I heard an interview with William Dalrymple last week (19 May 2010, Sydney time) who is currently attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The interview centred around his latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.
Dalrymple was born in Edinburgh but has traveled widely in India and the book apparently examines the lives of nine religious followers in India. I haven’t read the book myself, but, following the interview, I’m tempted to seek it out.
As the title of his book suggests, Dalrymple appears fascinated with the religious in general, although he gave no indication in the interview what his own beliefs may be. His knowledge of India’s religions seems extensive and there are a couple of points he raised which I found relevant to the West’s perspective on Eastern religions and the current antagonistic attitudes towards religious issues: Islam, in particular.
As I say, I haven’t read the book, but the gist of it, according to the interview, is that he interviewed nine people, who lead distinctly different cultural lives in India, and wrote a chapter on each one. One of the points he raised, which I found relevant to my own viewpoint, is the idea that God exists inside us and not out there. This is something that I’ve discussed before and I don’t wish to dwell on here, but he inferred that the idea can be found in Sufism as well as Hinduism. It should be pointed out, by the way, that there is not one Hindu religion, and, in fact, Hinduism is really a collection of religions, that the West tend to put all in one conceptual basket. Dalrymple remarked on the similarity between Islamic Sufism and some types of Hinduism, which have flourished in India. In particular, he pointed out that the Sufis are the strongest opponents of Wahhabi-style Islam in Pakistan, which is very similar to the fundamentalism of the Taliban. I raise this point, because many people are unaware that there is huge diversity in Islam, with liberal attitudes pitted against conservative attitudes, the same as we find in any society worldwide, secular or otherwise.
This contradicts the view expressed by Hitchens and Harris (Dawkins has never expressed it, as far as I’m aware, but I’m sure he would concur) that people with moderate religious views somehow give succour to the fundamentalists and extremists in the world. This is a view, which is not just counter-productive, it’s divisive, simplistic, falsely based and deeply prejudicial. And it makes me bloody angry.
These are very intelligent, very knowledgeable and very articulate men, but this stance is an intellectualisation of a deeply held prejudice against religion in general. Because they are atheists, they believe it gives them a special position – they see themselves as being outside the equation – because they have no religious belief, they are objective, which gives them a special status. My point is that they can hardly ask for people with religious views to show tolerance towards each other if they can intellectualise their own intolerance towards all religions. By expressing the view, no matter how obtuse, that any religious tolerance somehow creates a shelter or cover for extremists, they are fomenting intolerance towards those who are actually practicing tolerance.
Dawkins was in Australia for an international Atheist convention in Melbourne, earlier this year. Religion is not a hot topic in this country, but, of course, it becomes a hot topic while he’s visiting, which makes me really glad that he doesn’t live here full time. On a TV panel show, he made the provocative inference that no evil has ever come from atheism. So atheists are not only intellectually superior to everyone else but they are also morally superior. What he said and what he meant, is that no atheist has ever attempted genocide on a religious group because of his or her atheism (therefore religious belief) but lots of political groups have, which may or may not be atheistic. In other words, when it comes to practicing genocide, whether the identification of the outgroup is religious or political becomes irrelevant. We don’t need religion to create politically unstable groups, they can be created by atheists as easily as they can by religious zealots. Dawkins, of course, chooses his words carefully, to give the impression that no atheist would ever indulge in an act of genocide, be it psychological or physical, but we all know that political ideology is no less dangerous than religious ideology.
One of Dawkins’ favourite utterances is: “There is no such thing as a Muslim child.” If one takes that statement to its logical conclusion, he’s advocating that all children should be disassociated from their cultural heritage. Is he aware of how totalitarian that idea is? He wants to live in a mono-culture, where everyone gets the correct education that axiomatically will ensure they will never believe in the delusion of God. Well, I don’t want to live in that world, so, frankly, he can have it.
People like to point to all the conflicts in the world of the last half century, from Ireland to the Balkans to the Middle East as examples of how religion creates conflicts. The unstated corollary is that if we could rid the world of religion we would rid it of its main source of conflict. This is not just naïve, it’s blatantly wrong. All these conflicts are about the haves and have-nots. Almost all conflicts, including the most recent one in Thailand are about one group having economical control over another. That’s what happened in Ireland, in former Yugoslavia, and, most significantly, in Palestine. In many parts of the world, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan being typical examples, religion and politics are inseparable. It’s naïve in the extreme to believe, from the vantage of a secular society, that if you rid a society of its religious beliefs you will somehow rid it of its politics, or make the politics more stable. You make the politics more stable by getting rid of nepotism and corruption. In Afghanistan, the religious fundamentalists have persuasion and political credibility because the current alternative solution is corrupt and financially self-serving.
It should be obvious for anyone who follows my blog that I’m not anti-atheist. In fact, I’ve done my best to stay out of this debate. But, to be honest, I refuse to take sides in the way some commentators infer we should. I don’t see it as an US and THEM debate, because I don’t live in a country where people with religious agendas are trying to take control of the parliament. We have self-confessed creationists in our political system, but, as was demonstrated on the same panel that Dawkins was on, they are reluctant to express that view in public, and they have no agenda, hidden or otherwise, for changing the school curricula. I live in a country where you can have a religious point of view and you won’t be hung up and scrutinised by every political commentator in the land.
Religion has a bad rap, not helped by the Catholic Church’s ‘above the law’ attitude towards sexual abuse scandals, but religious belief per se should never be the litmus test for someone’s intelligence, moral integrity or strength of character, either way.