Yesterday I attended a lecture by scholar William Cavanaugh from DePaul University speaking on the topic of his recent book The Myth of Religious Violence. Cavanaugh did an outstanding job. He was witty, urbane, and argued forcefully for a thesis of monumental importance. I commend the book to you. While I haven’t read it, I’ve read a couple of his other books and now having heard him articulate this book’s argument, I have confidence that you will not be disappointed.
So what is the argument? Well here are some of my musings and reflections thirty six hours on from the lecture.
First, the concept of “religion” as it now exists is a modern one. There was no such thing in the ancient world. For example, religio in ancient Rome had more to do with your social role(s) in society and obligations to your neighbor (broadly construed) than in feast days and holy books. Cavanaugh spent a bit of time articulating the point with the case of India. Prior to the 1830s in India there were Hindus but there was no such thing as “Hinduism”. That idea of a reified “religion” was a creation of the colonizers. Once this identification had been made, Indian / Hindu identity could be marginalized with a simple binary opposition: all that is Hindu religion is bad while all that is British (from tinned meats to tinned snuff) is good.
The same thing has happened in the West over the last two centuries, and is especially visible in recent years with the vocal new atheists. They constantly speak against “religion” over-against what they are (i.e. “non-religious”). But what is religion? This is one of the many Achilles’ heels of this picture of the world, for there is no adequate definition of religion. It is said that religion has “gods”, a stipulation that is difficult to reconcile with most forms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. But then if that arbitrary stipulation is dropped to accommodate these other “religions” then suddenly a number of other things can be classified as religions as well such as nationalism, communism, naturalism, and consumerism. The modern purveyor of this indoctrinational binary opposition (religious vs. non-religious) is thus left lurching between various stipulations of what is religious always choosing whatever will best suit his or her purposes of socially marginalizing those he/she has deemed “religious”.
This is where things get especially disturbing because these progressive denizens of the enlightened West with their secular “non-religious” values then offer defenses of the repression of those deemed religious because they are dangerous due to their fundamental irrationality and intolerance. Cavanaugh noted some examples of repressive rhetoric in Hitchens and Harris, including the latter’s defense of a possible nuclear first strike against the Muslim world.
But I have another truly reprehensible example which is only softened by the richness of its irony. In 1997 secularist Nicholas Humphrey delivered the annual UK Amnesty International Lectureship called “What Shall We Tell the Children” in which he laid out the case for suppressing the rights of “religious” parents to raise their children in their religion. He writes: “we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.” In other words, Humphrey is arguing that “religious” parents (again, not sure what that means) should be prevented from teaching their most fundamental beliefs to their children. And if that requires removing the children from the home or locking up the parents then so be it.
And this garbage was preached in the name of Amnesty International? I guess human rights don’t extend to the “religious” after all.
What bothers me is how these insidious, indoctrinational binary oppositions, and the deep antipathy that often goes with them, continue to be so pervasive among self-described “secularists”, “atheists”, “agnostics” “naturalists,” and “humanists”. It even happens continually at my very own little blog. Now I must say the regular atheist (et. al) readers of this blog (or at least those who also post regularly) are by and large a delightful group. It seems to me that there has been a natural self-selection process in which the most bitter, irascible and intolerable voices have moved on, leaving behind generous and level-headed people. But that actually make the continued presence of these binary oppositions in such a likeable group all the more disturbing.
Consider that in the blog today AcesLucky wrote about belief in petitionary prayer as follows: “It’s not meant to be true, it’s meant to be faith.”
I have no idea what this is really supposed to mean. But the case is an interesting one because the “faith vs. reason” binary opposition works just the same way as the “religion vs. non-religion” one: It serves to marginalize whoever is deemed as having “faith” or “religion”. Never mind that I have demonstrated countless times that every truth claim depends on assumptions which are, for all intents and purposes, faith. Never mind that any attempt to eliminate “faith” of this kind from reasoning would result in an irrational extreme skepticism. All these arguments are simply ignored as the “faith” vs. “reason” dichotomy is mindlessly repeated, in this case complemented with the further jab that “religious” people actually are not interested in their beliefs being true! (That is the “faith against reason and truth” canard. Folks, when Mark Twain defined faith as “believin’ what you know ain’t true”, he was joking. But today it seems many people take him seriously.)
The Atheist Missionary agreed with AcesLucky’s bizarre statement and then added “Religious faith helps people cope with what, for many, would be existential nihilism.” Right. It’s all just a coping mechanism. (TAM then goes on to note that his coping mechanism is looking at art.) But I’d still like to know what “religious faith” is. Does The Atheist Missionary have a definition that avoids the problems noted above, i.e. one that includes all those non-monotheistic religions but excludes nationalism, naturalism, communism and the rest? If not, maybe he should stop repeating such vacuous binary oppositions.
What most distresses me about the whole thing, from Sam Harris’ staggering defense of nuclear first strikes against Muslims to my own readers’ perpetuating of mindless binary oppositions, is that they all serve as a threat to the very open society that most of these self-described secularists claim is worth defending. Now that too is ironic, but in a very sad way.