Is Religion Evil?
- Wednesday, June 02, 2010
As Richard Wentz points out, the real issue is absolutism. People create and sustain absolutes out of fear of their own limitations, and people react with violence when others do not accept them. Religion may have a tendency toward absolutism, but the same tendency is innate in any human attempt to find or create meaning, especially when it is challenged. The key thing here, it seems, is not the ideas or values, but the dedication, even fanaticism, of those who follow them.
This leads into a central theme of many postmodern critiques of modernity—that it creates an intellectual context which legitimates suppression of what it regards as aberrant or "irrational" beliefs. The New Atheism is a superb example of a modern metanarrative—a totalizing view of things, locked into the worldview of the Enlightenment. As many have suggested, atheism is the natural religion of modernity. (Or should we say "worldview"?) So what happens when the Enlightenment is charged by its postmodern critics with having fostered oppression and violence, and having colluded with totalitarianism? When a new interest in spirituality surges through Western culture? When the cultural pressures that once made atheism seem attractive are displaced by others that make it seem intolerant, unimaginative and disconnected from spiritual realities? It is a point that postmodern critics of modernity would wish to press home.
It is vitally important to make a distinction between "religion" and "worldview." Yet it is a distinction that the New Atheism singularly fails to make or defend. Both religions (such as Christianity) and worldviews (such as Marxism) demand allegiance from their followers. The most successful worldviews incorporate religious elements, even if they are fundamentally secular in their outlook—as in the Soviet Union's use of quasi-religious rituals to mark essentially secular events. The historian Martin Marty, noting the lack of any viable definition of religion, offers five "features" that he holds to be characteristic of religion; all five, he notes, are also characteristic of political movements. It is not unreasonable to point out that, if religion is dangerous on this count, then so are politics. There can be (and are) political fanatics, just as there can be (and are) religious fanatics. The problem is fanaticism, not religion itself. In fact, the tone of the New Atheism critique of religion suggests that fanaticism may not be limited to the ranks of those who defend religion.
The New Atheism, of course, argues that religious worldviews offer motivations for violence that are not paralleled elsewhere—for example, the thought of entering paradise after a suicidal attack. Yet this conclusion is premature, and needs very careful nuancing. For Dawkins and Harris, it is obvious that it is religious belief that leads directly to suicide bombings. It's a view that his less-critical secular readers will applaud, provided they haven't read the empirical studies of why people are driven to suicide bombings in the first place.
As Robert Pape showed in his definitive account of the motivations of such attacks, based on surveys of every known case of suicide bombing since 1980, religious belief of any kind does not appear to be either a necessary or a sufficient condition to create suicide bombers. The infamous "suicide vest," for example, was invented by Tamil Tigers in 1991, leading to a large number of suicide attacks from this ethnic group. Pape's analysis of the evidence suggests that the fundamental motivation for suicide bombings appears to be political, not religious—namely, the desire to force the withdrawal of foreign forces occupying land believed to belong to an oppressed people who have seriously limited military resources at their disposal.
The New Atheism offers a superficial explanation for suicide bombings, designed to resonate with cultural anxieties about the heightened profile of religion in the United States and many parts of the world. Yet it is not a sustainable analysis, which does little to help us understand why these bombings arise and what can be done to prevent them. They have simply been hijacked as part of a crude atheist apologetic, rather than taken seriously as a cultural and social phenomenon. Happily, there are many serious studies, particularly from an anthropological perspective (including the important work of Scott Atran of the University of Michigan), which point in more realistic and informed directions. For Atran, the solution to suicide bombings is not the excoriation of religion, still less its suppression, but the empowerment of religious moderates.
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