Taking on religion

I have just heard Christopher Hitchens tell the BBC Politics UK program that

the job of the intellectual is to confront faith.

I admire Hitchens for his advocacy of secular, scientific and rational thought.  (He calls himself a "anti-theist" rather than an atheist.)

Many people of faith regard it as important to try convince others of their ideas.  (In some faiths, that is an essential activity of a believer.)  The rest of us tend to be passive: after all, we believe in freedom to worship.  But this creates an asymmetry: people of faith try to convert others, but those of us who do not believe do little to try to balance the argument.  I am with Hitchens in thinking that we have to do more to confront faith.  We should explain the origins of the supersitions that underpin religions, and use scientific evidence to challenge the claims.  Unless we take on the argument, we risk losing it by default.  Religion is not harmless, like astrology or Harry Potter books: it is a significant cause of conflict and individual tragedy.  

A the Hay on Wye Festival last year, Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchen discussed the proposed blasphemy laws. You can download an MP3 (lasting 78 minutes) of their discussion here. (Thanks to Dave Hoatson for recommending this.)

15 thoughts on “Taking on religion”

  1. I have described myself as an anti-theist for some time now. You are absolutely right. We have to work as hard as the religious in getting our arguments across otherwise we will lose.

  2. I agree but it’s important not to go too far: “We have the potential then of those who reject religion becoming the prophets of new secular religions” (Vincent Ostrom)

    For example, the following passage from Keynes is, presumeably, the creator of a system of "secular, scientific and rational thought" but to me it least it sounds more prophetic and theological

    “But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul Is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only then can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

    Compare this to the inherently economic analysis contained within a religious sermon:

    The public good must be a private care
    None all they have, but all a share:
    So we must freedom with restraint enjoy
    What crowds possess they will unchecked destroy
    George Crabbe

  3. I oppose all religions, even the new ones like Global Warming.

    Owen replies:   I am not qualfied to judge the quality of the scientific evidence on global warming, though I am impressed by the breadth of the consensus among scentists.  But whether they are correct or not, at least these scientists are making meaningful statements, capable of being supported or refuted by empirical evidence. We are not being asked to accept anything on faith (still less are we told that it is a virtue that these beliefs require faith). So I do not accept that there is any sort of analogy with the main religious faiths.

  4. I agree with you, Fry, Hitchens and Rowen Atkinson on the blasphemy laws (at least as I’ve read about them in Australia). Ideas (including religious ideas) should not be protected from criticism, argument, satire or ridicule. And people of faith (of whom I am one) should not be protected by the State from hearing these critiques. I also think that the best anti-theist arguments should be put and heard in the public arena.

    However, I don’t think that the asymmetry you’ve outlined (between the active proselytizing religious folk, and the inactive live-and-let-live atheistic folk) exists where you locate it,  Owen, when you say "after all, we believe in freedom to worship". I believe in freedom to worship (or not) also.

    I think the asymmetry exists at a more fundamental level in the ideas themeselves.

    The idea of atheism or anti-theism makes no necessary demands on its adherents, claims to provide no rewards (other than intellectual respectability) and provides only a negative answer to questions of meaning or purpose.

    Most religions (though not all) make fairly stringent demands of their adherents, claim to provide substantial rewards (both in this life and in a life to come) and offer strong answers to questions of meaning and purpose.

    I find it easy to see why the religious are more active in engaging the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ than the anti-religious.

    None of which, of course, is to argue the truth of either position, just to note that theistic positions seem to have an inbuilt tendency to encourage the kind of public contending you’re advocating for the anti-theists, while the anti-theists don’t have this tendency to make the effort required for mass engagement as plausible.

    Perhaps, as you’re saying, that’s the difference between the anti-theist and the atheist in that the former has actually created a mission or purpose out of the generic purposelessness of atheism – to overcome religion. Although, wouldn’t the question still come from the average armchair atheist, "Why bother?"

    Your own critique of religion (summary, I know) as a "cause of conflict and individual tragedy" would also apply with equal force to a variety of secular nationalisms, communism, unrestrained free-market capitalism and other non-religious ideologies.

  5. Ben: thanks for your thoughtful comments; and thank you for not taking offence at my orignal post. I think you are right that atheists will often ask: "why bother?".  But there are good answers to this.  We should bother because in the name of religion, many bad things are done.  These bad things include:

    • discrimination against people on grounds of their sexuality, including preventing same-sex couples from enjoying the rights (and responsibilities that are available to heterosexual couples)
    • curtailment of people’s liberties, for examples to control their own fertility
    • limits on the understanding, use and development of science (for example, equivocaton about evolution to children, preventing research using stem cells)
    • causing unnecessary death and suffering by interfering in development – for example, limits imposed by the US congress on the promotion of condom use in the fight against AIDS
    • conflict and war (from the Lords Resistance Army to islamic fundamentalism)
    • the numbing effect of the promise of an eternal afterlife, to be inherited by the meek; a promise apparently designed to stifle the fight for socal justice today.

    For those reasons – and probably many more (put them in the comments below please) – atheists should care about the growth of religion, and should take action to fight for rational and scientific enquiry.


  6. No worries. I assume you’ll do a better job of being offensive if you want to offend people! 😉

    I’m not inclined to defend most of the behaviour of my co-religionists (and others) in the dot points outlined above (discrimination, creation science, support of conflict, misuse of policy in the fight against AIDS). Bad practise and bad policy are, well, bad, whoever is responsible. But I think a couple of points are worth making:

    1) You are talking about particular expressions of particular religions in particular contexts and a totalizing critique of religion in general (or even any religion as a whole) may not be appropriate or relevant. I would reiterate my point that harms as great as these have been perpetrated in the names of a variety of secular ideologies, so I don’t find it convincing as an argument against religion in particular.

    2) The conflicts you have alluded to (LRA and Islamic Fundamentalism) I think have their roots as deeply in territorial and political struggles as they do in religion. Kony, for example, seeks to overthrow the Government of Uganda. That he seeks to replace that Government with one based on his own horrific misreading of the Hebrew Bible, only makes him different to other rebel movements in the content of the manifesto. It seems to me that the religious justification for these conflicts is overlaid on them, but does then get used as a negative feedback mechanism to justify further violence and mobilize new recruits.

    3) The promise of an afterlife is, to me, one of the most profound motivations for the fight for social justice. It is not a call to submission to power, but a promise that injustices are not forgotten, that this world matters so much, and the lives of human beings matter so much, that they are not forgotten at death. The promise of a justice that puts all that is wrong to rights motivates many in the fight to see some of it realised here and now – like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero or Desmond Tutu. Given that that particular promise to the meek was made by Jesus who also reserved his sharpest critiques for the wealthy and privileged, I find it sad that the notion has been used to ‘numb’ people to injustice as you put it. (Historic aside: in the Gospels and 1st Century Palestinian social setting it is the politically, socially and economically conservative and comfortable Saducees who dismiss the notion of resurrection and afterlife, while it is embraced by the more ‘revolutionary’ Pharisees.)



  7. You must distinguish "global warming" – for which the accumulating evidence is pretty persuasive – from "Global Warming" which is, as I say, essentially a faith business.  There really is next-to-no scientific evidence for it, just a distinctly imperfect short-term correlation.

  8. As I say, I have no knowledge of whether the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming is robust.   It is certainly possible the broad scientific consensus is the result of groupthink rather than independent research and analysis of the data, and that the scientific community has made a mistake.

    But your analogy with religious faith seems to me flawed.   The statements made by scientists about global warming are different in kind from the statements made by the major religions.  Whether they are right or wrong, the scientists are setting out a hypothesis about the extent and causes of global warming that is capable of being supported by evidence and of being falsified by evidence.  In contrast, most of the claims of the world's major religions make no claims for which could be subject to empirical testing.  On the rare occasions on which they have done so – for example, claims that have been made about the age of the planet – they have in almost every case been proven to be wrong.  (That ought to make us wonder about the veracity of the claims that cannot be disproven, but I digress.)  Those claims that can be falsified, have been; what we are left with is a set of claims which are incapable of being supported or disproven by evidence. Those are statements of faith.

    In other words, I accept that scientific claims about global warming may turn out to be incorrect; but that does not make them statements of faith comparable to religious claims.

  9. " Whether they are right or wrong, the scientists are setting out a hypothesis about the extent and causes of global warming that is capable of being supported by evidence and of being falsified by evidence"; but not by the best – some would say the only – scientific evidence, namely the results of controlled experiments.  Even if you accept  a second best sort of evidence, the intelligent testing of mathematical models, Global Warming already fails that test: when you run the models backwards to "predict" the climate for the last few hundred years, agreement is poor.  It therefore really does become essentially a matter of faith.  But that’s just part of the Religion, there’s all the rest.  Even if there were to be substantial man-made warming, it is mere faith to assume that it must be bad, not good; that, if bad, that it must be stopped rather than adapted to; that its scale will be as predicted, these predictions being based on implausible – and sometimes perhaps incompetent or dishonest  – economic extrapolations.  Then there’s the pressure to exclude non-canonical accounts of events, and the wild economic irrationalism and scapegoating that is the Kyoto accord.  It’s no wonder that the whole business ends up as a warning that we’ll all roast in Hell and it’s our own fault.  Scientifically, the whole business looks to me like a toxic combination of hubris and career-building.  Politically, it’s The Crucible.

  10. Luis – I agree: that is a good post.  But I don’t agree with his central thesis that humans have an irreducible need to hold irrational beliefs.  I think people today hold vastly fewer irrational beliefs than they did a century ago. 


  11. " I think people today hold vastly fewer irrational beliefs than they did a century ago. "

    Well, yes, no one really believes in Marxism any more. Or no one sane at least.

  12. Pingback: Tim Worstall

  13. Tim; depends what branch of marxism you subscribe to, I liked his "if they are Marxists, then I am no Marxist" and "the state should wither on the vine" lines myself.

  14. Hello,

    IMHO, there is huge difference in forcing someone to accept some religion or just explaining the facts of theology as presented in a particular scripture. I personally more appreciate the second approach. With such religious intellectuals I had nice conversations. They are normal, mature people. I doubt that they can cause any harm to anybody. They let you decide whatever you like to do or in other words they appreciate your free choice.

    One of them explained to me that neophyte religionists fight, desire fanatically to convert others to their own particular religion; those a bit advanced make friendship with anybody interested in god and are compassionate to those ignorant about God, but they are not fanatics when they preach. The most advanced are those who have love of God and are called saints. They have the realized vision that all living entities are the big family of God.

    Well, quite interesting. They also have interesting scientific challenges and explanations. Here are few interesting links you might like to check out.

    – Intelligent Design or Evolution? Why the Origin of Life Implies Design

    – The Hare Krishna Views On Science

    – Science Against Evolution

    With best regards

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