be better off without religion
Believers are away with the fairies,
by AC Grayling
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Excerpts [with one insert, not part of originating
article, included in brackets]:
In the US, the religious Right numbers about
35 million. Recent polls show that about 30
million Americans define themselves as hav-
ing no religious commitment.
But whereas the religious Right is a formidable
body whose constituent churches and move-
ments have salaried administrators, vast funds,
television and radio outlets, and paid Washing-
ton lobbyists, America's non-religious folk are
simply unconnected individuals.
It is no surprise that the religious Right has
political clout and can make a loud noise in the
American public square, whereas the non-reli-
gious voice is muted.
There are two main reasons for the hardening
of responses by non-religious folk.
One is that any increase in the influence of reli-
gious bodies in society threatens the de facto
secular arrangement that allows all views and
none to coexist. History has shown that in soci-
eties where one religious outlook becomes
dominant, an uneasy situation ensues for other
outlooks; at the extreme, religious control of
society can degenerate into Taliban-like rule.
Look at the period in which liberty of conscience
was at last secured in Christian Europe - the 16th
and 17th centuries. It was an exceptionally bloody
epoch: millions died as a result of a single church's
reluctance to give up its control over what people
can be allowed to think and believe.
The famous Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 accepted
religious differences as the only way of preventing
religion from being an endless source of war. Reli-
gious peace did not come straight away, but even-
tually it arrived, and most of Europe for most of the
years since 1700 has been free of religiously moti-
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[insert -- one might be tempted to argue, strongly,
that the mass murder of the Jews and homosexuals
and gypsies (and others) had at its core centuries
of anti-Judaism instigated/supported by Catholic
theology, with all due respect to those who did use
their religion (and their humanity, or their humanity
with minimal influence from religion) to try to help
the Jews (and others) who suffered at the hands
of the Nazis -- end insert]
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But this is under threat in the new climate of reli-
Faith organisations are currently making common
cause to achieve their mutual ends, but, once they
have achieved them, what is to stop them remem-
bering that their faiths are mutually exclusive and
indeed mutually blaspheming, and that the history
of their relationship is one of bloodshed?
The second reason why secular attitudes are hard-
ening relates to the reflective non-religious person's
attitude to religion itself.
Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intel-
lectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality
as belief in the existence of fairies.
This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who
have deep deep religious convictions and attach-
ments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth
is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one
(or a very few) of the gods that have ever been
claimed to exist.
No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphro-
dite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh
the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon,
or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on
- and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy)
he or she must say that anyone who sincerely be-
lieves in such deities is deluded and blasphemously
in pursuit of "false gods".
The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of
those not believed in; namely, the one remaining
on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are young religions
in historical terms, and came into existence after
kings and emperors had more magnificently taken
the place of tribal chiefs. The new religions there-
fore modelled their respective deities on kings
with absolute powers.
But for tens of thousands of years beforehand
people were fundamentally animistic, explaining
the natural world by imputing agency to things
- spirits or gods in the wind, in the thunder, in the
rivers and sea.
As knowledge replaced these naiveties, so deities
became more invisible, receding to mountain tops
and then to the sky or the earth's depths. One can
easily see how it was in the interests of priest-
hoods, most of which were hereditary, to keep
these myths alive.
With such a view of religion - as ancient supersti-
tion, as a primitive form of explanation of the world
sophisticated into mythology - it is hard for non-
religious folk to take it seriously, and equally hard
for them to accept the claim of religious folk to a
disproportionate say in running society.
This is the more so given that the active constitu-
ency of all believers in Britain is about eight per
cent of the population.
The disproportion is a staring one. Regular Church
of England churchgoers make up three per cent of
the population ...
And all this is happening against the background
of atrocities committed by religious fanatics in
America, Europe and the Middle East, whose
beliefs are not very different from the majority of
others in their faith.
The absolute certainty, the unreflective credence
given to ancient texts that relate to historically
remote conditions, the zealotry and bigotry that
flow from their certainty, are profoundly danger-
ous: at their extreme they result in mass murder,
but long before then they issue in censorship,
coercion to conform, the control of women, the
closing of hearts and minds.
Thus there is a continuum from the suicide bom-
ber driven by religious zeal to the moral crusader
who wishes to stop everyone else from seeing
or reading what he himself finds offensive. This
fact makes people of a secular disposition no
longer prepared to be silent and concessive.
Religion has lost respectability as a result of the
atrocities committed in its name, because of its
clamouring for an undue slice of the pie, and for
its efforts to impose its views on others.
Where politeness once restrained non-religious
folk from expressing their true feelings about
religion, both politeness and restraint have been
banished by the confrontational face that faith
now turns to the modern world.
This, then, is why there is an acerbic quarrel go-
ing on between religion and non-religion today,
and it does not look as if it will end soon.
- - - end excerpts - - -
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