March 9, 2014 § 7 Comments
Frankly, I don’t care about people’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. We should be free to choose to believe or not believe, and we should be free to practice our beliefs however see fit, so long as we do not cause harm to others. I have never been particularly religious, when I was younger, I flirted with Catholicism (the religion I was born into) and various brands of Protestantism, been attracted to Sufi Islam, and explored Buddhism. Then I realised Buddhism isn’t really a religion so much as a guide to what the Buddha calls the good life. I have also tried out atheism, deism, and everything in between. I seem to have settled into some nether world where I’m irreligious, in the sense that I’m indifferent.
But. I also teach history, and I’ve taught far more sections of Western and World History in my career than I care to count. And, as I go over the various calamities that have befallen humans over the past 3,000-4,000 years in various corners of the world, I have come to realise the initial point of religion. It is to help people make sense of the Terror of History. Bad things happen all the time, and, as the Buddha noted, all existence is suffering. Every religion and systems of belief I have come across from the Babylonians to China, Japan, Africa, Europe, and the Americas has attempted to offer comfort against this suffering and terror.
At the core, I think all religions are beautiful in their attempts to make sense of the chaos, to give people hope. And, of course, I recognise that every religion has also been perverted to bring pain and suffering and misery to others.
But that’s to be expected. I read once that the difference between liberals and conservatives (in today’s usage of those two terms) is a basic belief in human nature. Conservatives generally believe in the good of humanity, liberals are not so optimistic. Hence, conservatives tend to believe in less regulation and restrictions on individual liberty, under the assumption that we’ll sort it out. Liberals, on the other hand, believe we need regulations to ensure basic decency, otherwise we’ll destroy ourselves. In this sense, it turns out I am a liberal. I believe human beings are capable of beauty, but also of atrocity. It’s hard to conclude otherwise as a historian, I’m afraid.
A few years back, I was subbing for a colleague who was teaching a course on the History of Science & Technology. The students were clearly divided. On the left of the room were the atheists, on the right were the religious. I kid you not, they were split down the middle like this, like we were standing in the National Assembly in Paris in 1791. Their arguments were exactly what you’d expect from young minds finding their way: aggressive, scoffing, and yet, careful not to go too far in arguing with their friends to the point of insulting them. I posited to the atheists that they were just as dogmatic as their religious classmates, that atheism, in that sense, was no different than religion. The religious students got this argument right away, whereas the atheists were offended and argued that there is no dogma to atheism, therefore it cannot be religion. End of discussion. I tried again, the right side of the room argued the point with the left side of the room. But the atheists would not see it. The fact that they were dogmatic in their disbelief in God was lost on them.
Yesterday, on Twitter, I somehow got into a discussion about religion, atheism, and all the fun stuff that goes along with that. Twitter, of course, is not really the ideal forum for complex ideas, nonetheless, I and my two interlocutors were managing to be intelligent, rational adults, exchanging our views. But then another person who I suppose follows one of the people I was conversing with joined in. The joys of Twitter, in all their worst ways. Her basic line of argument is that all religion is evil and causes bad things to happen. Full stop. Then she started insulting.
I find this approach just as boring as those who wish to evangelicise their religious beliefs. And I see this belief as just as dogmatic, and even fundamentalist, as any religious evangelical. This woman stated point blank that religious people are wrong and that she is right. Clearly, in her view, anyone who disagreed with her is a fool. I find it ironic that some atheists have become as ossified in their beliefs as those they attack for “silly superstitions” (to quote from a tweet I saw last week on the issue). And as much as some religious folk are contemptuous of those who don’t believe, this brand of atheism is as contemptuous as those who do believe, or those who express some interest in avoiding categorical statements about religion. And I can’t help but feel that’s rather depressing.