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An articulate but partial account of the benefits of organised religion in the absence of theistic belief
on 27 July 2015
This book left me feeling very cross. It's well written - AdB is a very good writer, capable of making his ideas clear, and his analysis and prescriptions sound like common sense. He starts off by saying that he doesn't believe that the stories religion tells about the world are true, so he has many atheists on side. The rest of the book is pointing out the social value of religious institutions (including social practices as well as organisations and buildings as institutions). It's persuasive a lot of the time; indeed, some of the arguments that it makes are what led others to create, and me to join, the Sunday Assembly, which is a sort of church (or in my case synagogue) for atheists.
Taken as one side of an argument the book can't really be faulted. Secular societies do miss out on some of the communal and communitarian aspects of religion, though I think he's a little unfair in ignoring the various ways that secular societies and organisations do provide this. I’m familiar with the way that the Communist Party, and the broader labour movement, served many people as both cause and community, but he seems not to be. Similarly, science has managed to build exactly the kinds of institutions that he says religion has, and to which the secular world should aspire.
As a balanced account this book is not very good at all. Most of the opposition to and anger towards religion doesn’t come from the fact that it is based on a false set of beliefs and stories. Not many people have ever been really angry about alchemy or Lamarckianism. What makes religion so horrible so much of the time is the flip side of exactly the social aspects of organised religion on which this book concentrates. AdB likes the fact that religion tells us how to live; does he like the fact that it has spent an enormous amount of time and energy prescribing some kinds of sexual act and prohibiting others, and that it has brutally persecuted people who didn’t see it the same way? That it proscribed non-marital sexual relations between men and women, but applied most of the punishment to women?
Then there’s the telling people what to think, and the cruel, brutal punishment of those who didn’t think the same way. Of course the church (and not just the Catholic Church) executed atheists and humanists like Giordano Bruno, but it also executed and tortured heretics – believers who thought a little differently about something that the church considered an important matter of doctrine. It also retrospectively determined that some beliefs and doctrines were heretical, and punished heretics posthumously – like the dead theologians who were dug up and burned. These days religious apologists tend to say that organised religion doesn’t make claims to factual knowledge about the world, but that is a position to which it has been pushed by the advance of science. It would be ridiculous to torture someone for believing in the heliocentric model of the solar system, but it didn’t seem so funny in the sixteenth century.
And let’s not forget the preaching of acquiescence to the social order. “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate” about sums it up. Elsewhere, AdB has argued that much of the unhappiness in the modern world comes from the fact that people aren’t more accepting of their allotted place in the world. The focus of his criticism is what might be called ambition or aspiration, but the urge to social justice would also fall under this category of things that make us miserable. There is a well-developed argument stretching from Hobbes to Roger Scruton that says religion might not be true, but it’s needed to keep the lower orders from abandoning morality (and respect for authority, often assumed to be the same thing).
Sure, there were plenty of religiously inspired radicals like Martin Luther King, but these people are mainly exceptions. It’s not religious doctrine or beliefs that puts religion on the side of the oppressor and against the oppressed, because we can see that the same beliefs can justify the opposite stance. It’s the social reality of religious institutions in the world.
Part of that reality is submission to authority. I’m sure there’s a positive side to this too, but the negative side is that authority is abused. The most recent cases of child abuse within the Catholic church are well known, but there seems little reason to doubt that it’s been going on for a long time, that many cases were covered up and many abusers able to escape any sort of justice.
So one and a half cheers for this book, which does makes some good points (for example, about the role of news and the expectation that technology will make the world a better place), but in the overall context of a stew of bad and one-sided argumentation.