar and keyboard music. We thought – we seriously thought – that the reason why so few people were Christians like us was that the traditional churches made everybody think Christianity was old-fashioned (what we called “religious”). If I’d encountered Hardy’s poem when I was a Christian, I would have written him off as an atheist, and a patronizing one at that.
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 you’re looking for counter-arguments to those. Here’s the thing, though: both those beliefs are genuine beliefs. I never believed in wifely submission, but I’m 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 God’s 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 you’re never getting any ever again, and that’s 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 don’t 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 they’ll start being serious. Well, they’re 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 don’t believe in evolution... And I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.
Now there’s a distinction to be made between what you might call heartfelt beliefs and superficial beliefs. The believer, if asked, would sincerely say both are true, but only the heartfelt ones really guide their behaviour. I’m not here accusing anyone of any hypocrisy I’m not myself guilty of; I sometimes buy non-free-range eggs or non-fair-trade bananas if the alternative is going without, even though I know that cage farming and slave labour are both real and both horrible. Libby Anne’s 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, they’d enthusiastically advocate contraception. Their actual priorities, by Libby Anne’s analysis, show that the heartfelt reason is to make sure women who have sex outside marriage don’t get off the unwanted pregnancy that God ordains for their punishment.
But that’s 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 don’t kill abortionists, and most Muslims who tell pollsters that jihad is blessed don’t 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 Hill’s Christianity drove him to kill Dr Britton, and Roeder’s Christianity drove him to kill Dr Tiller, while fully acknowledging that Hill’s and Roeder’s Christianities were not the same as other people’s 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 that’s what they themselves insist in the messages they leave behind – which of course doesn’t 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 isn’t wrong, evolution isn’t made up, abortion isn’t murder, and jihad isn’t Allah’s will. Of course there are ways and ways of disputing beliefs. A flat “No, you’re 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 they’ve figured out that trees waving cause the wind to blow, like great big fans, are you “insulting” them if you gently reply “Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s 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 didn’t live here, are you “persecuting” them if you make a show of looking it up and then announce “No, it’s Wellington”?
When I was a Christian I thought people who had heard the Gospel and didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t, 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 don’t 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 I’m 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, you’ll notice there that I said “facts and logic”, not “ridicule”. It’s often difficult not to sound sarcastic when you’re 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 there’s a limit on how much we need to police our tone, but we do need to ground everything in evidence and reason. Mockery isn’t an appeal to evidence or reason, it’s 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 needn’t 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”. I’ve 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 that’s 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.


  1. Though it won't change your opinion, I feel charity work - disproportionately undertaken by religious organisations - might rate a mention.

    NB. I sometimes get the feeling you think you're alone in our family; while it's true you're the only atheist*, I always end up agreeing with you in any discussion with a strong religious component (other than the actual existence of God). I just wanted to make sure you realised that.

    * Evie is too young to count, but as far as I know, she doesn't really have a concept of God.

    1. As an ex-religious person who has been involved in the charity sector for many years, this is area that is of interest to me.

      In my opnion, if a person engages in charity because they are a decent human being, then they would likely engage in this as an atheist as well. You can't prove that being religious was the causative factor.

      If a person engages in charity *because* of their religion (missions, in particular), then they are doing it for the wrong reason. It might not appear that way, as they probably think that they are saving people from hell, but they are often unaware of the cultural damage that they do. Approaching people in society who are at their lowest ebb, and offering them assistance bundled with religious reeducation is pretty immoral in my view. If these same people wouldn't take the religious reeducation on its own, then sweetening it with something that they vitally need is terrible. A good example of the damage that can be done in this way is the current situation for homosexuals in Uganda. Though it has always been illegal, there were a miniscule number of prosecutions until visiting ministers from the US stirred the population into a fervor.

      Though the number of religious charities does vastly outnumber the number of non-religious, the distinction is in how they operate - a very high proportion of religious charities that operate in the third world or in areas of high need do the aforementioned bundling of reeducation and aid. The vast majority of organisations without a religious mandate just provide aid - they don't attempt to remove or reeducate the cultural and religious beliefs of those that they are helping.

      TL;DR - there are a lot more religious charities, but there are also a lot more religious charities who rely on the desperation of people at their lowest and use their religion to actively damage the culture of the people they are helping.

      Don't get me wrong though, there are a lot of amazing religious and non-religious charities out there :)

    2. A couple of things to remember, in regard to religious charity:
      (1) Religious activities are by definition "charitable" under law, regardless of whether they actually help anyone -- something our legal system has inherited unchanged from Elizabethan England.
      (2) Some people feel the emotions of gratitude and guilt very keenly. They will be enthusiastic givers to charitable causes, and if they happen to hold religious beliefs it's a good bet that they'll be among the more devout believers (because of feeling very grateful to God). If you were only to talk to them you'd think religion made people charitable. But there might be people who are very devout believers for other reasons, such as that they have a special hatred for sexual "deviancy" and religious environments shelter that hatred. Their religious devotion won't make them charitable.

  2. A better goal than “working toward a world without religion” for the atheist movement, would be “working toward a world without the *need* for religion”.

    1. It might be; the problem with that is that religion creates much of its own need, e.g. telling people they're sinners and will go to hell unless they get "saved".