What’s got the non God squad so cross?
by Noel Rooney
[ opinion - april 06 ]
It must be a sign of the times. Along with strange omens and muttered prophecies of the faithful, the faithless are stirring too. Religion-bashing by prominent atheists has become a popular spectator sport. Famous non-believers like Richard Dawkins (whose horse is eminently high) have embarked on a crusade against religion. This is not an entirely figurative description of his efforts, or those of others, to stake a cultural claim for secular atheism.
Books like The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, or the recent television series by Jonathan Miller, are acclaimed as much as the work of Professor Dawkins. And they are supported by a number of newspaper columnists and opinion-makers (people who have forgotten Confucius’ admonition that we have twice as many ears as mouths). Collectively, they claim that religion is the guilty mass murderer marauding in the bloodied pages of history.
At this point I should note a certain conflation between the terms ‘secular atheism’ and ‘liberal humanism’. These are not synonyms, and their marriage of convenience is instructive. This debate appears to be less informed and more infected.
Religion’s critics have a theory, and this is it. Religion inculcates transcendent faith, and this has two effects. First, it makes people ready to die (and kill) for their faith, as there is a better world to come; second, it makes people believe that their way of looking at the world is inherently right, and therefore that everyone else’s views are inherently wrong. Two immediate observations: first, this is not universally true of religion; second, have none of these people ever met a Marxist in the pub; or a social Darwinist for that matter?
From the first two axioms it follows that all people of a religious disposition are inclined to see themselves as superior, and see their actions as justified by God through their faith and obedience. This can lead to applauding Joshua’s slaughterfest at Jericho, rather than treating it as a war crime From this it follows that the concept of a just war is religious in principle, and thus religion lies at the heart of most of the world’s major conflicts.
The alert reader may have noticed that our argument, as it proceeds, is beginning to look less like a general description of religion and faith, and more like a description of three religions in particular, and the faithful who attach themselves to those three religions. This sleight of focus is no accident. It indicates that the argument’s proponents are a little closer to their subject than is perhaps healthy.
In many ways, the atheist attack on religion is to be expected; it really is a sign of the particular times. The profession of secular atheism by people who are more properly described as liberal humanists is a propinquitous heresy, relating ironically to the neo-con orthodoxy. The coin they are mutually and intimately minted to bears the motto: deus facit .
Leo Strauss, the great neo-con mentor, made it clear that the proper function of faith was as a tool used by an atheist elite to manipulate the rest of the population, and the more religious the religion, the better. Swingeingly moralistic religion is indeed the opium of the people; and it appears that the avowedly unfaithful are not immune to its heady perfume. Only this can explain the gusto with which some famously self-appointed experts on the non-existence of god (an ontological pseudo-problem of little relevance to theology) have attacked such an obvious paper tiger.
Their specious ire at a plainly manipulated religion is a comical obverse of chickenhawk bellicosity. It’s as if there has been a tacit mutual agreement to avoid the stark political facts altogether. God did it, religion is doing it (especially Islam) and that does it. In Islam’s case, the tiger is made of blue touch-paper, apparently; this might help to explain why people who should think longer and know better are peddling a sophisticatedly palatable version of the garbage turned out by neo-Fascists and too many tabloids. It seems that Huntington’s vituperative chimera has intellectual cache among quite a broad church.
The basic problem here is a category error. It’s not our capacity for believing in a god or gods that screws us up; it’s our capacity for belief itself. That is to say, our extremely well-developed capacity for believing any old bollocks at all, so long as it’s repeated often enough and in the right tone of voice. Atheists blaming religion for war is like the deaf blaming the blind for measles.
Let’s unsettle the balance of the polemic with a few facts. Prior to 6,000 years ago, there is practically no evidence of widespread conflict between humans anywhere on the planet. For the hundred thousand or so years up to that point, we have so far found only two isolated examples of warlike behaviour (and bear in mind that archaeologists make a point of searching for precisely this kind of evidence).
There is little evidence that the universally pacific human culture which graced the planet for so long prior to our terminus ante quem  practised any form of secular atheism, or for that matter liberal humanism; in fact, the accumulated evidence points quite clearly to the contrary. Religion was important for our ancestors, and it didn’t make them kill each other.
Today, about 5% of the world’s population still practise a culture we assume to be a vestige of that once universal cult. These people are almost universally disposed to living in egalitarian, conflict-free societies. They, like their ancestors, also lack the benefit of secular atheism; religion is a central part of the active daily life of the individual and the culture. This strongly implies that, for the bulk of our history, the bulk of humanity has managed an anomaly. They have disobeyed all the axioms of the atheist theory of religion.
There is another set of uncomfortable facts which are worth considering. We might constitute them as a list: the Chinese Cultural Revolution; the Stalinist purges; the Pol Pot regime; the Vietnam war; the Rwandan massacre; Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968. The Holocaust, too must be an extreme anomaly, unless you contrive to blame the religious element without noticing that in this case it means the victims.
This list of crimes not committed in the name of religion could be extended indefinitely, and could almost certainly take in most of history’s ‘religious’ conflicts. War is invariably fought for political or economic gain; money or power. For 6,000 years, we have lived in a culture where money and power, unequally divided, have motivated all our grand political schemes.
The other main contributor to conflict has been, on the face of it, nature; but this is something of a red herring too. Although natural catastrophes have forced millions of people to move, and such large movements have inevitably led to crowding of spaces and resources, it is instructive to note that where this happens to one of our marginal tribal cultures, the result is not conflict; and the archaeological record seems to suggest the same. That is to say, natural disasters only make bellicose peoples go to war.
And how do small wealthy elites persuade large numbers of poor people to go and fight for them? When a regime wants to make war, for its gain, it tells its population that they are under threat. The threat is usually expressed as a metaphor: a threat to ‘our way of life’. A good number of regimes use and have used religion as the detail in the metaphor, at least in part because it deflects responsibility for the conflict away from them, and back to our handy motto.
It is not the only metaphor available (consider ‘they hate our freedoms’) and by no means the only one used. Demonisation via comparative ethnography is common, and the threat to property and wealth are trotted out too. Religion, as you can see, is in good company at the high table.
It is also because of the simple fact that religion is no more nor less than an expression of the culture which invented it. Martial, expansionist cultures operate martial, expansionist versions of religion, and demand observance and faith as articles of cultural acceptance. This is not something religion does; it is something done to religion. A healthily ignorant dose of religion-bashing from a pliantly unobservant intelligentsia serves as a handy smokescreen over this plaintively obvious fact.
I want to focus briefly on the way Islam has been portrayed in this polemical panorama. First, it is worth remembering a simple statistic: to date, 50% of all suicide bombings have been carried out by secular atheists. It seems that mundane humanist politics is just as good at encouraging murderous forms of suicide as any religion.
Yet the whole warped attitude to religion in general, and to Islam in particular, can be summed up in that terrible shibboleth ‘suicide bomber’. This is because the stark political facts about Muslim terrorism, and the threat it offers, are not convenient to the desired timbre of our mock debate about the Jihadis. Our masters require an enemy, a barbarian, and our intelligentsia are determined to help in providing one.
The vast majority of Muslim acts of terrorism are and always have been directed at other Muslims, or used as components of asymmetrical warfare against invaders in their countries. The conflict in Palestine with Israel, while it includes a large proportion of actions inside Israel, basically fits this picture too. The demographic of the Palestinian suicide bombers has some unique features compared to attacks elsewhere, but otherwise the situation is typical.
It is sentimentally and intellectually dishonest to see suicide bombing as anything but a weapon, neutral and autonomous, like a gun or a missile or an aircraft. The fact that ‘we’ don’t use them (and let’s not entirely elide the honour accorded to those on our side who went on suicide missions during two world wars) is not an indication of our innate moral superiority; it is an indication of our vastly superior military technology, and power to use it.
While we are rightly disgusted at the sight of someone being beheaded on video (so are most Muslims, unsurprisingly), we mostly go blissfully unaware of the sights seen too regularly in the Muslim world; of the fragmented and fractured victims of equally disgusting attacks, delivered for the most part by remote control. Moral equivalence is denied here by the simple virtue of technological progress; it is apparently much more barbarian to cut off a person’s head with a knife than to scatter the body parts of entire families around the remains of their homes. And anyway, while they are prepared to give us prurient hints of the beheading, our pastoral media know that we are too sensitive to suffer the sight of the destruction caused on our behalf.
The major trends in contemporary Islam are liberating and tolerant. The vast majority of Muslims live in a real world, a modern one, and understand it just as well as you or I. That is not to deny that an intolerant, repressive, narrowly moralistic and fiercely anti-western, anti-modern (anti-everything, to some observers) doctrine has had an airing both within Islam and without. But on reflection, is this unique to Islam? In fact, is it unique to religious cultures? And given the immense amount of western aggression against Muslim countries over the last century, and its recent intensification, it is not exactly shocking that the resentful conservatives come (or are sent) out of the shadows to rant.
However, the Muslims who have directly attacked western targets have been modernised and westernised. They are technically adroit, and well educated; they are also adrift for a period (does this sound like pre-revolutionary anomie?) before their turn to jihad. The mechanics of forming such individuals into small tight teams capable of killing and dying for each other is well understood. It does not need religion any more than it needs beards. This aspect of Muslim terrorism is more properly described as western terrorism visited on the west by its own disappointed minorities.
A visitor from another planet would of course be forgiven for mistaking Islam, Christianity and Judaism as one religion with a lot of intimately related people arguing about it. The visitor might also be forgiven for thinking that atheism is an antinomian sect of Christianity. The current wave of polemic would do nothing to weaken that opinion. Liberal humanism might suffer the same regard, since individual transcendence or its lack might seem a red herring from an objective distance.
Faith (most of the nuanced denials offered are synonyms) is more or less universal to humanity. Faith in the divine, as with faith in the supernatural, or the evolution of consciousness, are merely expressions of the general faculty, categories of it. In less stratified cultures, it may even be that faith confers individual survival value; in ours, that value is arguable.
The reason this faux debate is taking place, and now, is because of a clash of faiths. That is to say, it is self-evidently a family feud. The various faiths clashing on this particular darkling plain include the institutional religions, liberal humanism, liberal democracy, the myths of economics, Darwinism (and its less edifying social cousin), neo-conservatism, and a whole parade of cultural attitudes (prejudices, that is) based on faith rather than fact.
Many of the polemicists show a surprising credulity towards the information content of the news media, and the pronouncements of governments and their paid pundits. Yet when you see prominent western politicians practising Koranic exegesis (apparently with a Muslim audience in mind) you can be sure that neither religion nor honesty are topping the agenda. What faith persuades our thinkers and talkers that to questions such dangerous nonsense is not their job?
There is a serious point here. The point of intellectual activity, as I understand it, is to get beneath the superficial rhetoric of a culture, its propaganda, its marketing, not to float on it. We are living through a time when the hamstrung mainstream media are mesmerised by the prospect of turbaned barbarians at the gate; this does not mean our thinkers should be. Even our structurally dissident community largely accept a myth; that fundamentalist Christianity is the power behind the neo-con throne, rather than vice versa.
As a good rule of thumb, any polemic featuring parties stating categorically that the other party is responsible for everything bad is unlikely to be veering toward fact. You are at liberty to love or loathe religion, believe in god or something else entirely; you are not entitled to assume one category of faith unique purely because of its object. And moving from there to blaming it for the ills of the world (if there’s a god involved in war, poverty and inequality it’s presumably Mammon) is not a leap of logic, or even intuition; it’s a leap of faith.
Were we instead to pay a modicum of attention to the sadly mundane facts of life: that small groups of powerful people decide what large groups of poor people can and should do; that war and conflict, inequality and oppression (domestic and international) are all things done for gain; that we are gullible enough in large enough numbers to go and fight for lies; that this is a characteristic of our culture, as we have invented and developed it; and that religion at its most powerful is merely an appendage of the real power vested in the state and its elite; then we could perhaps add another candidate to John Gray’s adage: religion, like war and smoking, are habits of the poor. Our commentators, naturally, are our betters.
The author has no religious affiliation.