Friday, January 27, 2006

On religion, harm and politics

Following Richard Dawkins' much-debated recent Channel Four programme on religion being the root of all evil, I've been trying - and probably failing - to follow a conversation going on in the blogosphere prompted with the question of why it is that Dawkins is unable to acknowledge the possibility of any good in religion.

An interesting response from OB at Butterfield and Wheels, if I understand correctly, argues not that religion is incapable of motivating people to do good, only that the harm it causes outweighs the good and since the two are indivisible, it follows that religion is a net bad in this world of ours. There's more here and here with stuff about 'quasi-Hegelian' arguments, which I don't understand at all, but I was struck - and maybe I'm missing something - by how utilitarian the arguments used by both sides are, both in this debate and others where the protagonists disagree more fundamentally (this is a disagreement amongst atheists).

Here the argument against religion on the basis of reason and science has been folded into a utilitarian-historical one about how much harm it has done both now and in the past. I understand why this should be to the point of wondering if they can be separated because both strands have historically rather neatly done the same: there can be no doubt at all that organized religion has been responsible for all sorts of oppressions and tyrannies, pogroms and persecutions, murders and wars. The merging of the concepts is incredibly difficult to resist because history made the two an issue simultaneously. When, for example, the Orthodox Church has a priest in every church telling peasants that it is their God-given vocation to defend their Tsar by charging on German machine guns even if you happen to have the misfortune of not even having any bullets for your rifle - and that this was done to preserve a bankrupt and irredeemably degraded tyranny in the name of a religious fiction - it's not difficult, with this and numerous other examples, to see how the distinct notions of religion being false and religion being harmful became conflated.

But still they shouldn't be because they are two separate questions: it is perfectly reasonable to argue that religion historically has been responsible for numerous calamities that have been inflicted through wars, oppression, persecution and the rest; it is also perfectly reasonable to argue that religion is essentially false, involving as it does not only the belief in something for which there is no evidence, but in some cases, believing something in denial of the evidence. However, I do not think that it follows, either logically or empirically, that religion has been in the past, and is now, harmful because it is false.

It can't because such an assertion requires, not least by those who make it, some historical evidence - and I would argue that no such evidence exists. I'm sure I'm missing something because not many seem to agree but I would contend, standing from the viewpoint of the early years of the 21st century (which I can't help - and no-one can), that one of the lessons of the last is that these kinds of questions are impossible to answer. In other words, the idea that religion per se has 'caused more harm than good' is a proposition for which there is no evidence - close to what Dawkins described as 'faith', no?

Because it's impossible to answer. There can be no doubt whatsoever that in terms of human misery, the sadism that human beings are capable of, the sheer scale and speed at which the corpses piled-up, was matched and surpassed by the regimes of the twentieth century that claimed science as the basis of their cognitive infallibility. How does the utilitarian grapple with this? This, as Eric Hobsbawm has said, was the age of extremes - characterised by the appearance on the human stage of 'mega-deaths', possible only because of advances in technology. Yet so many people died because there were so many in the first place, only possible (lest the environmentalists forget) only because they could be sustained by the application of science to the business of production - the same spirit of scientific enquiry that gave birth to steam power, the internal combustion engine, modern medicine and above all, enough resources to leave only questions of whether we've been able to create so much that the idea that "there's too many off us humans" is a problem. I've no doubt the Spanish Inquisition or whoever could have matched Stalin in the body count if they'd gone hi-tech - but they didn't, because they couldn't, so it's not really a historical question.

And I'd argue from this that the proposition that religion has been a net harm because it is false falls under an even greater weight. The historical harm from organised religion came not from insisting that God exists, that the world was created in seven days, that Yahweh or Allah specifically instructs you not to eat pork or whatever - but from insisting that others do likewise, that everyone should be a replica of oneself, regardless of whether they share your religious convictions or not. The harm it does depends on the extent to which conformity is enforced. If one can abstain from pork or alcohol because of one's religious traditions, despite the fact that this is not the majority position, this is relative liberty - compared to one that banned the sale of pork or alcohol, which is illiberal - compared to a society that flogs people for consuming alcohol, which has obviously passed into tyranny.

It is not whether a belief is true, whether it is rational, that has been essential to the argument, despite the protestations to the contrary. No one expends too much energy complaining about people going to an astrologer because those that do don't hold any political power and are only likely to harm their own purse if they are foolish enough to think that they should make life-decisions on the basis of the notion that there are only twelve types of people in this world. In measuring harm, surely it's the human impulse to enforce belief, whether that be rational or not, that has lead to the greatest harm? Here I would contend that while it is not possible to determine whether religion has been on balance more harmful historically than secularism, I do think one can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that the marriage of cognitive infallibility and state power - whether religious or secular - has been the root of more human misery than the politics of scepticism. Talking from opposite poles it seems but one is really talking about the same thing: whether it is the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin's Geneva, the Crusades, or the Soviet Union, it has always been the idea that a state's subjects have a duty to conform to the Truth that has been the source of the loss of liberty and of untold human misery.

The issue isn't really what is believed - it is faith in action, and whether and to what extent it exercises political power. I do think one can say with a confidence based on historical evidence that when it does, it really does 'cause more harm than good'. But the exercise of political power to enforce conformity of belief has unequivocally not been the exclusive perogative of the religious: disaster awaits any society that attempts to eliminate the boundary between the sacred and the profane, whether religious or secular.

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