We live in a time where there is a lot of debate about religion – is it a force for good, or for bad? Is belief in a supreme being fundamentally less enlightened than acceptance of the scientific consensus? And so on. But a lot of the arguments on both sides are poorly thought through, and make fundamental errors of logic, or simply overstate their case to get attention. I think a large part of the reason for this is that “religion” covers such a complex tapestry of ideas, that arguments that start following one thread in that tapestry get snarled up in other parts, where the original argument no longer makes sense.
The first article that started me thinking about this was this incredibly poor attack on atheism on the Spectator’s website, which starts by equating all atheism with humanism, proceeds to claim that humanism could not have existed without Christianity, and then seemingly concludes that this makes atheism itself dependent on Christianity. One of the fundamental problems here is that the author seems to think that rejecting one part of Christianity or religion – the belief in God or gods, which is the literal definition of “atheism” – is necessarily a rejection of all aspects of Christianity, or religion in general. This is an assumption widely made, leading to a lot of shouting at cross-purposes. Now, many atheists certainly go a lot further than mere denial of the existence of any deity, but to reject every single aspect of religion, we would first need to find out what they all were; finding common ground with someone over something that can be considered religious or Christian doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly squared the circle and defeated every other point any atheist ever made.
I want to be clear, though, that this mistake is made on both sides of the debate. Yesterday, one of my friends shared on Facebook an image claiming that Easter is named after an Assyrian goddess called Ishtar (bear with me, this does get back to the point). This immediately sounded iffy to me – it was all just too neat, a common sign of a folk etymology. Two minutes of research confirmed that the festival is only called anything vaguely like “Easter” in a handful of Northern European (specifically, Germanic) languages1, so I’m not sure what a goddess from the Middle East would have been doing up here. Later, another friend linked me to a rather thorough take down of all the claims in the original image. What interested me, though, is that the truth is actually a lot more interesting than the simplified wishful thinking of the bogus claims. Particularly relevant to my current thesis is this quote:
Look. Here’s the thing. Our Western Easter traditions incorporate a lot of elements from a bunch of different religious backgrounds. You can’t really say that it’s just about resurrection, or just about spring, or just about fertility and sex. You can’t pick one thread out of a tapestry and say, “Hey, now this particular strand is what this tapestry’s really about.” It doesn’t work that way; very few things in life do.
I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I won’t try to. Religion is a big, complex tapestry; it’s so big that you can’t really look at all of it at once. So we pick a thread, and come up with a great argument about why it’s good, or bad, or right, or wrong; and then either we, or our opponent, spots that it’s heavily interwoven with another thread, where the same argument doesn’t apply, and the whole debate gets sidetracked. Or occasionally, we just throw our hands up and say “hey, it’s a tapestry, take it or leave it”.
Like it or not, we can’t change the fact that our history, and our society, has been heavily influenced by religion. Every ethical stance we take, societal norms we take for granted, even our whole vocabulary of “belief” and “faith”, is tied up in that tradition. Any argument that treats religion – as opposed to some particular flavour or form of religion – as something which can be looked at in isolation risks becoming meaninglessly abstract. You can’t have a religion without people, and those people will certainly be tied up in things other than religion.
Conversely, the deep entanglement with our society and history doesn’t mean religion can take credit for all the good bits – e.g. the basis of accepted morality – nor be blamed for all the bad bits – e.g. wars fought in its name. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even possible to theorise how the world would be had religion never existed – for one thing, you would need to find a definition of “religion” which was wide enough not to be a self-serving caricature, but narrow enough to be more meaningful than, say, “imagine a world without politics”.
Richard Dawkins in his famous but rather patchy book The God Delusion both challenges and relies on this kind of inevitability. One of his best arguments is his discussion of the “moral zeitgeist” – the well-documented changes over time in what is considered acceptable by society. Since these changes are not, as a rule, accompanied by a cataclysmic change in religion, it is hard to see religion as the force driving these changes, rather than reacting to them, or at best existing as part of the dialogue that forms them.
One of the worst arguments in the book, however – and he mentions it several times – is that religion is, fundamentally and unequivocally, at the heart of the problems in Northern Ireland. That they are heavily tied up in religion is indisputable, but so are issues of sovereignty, allegiance, land ownership, persecution, and retaliation, going back over centuries. To pick just one point in its history: maybe if Catholicism and Protestantism weren’t at stake, the 17th century settlers from Scotland and England would not have been “planted” in Ulster – but it’s not hard to imagine some other political pretext being found to install land-owners more loyal to Britain.
God, faith, and rationalism
Another thread that’s particularly tricky to untangle is the one linking religion to belief in some higher being or power. An “atheist”, by a narrowly literal definition, is someone who doesn’t believe in any god. That bars them from membership of any religion whose creed requires such belief; but that’s just a technicality. It is surely possible to accept large parts of Christian teaching without believing in God, so it might be possible that the politics and traditions of Christianity could exist without that belief.
The belief itself is, to many, a big deal – it seems to show a lack of rational thought, when compared to modern scientific understanding of the universe. The fact is that while scientific explanations can be traced back to reproducible evidence, most people do not actually spend the time to do so – they believe the authority of those teaching them. A skeptic might check the credentials of an individual scientist, or the extent of consensus on a theory, but if you tell me that a solid table is mostly empty space between tiny sub-atomic particles, that is not something my personal experience confirms. I can, of course, make an informed judgement, on the balance of evidence available to me; but the hypothesis I am rejecting is not actually about sub-atomic particles, but rather “how likely is it that the large number of sources I see claiming evidence for this explanation are all lying?”
The same question can then be asked of things claimed as truth by religions – are they simply all lying? That is to say, that many people are brought up with a certain set of religious beliefs; they have not come up with these beliefs themselves, may never question them, and may even be discouraged from doing so – but someone is passing those beliefs to them. If you follow that chain back far enough, there must be someone who did in fact “invent” those beliefs. Looked at simplistically: either that person spontaneously arose at that belief, and we have a psychological propensity to such faith; or they did not hold the belief themselves, and deliberately set out to indoctrinate others as a source of power.
Which finds us once again crossing the threads of our tapestry: faith both supports and is supported by organised religion, yet one is a question of philosophy and evidence, while the other is a question of sociology and politics. It may not be impossible to concentrate on one question to the exclusion of the other, but it’s certainly difficult, and that, I contend, is why the whole debate is such a minefield.
- Most languages call it something related to Pesach, the Jewish festival of Passover, during which festival Jesus was supposedly crucified. [↩]