The notion that atheists seek to destroy religion is just plain silly. The notion that ideas can be destroyed is just plain silly. Mostly atheists want to remove the privileged position and influence that religion enjoys in society. They would quite like children to stop being told what they must believe. They see clearly that belief without foundation is dangerous and is a source of division and conflict in the world. They just want a better world: where the miseries of war, bigotry, of endless conflict, (with quite frequent religious underpinnings), is ended. They want a better world for their children to grow up and flourish in. They see religion (most of it anyway), as a stumbling block to getting there.
Religion does not exist in a vacuum; it requires bodies to live in. Those bodies act in the real world to carry out the ideas embedded in the religion. That is why all religions seek to get their ideas in early isn't it? Into education, into children, into the next generation.
Looking around though, I see it (religion) as adding yet another layer of a sort of tribal division to humanity that it can ill afford to sustain into a mllennia in which we are making efforts to do away with the divisions of racism, sexism, nationalism, gender inequality and so on, and trying to negotiate the shared values that we can live peaceably by with each other in a shrinking and over-populated world.
But what do we see? The Islamic youth, head banging their way into a brain washed submission to the will of Allah, and dreaming of the 72 virgins they will get as reward in paradise: after they have blown themselves up, along with as many infidels as possible.
I watch the determined efforts of the creationists to deny every hard won fact from every field of science going, to instill the belief in children that the earth was created 6000 years ago and that the bible is the literal word of God; to deny evolution and the profound knowledge that we are related to all life on earth.
I watch the Catholic church disseminate blatant lies about the role condoms play in helping prevent the transmission of aids.
Need I go on? I have to ask if religion is on the side of humanity at all?
The answer may turn out to be that we couldn't have done without it up to now. It may also be that we would be better off without it and now should learn to take full responsibility for ourselves and our planet before we wreck it completely.
But what about this religious protection racket they have going? The attitude that a legitimate critique of religion can only be attempted by those qualified to undertake it i.e. by those with the right sort of education and experience that equips them for this task.
We do not allow this intellectual dishonesty in any other sphere: economics, politics, art, music, history, psychology. We do not permit psychopaths to claim that only psychopaths are qualified to investigate the condition and that you must be one to be able understand and research psychopathy.
So the so called New Atheists are very frequently accused of being ignorant of the subtleties of modern theology and of mounting ill informed attacks on a subject they really know nothing about, based perhaps, upon their personal dislike for it.
Very rarely, if ever, are such commentators aware of the amount of study, reading, research and self education that has actually been undertaken: preferring to comment along the lines of 'Oh, but you have never read this theologian': 'You have such a limited understanding of this aspect of theological esoterica': or, 'You certainly are not educated, qualified, well informed enough, to comment on this.' And so it goes. They will present an endless list of books that must be read before allowing anyone a legitimate position from which they may criticise religion.
Fortunately, this pseudo-academic rood screen is already crumbling as the natural sciences make steady inroads into understanding religious experience as a human phenomenon.
That boat has well and truly left and anyone seriously interested in the study of religion would be better off booking a cabin rather than sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting 'go away' loudly.
Perhaps some of these links might help those who may be contemplating taking their fingers out rather than just shouting louder and louder to block out the noise.
There are literally thousands of religions with thousands of truths: all of them different. How do we explain this? It suggests that deep in human history there has been a need, a desire, a requirement, an impetus to incorporate the explanatory power of the divine into human society.
At this point in the human adventure we are developing the scientific and cognitive tools to explore what may be known of the supernatural, of Gods. Have they been just myths to see us through the dark fears of the night: stories to give us courage to explore what may have been and what may be? Are they real? It is worth finding out. If it turns out there is a God, it would have been sensible for it give a much clearer and unequivocal knowledge of its presence. One that would be indisputable to humans, such that they would have no need to fight over and for their God, and no need for their missionaries to spread the word into cultures with different beliefs.
Some say we require religion as the basis of human morality. No we don’t. Morality developed in prehistory and religion was bolted on thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years later. Morality is about how we treat each other. It developed not in reference to the edicts of a God but as a necessity in the development of humans. We used to live in small hunter- gatherer groups, maybe 100 or 150 strong. A large number of the group would either be family or very closely related. They would have to develop morality to be a cohesive unit, able to support and cooperate with each other in hunting, defence, learning and sharing techniques and keeping the group functional and healthy and able to grow. Altruistic behaviour and moral development in humans was inevitable. When such groups developed into civilisations, Gods could function as reinforcement of the already developed moral code and as an additional reward/punishment system to promote conformity to the code on a large scale.
There is nothing religious about morality. Everything about it is human. But that's a digression.
So, having ousted religion from its occupation of the moral high ground; an occupation which has left society the obligation to clear away the bodies of those it has destroyed, and to repair as much of the abuse and damage as possible to those it has intellectually and emotionally crippled; let's turn our attention to this issue of respect once more.
I want to look at the reactions of the religious community when confronted with criticism; reactions which, as we have seen, border on near hysteria and sometimes in actual violence. Whether examining religions truth claims and evidence, which might support those claims, whether examining religion from a historical or anthropological or scientific approach, the reaction seems to be the same.
Soon after Richard Dawkins published the God Delusion, the market was flooded with books with names such as The Dawkins Delusion or The God Solution. Similarly, when Sam Harris published Letter to a Christian Nation, we saw Letter from a Christian Citizen and many more. The shelves are groaning with these books; the ratio must be something like 20:1.
The tone of most of these books seems be something like 'How very dare you question our beloved faith so harshly, (and so publicly), and not accord it the deference and respect which is its due.'
They often concentrate on attacking the author’s integrity and qualifications to mount such a critique of religion; many of them fail to get to grips with the arguments presented in any meaningful way.
We need to look at the reasons why the religious may feel themselves entitled to their bitter annoyance and to adopt an attitude of hurt and offence when their beliefs are questioned.
One reason is that they conflate the ideas of respect for the person with respect for the opinions, values and beliefs being held by the person.
I teach the clodlet that peoples of all races, creeds, and colours are to be respected, and that the most important thing is to understand how and why and in what ways the values, customs and beliefs of people shape different cultures and how these interact together. There is no requirement placed on him to respect these values, beliefs or customs. He is encouraged to freely question any values, opinions, points of view, beliefs (including mine) without fear of being wrong or that it is inappropriate or impolite to do so.
In the religious context I place no requirement on him to respect the beliefs or practices of different cultures where those beliefs or practices result in direct physical or emotional harm to individuals. I do not need to spell out the obvious many many horrific examples of this in all cultures and belief systems throughout history and today, including our own.
We cannot explain to our children that these terrible things often happen because people have deeply held, yet conflicting beliefs about things, and at the same time, instruct them that they have to maintain an automatic attitude of respect towards those beliefs. That is just an insult to their intelligence and a barrier to their unfettered enquiry and understanding of these awful events. This injuction to an automatic attitude of respect to all belief and cultural norms is actually a hindrance rather than a help to that process.
We do not permit this attitude to hold sway in any other realm of human discourse, political, scientific, social. So how has it come about that religion feels itself entitled to this?
Once the notion of respect becomes harnessed to an ideology, to a religion, it may productively be employed to demand anything between the requirement for you to doff your cap, to the demand that it take over your life and regulate what you may or may not do. In the public sphere, belief per se, has no right to demand or expect such automatic respect. Belief is the domain of disposition, of emotion, of opinion, of how you as an individual view and interpret the world. You may hold to your views with immense passion and conviction. You may sincerely believe that Jesus is the SOG and you will ascend to his heavenly kingdom after you die. That is your affair.
If you think however that possessing this belief somehow makes you a superior human being, or entitles you or your organisation to preferential treatment in terms of tax breaks or privileged access or influence in terms of determining matters of public policy, then you have got it badly wrong.
As I have said elsewhere: I have no idea what a God is. I have never heard one, seen one, smelled one, tasted one or felt one. All I have encountered are the myriad representational ideas of the people who say they believe in God and have a personal relationship with it and who try (or not) to tell me what they mean by that. As believers, I may respect them all equally as humans but have wildly varying degrees of respect for their integrity and views ranging from non at all to a very great deal. But for most of them.......
"...... perhaps ‘God exists’ functions largely as a license to demand respect creep. It turns up an amplifier, and what it amplifies is often the meanest and most miserable side of human nature. I want your land, and it enables me to throw bigger and better tantrums, ones that you just have to listen to, if I find myself saying that God wants me to want your land. A tribe wants to enforce the chastity of its women, and the words of the supernatural work to terrify them into compliance. We don’t like our neighbours,and it works if we say that they are infidels or heretics. This is religion used to ventilate and to amplify emotions of fear, self-righteousness, vengefulness, bitterness, hatred and self-hatred. If this is how the religious language functions, we on the sidelines should not want people to be using it, and we should not use it ourselves."
The interesting thing about respect creep is that it can transform itself from a personal expression of affront into a cultural demand for compliance.
How it does this interesting.
Those who sit in awe and humility at the feet of The Father are taking their instruction from a very personal God. The instruction and the authority come very much from On High, down. This is not some post-modernist God, whose intellectual discourse consists of the unintelligible Godlydegook of the modern theologian: a rather obscure, distant, almost mythological abstract entity, one that you can feel all warm and fuzzy with and about on a Sunday morning but can't quite pin down.
No, for respect creep to work, to have authority, to have teeth, we need a very ontological God. A God with a face and a voice and a temper; a God that sais 'let my people go.....or else'. A God with a good grasp of thunder and lightening technology. A God, above all, who can project wrath, vengeance, jealousy and hatred. A God with the power to grant you the right to your self righteous offence taking; your land taking; your freedom taking; even your life taking. This is the God that the majority of believers have in mind: a God of the common man: a God of the soap-operas.
Must we really respect such a God? Well, let's dig into this respect business a bit more.
Respect is a word with such a wide spectrum of meaning that it requires the analysis of the context in which it is used; a study of the attitudes of the users; an understanding of the power relationship between the users; whether it is used alongside such words as esteem, deference, honor, veneration, admiration and so on, and of course whether it is being used idiomatically or as noun or verb. So you have to keep a sharp eye on all these as you juggle with the meaning.
Appreciation: I respect the guy that gets up at 3am every day, come hail rain or shine, to deliver a couple of pints of milk to my doorstep.
Skill: I respect (hugely) the skill ability and knowledge of the surgeon that carried out the operation on me a few years back.
Law: I respect and obey the law which limits the speed I drive in residential areas. It is there for a good reason: it saves lives.
Privacy: I respect your privacy. I just do. So there.
In the context of this discussion we have to look at the expectations of both the receiver and giver of respect and the power relationship between them.
Galileo - Hey, waddyaknow? The earth revolves round the sun.
Pope - No, it doesn't.
Galileo - Er.....Yes, it does....look.
Pope - Well....whatever, it's heresy and if you publish you burn.
Galileo - Oh...right....ok, it doesn't.
Galileo's expectation is that fact will be acknowledged as fact (respected).
The Pope's expectation is that Galileo will recant out of respect for the churches teaching on the matter. If that wasn't forthcoming the Pope could carry out his threat: the power relationship is not an equal one.
We should be careful also not to conflate respect with politeness. Up till now, it has been the expectation of the religious to be treated with deference and to be accorded a privileged position in society with the expectation, the demand to be heard on moral, social, political and other questions; that it is their right to command respect.
Any study of history will reveal how closely intertwined are the power politics, the intrigues of state, the match making to get a catholic, (or not), monarch on the throne. The religious were the spin-doctors in the courts of all the kings and queens of Europe and spent much time engaged in the conspiricies to further their religious agenda. So we recognise that religion has had a powerful, a very powerful role to play in history; close to all the centres of power and powerful in its own right.
The Pope expects to be able to make pronouncements on issues such as contraception, aids, sexuality, abortion, sin, climate change, forgiveness, pergatory, limbo (cancelled), and so on, and he expects the world in general to listen to his moral pronouncements and declarations and he expects practising catholics to obey them and hopes everyone else will.
The same is true in the UK but without all the popish pomp and ceremony. The same is true in the Islamic world except that there the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs have much more temporal power and can't half give you a hard time if you don't obey.
What is the expectation of the consumer of the religious product? I imagine it will include such things as community, comfort, solace, guidance, a sense of stability, a philosophy to live by, a way to celebrate rites of passage, a sense of purpose, a hope for justice, moral guidance, forgiveness.
As well as going hand in hand with state authority for a long time, the religious have used many of the same techniques to reinforce and convey this right to privelege and to respect. It is reinforced by the soaring cathedrals; the richly embroidered robes; the divine right of kings, as was; the power of ceremony and the dignity and solemnity of sacrament and ritual; the processions of faith; the authority to mediate between God and man, to grant forgiveness and absolution in his name; the status granted to the leaders of the church in community and in government; the pomp of a televised state wedding or funeral; the fervour of the Hadj; the awesome spectacle of the Kumbh Mela; the reverence for monk with his begging bowl; The sheer grandeur of the whole religious edifice and its claim to moral authority before God commands of you this respect.
The world is changing though, and especially since 9/11, the mood has altered to question this assumption of a privileged place in society and to acknowledge and face the hard truth that belief does have consequence in the real world.
The legitimate concerns of the state are the security and welfare of citizens, defence from threats both internal and external, law and order, economic progress (or lack of), health, education, environment, foreign affairs, transport, second homes, duck ponds, expense accounts, .....you know....politics.
The legitimate concern of religion is the salvation of souls.
Not so very long ago, there was little separation of the two, and the power of the state was readily and regularly harnessed in the service of religion. It still is, in far too many parts of the world.
Why is this a bad idea?
Well, as we all readily observe, there is no consensus on religious claims, even within the same religion, never mind between religions. They are constantly at each others throats with their claims to be sole possessors of the way the truth and the light.
However, the necessity for a minimum of social order and peace requires that the violent impulses of extremists and fundamentalists and the divisions and conflicts between adherents to different religions be contained to a minimally manageable level. Allowing any one religious belief close coupling to state power risks not only the persecution and supression of minority religions - thus creating and underclass of disenfranchised believers leading to further division and conflict and, as we see, bloodshed.
Removing this allows individuals to navigate their route to salvation (whatever that is), while protected in equality and freedoms against all competing religions, which can become immensly powerful. The price you pay for this is that, although your rights and freedoms to worship and practice and witness are protected from state or other persecution, you must relinquish the power you may ideally like to impose on society the dogmas or the morality of your religion concerning sexuality, reproductive rights, stem cell research, condom use, adoption policy, access to control of religious education in schools and limitations to the scientific curricula taught in schools and all the rest.
This also ensures a level playing field where all people of faith or no faith may persue the common goals that all can agree on, while robustly arguing their corner over the matters on which they don't.