The challenge mounted against religion—any and all religion—by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a growing band of fellow travelers has attracted huge interest. It has also mustered significant intellectual forces on both sides of the war of ideas.
A debate titled “We’d Be Better Off Without Religion,” to have been held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on March 27, attracted so much interest that it was moved, somewhat ironically, to the much larger Methodist Central Hall, close to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. A near-capacity crowd of over 2,000 attended. With the pre-vote weighted in favor of the motion, it was clear that the atheists were singing to a predominantly secular choir.
Religion’s Role in Modern Conflicts
Speaking for the motion were Richard Dawkins, A. C. Grayling and Christopher Hitchens. Those against were Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey. Joan Bakewell chaired the debate, of which the following is a synopsis.
Writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of the soon-to-be-published God Is Not Great, wasted no time on subtlety or nuance. From Northern Ireland to Iraq, he said, the “parties of God” have held the people in their jaws. He placed great emphasis on violence and strife in the name of religion, noting that it’s not enough that people of different religions kill one another: Catholics and Protestants, though fellow Christians, blew up one another in the past, and now Sunnis and Shiites are at it in Iraq, considering it a duty to destroy one another’s mosques.
Hitchens blamed the “lily-livered media” for disguising the truth about the Balkan conflicts, characterizing them as Serbian against Bosnian instead of Orthodox Catholic against Muslim.
Religion was not responsible for all of these troubles, but religion gravely exacerbated them. For good measure, Hitchens reminded the audience that the Vatican was complicit in the rise of 20th-century fascism in Europe and that Japan was led by a god-emperor in the Second World War. He asked: Wouldn’t people who’ve been persecuted for their religious beliefs in such places as Baghdad and Bombay welcome secularism?
He warned of “two false issues”: that secular tyranny is just as bad as religious tyranny, and that there is a moral equivalence between atheists and those who think they know God’s will.
Hardwired for Belief?
Replying was art historian, author and broadcaster Nigel Spivey. The Cambridge University lecturer pointed out that this was not a debate about the existence of God but about mortals and how the practice of religion in general affects us. He presented the view, accepted in the field of archaeology, that a “creative explosion” took place in human minds—our cognitive systems—about 40,000 years ago. Paintings, sculptures and other artifacts began to be created for more than utility. More to the point, humans began to bury their dead properly, with symbols and grave artifacts that indicated belief in an afterlife.
Spivey observed that we’re uniquely hardwired for belief, and that the debate should be decided by that fact. To attempt to do away with religion is to attempt to reengineer the way we human beings are. And what would the world be like, he asked, without religion—without the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal? Religion is not an option, it’s part of our religious makeup, it’s part of what we are archaeologically, anthropologically, psychologically, neurologically.
“Speak for yourself,” replied Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. “Religion is not a part of my nature, nor that of most of my scientific colleagues.” Further, he pointed out, we will never know what Michelangelo might have painted without religion: the ceiling of the Museum of Science, perhaps. Haydn might have written The Evolution oratorio.
Dawkins claimed that our understanding of deep space, deep time and the mysteries of life is solely the achievement of the human spirit, and we are well rid of religion if it stands in the way.
Religion, he asserted, provides four things for us: explanation, exhortation (what is good, what is bad), inspiration and consolation. But consolation is an emotional dummy, and inspiration is paltry, parochial and small-minded compared to science. In the field of explanation, science has all the cards; religion has nothing to say about where the universe comes from or what life is for. It provides no evidence for its notions, and its arguments are washed up. Worse, religion debauches education, as demonstrated by the indoctrination of schoolchildren in the United States, many of whom put up a “firewall of faith” to resist anyone who tries to instruct them about evolution. They are immunized against science, as though science is the enemy. Biologists can’t teach properly, according to Dawkins, because they are resisted; yet biology cannot be explained without evolution.
Lady Julia Neuberger, a rabbi and member of the House of Lords, responded that the atheistic perception of religion is not one she recognizes. Belief is secondary to how we mark our lives, including such markers as birth, maturation, marriage, divorce and death. Many of those she has ministered to have normal human doubts and uncertainty and would abhor the teachings of young-earth creationists. The test of a good Jew is not what you believe but what you do.
By no means is all religion fundamentalist, extreme, exclusive, damaging or divisive, she said. At its best it is modest and inspiring. But while some believers are full of certainty and tolerate no debate, others may be full of doubt and readily allow for others’ views. The division is not just between the secular and the religious, as atheists would have us believe.
Fascism, communism and other political ideologies are the result of a certainty that brooked no opposition, Neuberger went on. Yet the slave trade was ended by a strong religious sensibility, though not soon enough, she granted. Without religion we would be even more selfish and self-indulgent.
Is Religion Always Irrational?
Professor Anthony J. Grayling, philosopher and author, was the final speaker for the motion. He painted the scenario of a Martian Ph.D. student studying earth: the alien lands at London’s Waterloo station and begins to ask waiting commuters, “What kind of people would you like your children to be when they grow up?” People would probably respond that they would want their children to have a good job, a good family, fine friends, and so on. They would want them to be responsible, inquisitive, independent and thinking.
The Martian might then say, “But I’ve studied your Christian religion, and doesn’t the New Testament say ‘take no thought for the morrow,’ and didn’t Christ tell you to give away all your money to the poor?” New Testament ethics—for example, “blessed are they who weep and mourn”—are very contrary to endeavors for a decent life now. This is very different from our view of a good life in this modern, secular society.
Noting that those without a religious outlook also have a deep sense of the good, and that good things come from people simply enjoying a walk in a park or a visit to an art gallery, he concluded that we don’t need the supernatural for happiness or for anything else.
Philosopher and author Roger Scruton was the final opponent of the motion. He asked the audience to consider Plato’s ideal republic, in which reason rules over passion, and citizens are guided by truth. He surmised that Plato must have found humanity a profound disappointment, conspiring against its own happiness. The darker forces got the upper hand by propagating lies in poetry, literature, politics and orgiastic music. Rather than order, there was disorder, falsehood and irrationality; so Plato’s solution was that philosophers should be put in charge to administer a diet of pure philosophy, dismissing all irrationality, including religion.
But is opining that we’d be better off without something because it can cause us pain a necessarily defensible position, asked Scruton? Would we, for instance, be better off without love? Often it brings disaster or pain, and we can certainly go astray with love. He suggested that we would all judge love to be a human good but would agree that we must learn to manage it properly. So, too, with religion: we need to discern the good from the bad. And so, too, with science.
He also pointed out that science and logic are not the only spheres where reason shows itself. For example, what part of our nature draws us to religion? We seek for causes, but also for meaning. This is not irrational, even if there is no tangible (scientific) explanation.
We also have moral values, aesthetic tastes, yearnings, and aspirations, things we call spiritual. Again, he said, this is not irrational, even if it is difficult to furnish a scientific foundation. Indeed, it is only a rational being who experiences the world in this way, who feels as a result a tension between his life and his ideals. Isn’t it plausible that this is precisely the aspirational aspect of religion that draws people to it? We cannot be satisfied with causal explanations alone: the question “Why?” has to have another meaning—not “What is the cause?” but “What is the reason? To what end does this or that exist?” Far from having nothing to say, as Dawkins claims, religion is what addresses what life is for.
Our reason, Scruton continued, overreaches the boundaries of science, and this is not a deficiency of religion but rather of science. Religion for most people is what it has always been: a cultivation of piety, a humility in the face of creation, and an attempt to live according to a shared moral code. It is those who have a narrow, reductionist view—like Dawkins, who reduces it to the concrete pursuit of science—who are the real enemies of reason.
With these remarks, the debate came to an end. At the beginning of the evening, there were 826 (44 percent) votes for the motion, 681 (36 percent) against, and 364 (20 percent) “don’t knows” (totaling 1871). Afterward, the motion was carried with 1,205 (58 percent) for, 778 (37 percent) against and 103 (5 percent) “don’t knows” (totaling 2086).
When Christianity adheres to unfounded—and unscriptural—dogma as though it is eternal truth, ultimate embarrassment is the inevitable outcome. As it was with the notion that the earth is the center of the universe around which the sun rotates, so it is with young-earth creationist dogma, which holds that dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time as Homo sapiens just a few thousand years ago.
It is interesting to consider then, that in a similar vein, the determined attack on religious belief may well prove to be the high-water mark of atheistic pride. Just as religion is embarrassing when it rails ignorantly against science, even so atheistic scientists are when they thunder against religion.
Take Hitchens’s one-sided attempt to lay as much of the blame for 20th-century conflicts as he could at the door of religion. Was the fact that Japan had an emperor-god really the deciding factor for Japanese militarism and entry into World War II? Was the Northern Irish conflict solely or even predominantly about religious differences? It seems Hitchens thinks as much, which suggests that muddied and reductionist thinking is not the sole province of the religious.
Or take Dawkins’s dogmatism: “In the field of explanation, science has all the cards… . There is no reason to suppose that any religion, any religious book, any religious teacher has anything to say whatsoever about such questions as where the universe comes from, what life is all about, what life is for, any of those questions for which, once upon a time, religion provided the best available answers. These are now completely washed up.” If that is so, then why does science still grapple with where the universe comes from? Dawkins may believe that science alone tells us what life is all about, but its explanations for why humans are the way they are—and this includes why so many have religious beliefs—are far more limited than he cares to admit. And as for explaining what life is for, science’s silence is deafening.
Clearly, misdirected religion makes bad science. We should thank Dawkins and company for demonstrating that misdirected science makes bad religion.