I’m a bit late in commenting on this but, considering the fact that this blog’s current purpose is to review a series of books first published 2,000+ years ago, I’m not going to be too hard on myself.

Douglas Murray has written an article called Atheism vs. Dawkins, in which he argues that religion has “some points in its favour.” Well, I nearly took my GCSEs in Religion and I minored in the study while getting my B.A., so I obviously agree with that statement on some level. But that being said, I found much that was problematic with the article.

On Plurality

On Dawkins and those who agree with him, Murray begins with:

These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

I can say that I have certainly seen that attitude. Within my local atheist community, there seem to be two dominant positions: In the first corner are those who believe that science and math are all, that non-fiction is worthy reading but that fiction is fluff, and that the humanities are for silly buggers who aren’t rigorous enough in their thought to approach a real subject. But in the second corner, there are those who came to atheism through the humanities, through philosophy, through literature. These are people who believe in the power of story and in the importance of community. The vast majority of atheists, while usually leaning towards one side or the other, fall somewhere in the middle.

It is not “hypocrisy” (as one commenter on my Facebook wall put it) to both privilege science wherever it is applicable and acknowledge that there are plenty of questions that capital-s Science can’t even begin to approach (in the context of the discussion, it was whether vanilla or chocolate is the best ice cream flavour).

But both of these positions are “new.” New atheism, if nothing else, is marked by its diversity, and I am uncomfortable with the co-opting of the term by/for a group that may well hold a (very vocal) minority position.

A place to ask questions

Murray continues:

Religion, whether you believe it to be literally true or not, provided people, and provides people still, with a place to ask questions we must ask. Why are we here? How should we live? How can we be good? Atheists often argue that these questions can be equally answered by reading poetry or studying philosophy. Perhaps, but how many people who would once have gathered in a place of worship now meet on philosophy courses? Oughtn’t poetry books to be selling by the millions by now?

There’s two parts to this: A place to ask questions, and whether alternatives exist.

For the first, I found it a problematic place to ask questions, and that was one of the main reasons that I became an atheist. It’s certainly true that, as collection of worldviews, religions do technically provide a place for people to ask questions. The problem is that they also provide the answers.

If we take legality as a secular given and move beyond that to questions of meaning and of above-and-beyond morality, religions’ answers are only satisfying insomuch as the individual agrees with them. If I think that 10% of my income is better given an adult literacy centre than to a church, I’m likely to run into problems unless I happen to find a church that also agrees with my answer.

In other words, I would say that religion is more of a place to receive answers (answers that may be problematic and that may well be coloured by ordinary human vices such as the greed of one’s particular pastor) rather than a place to ask questions.

That’s not to give atheism a free pass, since there are plenty of atheists who would love to provide answers as well. In fact, I’d say that -isms of any sort are a terrible venue for the asking of questions.

So while Murray seems to believe that religion is a good place to ask those ultimate questions simply because they exist within that realm of ideas, I think that individuals would do much better taking a little extra time out of their busy lives to answer the questions for themselves.

The next part of Murray’s statement regards the source of answers – poetry? philosophy? Sure, if that’s your bag of fish. Personally, I like literature. And here I have to separate myth from religion, because I do think that myths (yes, even Adam and Eve) are a great explorative vehicle when tackling ultimate questions. The problem with religion (we would have to define this as the dogma, or the truth weight that is given to select individual myths) is that it does the precise opposite of what Murray claims.

As for popularity well, Murray really should know better. How many copies have been sold of Twilight? Would Murray argue that Twilight is therefore a great vehicle for answering ultimate questions? The popularity of religion rather than poetry tells us exactly nothing. Other possible explanations might include:

  • More people like to ask their questions and receive immediate and explicit answers. A pastor can do this. A book of poetry (usually) can’t.
  • More people aren’t actually interested in the ultimate questions. They would rather just put in the time for religion and then not worry about it, or perhaps they are getting something entirely different from their religious belief (such as the community that tends to form around worship).
  • Our culture sells religion as the place to address ultimate questions, and it does not commonly acknowledge alternative sources. Different cultural emphases might yield entirely different searches for meaning.

What atheism doesn’t speak about

Murray next argues that atheism is limited because:

It is faint on human suffering and tragedy. And although it does not have nothing to say, it barely speaks about death. It has little if not nothing to say about human forgiveness, remorse, regret or reconciliation.

And I disagree entirely. There are many kinds of atheism and they will address these differently, but my version would address them as follows:

  • Suffering: Some suffering is caused by known things, and we can reduce this suffering by improving conditions, regulations, and early warning systems. Some suffering just happens for no reason, and we can mitigate it by helping each other.
  • Death: You die, and it’s sad, but it happens. That is the end of your life just as the beginning of your consciousness was the start. The sooner you realize that your clock is ticking, the more time you have to give your life meaning and purpose. May I suggest “leave the world a little better for having had you in it”?
  • Forgiveness/Reconciliation: There’s a time and a place. The trick is knowing when and how. Forgiveness in the absence of remorse and rehabilitation creates victims, but grudges can too. Try to practice balance.
  • Remorse/Regret: It’s good to feel an appropriate amount of remorse – just enough to spur you to change the behaviours that caused it in the first place. But beating yourself up for the rest of your life isn’t healthy. Aim for balance.

All of these terms take on rather different meanings in the context of some religions. So if Murray still thinks that atheism doesn’t touch on these things, I feel that his standards are warped. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to approach a Shinto priest and accuse him of not having an answer for the moral implications of the crucifixion. That would be silly.

The Compromise

Murray finishes up by offering a compromise between religious believers and atheists:

First, religions must give up the aspiration to intervene in secular law in the democratic state. In particular they must give up any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith.

[…]

But non-believers like me should make a concession as well. We should concede that, when it comes to discussions of ideas, morality and meaning, religion does have a place.

The first, of course, I agree with. We live in a pluralistic world and laws must be secular if they are to be equitable. The free exchange of ideas, democracy, freedom of speech – all of these things hinge on the value that ideas are to be judged on their own merits, and not on the social membership of their proponents.

As to the second, it would have to come with a rather big caveat. If we are talking, for example, of whether homosexual marriage is moral, “because Jesus says so” is not acceptable. A moral judgement doesn’t become so simply by calling it one and name-dropping. When the judgement creates victims but the “crime” doesn’t, then I call into question the authority of that judgement. In other words, whenever we are talking about social morality, we’re really better off just sticking with secularism.

None of this is to say that religious people have no place at the table. Some of the moral thinkers that I admire most have been religious. However, they use religion as a motivator, and make their judgements from a more universal humanistic place (even if they would disagree with that statement).

But when it comes to personal morality or meaning, then yes, of course religion has a place for people who give it one. And I do think that there is value in interfaith dialogue, in seeking to understand each other and finding common ground. We all gotta be room-mates on this little planet of ours, and that’s a whole lot more pleasant if we learn how to work together.