Saturday, 20 March 2010

Religion, ideology and the problem of evil

I've just been reading Johann Hari's online article The Pope, the Prophet, and the religious support for evil, and wondered at the juxtaposition of two somewhat contradictory attitudes. First, he poses his opening question:
What can make tens of millions of people – who are in their daily lives peaceful and compassionate and caring – suddenly want to physically dismember a man for drawing a cartoon [...] ? Not reason. Not evidence. No. But it can happen when people choose their polar opposite – religion.
So it is religion - specifically Islam in the case of the cartoons - which makes people behave badly. Moreover, he continues, Muslims have a thing or two to learn from Europeans, who have been mocking religion for centuries and now enjoy all the benefits. In fact, he suggests,
It will be a shining day for Muslims when they can do the same.
So three cheers for the Danish cartoons about the prophet! Well, actually no, just two cheers, because,
Some of the cartoons were witty. Some were stupid. One seemed to suggest Muslims are inherently violent – an obnoxious and false idea.

So, according to Hari, Muslims - that is to say, those who, as a result of the unreasonability of Islam, want to physically dismember a man for drawing a cartoon and should instead take the European rationalist 'chill pill' - are not 'inherently' violent, just violent in their "tens of millions" when it comes to their religion.

Hari's target is respect for religions - respect which he feels should be accorded to no idea or institution:
Nobody says I should "respect" conservatism or communism and keep my opposition to them to myself – but that's exactly what is routinely said about Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. What's the difference?

Now Hari is right about the fact that terrible things are done in the name of religion, but I have two questions. The first is why the exemption of Muslims from the very thing that you are writing an article to critique, namely the power of religion to motivate people to do bad things? Hari says Muslims are not 'inherently' violent. What exactly does he mean by 'inherently'?

If he means 'as human beings, rather than as Muslims', then he is stating either a truism: "the human material from which Muslims are drawn is no worse than that for the rest of us," or, on the face of it, a falsehood: "human beings are not inherently violent".

If, however, he means by not 'inherently' that Islam does not, as a religious belief, incline people to violence, then surely he is stating a conscious falsehood (compare his opening paragraph) and, moreover, he is doing this out of 'respect' for Islam.

The other question is this: if all religion is false (which he clearly believes it is), then what would he blame for human violence?

In many cases, of course, it is the role of an ideology to move us to violence, but it is the human material which is surely the underlying problem. One may take, for example, the violence in Northern Ireland, carried out by 'Catholics' and 'Protestants', many of whom clearly had only the most tenuous adherence to Christianity (in evidence of which, note that the levels of churchgoing in Northern Ireland, whilst higher than in the rest of the UK, were never staggering during the recent 'Troubles'). Indeed, in some cases it was the more openly 'secularized' (but ideologically highly motivated) personalities who were at the forefront of the 'struggle'.

You can, it seems, take a number of different - and even contradictory - ideological positions and evoke  the same violence in human beings. Animal liberationists, Green activists, hunt saboteurs, environmentalists are all, it would seem, capable of being people who are happy to create a spot of 'bovver' in the name of a 'good cause', despite the popular image of wearing sandals and living on tofu.

One thing is sure. When we have eliminated religion, we will not have eliminated the human factor, and the the truly inherent violence it entails. Indeed, since religion is, according to people like Hari, just a projection of the human imagination, it is we who have caused even all the violence done in the name of religion.

John Richardson
20 March 2010

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  1. Absolutely spot on, superb analysis. May I cross-post?

  2. Er ... what wories me, John, is that you spend so much time on an article by a writer who (you seem to show) is biased/one sided, confused as to exact meanings of what he claims to espouse ("What exactly does he mean by 'inherently'?"), and ultimately circular in argument (human imagination > religion > violence > human-ness). Such writers are never going to change their stance anyway. I'm sure there are better things to do/write about.

  3. @ John Thomas. I disagree. It is worthwhile "fisking" the MSM.

  4. John, it didn't take that long! And as Stuart says, I think it is (well) worth looking at what some of the opponents of religion are saying, particularly when it comes to the application of their own viewpoint. To Stuart, I had to look up the meaning of fisking!

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  6. John/Stuart - I also do not know what "fisking" is. Ok, I know we have to look at "some of the opponents of religion"; but they can become mindlessly vacuous sometimes (I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis's descriptions of hell/devils - grey, boring, lifeless), not all, but ... As long as you don't get sucked in (you say you didn't spend long, John) ...

  7. Apropo not a lot... I had to look up 'Fisking' and was then reminded that I once met his aunt when she worked as a shorthand-typist temp in London.
    Tiring and boring as it sometimes is, I do think is is sometimes worth taking on the opponents fo religion - but I have now drawn a line in the sand with certain contributors to the debate on the grounds that they do not listen, so I won't waste my breath. I'm glad someone carries the baton.

  8. Well, now you have at last an Affirming Anglican bishop in Chelmsford.

    What will this portend?

  9. Tim Keene said
    Stanley Fish, not a normal authority for Christians, in a blogging article in the New York Times on 22nd Feb reviews a book by a professor of law Steven Smith “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.” The thesis of the book, which Fish cites approvingly, is that secularists are quite unable to offer any reasons from within secularism for doing anything at all. They can offer descriptions, an 'is', but they cannot say why we should do anything about them without appealing in some way to something outside secularism, they cannot coherently supply 'oughts'. Thus secularism has to piggy back of religion despite its frequent claims to make religion redundant. I find this thesis as compelling as Fish evidently finds it. It also might act as a damning indictment of Hari's views.

    It might permit us however to accept a chastened form of secularism, a secularism that accepts that it does not have the answers to everything and in particular depends on others for its moral underpinning.