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Religion stands accused

At the beginning of the new millennium religious voices have taken on a more strident tone. Around the world extreme religious groups are more vocal and more active. In turn, some secular thinkers have issued sweeping dismissals of religion as obsolete thinking. In this book review essay Jim Stuart takes a look at several works at the forefront of the attack on religion.

It was just a matter of time. The excesses of modern religion couldn’t be ignored: the rise of militant Islam, the influence of the Christian right in the Bush Administration, the Orthodox takeover of Israel, civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, religious terrorist attacks on New York, London and Bali, the pain and poverty of Darfur, and the anti-West rhetoric of Iran.

These developments, plus many more, demonstrate that religion is indeed dangerous. In response, a new cadre of militant atheist writers is giving voice to their unease with militant religious groups and what they see as their unwarranted influence. They say religion kills and destroys.

Prompted by the abuse and misuse of religion, these atheists are launching an all-out assault, and their books are selling well. Richard Dawkins, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is leading the charge with his provocative book, The God Delusion. Published in 2006 the book has sold more than a million copies.

Borrowing the language of an evangelist, Dawkins argues all religion is toxic and the world would be a much better place if it was banished from the planet. Best known for his seminal work on evolutionary biology, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins pulls no punches and, as a scientist, states he can find no evidence for the existence of God. Any thoughtful human being, he argues, will acknowledge this and look to the Darwinian principle of natural selection as an adequate and sufficient explanation for life in all its forms. The problem with religion is that it is a delusional state, where people believe what they want to believe.

Dawkins comes down especially hard on theologians. They resort to “splitting hairs”, “shameless inventions”, “obscurantist scholarship”, and “tedious clich?s”. “People of a theological bent,” he writes, “are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true.” Belief in God is “an infinite regress” and definitely not capable of explaining the organised complexity of the world in which we live. Indeed religious faith, as demonstrated by recent events in the world, is “very, very dangerous”. When not challenged it “poisons children& to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades”.

Following closely on the heels of Dawkins’ attack is the recent book, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Religion, writes Hitchens, “poisons everything”. This book is even more hard-hitting than Dawkins’ and marks a shift for Hitchens from political commentary to a blistering critique of religion. Hitchens combines caustic humour, anger, and logical conundrums to make his point.

According to the New York Times reviewer, Michael Kinsley, “Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens of the church.” The book is full of intriguing observations some Christians may find offensive. How could Christ die for our sins, when he did not die at all? Didn’t the Jews know that murder and adultery were wrong before the Ten Commandments? How can a “designer God” be reconciled with the view, held by many conservative believers, that women are imperfect?

Nothing escapes Hitchens’ scrutiny: the metaphysical claims of religion are false, the arguments of design reduce God to a “clumsy, straws-in-the-hair mad scientist”; the book of Revelation is the “nightmare” of the New Testament, religion doesn’t make people behave any better, and religion can often be a form of child abuse.

If God would just leave the world alone, argues Hitchens, it would be a much healthier and happier place. Employing the philosophical tool of Ockham’s razor, i.e., ‘do not multiply entities beyond necessity’, Hitchens tries to demonstrate that God is an “unnecessary hypothesis” that adds nothing to what science already knows. What the world needs is not more religion but a New Enlightenment based on the proposition “that the proper study of mankind (sic) is men and women.”

One other book should be added to this emergent anti-religious secularism. This is The End of Faith by Sam Harris. Harris’ book proceeded Dawkins and Hitchens by a few years. While not as militant, it explores the conflict between reason and faith and the damage religion inflicts on society when people suspend reason and withdraw into unexamined religious beliefs. Such religious beliefs, argue Harris, can be used to justify harmful behaviour and even heinous crimes.

The real threat of religious fundamentalism is that it “sets the world ablaze with bad ideas” and reduces human beings to endless tribalism at the expense of decency, moral responsibility and cooperation. Harris concludes his book with the warning, “The only angels we need involve are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which are surely the devil’s masterpiece.”

Religious communities have been unusually quiet in response to these attacks. One exception is the book Is Religion Dangerous? by philosopher-theologian Keith Ward, Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London. Ward tries to address the critical question: does religion do more harm than good?

First he defines religion and then explores the development of religious ideas. Contrary to Dawkins, Ward argues that the roots of religious belief do not lie in attempts to explain why things happen the way they do. Rather there are many reasons for religion, some legitimate, some illusory. To jettison the legitimate, he argues, is not an option and could be dangerous. Religion is a multi-faceted phenomenon and can’t be reduced to an “abstract and fixed set of doctrines”.

Having argued for the validity of religion, Ward turns his attention to such issues as the relationship between religion and violence, the rationality or irrationality of religious beliefs, and the morality of faith. He acknowledges that religious communities are very much human initiatives, prone to error and arrogance as is every other human institution. Religious institutions are not the cause of violence but can “naturally share in the general moral state of the societies in which they exist”.

In defence of religion, Ward argues that belief in God is perfectly rational. It is not different than believing in ultimate moral values or the uniformity of nature. Both Dawkins and Hitchens base their conclusions on what Ward calls “moral category mistakes”, i.e., their reasoning is faulty and lacks coherence. Ward admits some religious beliefs are harmful but that is no reason to conclude that all religion is harmful and dangerous.

On the contrary, religion can be a constructive force. Positive religion gives value and worth to life. It increases our sense of purpose and meaning. It offers hope and reinforces positive social values such as humility, forgiveness and gratitude. It encourages moral and altruistic behaviour.

Of course, writes Ward, we should expect differences of opinion in religion but to dismiss it outright as Dawkins and Hitchens do, is in itself “a mark of irrationality – or at least a closed mind”. The good that major religious traditions have contributed to the modern world far outweigh the negative.

Religion, like science, is always in need of reform and critical self-examination. All religions today need to make sure they are open and responsive to the things “that make for true reverence for the Supreme Good and for true human fulfilment”. Without the wisdom and compassion that religion teaches, the world would indeed be a bleak and cruel place, concludes Ward.

Attacking religion is not new. In Wesley’s day it took on the face of Deism – removing God from the world by reducing God to a divine watchmaker. What is different today is the militancy and what Tobias Jones calls “the aspiring totalitarianism” of writers like Dawkins and Hitchens. They are not only anti-God, they want to eradicate religion and people of faith from the earth. The excesses of religion bear some responsibility for provoking this attack but that is not an adequate reason to ban religious people from wearing a crucifix, veil, turban or holding beliefs that do not fit into the secular scientific paradigm.

The very tolerance they pretend to seek is undermined by their own intolerance of all religion. They seek to replace the tyranny of religious orthodoxy with the tyranny of secular relativism. In today’s complex global society we need neither religious orthodoxy nor secular relativism. Rather we need greater understanding, more compassion, and a deeper recognition of our common humanity.

Books reviewed:
The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) by Christopher Hitchens, Allen Unwin.
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004) by Sam Harris, The Free Press.
Is Religion Dangerous? (2006) by Keith Ward, Lion Hudson.