Abolishing religion won’t fix anything

So here’s the post that started it all. I post it here unedited, but again note that I think the syllogism is poorly written. “New Atheists” don’t impute all suffering to religion. But I think that they impute far more violence than is due. This saves them from the task of actually trying to understand the underlying socio-economic circumstances that engender the fundamentalism and violence.

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

During the first Gulf War, Christopher Hitchens famously schooled Charlton Heston, asking him to name the countries surrounding Iraq, the place he was so eager to invade. A flummoxed Heston sputtered, naming a few random Middle Eastern countries (including, rather humorously, the island nation of Cyprus).

But then Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens. To co-opt Steven Weinberg, “Good men will naturally oppose bad wars and bad will naturally support them. To make a good man support a bad war, for that, you need an irrational fear of religion.”

Somehow the man who denounced Kissinger’s war crimes now supported Bush’s — both wars, of course, supported by the scantest of logic. The man who so eloquently chronicled the corruption of the Clinton administration became the shill of his successor.

Ruber Cornwell wrote of Hitchens in The Independent,

At that point [during the Gulf War], Hitchens, still the left-wing radical, opposed he conflict against Saddam Hussein. By contrast, George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq couldn’t come soon enough for him. The great catalyst for change was, of course, 9/11. Appalled by what he saw as the left’s self-flagellation over the terrorist attacks, and the argument that America had brought the disaster on itself, Hitchens became arguably the most eloquent advocate in Washington of the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He quit The Nation, made friends with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and, in foreign policy at least, was indistinguishable from the neocons… The fact that the terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists also sealed – if sealing were needed – Hitchens’ belief that religion, and the “absolute certainty” of its followers was nothing but trouble.

For something so dreadfully asinine to be written about a man as well-traveled and well-read would be almost obscene if it were not true. But after 9/11, Hitchens stopped seeing the world in terms of geopolitics but rather saw it, like the Neocons in the Bush administration, as a war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.

Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.

But if Hitchens is right, as he is, then why not take the observation to its logical conclusion? Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.

Bernard Lewis writes,

For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives? If religion motivated 9/11, what motivated Bill Clinton to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and leave millions of Sudanese people without access to medicine?

Liberals who once believed that the key to understanding hate and violence is deprivation now have embraced the idea that religion is the culprit. Religion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things. It can also motivate acts of social justice and injustice, but broad popular movements of the sort generally indicate a manipulation of religion, rather than studied reflections on religious doctrine. Shall we blame Jesus, who advocated “turning the other cheek,” for Scott Philip Roeder, or more plausibly his schizophrenia?

Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I havewritten an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according toThe Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,

Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail. Religion is little different from Continental philosophy or literature (which may explain the hatred of Lacan and Derrida among Analytic philosophers). It is an attempt to explain the deprivations of being human and what it means to live a good life. Banish Christ and Muhammad and you may end up with religions surrounding the works of Zizek and Sloterdijk (there is already a Journal of Zizek Studies, maybe soon a seminary?). Humans will always try to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and science will never be able to tell them what it is. This, ultimately is the meaning of religion, and “secular religions” like philosophy and literature are little different in this sense than theology. Certainly German philosophy was distorted by madmen just as Christianity has been in the past, but atheists fool themselves if they try to differentiate the two.

As a poorly-practicing Christian who reads enough science to be functional at dinner parties, I would like to suggest a truce — one originally proposed by the Catholic church and promoted by the eminent Stephen J. Gould. Science, the study of the natural world, and religion, the inquiry into the meaning of life (or metaphysics, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any theologian or scientist who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.

Religion (either secular or theological) does not poison all of society and science should not be feared, but rather embraced. Both can bring humanity to new heights of empathy, imagination and progress. To quote the greatest American reformer, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems. But abolishing religion is not only unfeasible, it would ultimately leave us no closer to truth, love or peace. Rather, we need to embrace the deep philosophical and spiritual questions that arise from our shared existence and work toward a world without deprivation. That will require empathy and multiculturalism, not demagoguery.

10 thoughts on “Abolishing religion won’t fix anything

  1. Richard Aberdeen

    Wars are not fought over either religion or politics. Rather, wars are clearly fought over land, gold and other forms of wealth. Human greed is clearly at the root of any and every war ever fought. The Crusades for example, were waged against Muslim invades who had previously swooped in and taken land once belonging to nobles, popes and kings. It is incredibly naive to pretend politics or religion causes war, rather than we ourselves are the cause of war.

    It is not surprising that Christopher Hitchens who was well known to invent history out of thin air, would get this wrong. What is surprising, is the editors of AlterNet, even though I have repeatedly pointed this out to them in various letters. continue to print articles clearly contradicting the known historical and scientific evidence. Modern behavioral science evidence agrees with Jesus, that greed, irrational fear, hatred, envy, jealously prejudice, stress, tension, murder, rape, theft, false witness, inequality of wealth, slavery, war and other human oppression, arises from what is within ALL people (source; Encyclopedia Britannica; “Human Sexuality” and related).

    More information here:

    1. Richard Aberdeen

      Mussolini was publicly an avowed atheist. Ayn Rand was publicly avowed atheist. These two alone overwhelmingly refute any claim that atheism is an advantage. There is no evidence belief in God causes war, nor is there any evidence that God is behind institutional religion, nor is their any evidence that Jesus is the founder of Christianity or any other religion. It would be refreshing if people in the 21st Century could grow up and stop equating religion with God, Christianity with Jesus and, stop blaming the wrong thing for our problems. Human beings cause human oppression and thus, we are at the root of our own problems. If you don’t believe you are a sinner and thus, part of the problem, try doing what you think is good all of the time and, see how well you do. A simple test neither atheists, Christians or anyone else can pass.

  2. Foomandoonian

    I’m a little tired so my critical faculties are running on reserve power, but that article seems very unfair and poorly reasoned to me. As an atheist I don’t hold the view that abolishing religion – if that were even a realistic goal – would ‘solve all the world’s problems’ at all. Perhaps when I was a lot younger I would have felt that way. I seriously doubt a man as smart as Hitchens subscribed to any notion that simplistic.

    If I were to revise your ‘atheist logic’ so if reflected my world view a little better, I would probably outline it this way:

    1. The problems facing the world are all grounded in reality.
    2. Religion is a work of fantasy.
    3. Therefore religion has nothing useful to offer.

    Of course that is offensively reductionist, but I had much the same reaction to your piece above.

  3. Paul

    Can you back up your assertion that the famous leaders of the atheist movement actually believe that “Religion is the cause of all human suffering”? And I emphasis the word “all”. Otherwise your arguement is one of sophistical reasoning.

  4. pwik

    “was lead by a cabal”: I think you are looking for the past tense of the verb “to lead”. That would be “led”.

  5. Gallup's Mirror

    If you invented a strawman fallacy to falsely attack Jews or homosexuals it would be vulgar. But when attacking atheists, no intellectual dishonesty, however outlandish (“New Atheist dogma!”) is considered beyond the pale.

    For instance, there’s this whopper: “New Atheists believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.”

    New Atheists believe religion should be “countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises”. No soft gloves for religion. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Atheism)

    Question the honesty or sanity of anyone who doesn’t find reason, evidence and empirical truth to be persuasive. Of course a rigorous exposure of falsehood, irrationality and bad evidence fixes things. It won’t fix every problem in the world, but that puerile claim originated with Sean McElwee, not the New Atheists.

  6. Historicvs

    It is hard to imagine that there will ever be a culture sufficiently advanced to have freely abolished religion. Religion’s stories of ancient holy men and gods who intercede in the human realm are very powerful. These stories reflect deep-seated symbols and expectations about how the world works, about the limits of the human condition and how they may be transcended. At the same time they forge the cultural and communal identities that are so important to human emotional well-being.

    Yet the fact remains that the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist religion’s world view is based on falsehood: we are not orphans on a hostile planet ruled by invisible spirits. We were not placed here at the caprice of an all-powerful sky god who can be influenced through magical thinking and ritual to intervene as we desire, nor is there a supernatural agent that will allow us to continue to live after we die.

    The moral precepts of Jesus are, in particular, sometimes interesting, sometimes poetic, sometimes benevolent, sometimes confusing, sometimes pernicious, and sometimes devastatingly harmful psychologically. To be moral, according to Jesus, man must shackle his reason. He must force himself to believe that which he cannot understand. He must suppress, in the name of morality, any doubts that surface in his mind. Less criticism leads to more faith – and faith, Jesus declares, is the hallmark of virtue.

    The psychological impact of this doctrine is devastating. To divorce morality from truth is to turn man’s reason against himself. Reason, as the faculty by which man comprehends reality and exercises control over his environment, is the basic requirement of self-esteem. Reason becomes a vice, something to be feared, and man finds that his worst enemy is his own capacity to think and question.

    One can scarcely imagine a more effective way to introduce perpetual conflict into man’s consciousness and thereby induce the host of neurotic symptoms that men call religion.

  7. Pingback: Religion is historically contingent | Sean McElwee

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