Tell me if you’ve heard this excuse for religion before. Religion isn’t really about what people believe — all that stuff about salvation and an afterlife and heaven and hell and holy books isn’t that important, it’s instead all about comforting rituals and emotion and feelings. It’s like art, like poetry — nobody really believes in that stuff literally, except crazy people, so all those rabid atheists are barking up the wrong tree.
That is so tired, so old, so familiar that anyone who tries to advance such a stupid argument ought to be ashamed at how out of touch they are. John Gray, that favored religious apologist for the British press, drags out the old fleabag and tries to coax it around the track once more. That horse is dead, though, and all the flogging is doing nothing but making the bones and hide bounce about.
The summary blurb at the top of the piece says it all.
Too many athiests miss the point of religion, it’s about how we live and not what we believe, writes John Gray.
WRONG. Atheists understand that point precisely: it is about how we live. And we say people should live in reality, not some airy fantasy of myth and tradition. Gray, as is fitting for a fellow who makes excuses for bullshit, tries pompously to deny the facts: atheists know that there are many reasons independent of rational thought for people to accept religion, but that there are also tenets of belief and consequences of false belief…and Gray just tries to deny that.
We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe. It’s an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.
In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there’s no longer any need for religion.
No. Religion does involve accepting a set of beliefs, but they are not assessed against the evidence. Religion is fundamentally different from science because the absence of evidence or the existence of evidence contrary to those beliefs is irrelevant. Religion is about what people want to believe about the nature of the world, science is about discerning what the world actually is.
The whole essay is full of this kind of nonsense in which Gray conflates religion and science, muddling them both up as equivalent except that science is flawed and weak and limited, complaints that he omits to make about faith. Gray is a practicing science denialist whose first approach in addressing the conflict between science and religion is to tear down science and claim it is just another “vehicle for myths”.
He’s also a religion denialist.
The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion. It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.
This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this western tradition says it is – a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.
In Asia, Buddhists pray to Buddha for favors and blessings. The prayer wheels spin, the chants go up. In India and China you can find Vedic “medicine”, the caste system, traditional Chinese “medicine”, Tao, reincarnation, chi, ghosts, veneration of ancestors, a messy welter of beliefs all tangled up in the supernatural and religion. Tibetan Buddhists are just as fiercely misogynistic as Abrahamic patriarchs. Don’t even try to claim this mechanic of faith is a purely Western invention — the urge to ask gods for favors and appease their anger is worldwide, as is the fear of death and wishful thinking.
But even if this were not the case, and all the non-Western nations were careful to confine their beliefs to the temple and an occasional holy day, never impinging significantly on social life, day-to-day behaviors, or politics, it wouldn’t change the fact that Islam and Christianity and Orthodox Judaism do. Apparently, John Gray has never experienced the ostracism that comes from not believing as your neighbors do; has not had his behaviors judged as displeasing to the Lord and sure to damn him to Hell; has not had his children regarded as a taint in the community, pariahs who must not be allowed to expose themselves to the delicate minds of the children of faith. He hasn’t noticed that attitudes and laws towards women and gays are aligned with religious views, or that the policy discussions about the reproductive health of women are dictated by religious dogma, or that, for instance, American policy towards Israel is steered by people who openly admit that they are guided by the Biblical prophecies in the book of Revelation. Oh, no, Gray wants to argue, the objective truth of religious beliefs are of little consequence.
“it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths,”, he claims. Tell that to the Catholics who were outraged that someone would treat a communion wafer with something less than the adoration the literal body of Christ deserves. Tell that to the Muslims who rioted because Mohammed was mocked. Go to an everyday Christian funeral and reassure everyone that Heaven is only a myth to make everyone feel good, and that true consolation is found in the practice of the ritual. Gray has managed to define almost all Christians as religious fundamentalists — he’s gone even farther than I ever would!
Ultimately, Gray sounds exactly like a New Atheist, except for the fact that he’s got to sneer at 99% of the people in the world, atheist and theist alike, to make himself superior to them all. Part of his conclusion sounds like something I would say, part is raving codswallop.
Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.
We’d all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn’t be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there.
What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.
You want to believe in Jesus, or Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Go ahead. No one can control what you believe. In my perfect world of the grand atheist future, there would still be churches, and art galleries, and poetry readings, and fantasy role playing games, and even palm readers and psychics…it’s just that no one would turn to the experts in those domains and ask them to make suggestions for energy policy, or how to teach our children, or who we need to go to war with. Of all those examples I listed, no one does that now, with one exception: religion. Religion is granted an unwarranted privilege and authority on far too many aspects of our lives, and that is what atheists would like to see end right now. You should be able to write a poem or attend a church or be dungeon master — but we should all laugh at you when you stand up at a school board meeting and pretend to have jurisdiction over what science should be taught.
But that last sentence? That’s appalling idiocy, especially coming from a philosopher. We are human beings. What we believe affects how we live. How can anyone with the slightest spark of awareness deny that?
I’m not a philosopher. I’m just an atheist. I think we should live for the truth, as best as we can determine it. And truth matters, damn it.