2010-06-06

It’s not necessarily bad to be against religion

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by Neil Godfrey

This afternoon I was feeling a punch-gut of illness after reading blogs by classical humanist intelligentsia openly referring to “dumbshit masses”, “mob morality”, “village atheists”, “education for character” and the like, and was in dire need of some reassuring contact with the everyday people who make up those supposedly benighted masses. One of the hardest parts of those elitist writings to swallow was a cameo remark of the need to comprehend and embrace the fact of human frailty. Specifically, it was in this area that “new atheists” are said to have failed.

What depressed me so much was reading how such scholars are so free and easy with the way they label others and the pursuits of the less well educated, but so very self-conscious and finicky before suggesting any appellation that might be applied to themselves.

So to cut to the chase here. Sure, I call myself an “atheist”. But that’s in order to communicate the general idea of my position on the idea of god or gods. If pressed, I will not align myself with every nuance that the etymology and derivation of the word may suggest. It is simply a convenient way of letting others know, by means of very broad brush strokes, where I stand on something they are curious to know.

Similarly for the term “humanist”, or specifically “secular humanist”. Or for describing myself as a “naturalist”. Or a “rationalist”. I could go on.

None of this means squat, though, for anyone who is more interested in discussing and sharing the finer details of what we think and feel about issues.

People are not their religion, or philosophy, on life, much less any label that one might tie on them personally or collectively.

I am opposed to much of what strikes me as latent intolerance in the writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in their attacks on religion. I think Harris, in particular, is very under-informed about the deeper historical roots of tensions that have expressed themselves through religious ideas.

But labeling such authors as ‘new atheists’ and relegating them all to some back room crate for waste combustibles, and wishing to replace them with a more sophisticated open acceptance of religious values, is misguided.

Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens, despite the many areas where I find myself at odds with them, do at the same time have some very valid reasons for fearing the dark potential of any irrational belief system. It is healthy to bring these fears out into the open where they can be publicly addressed.

One can be opposed to religion without being rabid about it, and not all people labeled ‘new atheists’ are fanatical as they have been accused. I can be opposed to smoking without making myself a total jerk with all of my smoker friends. I can even love and enjoy the company of my smoker friends.

Last week saw Vesak celebrations among Buddhist Chinese communities. One can’t escape the religiosity of the occasion. But there’s also something peaceful and tolerant about it all, a certain happiness and goodness comes through many people gathering at shrines and statues and to hear speakers etc. There was a poster in English explaining a particular gathering, and the focus was on removing hatred from one’s thoughts. The non-judgmental nature of the whole occasion was demonstrated by prostitutes taking time out to offer their prayers alongside everyone else.

How can I oppose a religion like that? Well, it’s easy to accept it because I’m a newcomer and know very little about it. I only see the goodness of it as an outsider.

But I’ve also seen the goodness of some very active Christians working to better the lot of the down and outs in very practical ways.

It’s the prescriptive religions — and philosophies and ‘isms’ — that are easy to oppose. Those that prescribe what people should do, how they should live, according to principles supposedly external to and above oneself.

People don’t need to be “taught” morals as if there are certain good ways of behaviour they would never otherwise think of applying in their own lives. We are, by nature, moral animals. And being social animals, our moral tendencies work in favour of the well-being of all in our various circles of self-identity. We don’t need to learn to build “character”, as some religions insist. We only need to accept ourselves and others, and the rest follows. Generally speaking, that is. Religion does have a tendency to toss up a lot of extraneous thoughts that get in the way of this simplicity.

There are the exceptions always to the generalities. Knowing how to handle and respond to these, especially when they are doing outright harm to others. And very often the harm can be related to a tolerance and support for irrational beliefs, including religious beliefs. Now that is where I think “character” comes into the picture. But it’s not something that one has to be a saint to acquire. It is simply a matter of being honest and true to oneself and the greater good. And if one finds that some atavistic religious or other irrational belief is getting in the way of that, then one has a responsibility to speak out against that. Like a cancer warning on a packet of cigarettes. Sometimes more than speaking out is necessary.

This is all truism and I’ve only spilled out the obvious.

All I mean to say is that one can be a “humane humanist”, one who acknowledges and respects the frailty of being human, and who embraces the fullness of human experience, including the healthy irrational, and still rightly oppose and believe in working towards ending, if possible, the role of god-centred religion in human existence.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2010-06-07 01:58:47 GMT+0000 - 01:58 | Permalink

    “…rightly oppose and believe in working towards ending, if possible, the role of god-centred religion in human existence.”

    I think we all have our ‘centers’. Some fill this with God, others with Nature, others with Science and still others, like myself perhaps, with being a humane humanist. No matter what the reason for acting the way we do however, it’s only our actions that we truly need to concern ourselves with. Of course getting to the purpose of our actions is partially accomplished through exposing and judging these very centers we feel so strongly about, and this in turn gives way to fear and defensiveness as we are forced to question what it is that makes us who we are.

    My point is though, is that it doesn’t matter what makes us who we are. Our experiences are all different and as such so are our beliefs. These experiences though, are what need to be considered when passing judgments, not a belief center. I think you bring up a great point when you mention that people are not their religion or philosophy. They’re more than that because any religion or philosophy couldn’t dare to completely reveal who or what a person is. Our experiences are constantly changing, and I’d argue that our centers are as well. Hanging on to stagnant beliefs or even worse, retrofitting them to cope with these new experiences, is what ultimately leads to conflict and misunderstanding. You can perceive a whole or completeness in your life …but you must also admit the revelation of that indicates change.

    It’s my hope that no one decides when to stop changing.

  • maryhelena
    2010-06-07 02:18:12 GMT+0000 - 02:18 | Permalink

    I think a lot of the problems that are generated by the New Atheists – and those other atheists , or humanists, who want nothing to do with the ‘militant’ tone of the New Atheists, resolves around the definition of religion. Here are two definitions:

    “The Encyclopaedia of Religion describes religion in the following way:
    “In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience — varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.”
    (Winston King, Encyclopaedia of Religion, p 7693)

    “Religion is as hard to define as art. ‘I knew what it was until you asked me to explain it’, we might answer……Religion is more than a purely theoretical affair, a simple matter of the past, a problem for researchers in archives and specialists in ancient texts…
    Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person …sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially”. (Hans Kung: ‘Christianity and the World Religions’, pages xv,xiv).

    Religion as a believing view of life, religion as a depth dimension of experience. Are not these definition humanistic definitions? Viewed from this perspective there is no such thing as good and bad religion. Religion is a contribution factor to human wellbeing, a contribution factor in human flourishing. Which basically means that we not only need material aspects to living we also need the spiritual. We need the spiritual values of morality, respect for others, loyalty etc. As well as the appreciation of human life and our awe or reverence for our environment.

    It is the add-on to religion, not religion itself, that is the cause of much trouble. Theology. Theology with its inherent potential for error – and thus for harm. The only safeguard is in realizing that intellectual ideas are not cast in stone and that sooner or later theology – ‘god’, moves on to take on some new image. In the meantime, elements of theology that are seen to be destructive in one way or another, need to be openly flayed. If some humanists are reluctant to take on this task – then, they should be applauding those who do, not chastising those with the intellectual courage to mount the barricades against irrational elements within theology.

    Respect people, respect their desire for a religious spirituality in their lives – but don’t respect their illogical theological ideas. For if we do that it is our own humanity that we denigrate.

    “When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.” (Johann Hari).

  • 2010-06-07 04:30:31 GMT+0000 - 04:30 | Permalink

    Beautifully stated. Fanaticism lies in refusing to see the shades of grey.

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