Saturday, January 07, 2006

When people stop believing in God...

They write articles about religion in the Guardian. I notice Norm takes a fairly charitable view of our Maddy's swipe at Richard Dawkins for his latest anti-religious diatribe (to be screened on Channel Four) before pointing out a couple of flaws in her argument. Now, taking issue with either Dawkins or Bunting on the subject of religion is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel because with both of them, their propensity to pontificate about the subject is in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the subject. But shooting fish in a barrel can be fun, so let's have a go...

Maddy makes the general point that Dawkins' take on religion is about as subtle as a sledge-hammer to the gonads - and here, surely, she has a point? Does one really have to deconstruct his stupid and really quite vicious argument that parents who bring their children up as believers are guilty of child-abuse? Or his ridiculous idea that theology departments in universities should be closed-down because they're devoted to the study of something that doesn't exist? She writes that, "a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers" and I find myself thinking she's on to something here. I cringe when I hear people describe religious belief, and believers, as stupid. The majority of the human race, both now and in the past, have believed in a deity or deities; I'd confine myself to the observation that, in my experience anyway, those who consider themselves on account of their atheism to be intellectually superior to the majority of the human race really ought to take a more sober estimate of their abilities - to say no more than that.

But since Maddy has accused Dawkins of laziness, one can't let her own sloppy reasoning or her under-researched observations go unchallenged. Take the following, for example:
"Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence."
Note the way Maddy shifts from notions of religious faith to discussing regimes that enforce religious conformity, or in this case, non-religious conformity without stopping for breath. The only officially atheist regimes have been communist ones, and here there can indeed be no doubt: the body-count exceeds that of any religious regime in human history, but here she is being just as simplistic as Dawkins because she doesn't ask why this should be so. A pity because any historian would give you two simple answers for this: 1) the planet in the 20th century simply had more available people to be killed and 2) the 'atheist regimes' in question had the technology to do so. It is pointless to speculate what the Spanish Inquisition or the stone-faced theocrats of Calvinist Scotland might have been capable of with the appropriate technology because the crucial thing about all theocratic regimes is their complete and utter failure to apply science to the business of human production. This is why they have failed in the past and will always fail - an absolutely central fact of economic history that Ms Bunting just doesn't tackle.

Perhaps if she did, she'd begin to realise where she's gone wrong: the most successful societies have not had religious regimes - neither have they had atheist regimes; it has been those who have separated the business of religious devotion from legal compulsion. Certainly religion hasn't been the source of all conflict but does she really believe European history would have been more bloody had nation-states made the distinction between what is a crime and what is a sin earlier?

The second point is less important but by no means completely trivial. Like a lot of liberals brought up in a secular age, our Maddy pines for non-materialistic values and sees them in a religious ethos which I suspect she has had no experience of:
"where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires"
Ah, the old notion that shallow materialism and empty hedonism have rushed to fill the gap left by the decay of orthodox religion. Problem with this is that it's ahistorical: in Europe at least people didn't lose faith in God and then decide to fill their lives with empty pleasures; in practically every situation, other entertainments beat religion in a straight contest. As TC Smout pointed out, in the case of Calvinist Scotland, what did for the church was the 'death of hell', the expansion of the cities in the 19th century and other entertainments.

I realise it upsets the middle-class liberals that ordinary people seem to prefer consumerism to religious devotion but if they look at the alternative, what do they really want to see? The abolition of cities, a feature of capitalism that even old Karl Marx was prepared to accept was a progressive development? The abolition of these alternative entertainments? A revival in the concept of dis-teleological suffering in the form of the doctrine of Eternal Damnation?

One social history of Scotland I read as a student argued that in the 19th century, about 5% of the population were deeply religious, another 5% of the population were strongly atheist, and the remaining 90% of the population regarded both these with suspicion and bemusement. It is my conviction that things ain't changed that much and people like Dawkins and Bunting should just accept this - painful though that may be for them.

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