Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More on Atheist Books: The Unfortunate History of Religious Belief

One of the stronger arguments made by atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins is the harm caused by humans in the name of religion over the course of history. Yes, I know, atheistic belief systems have their own examples of evil, but the atheists do have a point that atheists have not killed in the name of atheism per se.

My response is that human beings, as fallible creatures, will use any justification available--religion, ideology, tribalism, etc.--to justify evil, and it is this nature of humans (and not religion) that is ultimately at fault. Paul O’Donnell, a former editor at Newsweek and Beliefnet.com, agrees with me in a recent review of Christopher Hitchens' book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,:

One of Western civilization’s worst follies involves men in robes—women too—chanting and gesticulating like they're trying to lure the Great Kong—only what they're up to is even more bizarre: acting out myths bastardized from the pagans and Zoasterians and the like, all to the glory of, let's face it, the elite. Power and wealth are what's being worshipped— which is why all this goes on in glittering showplaces, temples to their financial prowess and power. Oh, there's constant talk among devotees of reaching out to the young—lest the ancient lore and practices die out—and the poor, since the higher planes are not for the privileged alone. But please: the faithful participate precisely so they can feel superior to those who don’t "get it." They spend on one ritually repeated performance what could feed hundreds. As for the young, particularly young boys, this elite famously sacrificed them, even castrated them once upon a time, for the sake of their pleasure.


I refer of course to opera. I'm put in mind of its regrettable history by Christopher Hitchens' controversial new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, wherein Hitchens condemns religion for encouraging violent tribalism, inhibiting healthy sexual release, and filling children's heads with fairy tales. Above all, Hitchens rails that religion does not answer to reason. But wait, Hitch is no literalist. Hitchens writes that he and his co-nonreligionists "are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe. We have music and art and literature." Does that mean Hitchens stands by opera, which combines all three?

Okay, this isn't quite fair. No one ever flew a plane into a building to protest a Peter Sellars "Rigoletto." But every human institution seems to fall prey to our prejudices, petty cruelties and monstrous inattention to suffering around us. Religion no less than any other. But anything that attracts crowds with its beauty or portrays its conclusions as the truth can be adapted to serve bad ends, and usually is—just as, say, Hitler enlisted Wagner to his cause.

The problem with Hitchens' bestselling indictment of religion, then, is not that he's wrong about religion's failings. But he doesn't explain convincingly how religion is different from politics or sports or science.

Once you admit that Hitchens’ critique can't be limited to religion, the ills he associates with religion can be seen as chicken-or-the-egg quandaries. Does religion spur tribalism, or does tribalism turn religion to its own use? Does society invent religion to control sexual behavior, or does society's wish to control sexual behavior co-opt religion’s moral authority? A wise preacher once observed that religions are usually invented at the hearth by women to explain nature to children, and that men then adopt it to increase their power. Who, in short, is poisoning whom?

. . .

If secularists are "not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe," neither are they immune to visiting suffering on others for the sake of their ideas. Before God Is Great, Hitchens was best known for being the rare lefty political columnist who backed the Iraq War. In their own way, reason's ideals of democracy for all and a desire for a peace in the Middle East have resulted in a disaster. Well-meaning rationalists have espoused mass sterilization and sided with Stalin. Reason has yielded the polio vaccine, yes, but also the atomic bomb.

These objections don’t prove the existence of the divine (any more than lambasting religion proves the opposite), or even suggest reason is a bad guide to moral behavior. I pray never to have to choose between the evil of bad religion and the evil of bad reason. But to say that you can't abide by religion or reason is to deny human nature. You might as well say you don't believe in opera.


Read it all.

3 comments:

Alice MacArthur said...

Ample evidence exists that tribalism is built into our genomes. (I see the sin of Adam or original sin as a metaphor for this unfortunate inheritance.)

A chimp (our closest relative) unfortunate enough to wander into the territory of another tribe may find himself torn to pieces by members of that tribe.

It has nothing to do with whatever cultural overlays exist to justify it.

TLDreaming said...

The problem is that religion makes it okay to commit the acts of intolerance that you suggest are part of human nature. You are right of course about human nature, but religion (or other areas of passionate belief) gives the individual the "right" or justification to indulge his or her more intolerant urges. This doesn't justify atheism, but chalking the damage done by religion as simply "human nature" strikes me as bit unpersusive as well.

Chuck Blanchard said...

Yes, religion is used to justify acts of intolerance, but so does tribalism, nationalism, ideology, and any other passion. Take religion out of the calculus, and people will still act poorly. That suggest to me that religion is merely an excuse for intolerance and violence, and not a cause.

I also might add, that in recent decades, most mainstream Christian religions have shown farmore opposition to violence and intolerance than they show support for that violence.