Andrew Brown suggests that we shouldn’t suppose that religious belief is irrational, and I’m going to have to agree in part with him. I think theology is actually an exercise in reason — it is an activity that has engaged some of the greatest minds of the ages, and it is a sophisticated and elaborate logical edifice. It is a towering skyscraper constructed of finely honed girders of deductive logic, and I can appreciate how so many people respect it and admire it and want to protect it. I can also see how those who have dedicated much effort to working closely on the craftmanship of the structure are aghast at the idea that anyone should fail to see the work of the mind invested in it.
Step outside of it, though, and one sees immediately that flaw intrinsic to deductive logic: it’s only as good as the premise on which it is built. That magnificent skyscraper is tottering atop a flimsy foundation bobbing precariously in quicksand — it’s no surprise that many of the godly are frantically gesturing those obnoxiously inquisitive atheists away with such an air of desperate concern. A few pokes have made the structure wobble and sway, and if enough of us get together, we could push it all right over. All those exquisite arguments and detailed apologetics resting atop the rotting corpse of of god-belief … it would be such a shame if something happened to it, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, what collapses relatively easily with our nudging and poking and pushing is the fancy brickwork rising above the ugly foundation, not the foundation itself. And that foundation is worshipped by the unpleasant mass called fundamentalism, and the fundamentalists are also pushing at the theological structure — they’d like to replace it with their own bizarre (but also internally rational) construction. That should worry us, because there’s also another reason religion is rational. It’s an unpleasantly cynical, nasty reason, and I’m shocked that Andrew Brown would bring it up. Religion is politically useful as a tool for terror. What could be more intimidating than the idea that you can be tortured or executed for merely thinking heresy?
Superstitious nonsense makes perfect sense if your purpose is to demonstrate how powerful you are. Power can be demonstrated in many ways; forcing your opponent to agree to something untrue is one of the more common ones. But organised religions can do better than that. They can demonstrate their political power by forcing victims to agree something that couldn’t possibly be true and this is a much more effective demonstration, as any tyrant knows.
I had no idea Brown had such a Machiavellian mind, but I think he’s right, that this is one factor we can’t forget. When Michael Servetus was burnt at the stake, there might have been a taint assigned to him for disagreeing with Galen’s ideas about anatomy, stuff that was empirically testable and could fall before the evidence, but the real guilt and the real crime was for daring to doubt the absurd Christian trinity — and the message was that you could suffer an agonizing death for refusing to accept a ridiculous bit of dogma.
It’s powerful stuff, that religious fear.
If it is true that appeals to the sacred are among the most effective political technologies mankind has ever stumbled on, no Darwinian should expect them to be replaced by less effective pieties.
Demolish the calcified, gilded hulk of Catholicism, for instance, and who knows what screaming fierce fresh horror might replace it? This has to be a concern for the atheist movement, but we can’t cease our criticism for worry about the possibility that new fanaticisms could arise in a religious vacuum. We have to work to establish a positive secularism so there is no vacuum, but we also have to take a tack that Brown seems to neglect: we could construct an environment in which piety is no longer effective. We modern evolutionists do not see individuals as determined by intrinsic factors or tracking one path to optimality, after all, but by interactions between our own capabilities and the world around us. The fitness of traits are entirely context-dependent: we can build environments in which the old reliance on dogma is detrimental.
This is one reason some of us “New Atheists” are not compromising our attack on religion (I know some of the delicate and sensitive souls out there will quail at that thought — that we must attack religion — but outright opposition is what I encourage). We aim for a post-theistic world in which the religious rationale is recognized as a toxic pathology that diminishes the legitimacy of an argument, and that includes the humble homilies of the Christian moderate. It’s not that their conclusions are necessarily wicked, but that they promote a mode of thinking that can be so easily subverted to manufacture those frighteningly effective ancient pieties.
Our goal should be ambitious: to shape the culture and change the world. We can admire the scattered bits of rational architecture that have arisen from the flawed bases of religion … but what if all of humanity were building on the bedrock of naturalism and reason, instead of that quaking vapor of god-belief? We could reach so much higher!