We need a more intelligent religion debate

By Theo Hobson
4 Sep 2007

For years I wished that the intelligent media would show a bit more interest in religion. Be careful what you wish for. The resurgence of the discussion of religion has come, sort of, but forgive me for failing to rejoice in it. Now it is Christopher "Hitch" Hitchens' turn to join a new wave of ‘religion bashers’. Behold the jowly prophet, staring from endless features and book pages, tremendous in his certainty, unflinching in his regard for his own intellectual courage.

Surely Hitchens is a cut above Richard Dawkins - surely his literary mind has more room for nuance? In many things, yes. In religion, no. The same applies to AC Grayling, who is presumably a competent professor of philosophy, but chooses to conceal the fact when in ‘militant atheist’ mode.

All three are in the grip of an ideology that is pretentious and muddled. Atheism of the kind they espouse is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God irreducibly entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is.

Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, will doubtless come the reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful. But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up. Atheism of this sort is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place. It therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion". This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous as far as its latest apostles go. The Graylings’, Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that is hated so much? What is religion? It seems to me that anyone who claims definitively to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion". For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally.

Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class "religious"? What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens' own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, "religion" cannot really be separated from "culture".

It will be replied that religion, in the full and harmful sense, exists when people cringe under the illusion of a celestial being, and when people propagate teachings that are not true. This leads to superstitious ignorance, and to immoral actions, for example the persecution of homosexuals. Well, yes. But also no.

The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. But the generalising critics insists that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always. It follows that if people shared his or her total rejection of God, then the world would be a better place. The anti-religious person needs to believe this. It provides grounds for hope. If humanity moves away from religion, things will get better. It's a faith.

So Hitchens calls religion: "... violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Never mind that plenty of manifestations of religion are simply not guilty of these charges. Evidence that doesn't fit the system is inadmissible. Likewise he grandly pronounces that there are: "... four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man (sic) and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is the both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."

Never mind that only a tiny proportion of British Christians are creationists; there is no room for such awkward facts in the atheist system. And as for the evil of "sexual repression", well, maybe some day all men will be as liberated as Hitch.

This desire to generalise about religion is a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty, ‘us good’ over ‘you bad’. Informed debate deserves better.

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Theo Hobson is a freelance writer and theologian. This article is adapted from one of his regular Guardian pieces.

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