Is Religion Evil?
- Wednesday, June 02, 2010
This clearly points to religion, at least in theory, as a potential catalyst for rage and violence in some contexts. In concurring, Dawkins makes a significant concession in recognizing the sociological origins of division and exclusion. "Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language, or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not."8 Yet even here, his antireligious animus leads him to some problematic judgments.
The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive. It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings. If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive, some of which would in due course become transcendentalized. Dawkins has no interest in sociology, as might be expected. Yet the study of how individuals and societies function casts serious doubt on one of the most fundamental assertions of his analysis.
Furthermore, one may legitimately wonder whether Dawkins and others, such as Daniel Dennett, have given rise to precisely the same "ingroups" and "out-groups" by their unwise endorsement of the notion of "brights" in 2003. For those who missed this diverting episode in American cultural history, a "bright" was defined as someone who holds "a naturalistic worldview" which is "free of supernatural and mystical elements." Just as "gays" was seen as a better word to designate homosexuals, "brights" was coined as a term for atheists.
When launching the "bright" movement in the New York Times back in 2003, Dennett insisted that telling people that he was "a bright" was "not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view." Well, that's not how anyone else saw it. The opposite of "bright" is "dim," a mildly offensive word that translates as "stupid." By choosing to use the label "bright," atheists were widely seen to be claiming to be smarter than everyone else. As ABC's commentator John Allen Paulos remarked, "I don't think a degree in public relations is needed to expect that many people will construe the term as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant."9
The choice of the term turned out to be a public relations disaster, reeking of intellectual and cultural arrogance. The problem lay not simply in the field of public relations. The use of the label immediately created a mindset leading to precisely the "in-groups" and "out-groups," mimicking what Dawkins and Dennett had declared to be one of the cardinal sins of religion. If atheists were really so smart, how could two of their leading representatives fail to see that their chosen label would backfire so spectacularly?
My concern, however, is not the arrogance or foolishness of the New Atheism at this point but its fundamentally divisive nature. This crude belief system divides the world between the "brights" and the "dims," creating a damaging polarity which the New Atheism asserts is the characteristic of religion. Atheism, it seems, is just as bad, having now added intellectual snobbery to its vices and nothing obvious to its virtues.
Conclusion: On Being Realistic
Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, has made the significant point that religions were implicated in some human tragedies such as holy wars. While rightly castigating these—a criticism which I gladly endorse—Shermer goes on to emphasize that there is clearly a significant positive side to religion:
For every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported. . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot bereduced to an unambiguous good or evil.10
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