Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Contrarians' contrarians

I still check in on Butterflies & Wheels now and then. I occasionally find links to articles that I like, although Ophelia plainly means for me not to like them.

Andrew Brown is a science and religion writer. In this post at the Comment Is Free blog at the Guardian, he's piling on Richard Dawkins a bit (fine, but enough about Dawkins already) but I imagine he's also describing his credo for writing about religion.

No: Marx had that aspect right. Religion is the heart of a heartless world, and the heartlessness of the world is a terrible fact that can't just be wished away. No one gets a wonderful life just by choosing it, unless they are very lucky indeed. But then a decent respect for the role of luck in the world might lead one to sympathise with the believers, some of them even fundamentalists, who are trying to clear up their little corners of it.

If theology is, as Dawkins says repeatedly, nonsense about nothing, then anyone who gives a theological explanation for their actions is either mad or lying. In either case, there is no reason for a scientist to take their explanations seriously. But I think people who talk about God are trying often to communicate something about their own experience of the world, or about their place in it.

In that case, it is more useful to try to understand what they are saying, and why, rather than dismiss them as deluded fantasists. At the very least, the atheist is required to admit the existence of widespread patterns of experience which can reasonably and naturally be taken as the experience of supernatural beings. Gods undeniably exist in this world as they do in Terry Pratchett's: wherever people believe in them strongly enough, they're there.

So the question becomes, what do we do about them? This shouldn't be essentially different, to a thoroughgoing atheist, to the question of what we do about money. Money causes quite as much misery in the world as religion does. People will commit terrible crimes to make or save it and view with the utmost indifference the sufferings of strangers who stand in their way. Yet the way to diminish these sufferings is not to abolish money or to pretend that the needs it serves are unworthy of human beings.

That's been tried. It didn't work. We've learnt, instead, how to make the capitalist system work better: to arrange for self-interest to be, so far as possible, enlightened. Similarly, if we want to diminish the suffering caused by religion we need to make superstition, irrationality and social organisation benefit, so far as possible, the human race. This isn't easy, and it may not be possible. But there really is no practical alternative. Even if God is no more than a word for luck, we should say "There, but for the grace of luck, go I"; and not "I thank you, luck, that I am not as other men." If religion is human, then humanists must try to understand it, to sympathise and not to sneer.

Luck. Loss. Fate. Grace?

Timothy Garton Ash, "Islam in Europe" (NYRB)

Having in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism, under the influence of an inspiring schoolteacher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist. In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals, she has gone from one extreme to the other, with an emotional energy perfectly summed up by Shakespeare: "As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive." This is precisely why she is a heroine to many secular European intellectuals, who are themselves Enlightenment fundamentalists. They believe that not just Islam but all religion is insulting to the intelligence and crippling to the human spirit. Most of them believe that a Europe based entirely on secular humanism would be a better Europe. Maybe they are right. (Some of my best friends are Enlightenment fundamentalists.) Maybe they are wrong. But let's not pretend this is anything other than a frontal challenge to Islam. In his crazed diatribe, Mohammed Bouyeri [the jihadist who murdered Theo Van Gogh] was not altogether mistaken to identify as his generic European enemy the "unbelieving fundamentalist."

No comments: