Not What I Meant At All

Given recent comments and emails, I should probably clarify my thoughts about religion’s place in the world. Though I have written rather disapprovingly on the topic lately, and although I do indeed think that religion is, and has been, an enormous retrograde influence on civilization’s progress (some lovely music and architecture notwithstanding), and an inexhaustible wellspring of sanguinary conflict and brutal repression, I have never argued, as some seem to think, for its forcible abolition. Not only would that be just as wrong, in just the same way, as the many dogmatic and bullying excesses that organized religion itself has been guilty of throughout its long and shameful history, but it would also, quite obviously, be utterly impossible to achieve. It’s an absurd idea, and I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that it’s what I had in mind.

I have some friends who are deeply religious members of traditional churches, and other friends who are religious in vague and imprecise ways, and in all of these cases, their beliefs matter to them, and provide in their lives the solace and meaning that have made religion such a popular commodity all along. I will not reiterate in this post the many reasons why life’s meaning and morality need not be grounded in supernatural fantasies to be valid, nor go over again what I consider to be the many philosophical, and indeed moral, defects of such a view. The simple fact is that for many good people, belief in God is an anchor, a foundation, a bulwark against fear of death, and provides a social and existential framework without which they would be desperately unmoored. If, through a natural process of skeptical contemplation — helped along, perhaps, by exposure to eloquent unbelievers — they should manage to wean themselves of religion, I congratulate and welcome them, but in no way whatsoever do I endorse any sort of reverse Crusade to outlaw or abolish religion (nor do I think that any of the recent crop of atheist authors do either). No, the hope is simply that as the young grow up in a society where irreligiousness is increasingly accepted, and in which the arguments for a rational, rather than faith-based, understanding of the world are in ever more conspicuous view, that the grip of religion upon the hearts and minds of the world will slowly weaken, generation by generation. Max Planck once said that “science progresses funeral by funeral”, and that is, I think, the best that one can hope for here, as well. I also accept that it may never happen at all.

But the only way that such a gradual out-growing of religion will ever happen is if there is a rather forward-leaning policy on the part of unbelievers to challenge, in the arena of civil public discourse, not only the foundationless dogmas of religion itself, but also the deeply ingrained attitude that regards religious beliefs as uniquely off-limits to criticism. And that’s all I am doing here. My characterization of the record of organized religion as a “sodding mess” is certainly no harsher (indeed, considerably less so) than the commentary one sees routinely on, say, the political beliefs of neoconservatives; it is only the bizarre protectionism that religion alone enjoys that makes such remarks seem so out-of-bounds, and that is something that has gone on far too long.

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