After a long hiatus, I’d like to share with you three articles that I found interesting and fascinating on religion, atheism, conflict and pluralism.
Only yesterday, in a heinous attack, over 14 people died in a school that was targeted by Pakistani Taliban militants. This event, and others before it perpetrated by Islamist terrorist groups, have instilled a deep fear of religion (and especially Islam) as being antithetical to secularism and peace. The much heard yet ill informed opinions that circulate every now and then in the mainstream and social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit suggests that religion is at the heart of these conflicts and that, were it not for religion, the world would be in a much better, peaceful place.
Of course this position is immature and does not take into account the long social and political histories behind these conflicts. But to the sophisticated reader this is old news. However, it’s always good to have this truth and the fallacy implicit in attacks on religion as a whole brought to light.
In a book review written by John Gray for the New Statesmen on October 1, 2014 on the formidable Karren Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence the author provides a succinct synopsis of the arguments presented by Armstrong. It is a good starting point to understand the argument against the vehement and irrational fear of religion. Gray argues that those who suggest that religions are intrinsically violent are mostly “evangelical atheists” who are quick to admonish believers and their belief systems with impunity.
The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline.
He also extrapolates deep meaningful lessons from Armstrong’s book. Perhaps the most interesting element of the book that he highlights in his piece is the creation of “state cults” (e.g. soviet communism, Nazism, even modern patriotism) as evidence that fundamentalism is not a product of religions exclusively but that fundamentalism emanates from various place.
Gray concludes his exposition with a stirring paragraph whose final sentence captures my own understanding of the cause of violence: our human nature. As I have always argued, “religions” as belief systems are not actors. A “religion” doesn’t “do” anything, be it positive or negative, without the believer being complicit to act. How we act is always a decision that we make as human beings.
Conventional distinctions between religious and secular belief pass over the role that belief itself plays in our lives. “We are meaning-seeking creatures,” Karen Armstrong writes wisely, “and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives.” We are unlike our animal kin in another way. Only human beings kill and die for the sake of beliefs about themselves and the nature of the world. Looking for sense in their lives, they attack others who find meaning in beliefs different from their own. The violence of faith cannot be exorcised by demonising religion. It goes with being human.
The next piece is a great followup to Gray’s review. Written by the ever-impressive Reza Aslan, it summarizes and provides a cogent argument on the new “anti-theist” (as opposed to the more oft used “atheist”) trend in secular societies. In his article for Slate Magazine, the author identifies who this new crop of anti-theists are . He then provides a historical overview of atheism as a belief system before arguing that the current crop of “New Atheists” aren’t true atheists at all but would be better referred to as being “anti-theists” or people who are opposed to religion.
Aslan then goes on to argue that modern atheism is hard to define and that atheism “comes in as many forms as theism does”. What is interesting about modern atheism, quoting from James Thrower, is that it has become “‘a self-contained belief system’ – one predicated on a series of propositions about the nature of reality, the source of human morality, the foundation of societal ethics, the question of free will, and so on.” emerging at the end of the Enlightenment and the “emphasis on skepticism, reason and scientific advancement”.
Interestingly enough, post-Enlightenment thinkers Aslan argues were not against the idea of a God but the institutionalization of religious power at the hands of the clergy and the strong control over citizens by these institutions. These thinkers who include Hume, Locke, Voltaire, and Hobbes as Aslan identify “recognized the inherent value of religious belief in fostering social cohesion and maintaining order, and so sought a means of replacing religion as the basis for making moral judgments in European society. It was political transformation they wanted, not religious reform.”
Aslan continues to propose that while this traditional form of atheism did not denigrate the belief in God but in the institutional powers of the Church, a later movement, defined as “anti-theism” sought to completely deny and argue against the existence of a God as perhaps best exemplified by the emergence of Marx and Engels. It was this anti-theism that led communist regimes to take over places of worship and displace religion from the social fabric of their societies. As a backlash to this, a more fervent belief in religion emerged.
The excesses of these anti-theist regimes was fueled in no small part by a century of confident predictions that religion was a fast fading phenomenon – that God was, in a word, dead. By the end of the 20th century, however, few were making that claim any longer. The horrors of the first and second world wars not only punctured the promises of secular nationalism in the West. It led to a religious revival [emphasis added], particularly in the United States. In the 1970s, the rise of Islamic terrorism abroad and the insertion of Christian fundamentalism into American politics disabused most thinkers of the notion that religion was about to fade away from modern society.
As a reaction to the reemergence of religion within political discourse, both in foreign lands and closer to home, a revival in anti-theism emerged:
Disenfranchised by what they viewed as an aggressively religious society, personally threatened by a spike in religious violence throughout the world, and spurred by a sense of moral outrage, a certain faction of atheists among an otherwise rational population of people who doubt or deny the existence of God reverted to an extreme and antagonistic form of anti-theism. This is the movement that came to be called New Atheism.
To finish this section on Aslan’s article, it is perhaps best to refer to the original source material as it offers a cogent articulation of Aslan’s position, one I’m sure to fumble if I were to iterate it in my own words:
The appeal of New Atheism is that it offered non-believers a muscular and dogmatic form of atheism specifically designed to push back against muscular and dogmatic religious belief. Yet that is also, in my opinion, the main problem with New Atheism. In seeking to replace religion with secularism and faith with science, the New Atheists have, perhaps inadvertently, launched a movement with far too many similarities to the ones they so radically oppose. Indeed, while we typically associate fundamentalism with religiously zealotry, in so far as the term connotes an attempt to “impose a single truth on the plural world” – to use the definition of noted philosopher Jonathan Sacks – then there is little doubt that a similar fundamentalist mind-set has overcome many adherents of this latest iteration of anti-theism.
What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community.
The third link offers letters written to the Guardian website in response to an article written by Giles Fraser. The letters elucidates a position that I have long held. This argument proposes that religions, much like Gray suggests, are not on their way out and remain key parts of individuals’ lived experiences as citizens within a state. In the letters written by those in favour of strong religious education in school offers very interesting arguments on the positive aspects of RE. This is something that I have personally championed and written about for peer reviewed journals. Recently, I even presented on this important topic at the 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. As our cities and countries become increasingly diverse, understanding that diversity will be of increasing importance, hence my strong position on the importance of RE. The letters are well articulated, succinct, written by individuals who truly care about the future of UK students and their awareness of the world around them. Below are excerpts from these letters:
It’s been really good to learn about people of other religions, because the unknown leads to fear and when you know, you can relate.
– Liz Byrne quoting a student
The [1988 Educational Reform] act set out that pupils should be introduced to Christianity and all the other major religions of the world, and has been the foundation of British values which underpin our multifaith society.
– David Pascall
What’s needed is firm support for the subject from senior management in schools, and the promotion of, as Giles himself points out, an opportunity for children to think, to question, to argue.
– Richard Meyrick