It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
I was struck by this excerpt from from The atheist delusion, an article in the March 15th, 2008 issue of The Guardian by John Gray, Professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. Gray’s commentary, reacting in part to the sales success of the 4 Horsemen of the Counterapocalypse (previous commentary), treats the shortcomings of the wave of anti-religious sentiment represented by the “4 Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchins, & Harris), arguing that (as he characterizes them) such evangelical atheists have much in common with the religious they rail against, from the proselytizing impulse to the very principles of secularism from which they proceed, principles which flow from precepts inherited from certain religious traditions.
One of those principles is belief in progress, the movement of society toward perfection, which Gray sees as a foundationless assumption inherited from the Christian Whig tradition. He further explores this anti-progressivist viewpoint in an engaging LSE lecture, Utopian Hope and Apocalyptic Religion (based on his book, Black Mass) posted as a podcast on UChannel. Gray argues that while we have clearly experienced progress in science and knowledge, we see no such certain progress in morality or history in general. One need only survey the last century, arguably the bloodiest in history, to find grounds for Gray’s assertion. Even a quick look around the world as it is today, from Guantánamo to Darfur, serves up some additional support.
Even so, I find myself disagreeing with Gray on this fundamental point. If we take the sweep of human history into account, we have had our share of unconscionable lapses, but on the whole, I take us to have made progress not just in material terms, but also in standards of behavior. Here, I am influenced by both religious (Teilhard de Chardin) and secular (Robert Wright, among many others) thinkers, who believe there to be historical evidence for such progress, as I gave thanks for last year. I do not discount Gray’s critique however, as I do see these lapses of progress evident in our current state of affairs and, further, I do not want to become locked into any sort of dogmatism, whether progressive or not, as I believe dogmatism to be our real enemy. As Gray rightly points out, while atheists often rail against religion for inspiring bloodshed, some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by secular regimes, the Nazi nightmare being the canonical example. The zealotry of the Nazis was not inspired by blind religious faith, which I do not deny can be the source of malevolent action, but instead by a different sort of dogmatic commitment.
It is that blind zealotry that the new atheists take aim at in their books, and I am highly sympathetic to their cause, as I do think that in large part their attacks on religious fundamentalism are well-founded, both in terms of the history of crimes against humanity justified on religious grounds (see the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the current wave of jihadism), and in terms of the veracity of the beliefs on which these actions were founded. Any sustained dose of critical reasoning and logic call into question much received religious doctrine across most faiths. However, I think Gray would agree that there are other forms of fundamentalism that have proven equally if not more toxic: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism leap to mind immediately. Gray argues that our present neoconservative universal democratization is another. While I find that last claim harder to swallow, the closed ideological impetus behind it is deeply troubling.
The thread that connects, it seems to me, is dogmatic belief, whether religious or not. The danger arises when one believes one possesses The Truth, whether it be God-given, or derived from some other totalizing belief system. When in possession of Truth, we are confident to act on a grand scale, ignoring that which does not fit neatly into our belief system. Often that which is ignored (subjugated, enslaved, or exterminated) is other people. In the context of the certainty of the Truth, those other people can be objectified and dealt with as less than human. It is the certainty of belief that is the true delusion.
Though I see myself as seeker of truth, driven by my INTJ personality type to systematize, to totalize, I like to think that my single dogmatic commitment is that commitment to anti-dogmatism best summarized in the first line of the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
Lao Tzu opens his spiritual masterpiece by telling us that all his words to follow must not be taken as literal, final Truth. He reminds us that we can possess provisional truth only: That which can be conceptualized and articulated is the static and incomplete representation of a dynamic whole which cannot be fully captured in thought and language. Part of the ridiculous title of this Weblog is drawn from this view, as articulated the Buddhist saying that “all instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon.” Zen Buddhism, in particular, sees reality as lying outside of the realm of words and concepts, which only point to the larger reality they represent, but do not capture, and must not be mistaken for.
Following Robert Pirsig, I see this realization as an essential underpinning of the scientific endeavor, as well, in that scientific truths are written in pencil, always able to be erased, revised, & rewritten in the light of new evidence and better explanations. Contrast this to religious precepts, which are metaphorically chiseled into stone, or in the case of the 10 Commandments, literally so (or at the very least literarily so). Science has the commendable feature of recognizing the provisional nature of its truths, while not devaluing what current truth it does possess.
Gray’s fundamental point is that, contrary to the hopes of the evangelizing atheists, religion is not going away and is in fact on the rise, despite the large doses of logic and careful reasoning put forward with not inconsiderable rhetorical skill by the Four Horsemen and many others. In this phenomenon, I am called to contemplate Ken Wilber’s conjecture in Integral Spirituality on the psychological role of religion, explaining both its continuing sway and pointing toward its enduring social value: that it resonates with the developmental stages through which every human must pass during our time on earth:
Every human is born at square one and begins his or her unfolding from there, moving from archaic to magic to mythic and possibly higher, and if the world’s mythologies were not a repository for these early-level beliefs, every human would have to reinvent them anew. Part of the saga of the role of the world’s great religions is that, in at least some ways, they are the vehicle for these necessary (and unavoidable) stages of human development.
One might call Wilber’s view incredibly patronizing, both of human nature and of religious significance. Still, it is probably a nobler view of both than that of religion as human wish-fulfillment as Freud presented in The Future of an Illusion. Regardless, it does present a perspective on religion that recognizes value in its various traditions while still contextualizing and limiting its role such that it no longer foments the violence for which it has been criticized. Of course, to accomplish this contextualization, Wilber calls for what for many traditions amounts to a radical overhaul, specifically, disclaiming metaphysical assertions. This amounts to, I think, removing religion’s dogmatic claims to Truth.
The prospects for such a transfiguration of religion seems to me an even trickier of a problem to work out than that of excising the equally entrenched and dangerous dogmatism from secular systems of thought. But as a believer in progress, I suppose I must hold out hope that this sort of reform is possible and, I think, at least in the case of religious dogmatism, more likely than the wholesale dismantling of belief systems called for by the evangelizing atheists.