They still don’t get it

Another day, another attempt to discredit resurgent atheism.

Roger Scruton, philosopher and research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Virginia, has written a piece entitled “The Sacred and the Human” (which can be found linked through the wonderful Butterflies and Wheels).

Scruton’s position is that the arguments against religion made by Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. miss the grand point of religion; religion is not to be taken literally, he argues. By contrast, we should be looking at the anthropological origins of religion; regarding religion as we might regard the myths of classical Greece. In this way, Scruton argues, Hitchens and co entirely miss the point of religion.

Scruton writes:

What is a little more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos—beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe God is Not Great, writes: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”

Scruton goes on to contrast Hitchens’ views with those of post-Enlightenment thinkers, who didn’t call for the abolition of religion, but rather a more appropriate view of the proper context of religion. Scranton tells us that these thinkers found that “the monotheistic belief systems were not related to ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. Rather, they were crystallisations of the emotional need which found expression both in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus.”

I can almost get behind Scruton’s thinking to this point. I agree that a more appropriate way to view religion is as myth; the attempt to explain the existence of physical and/or moral truths in a manner that was understandable to the populace of the day. The fact that flood myths and virgin births, for instance, are so pervasive in religious myth should count as evidence that many of the world’s religions were attempting to use these stories as vehicles to convey specific teachings. The nature of these teachings are, of course, dependent upon the story (and perhaps the intended audience), but there is no question that there is considerable overlap in the moral and ethical (if not scientific) teachings of many of the world’s religions.

Speaking specifically about the Judeo-Christian tradition of Genesis , Scruton writes that “[Genesis] is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read as a myth, however, this naive-seeming text reveals itself as a study of the human condition. The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote (in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827), “not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity.” It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality.”

But herein lies the fatal flaw in Scruton’s argument. Scruton seems to be mired with a common affliction (and one that I have been accused of on several occations): academia. The whole religion-as-myth hypothesis is wonderful on paper, but falls flat as soon as you realize begin speaking to real people. Even if we simply look at Scruton’s example of Genesis, we must recognize that there are a significant number of people who believe that it is not metaphorically, but literally true.

58% of Americans are “absolutely certain” that god exists, while another 21% are “somewhat certain”.

A 2004 poll showed that 79% of Americans believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus (that’s over 235 million people, if you’re keeping score). According to the same poll, 52% of Americans believe that Jesus will return to Earth, as the Bible tells us, with 15% of Americans believing that this will occur during their lifetime. Furthermore, 62% of people favour teaching creationism in public schools; that means 186 million Americans favour teaching dogmatic gibberish in favour of (or at least along side) fundamental, evidence-based modern biology.

I could go on and on like this all day. The point is clear: people believe in the literal truth of this stuff. It would be lovely if Scruton’s position were true. Unfortunately, the position of Dawkins et al is not “caricature”, as Scruton puts it. Thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa will die today because of what the Catholic Church tells us about what how the creator of the universe views condoms. The suffering of literally millions of people with any number of extraordinarily painful diseases will be needlessly prolonged because of the views of religious politicians on the nature of “the soul” of an 8-cell blastocyst. Hundreds of people will die this week because of differing opinions about the life and death of a nomadic “prophet”.

These things are real; real people will have their lives destroyed because of conflict between mutually incompatible fairy tales. To paraphrase Sam Harris, the ridiculousness of the situation in which we find ourselves is precisely the same as if we were killing each other over the superiority of Mac OS X over Windows.

Scruton continues:

In many Old Testament stories, we see the ancient Israelites wrestling with this sacrificial urge. The stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah are residues of extended conflicts, by which ritual was diverted from the human victim and attached first to animal sacrifices, and finally to sacred words. By this process a viable morality emerged from competition and conflict, and from the visceral rivalries of sexual predation. To repeat: religion is not the source of violence but the solution to it—the overcoming of mimetic desire and the transcending of the resentments and jealousies into which human communities are tempted by their competitive dynamic.

Open your eyes, sir. Read Deuteronomy, or Leviticus, or 2 Kings, and then talk to me about morality. Scruton tries to separate religion from god. I agree with this in principle, but doing so ignores the vast evidence suggesting that this is not what people really do. People literally believe this stuff. How should we respond to a book that teaches us that sending bears to eat children is fine by god? No one is denying that religion can be a source of moral teaching; but this requires that we ignore all of the blatent immorality that peppers all of our most sacred works.

Of course, no anti-atheist article would be complete without a little Hitler/Stalin straw-man. Scruton writes:

“The 20th century was the century of resentment. How else do you explain the mass murders of the communists and the Nazis, the seething animosities of Lenin and Hitler, the genocides of Mao and Pol Pot? The ideas and emotions behind the totalitarian movements of the 20th century are targeted: they identify a class of enemy whose privileges and property have been unjustly acquired. Religion plays no real part in the ensuing destruction, and indeed is usually included among the targets.”

How do I explain it? I explain it thus: dogmatism, plain and simple. To say that religion plays no real part is enormously misleading. The gas chambers and gulags were not the product of too much rational thinking; they were the result of dogmatic adherence to cults of personality and other views that were deemed to be inerrant. Notwithstanding the obvious Christian undertones of Nazism (and Hitler’s well-documented religiosity), the point here is simple: religion may not have been directly implicated, but the same factors were at play. Religion, in its actual, practiced form, is one form of dogmatism. It is the latter which is the real culprit. And our only weapons against it are logic, skepticism, and rational thought.

Scruton goes on to claim that religion is the antidote to, rather than the cause of, violence. There is little to no empirical data to suggest this is true, though I’m quite certain that Scruton believes it. By contrast, there exists a centuries old historical record testifying to the harmful, and sometimes flat out violent, effects of honest, dogmatic religious belief.

To be sure, no one (I hope) is saying that religion is the root of all evil; Richard Dawkins’ documentary of the same name was posed as a question, not as a statement, and Dawkins has gone on record as stating that no one thing is the cause of all evil. But religion, as a predominant form of dogma, must bear a large portion of blame for much of humankind’s most violent tendencies.

Perhaps what Scruton means here is that the idea of religion, rather than its practice, is the antidote to violence. In a sense, I agree. There are lessons in morality to be learned from most of our “holy” books. Unfortunately, we must do a far amount of cherry picking to find them; each of us could improve the Bible in countless ways, simply by removing vast stretches of the Old Testament. And those who believe that the New Testament sets everything straight would be wise to consider Paul’s view of the place women and slavery (and the failure of Jesus to utter so much as word of condemnation).

Scruton simply misses the critical point that there are people who actually believe the literal truth of these books, and who would like to see strict adherence to these works become a central tenet of government. More potentially damaging is the fact that Scruton’s views actually facilitate fundamentalism. We must be prepared to call these religious notions what they are: fables, with no more evidentiary support than for the existence of Santa Claus. We must be prepared to engage theists who claim certain inerrant truths about the whims of the creator of the universe; to say “how do you know?”, and to avoid taking “By faith” as a suitable response for anything. We must be prepared to fight the teaching of gobbledygook posing as science.

There is no question that we would be far, far better off if our modern religions were placed in the pantheon of myth, along with Thor, Zeus, Ra, and the rest. Unfortunately, there are simply too many people who believe the literal truth of it all. Perhaps one day we will reach a point at which our modern religions suffer this fate; where we can see the folly of the non-evidentiary belief in a mystical sky fairy. When this day comes, it will, undoubtedly, be due to the efforts of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and the like.

We are nowhere near this day.


3 Responses to They still don’t get it

  1. Right on! You may be interested in my blog on the evolutionary purpose of religion.

  2. What I think is really interesting in this is whether the literal belief is essential for all this stuff to work “as advertised” by girard.

    girard and scruton can look at the christ story in a litterary way and be moved in an aesthetico-moral way. but does that make it work? after all, belief in belief does not require belief in the object of the belief …

  3. edge100 says:

    I’m not sure.

    I don’t think we’re at the point in our history yet where stories from the Bible/Koran/etc can be looked at in their proper context; there is simply too much baggage of “literalism” to view them in the same light as we might look at classical Greek/Roman/Norse myth.

    I’m also quite sure that we can learn a great deal from Jesus, for instance, without any presupposition that he was divine. It’s just that this literalism is so widespread that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to profess such a position without an implicit admission of the acceptance of Jesus’ divinity.

    It’s a complicated question. We need to strive to get to a point where myth is myth, and nothing more. Obviously, this will require that we get over our collective fear of death, which is a long way off. But it’s also the responsibility of atheists to discuss rational alternatives, which we haven’t done until lately.

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