The Fighting Atheists
In the UK’s Guardian forum, to which I contribute from time to time, the subject of atheism often crops up, and I have been puzzled by the huge responses to articles on this subject, and the allegedly “shrill” tone of the atheist response, an accusation made repeatedly by those fighting to assert or maintain the validity of institutional religious influence in a secular society.
While I do not find the atheist position shrill, I do find it to be on the attack. The reason is that to many observers, religion appears to be making a comeback. Some of us fear, with good reason, that as the world becomes more complex, when every social process becomes inextricably enmeshed with others, when all interactions and decisions are accelerated by technology and our anxieties about the progress of society heightened by the growing fear of “the other”; when we fear science itself, our reason and belief in secular order is sorely tested. Add to this the daunting and largely – for the individual – unresolvable global-scale problems like collapsing economies, terrorism, resource depletion, unemployment and climate change, there will be a strong desire to retreat from the increasing demands on our rationality (and the concomitant individual responsibility for the way we deploy our intelligence), reverting instead to the palliative comforts of the less demanding option: faith in something we did not need to figure out for ourselves, towards whose precepts we have no responsibility other than to follow them as best we can. In other words, organised religion is a comfort because we need ask no questions other than “what should we do?”, read the sacred texts and blame all misfortune on the will of the gods. How very convenient, and to be blunt about it, something of a massive cop-out.
Spirituality – however one defines it – is an understanding as unique to each person as our DNA. My own small epiphanies are entirely personal and both the path to them and the revelations revealed do not, and cannot, apply to anyone else. To think others should follow my path or discover what I have discovered is to rob them of their right to be individuals. But the individual path is lonely and fraught with personal failure. There can be no succour for me to be found in the group, the church, the establishment. It is not the easy path, but it is the most rewarding since I pay no obeisance to any doctrine, method or tract. And while I am denied the right to any form of superiority, moral or spiritual, through marching to my own drummer, I do gain the freedom of thought and action that, by effecting what I believe in those thoughts and actions, must also be granted automatically to every other person on this earth.
But religion is a consensual business, a political paradigm. A religion of one person is spirituality, a religion of more than one is a political process with a prayer meeting attached. A religion requires compliance, assumes moral authority, and exclusiveness that can only lead to bigotry, self-importance and the denial of the rights of non-believers. A religion cannot stop itself from becoming enmeshed with the temporal, the political, because all religions must espouse a moral framework that defines our relationships to each other. The results are clear to see in the UK where religion occupies a political position and enjoys influence and privilege that seems quite inappropriate in a secular society, while elected representatives like Blair and Bush are guided by religious conviction even as they take us to war on the basis of lies and disinformation.
And let me say the thing that rarely appears in such discussions, I think out of misplaced political correctness. I do not think Christianity is the real problem in the west, but the rise of Islam. All over Europe, the discourse is changing. When we see remarks from the likes of Rowan Williams regarding the application of Sharia law in the UK, perhaps many of us see an attempt to re-assert religious influences on secular life from which we have struggled to free ourselves. This is not a philosophical battle, it is a war for the hearts and minds of our children. Every faith school brings with it the kind of ideas expressed in this thread: creationism, the “need” for a superior being, the denial of science, the triumph of faith over reason. If our arguments seem shrill, it is because we fear the ignorance and manipulation that many religions foster in order to maintain their claim to moral ascendancy, and some of the posts on the Guardian forum demonstrate how that rhetoric is shaped.
I do not believe the liberal theists when they espouse their “tolerant” positions towards other faiths. Religion requires obedience to its precepts or it is useless and has no cohesion, and little spiritual value. For a Muslim or Christian to shrug off the exclusiveness of their faith is to pretend they have not chosen the “true” path, that their religion is merely one expression of faith that is interchangeable with any other. Are we to believe that choosing a religion is as arbitrary as deciding whether to have tea or coffee with one’s breakfast?
Behind religious belief is an agenda of certainty, where those who worship at a different altar, or none, are at best mistaken, at worst damned for all eternity. The history of religion is one of suppression, hypocrisy, intolerance, war, torture, murder and theft, racism and demagoguery. There is good reason to oppose a political movement whose guiding principle is exclusive to those who benefit from it. In the history of the world, one can find any number of examples of the destruction and mendacity of religious influence. Nowhere can one find a single sustained religious initiative that has benefited a greater part of any society. On its track record alone, religion is an abject failure as a force for good. We should abandon it for something that actually helps us all, equally and without discrimination.