Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Moral panic surrounds religion - Part 1

Moral panic surrounds religion!

Yay! And it's not just me saying this, it's John Gray saying so!

This article was so long and has so much good stuff that I've broken it up into 3 parts. Today: Part 1!

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils.

I’ve got an idea for these religions. Quit giving people reasons to be extremely crappy to other people all because someone once heard voices in his head.

Rather, there are some great guidelines that just about every religion claims to follow. Follow those and be sanguine when others follow your footsteps.

As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands.

Wow! That sounds like a lot of demand for those types of books.

For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.

It’ll have a future if it produces something that helps people. Lots of religions have done lots of good works, but it turns out that those good works can be done just as well – if not better – without the superstition attached. Food production, healing, education, they all work better when we devise better ways to make and distribute food, study medicine, and open minds to reach out for new and fresh conclusions.

Praying for bread, laying on hands, and telling kids that the answer is “Godidit” doesn’t have quite as good of a track record.

The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.

It might have something to do with their books holding to internally consistent truths. I'm just saying.

The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image. And there are some who view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a danger comparable with the worst that were faced by liberal societies in the 20th century.

Amazing how we all accepted the image that their religion brainwashed into them and that they murdered and died to uphold.

We’re all funny that way!

For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day.

I’m sure that you’ll clearly show where they’re all wrong.

The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase.

Or perhaps you’re going for showing how religion got to the sad state that it has found itself?

In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.

So religion isn’t in a sad state? I’m losing the thrust of this argument here. Throw me a freaking bone, please!

It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian.

So religion is in a sad state compared to the utter dominance it had over human affairs previously. Got it.

However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity.

Nothing suggests that the move away is irreversible? How about Occam’s Razor and the lack of any need to have a god to explain anything? That seems like it kind of suggests that a move away from religion is irreversible.

The secular era was in any case partly illusory.

So religion is in moral panic and books about atheism being bestsellers are just illusions? What is the point of this article then? Color me confused here.

The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion,

It’s nice when a religious person uses the word myth to describe his religion’s stories. It saves the rest of us time and effort.

and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed.

The movements that involve those best selling books, right? Those are the ones that have already collapsed?

The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat,

But didn’t you start off this article saying…?

and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.

Evangelical atheism is bad. Got it. An atheist being like a religious person is bad. We agree! Yay!

As in the past, this is a type of atheism that mirrors the faith it rejects. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights - a subtly allusive, multilayered allegory, recently adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster, The Golden Compass - is a good example. Pullman's parable concerns far more than the dangers of authoritarianism. The issues it raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks. Pullman has stated that his atheism was formed in the Anglican tradition, and there are many echoes of Milton and Blake in his work. His largest debt to this tradition is the notion of free will. The central thread of the story is the assertion of free will against faith. The young heroine Lyra Belacqua sets out to thwart the Magisterium - Pullman's metaphor for Christianity - because it aims to deprive humans of their ability to choose their own course in life, which she believes would destroy what is most human in them. But the idea of free will that informs liberal notions of personal autonomy is biblical in origin (think of the Genesis story). The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman's is a derivative of Christianity.

And has grossed $372 million worldwide!

Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody.

Nah, they just don’t see a need for imaginary friends to be taken seriously by people over, say, the age of six.

To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind.

Which is good, since it isn’t.

It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion.

Yep! The hard part is that religious people tend to get all verklempt about making fun of people who believe in imaginary friends, fantasy stories, and drug induced visions supplanting measurable, testable results. It makes them not nearly as fun at parties!

It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

Either that or you have a very low bar for what constitutes demonizing religion. We really should publish a handbook on what atheists can and cannot say around people who believe in Bronze Age mysticism. It would help a lot!

A curious feature of this kind of atheism is that some of its most fervent missionaries are philosophers.

A curious feature of this article is that you keep referring to people who have no religion at all in religious terms.

Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity. This parochial focus is reflected in Dennett's view of religion, which for him means the belief that some kind of supernatural agency (whose approval believers seek) is needed to explain the way things are in the world. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better - they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, someday, someone is going to refer to it as a duck. People are wacky that way!

"The proposition that God exists," he writes severely, "is not even a theory."

It’s a theory all right. It’s a bad one that has zero evidence to support it despite millennia of people trying desperately to gather such evidence. So maybe he’s just saying that it’s not a scientific theory. There’s a small issue of that word getting used differently by different people – especially scientists who are really specific about that particular term and non-scientists who regularly butcher it.

But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories.

Very true! If they were we’d have thrown them out centuries ago.

The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity, while in Orthodox Judaism practice tends to have priority over doctrine. Buddhism has always recognised that in spiritual matters truth is ineffable, as do Sufi traditions in Islam. Hinduism has never defined itself by anything as simplistic as a creed. It is only some western Christian traditions, under the influence of Greek philosophy, which have tried to turn religion into an explanatory theory.

This is a neat paragraph! Religious writers really can write well when they stick to talking about religion. Bravo!

The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer's survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.

People might also have gotten the idea that religion gave answers when, I don’t know, it started giving answers. Despite not even understanding the questions. I’m just saying.

For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge. Dennett's atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer's positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication - in their day, canals and the telegraph - irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In an interview that appears on the website of the Edge Foundation (edge.org) under the title "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion", he predicts that "in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today". He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of "the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television)". The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban, or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaida on the web.

I’m thinking that it has more to do with the anonymity of the internet allowing people to express their real beliefs freely without fear of direct reprisals and discovering that there are many, many other people out there who also don’t believe in imaginary friends.

That's it for part 1! Stay tuned for part 2 coming up tomorrow!

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