Thursday, July 10, 2008

Moral panic surrounds religion - Part 3

Moral panic surrounds religion!

And now the end of our 3 part series on the moral panic surrounding religion. Enjoy! And if you missed part 1 and part 2, I'd suggest you read them first!

One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.

Or it’s just an observed fact that we’ve progressed by building on the accomplishments of our forefathers. Take your pick!

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not).

Really? I thought it assumed that we have to work really, really hard to make progress.

It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics.

That’s possible. We haven’t tried yet so it’s just a belief so far.

In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society.

Society is a bit slow that way. It might have something to do with all the religious nutjobs holding onto Bronze Age thinking.

Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Sounds like it’s time for a change then! I can think of one thing that’s been really consistent during the course of man’s recorded history, has produced nothing good that can’t be produced without its overhead and requires people to go out and kill in it’s name.

I’ll even give you a hint – it starts with an R!

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.

An intellectually rigorous scientist would start by questioning your claim that belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history. So I will. Evidence please!

This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists

Back to describing atheism as a religion again. Atheism is a religion just like bald is a hair color.

have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.

Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray's In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism

That he recognizes “evangelical atheism” is disturbing.

is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism. The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for the traditions from which these thinkers emerged - particularly Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one God," he writes. "But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people." Here Onfray passes over an important distinction. It may be true that Jews first developed monotheism, but Judaism has never been a missionary faith. In seeking universal conversion, evangelical atheism belongs with Christianity and Islam.

That makes perfect sense! Since atheists send out hordes of missionaries to foreign lands to convert the heathens to their creed and atheistic leaders tell their flocks that they’ll be rewarded after death if they convert everyone to atheism, they’re just like Christianity and Islam!

Except for the missionaries, converting the heathens, getting instructions from atheistic leaders, or any reward after death. But other than that it makes perfect sense!

In today's anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature.

Wouldn’t that make that violence not “faith-based”? I’ve really got to get a dictionary for this.

To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism. Islamism is a patchwork of movements, not all violently jihadist and some strongly opposed to al-Qaida, most of them partly fundamentalist and aiming to recover the lost purity of Islamic traditions, while at the same time taking some of their guiding ideas from radical secular ideology. There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamo-fascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including antisemitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left, and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists. Islamist techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements. The executions of hostages in Iraq are copied in exact theatrical detail from European "revolutionary tribunals" in the 1970s, such as that staged by the Red Brigades when they murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

So the guys who were recruited by religious means, promised a religious reward in a religious afterlife and willingly killed themselves and murdered others specifically for their God…were doing this for secular reasons?

What are you smoking, man?!?

Are you even reading the fruitcake, bizarro world, grasping at straws, insane-o comments coming out of your keyboard now?

The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder". He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island's Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any postmortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 80s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese communist party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. It is a view of things more remote from human realities, and more reliably lethal in its consequences, than most religious myths.

Great theory! Now start demonstrating some evidence to back it up, please.

It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. No one can doubt that they are superior to the tyranny imposed by the Taliban on Afghanistan, for example.

Backhanded compliments-R-Us.

The issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century. A greater menace is posed by North Korea, which far surpasses any Islamist regime in its record of repression and clearly does possess some kind of nuclear capability. Evangelical atheists rarely mention it. Hitchens is an exception, but when he describes his visit to the country, it is only to conclude that the regime embodies "a debased yet refined form of Confucianism and ancestor worship". As in Russia and China, the noble humanist philosophy of Marxist-Leninism is innocent of any responsibility.

And this connects to religion being in a state of moral panic…how?

Writing of the Trotskyite-Luxemburgist sect to which he once belonged, Hitchens confesses sadly: "There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb." He need not worry. His record on Iraq shows he has not lost the will to believe. The effect of the American-led invasion has been to deliver most of the country outside the Kurdish zone into the hands of an Islamist elective theocracy, in which women, gays and religious minorities are more oppressed than at any time in Iraq's history. The idea that Iraq could become a secular democracy - which Hitchens ardently promoted - was possible only as an act of faith.

Yeah, Iraq ditching religion won’t happen anytime soon. What a pity. That reality is squarely on religion’s shoulders and the penchant it has for brainwashing people into believing all sorts of outlandish things.

In The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes: "Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally." Amis is sure religion is a bad thing, and that it has no future in the west.

Sounds good to me!

In the author of Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million - a forensic examination of self-delusion in the pro-Soviet western intelligentsia - such confidence is surprising. The intellectuals whose folly Amis dissects turned to communism in some sense as a surrogate for religion, and ended up making excuses for Stalin. Are there really no comparable follies today? Some neocons - such as Tony Blair, who will soon be teaching religion and politics at Yale - combine their belligerent progressivism with religious belief, though of a kind Augustine and Pascal might find hard to recognise. Most are secular utopians, who justify pre-emptive war and excuse torture as leading to a radiant future in which democracy will be adopted universally. Even on the high ground of the west, messianic politics has not lost its dangerous appeal.

Religion has not gone away.


Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise.

Which is why no one is repressing it. They’re arguing against it and trying to convince people to abandon it. And that’s working well!

In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism.

Unlike religion which…helped engender totalitarianism by convincing people that Kings ruled by divine right. How exactly did atheism help engender totalitarianism again?

Today, the result is a climate of hysteria.

For religious people. For the atheists, we’re throwing a party celebrating all those best sellers!

Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence.

Correct! Did you mean to say that nothing in religion is precious or deserving in reverence? That would be true, too!

There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share.

Isn’t it great when someone claims that his opposition believes something and then knocks down that something? I think there’s even a debating term for it!

There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.

Right-o! We’re on the same page here!

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms.

To attempt to force the eradication of religion would do so. That’s why no one is doing that. It would be silly!

A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come.

Huh? You lost me totally there.

Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

This might be true…if “secular faith” had any meaning whatsoever. Unfortunately for your arguments, but as a boon to clear thinking people everywhere, it means as much as “evangelical atheist”.

Thanks for sticking around, everyone, to the end of this three part series on moral panic! It's been fun!

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