Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Why religion is not the root of all evil

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.


larryniven said...

Okay, so this one is a bit of a toughie for me. Obviously religion isn't the root of all evil - anyone who actually believes that has some serious introspection to do. But everything else is stuck in shades of gray, so far as I can tell.

Most of the problem here is that we have no good evidence to sort of push against. So, for instance, do liberal believers serve as a buffer for the extremist orthodoxy? I'm not even sure what that means, let alone how to check for it in the real world. And this whole thing about whether religious people or atheists are more violent/dangerous is the same way - who has even bothered to define any of the relevant terms? It's just people lobbing accusations every which way. I mean, presumably there is a fact of the matter to be found somewhere, but we're not even getting close to finding it.

There is, though, one more alternative besides having a sort of Overculture and encouraging parents to usher their children into their own traditions: you can allow the children to choose for themselves. That's obviously a significantly harder task and won't appeal to most people - why would you want a kid who disagrees with you on all kinds of fundamental issues? - but it is an option.

Anyway, this is a conversation that I, too, tend to stay out of, so I don't have much to say that's particularly intelligent.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Larry,

I appreciate your comment. Yes, it's a difficult one.

I guess the reason I felt I need to say something is that I think one has to be careful about tagging who the enemy is. I think it's unhelpful to put everyone in the same camp, though it's human nature to do that.

As for children and their cultural heritage, the important thing I feel is to have a secular society where they rub up against other children with other backgrounds. In reality, that's what happened in my upbringing, and still happens as an adult. I expect Dawkins would actually agree with that, but he makes provocative statements, for the same reason that politicians and some commentators do: it gets our attention.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

By the way, Larry, you may not know that Dawkins made a documentary on religion called The Root of all Evil. He specifically mentions in The God Delusion that it had not been shown in the US but was shown in Oz.

What he didn’t mention was that it was shown on the only national, free-to-air religious programme in Australia, Compass. Geraldine Doogue, who hosts Compass, said it was the most watched programme on Compass for the year.

It has to be said, for a religious programme, Compass is very liberal-minded indeed.

Regards, Paul.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Thanks for the interview suggestion. Downloading it now. Thor, I love iTunes.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi TAM, or is it Thor?

I hope you find it stimulating, as I did.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

On the Compass web site, the Galileo Trial is worth watching, and entertaining, if you can download it outside Oz.

Regards, Paul.

Timmo said...

I am not myself impressed by the outrage that Dawkins, Hitchens, and company express over religion, especially when it comes to asserting or hinting that it is especially evil. The truth is that religions have taught everything from the most elevated to the most despicable. In politics, you can have inquisitors or violent fundamentalists, or you have have MLK's civil rights movement and Latin American liberation theology.

As for atheism, it is open to socially pernicious and destructive. Have we already forgotten that under Soviet tyranny religions were illegal? And what about the Communist Party in China and the way it disposes of Christians, Buddhists, and the rest? "Scientific materialism," as it was sometimes called, is yet another heavy club available to power systems. Some broad moral comparison is bound to be baseless.

To make matters worse, it's just not a thing a serious person would do. It does not bode well that Dawkins sometimes uses his public speaking opportunities as ethical pissing contests. Maybe it's rhetorically effective and a crowd pleaser, but it has zero intellectual value.

Timmo said...

Oh, and my condolences for your total defeat at the hands -- or should I say feet? -- of the Germans.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Timmo,

Thanks for your comments - you are someone I would love to meet.

As for our defeat by Germany, there are no excuses. We were a much better side in the last World Cup, when we beat Japan and Croatia and nearly beat Italy. The then coach, Guus Hiddink, who's now coach of Russia, is probably the best soccer coach in the world.

To his credit, Pim Verbeek (another Dutchman) takes all the blame. But I think that Germany just put us in our place.

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Melbourne.

Please find a completely different Understanding of what is usually called religion via these references.

Plus on the necessary politics of the future--if there is to be future.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Anonymous,

I tend to agree with your premise concerning the no-self. I contend that death is all about letting go of the ego - we are literally forced to, and that's why it's the most difficult event we face.

You may be interested in reading this.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Try this

Brian said...

Hi Paul, just found your blog via John Wilkin's.

I think that you may not have been fair to Dawkins. Not sure about Hitchens. In any case, the argument is that faith is the problem. Liberal religious folk are not really a problem, but because they hold faith as means of knowledge or justification, they cannot have an epistemic counter to fundamentalists. If a Wahhabist tries to impose Talibanisation in Pakistan, he's on just as sure ground as the Sufi who opposes him. There is not evidence that could show either wrong given their faith. Their views are not falsifiable, all evidence can be said to fit. That is why I think Dawkins and Harris argue against faith.

Similarly with liberal Christians and Young Earth Creationists. Both interpret the Bible as they will and both can point to a bit of scripture that supports them or say isn't to be taken literally and neither can be right or wrong. These are self-sealing beliefs justified by faith.

I know that believers often counter that atheists have faith or something in science. But that doesn't work, because there is something to warrant science. It has ways of showing certain hypothesis or claims to knowledge wrong. It works.

I understand that Dawkins didn't want the tv show to be called the Root of all evil. It was called that by the BBC. He's not that silly to believe it is the root of all evil. But because faith can justify anything, certain pernicious views can easily follow. Of course the atheist version was faith in Marxism and the march of history. Perhaps if he had had the choice he might have called Unjustified faith the root of all evil. But that's not as catchy.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for taking an interest in my post. I think Dawkins polarises religion and religious debate in a way that's totally unnecessary. I agree with him on some things and disagree on others. He loves to rub people the wrong way, and succeeds superfluously, even people who may be on his side.

Religion is not epistemology, whereas science is, so epistemically it's not a contest. If you can get away from that debate, then it becomes a non-issue.

I discuss my own interpretation of the differences between science, philosophy and religion in an earlier post. I admit it gets a bit esoteric.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...

Thanks Paul. I'll check it out. However, while religion is not epistemology, it does make knowledge claims, backed up by revelation and faith. If only as a matter of defending science against these claims we can't get away from that debate.

Here's an article that I quite like about faith and epistemology.

Brian said...

Regarding Dawkins, he is polarizing. There's no reason for him to be quiet, nor for you not to write blog posts arguing against him. There's plenty of approaches, some people do respond to Dawkins approach positively. Some don't. C'est la vie.

Brian said...

Just read your post Paul. This stuck me as odd:
without ‘mind’ the universe would be meaningless.

How is the universe not meaningless with mind? The universe just is. We might make meaning in it, but what justifies a claim that it is not meaningless?

Paul P. Mealing said...

Paul Davies gives a better interpretation than me in The Goldilocks Enigma, but I'm just stating the obvious. A universe without consciousness is 'meaningless' because it requires a mind, as an instrument, for meaning to take place. I'm not saying you can't have a 'meaningless' universe, but few people contemplate what that really means. Davies calls it the 'absurd universe'.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...

Hi Paul, I guess what I understand by a meaningless universe is not the same as you. I think that the way a rock fell down the cliff is meaningless. I think that the universe similarly is meaningless. I have meaning in my life, but it has no relevance to the universe being meaningful or not. I've not seen an argument that doesn't beg the question which concludes that our existence or our conceit that life means something implies that the universe is not meaningless.

Consciousness seems a red herring to me. It doesn't matter how much meaning we find or make of our existence. We are not the universe, as far as I can see. Meaning is not transitive. We live, we die, our specific meaning with it. The universe just chugs along, for want of a better expression.

And though I doubt you'd assume this, I'm not a nihilist.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Consciousness is hardly a red herring when consciousness is what allows you to be. Without consciousness there is no meaning. We could all exist without consciousness but we would have no meaning. The greatest mystery of the universe is that it created consciousness, and therefore meaning. To me that is the universe’s greatest wonder and its greatest enigma – hence Davies’ book, hence Einstein’s quote. There are few philosophers who haven’t contemplated this fundamental ontological issue.

To quote Russell: Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its question, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true,… but above all because, through the greatness of the universe, which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.’

I wouldn't call you a nihilist, but I'm not sure you appreciate the irony that you can even discuss this question, given the premise that the universe is meaningless.

It's worth getting a copy of Davies' book from a library and just reading his 'Afterward' where he compares all the possible 'flavours' of universe (my putdown, not his). The view you espouse, and, as he points out, most scientists do, he calls the 'Absurd universe' simply because it has no meaning, yet it has deeply complex and mysterious laws, that a 'fluke of consciousness' has discovered, and that's what makes it absurd.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...

The greatest mystery of the universe is that it created consciousness

Question begged. Creation implies mind of a creator.

Show me that the universe has mind, that it created this universe, then you have an argument. There's no irony. I'm just surprised that you elevate the evolved trait of 1st person subjectivity/awareness as being determinate of the universe.

Brian said...

The view you espouse, and, as he points out, most scientists do, he calls the 'Absurd universe' simply because it has no meaning, yet it has deeply complex and mysterious laws, that a 'fluke of consciousness' has discovered, and that's what makes it absurd.

Sorry, but that's an argument from ignorance. Why should we even be able to understand a 'fluke'? I'm not arguing against science. Let them at it. But mystery does not imply absurdity. It's just ignorance, and without ignorance, we'd have no need of science.
Davies sounds like those theistic evolutionists who just can't feel good about themselves without life having an innate purpose so they butcher evolution by saying it has some purpose. Creationists by another name.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Brian,

You've got this all wrong. For a start, the universe does the creating, not a 'Creator'. You don't know me very well and you haven't read much of my blog, so you are making assumptions that are just plain wrong.

The same goes for Davies, who is far from ignorant if you were even vaguely aware of him. Don't jump to conclusions based on a few words I've written in interpreting him. Davies is a highly respected physicist, astro-biologist and philosopher, and a bloody good writer - even Dawkins treats him with respect.

It's very easy of you to put labels on people because you disagree with their philosophical positions. You put them in a box so that they are on 'the other side' and then you can dismiss them.

Go away and do some homework and then we can talk.

Regards, Paul.