Is Religion Evil?
- Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Dawkins gives every impression of being in denial about the darker side of atheism, making him a less-than-credible critic of religion. He has a fervent, unquestioning faith in the universal goodness of atheism which he refuses to subject to critical examination. Yes, there is much that is wrong with contemporary religion, and much that needs to be reformed. Yet the same is also true of atheism, which still needs to subject itself to the self-searching intellectual and moral criticisms that religious systems are willing to direct against themselves. Why is it that so many atheists apply moral standards to their critique of religion which they seem reluctant to apply to atheism itself?
The reality of the situation is that human beings are capable of both violence and moral excellence—and that both these may be provoked by worldviews, whether religious or otherwise. It is not a comfortable insight, but one that alerts us to the shortcomings and dangers of identifying any one people group as the source of violence and the ills of humanity. It may facilitate scapegoating; it hardly advances the cause of civilization.
Furthermore, Dawkins fails to appreciate that when a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives—such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge.
Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values. In 1792 Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." Her point is simple, and I believe it to be irrefutable. All ideals—divine, transcendent, human or invented—are capable of being abused. That's just the way human nature is. And knowing this, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion, we need to work out what to do about it. The problem lies in human nature. The Christian doctrine of original sin has a lot to say about this significant failure of humanity to live up to its ideals.
Binary Oppositions, "In-Groups" and "Out-Groups"
Let's take this line of thought a stage further. Suppose Dawkins's dream were to come true, and religion were to disappear. Would that end the divisions within humanity and the violence that ensues from them? Certainly not. Such divisions are ultimately social constructs which reflect the fundamental sociological need for communities to self-define and identify those who are "in" and those who are "out," those who are "friends," and those who are "foes." The importance of "binary opposition" in shaping perceptions of identity has been highlighted in recent years, not least on account of the major debate between different schools of critical thought over whether such "oppositions" determine and shape human thought or are the outcome of human thought.
A series of significant binary oppositions are held to have shaped Western thought—such as "male-female" and "white-black." Binary opposition leads to the construction of the category of "the other"—the devalued half of a binary opposition—when applied to groups of people. Group identity is often fostered by defining "the other"—as, for example, in Nazi Germany with its opposition "Aryan-Jew." At times, binary opposition is defined in religious terms, as in "Catholic-Protestant" or "believer-infidel."
It is well known, the binary opposition "Catholic-Protestant" came to be perceived as normative within Northern Ireland. Each side saw its opponent as "the other," a perception that was relentlessly reinforced by novelists and other shapers of public opinion. Media reporting of the social unrest in Northern Ireland from 1970 to about 1995 reinforced the plausibility of this judgment. Yet this is a historically conditioned oppositionalism, shaped and determined by complex social forces. It is not a specifically religious phenomenon. Religion was merely the social demarcator that dominated in this situation. In others, the demarcators would have to do with ethnic or cultural origins, language, gender, age, social class, sexual orientation, wealth, tribal allegiance, ethical values or political views.
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