May 06, 2008
The end of god-5: The politics of 'good' and 'bad' religion
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
Perhaps the biggest storm raised by the new atheists, and which has even caused a split within the atheist community about strategy, is that they have decided to ignore the polite fiction that there is 'good' religion and there is 'bad' religion. Supporters of this split (which includes even many non-religious people) believe that what should be done is to support the good religionists by aligning with them to combat the bad.
This has to be understood as being essentially a political strategy, designed to marginalize the so-called religious extremists and fundamentalists, the people whose religious beliefs lead them to reject all of modern science and to harbor repugnant views on issues of morality and social justice.
But while this strategy may generate some political benefits in the short term, its adoption has also resulted in religious beliefs as a whole being treated with kid gloves, by not subjecting them to the same close and withering scrutiny that is applied to other evidence-defying beliefs such as astrology and witchcraft. Although religious beliefs are as irrational as any of those things, this political strategy required that this inconvenient truth not be pointed out, and to maintain the façade that there is a 'true' religion which is essentially good, and that the evils committed in religion's name arise from distortions of the true religion by misguided or evil people.
This gentle treatment of mainstream religion was no doubt aided by the fact that many people that atheists were likely to know, even within their close circle of family and friends, are people who are otherwise rational and yet also believe in these religion-related absurdities. It is hard to criticize religion in a fundamental way without implicitly suggesting that belief in it is an irrational act. The desire not to ruffle feathers serves to muffle fundamental criticisms of religion as a whole and resulted in many atheists of previous generations carefully tailoring their arguments to only condemn those whose religion resulted in abhorrent views and actions. The views of such people were said to not represent 'true' religion, though why that is so is never made clear.
It is undoubtedly true that there are very many religious people who are decent and humane, even inspirational. It is also true that there are very many religious people who are bigoted, racist, and murderous. But the idea that the good that some religious people do is evidence of a loving god at work while the evil that other religious people do is not evidence of a vicious and hateful god is an argument that is highly self-serving and lacks coherence.
Take for example, evangelical (and John McCain supporter) John Hagee, who explains some of his beliefs below:
He quotes the Bible to justify his weird views and who has the standing to say he is wrong in his understanding? 'Good' religious believers have the unenviable task of trying to explain why their choice of Biblical passages and their interpretation should be given more weight than Hagee's. (For more of Hagee's ravings, courtesy of Matt Taibbi's new book The Great Derangement, see this excerpt (courtesy of Tbogg).)
The argument of mainstream religions that 'true' religion (i.e., the religious doctrines that they happen to subscribe to) is a force for good simply cannot be sustained. What the new atheists are saying is that rather than there being bad and good religion, there is only bad religion (that which makes people commit acts that go against accepted standards of morality and decency and justice) and the enabling of bad religion. After all, those religious extremists who commit appalling acts in the name of religion are as justified in arguing that they represent 'true' religion as anyone else. Religious texts and the history of religion are all over the place when it comes to prescriptions for behavior and one can pick and choose passages to justify almost anything.
The very fact that the 'good' religious people feel justified in dismissing or ignoring those parts of the Bible that support evil acts shows that they are not deriving their morality from the Bible but are instead imposing a morality derived elsewhere, from secular humanist values, onto the Bible.
The new atheists have a far more consistent argument. They say that it is far more coherent to argue that there is no god at all, that it is pointless to ascribe the actions of people to a god, and that we should reject the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text as authoritative documents in their entirety.
In their rejection of the concept of a 'good' religion worth saving or even promoting, the new atheists have split with some scientists who argue for an alliance with the followers of 'good' religion and seek to find an accommodation of science with that religion. I call this latter group of scientists 'Templeton scientists' because the Templeton Foundation has for a long time tried to woo scientists to try and find ways to make religion and belief in god compatible with science. This is, in my view, a hopeless task but by dangling huge rewards, (the annual Templeton prize is larger than the Nobel prize) the foundation has tried to lure some scientists into trying to find ways of doing so.
Those who assert that the new atheists are pursuing a bad strategy say that by taking a tack that will antagonize those people who believe in 'good' religion, they are harming the common struggle against those whose religion drives them to words and actions that are manifestly evil by almost any yardstick.
This argument reveals a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together on one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the 'good religion' group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the 'bad religion' group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether the concept of 'good religion' is valid at all.
Asking the new atheists to not debunk the concept of 'good religion' for the sake of political expediency makes as little sense as asking the members of the 'good religion' group to stop talking about their belief in god in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of 'bad' religion) while retaining the right to disagree on other issues.
The reason that this fairly obvious aspect of coalition politics is not understood is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated 'respect for religion', which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by 'good' people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore. But religion, which is no better, still retains its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in.
The new atheists have ended that tradition and it is a good thing.
POST SCRIPT: Silly Superstitions
Sri Lanka is a country that is riddled with superstitions with many people, including political leaders, not doing anything significant until they have consulted their astrological charts and gotten the green light. It always seemed bizarre to me.
Now it appears that Republican presidential candidate John McCain is also extremely superstitious.
The reason that superstitions flourish is because we tolerate, even venerate, the biggest superstition of all, the belief in supernatural powers like god.