Is Religion Evil?
- Wednesday, June 02, 2010
So what is "new" about the New Atheism? An innocent reader might assume that this movement had discovered new scientific evidence or new philosophical arguments that demonstrated that God was the arbitrary and meaningless construction of the human mind. Yet it soon becomes clear that there are no new arguments here. The old, familiar and somewhat tired arguments of the past are recycled and rehashed. What is new is the aggressiveness of the rhetoric, which often seems to degenerate into bullying and hectoring. It serves a convenient purpose, by papering over the obvious evidential gaps and argumentative lapses that are so characteristic of this movement. But it does little to encourage anyone to take atheism with intellectual seriousness.
In this essay, I want to look more closely at this core claim that religion is evil. Such is its cultural power that it tends to be assumed, rather than demonstrated, by those who advocate it. In fact, it turns out to be an article of faith, a belief which can be sustained only by highly selective use of evidence and what comes close to manipulation of history.
When I was an atheist myself, things seemed admirably clear. I grew up in Northern Ireland, infamous back in the late 1960s for its religious tensions and violence. It seemed obvious to me that if there were no religion, there would be no religious violence. I bought into the now outdated Enlightenment view that humanity was innocent and disinclined to violence until religion came along, a view which I find charmingly yet not a little uncritically echoed in the manifestos of the New Atheism. Get rid of religion, and humanity could rediscover a golden age of reason and toleration.3
It's a neat idea, which makes for great rhetoric. Yet it is indefensible in the face of the evidence, rather like believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. A core belief of the New Atheism, which it persistently tries to represent as scientific fact, is that religion is the cause of the ills of humanity. But what is the evidence for this atheist revision of the idea of original sin?
Religion: A False Universal
The first point to make is simple: individual religions exist; "religion" doesn't. The Enlightenment was characterized by a love of universals, most famously stated in the idea of a universal human reason, whose fundamental characteristics were independent of history and culture. For the Enlightenment, this universal human reason could be the basis of a true, global ethic and philosophy, which would sweep aside irrational superstitions as relics of a barbarous past. In the end, this noble idea proved to be unworkable, in that human patterns of reasoning turned out to be much more culturally conditioned than had been realized.
The key point here is that the Enlightenment understandably yet wrongly regarded "religion" as a universal category. During the period of colonial expansion, many Europeans came across worldviews that differed from their own and chose to label them as "religions," when in fact many of these, such as Confucianism, were better regarded as philosophies of life. Some were explicitly nontheistic, yet the Enlightenment belief in a universal notion called "religion" led to these being forced into the same mold.
In recent years, there has been concerted criticism of this unhelpful and deeply problematic approach. It is increasingly agreed that definitions of religion tend to reflect the agendas and bias of those who propose them. There is still no definition of "religion" which commands scholarly assent.
So what is the relevance of this for the New Atheism? Let's take a statement by cultural commentator Carolyn Marvin, of the University of Pennsylvania. "Nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States." Marvin's comment makes the point that there are many belief and value systems which can achieve religious status. Indeed, the noted English philosopher Mary Midgely argued that evolution, as developed by Richard Dawkins and others, had itself become a religious belief system. The porous and imprecise concept of "religion" extends far beyond those who believe in God, embracing a wide range of beliefs and values.
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