Thursday, March 29, 2007

Atheists 1,205 - Godologists 778

Would we be better off without religion? It depends whether the best of humanity is already inside us or whether it needs faith to bring it out (asks a certain James Randerson).

Yeah, it's such a pressing matter, isn't it? Where would we be without superstition, huh? Without the Catechism, without the Qu'ran, without Protestants v. Catholics, without religious nutcase zealots like bin Laden, without Jewish religious settlers in Judea Samaria, without Jihadists, without Taliban,
without etc etc etc etc etc. It would be such a bad, bad place, this old world.

James Randerson - Guardian CiF

Religion belongs to "the abject childhood of our species", Christopher Hitchens told an audience at Westminster Hall in London last night. The author and journalist condemned the "medieval barbarism" of religious conflicts the world over and urged those listening to oppose the religious impulse whenever it shows itself. "It shows very well that religion is created ... by a species half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee," he spat.

He was defending the motion that "This house believes we'd be better off without religion", and he had some formidable artillery on his side - the philosopher Professor AC Grayling and the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, to whom Mr Hitchens referred tongue-in-cheekly as a "spokesman for the moderate wing" of the atheist movement.

First to pick up the gauntlet was Dr Nigel Spivey who teaches classical art and archaeology at Cambridge University. "When I'm asked to imagine a world without religion is ends up looking like the suburbs of Swindon," he lamented, after painting a picture of a grey and featureless world lacking religious inspiration. Erase King's College chapel, the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal and you get the picture.

And for Dr Spivey's collaborators - the philosopher Professor Roger Scruton and Baroness Julia Neuberger - the benefits of religion went beyond great art. Baroness Neuberger said her opponents missed the profound inspiration that motivates many people of faith to do good in the world. "It was the strong religious sensibilities of Wilberforce and his contemporaries that brought an end to the slave trade," she said, "In my view if we didn't have religion, we would be more selfish, self interested, certain and cruel."

But Professor Grayling would not let that pass unchallenged. "You don't need supernatural agencies ... to see that human beings are capable of good," he said. This was a theme he developed in an interview with the Guardian this week that is available as a podcast. (As well as his views on God and religion he discusses Intelligent Design, stem cells, climate change and the seductive power of pseudo-science). "People think that unless you have a faith of some kind or unless there is a God then there cannot be a moral law. That's a terrible mistake, a very very deep mistake," he told the Guardian's Science Weekly team. Most people do not act based on whether they believe they will be punished or rewarded, "[They] do it out of respect for their fellow men and in many ways are more admirable as moral agents than people who are doing it because they think they have been commanded."

Professor Dawkins was offended by the notion that we need religion for great art. Michelangelo was simply forced to work for whoever had the money, and when he painted the Sistine Chapel, power and wealth were firmly in the hands of the Catholic church. How sweet, he wondered, would Haydn's Evolution Oratorio or Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony have sounded?

Besides, said Mr Hitchens, there is ample beauty in nature without the need to believe in myth. "Take a look through the Hubble telescope and look at the beauty and majesty of what you will see," he said, "And you want to exchange that for the burning bush?"

For what it's worth, the atheists won the day with 1,205 votes for the motion and 778 against. And although many of the arguments marshalled on both sides were as old as religion itself, the debate ended up hinging on surprising territory. Both sides tried to lay claim to the virtues of doubt and to the idea that theirs was the more optimistic view of human nature.

Mr Hitchens wanted to defend society against "those who know they are right", while Baroness Neuberger said she did not recognise that picture of religion. The nice cuddly liberal Jews whom she knew were very able and willing to embrace doubt. "Belief matters a good deal less than how you live your life," she said - begging the question of why bother with the belief.

The real question is whether the best of humanity is already inside us or whether it needs faith to bring it out. For Mr Hitchens it is possible to have the good without the faith (and hence also without the interfaith wars in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and the rest). "It's called culture."


At 8:09 AM, Blogger Greg said...

I'll tell you where we'd be were it not for religion.

What religion has given us:

Judaism: governing principles of most Western democracies: laws against homicide, robbery, rape, torture, the idea that man has a free will, the right to choose what he/she wants to do, an entire culture which remains potent to this day

Christianity: the emphasis on "loving one's neighbor as oneself", many new laws and regulations, many of which have improved the human condition, new direction in art, the humanities,and science.

Islam: the Quran(which may include lots of hateful rhetoric but much useful laws and tools for good, healthy living as well), plenty of discoveries in the areas of mathematics, science, the humanities and the arts.

My knowledge of religion isn't where it should be. It reflects on my upbringing in Soviet Russia where my parents were afraid to teach me about Judaism or even tell me who I was for fear of beatings and retaliation by my peers.

Communism is a good example of what can happen when religion ceases to exist and is replaced by a fautly value system.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger BEAJ said...

Greg, religion served it's purpose of bonding peoples together and giving them some sort of explanation for why things like lightning happened.
But now we have real explanations. It is time to move on.
Marxism is not in the mindset of most Atheists. It was a political movement, and what you see in Islamic countries is bad stuff as well today, and they are very religious there.
Sweden, Denmark, and Japan have some of the highest percentages of non believers in todays world. Does that mean they are commies?

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Gert said...


The kind of laws you're referring to were in place in many advanced societies in antiquity and way before that. Look at ancient Greece or Rome, as well as a plethora of long gone civilisations, some dating back to the Stone Age and before.

Homo Sapiens is a cooperative, social species which developed such a set of rules and morality from the dawn of mankind to avoid any community from degrading quickly into complete chaos and internecine killing, something which not only isn't favourable to individual members of that community but also detrimental to the species itself.

Many social species of animals have somewhat similar but naturally unwritten rules. Many primates show this kind of behaviour but also wolves, several big cat species and quite a few others tend to set aside individual needs to some extent to further the goals of the species.

Religion canonised these rules but they were already in use much, much before the ascent of the three monotheisms. That is not to say that religion cannot be a force for good or hasn't achieved anything but it is largely, IMHO, something that is no longer really needed as a valid world view. People should of course feel free to believe what they want all the same.

It has also become over the last 2000 years or so a source of much division between humans. The fight over what the ancient texts actually mean continues unabated, with each religion fractioning itself over what exactly is meant by these ancient words. How many strands of Judaism (as a religion), Christianity or Islam actually exist? The total number runs into almost three digit numbers...

At 3:28 PM, Blogger BEAJ said...

Religion just took hardwired morality and added God just so the leaders could try to ensure control over the masses.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Greg said...

beaj: you incorrectly read into my comment, though I was the one who made you do that. You see, I don't think we would all be commies were it not for religion. Nothing of the sort. I just think religion, especially the three Monotheisms have brought about more good than bad. They have given us moral values without which society would have degraded into chaos a long time ago.

I mean, look at what goes on when religion disappears. It's happened before and the results weren't all that pleasant. Communism is just one example. Nazism and Fascism are others. Look at the example of Iddi Amin. Look at most dictators. Most lacked religious beliefs.

At 2:04 AM, Blogger BEAJ said...

Greg, most leaders throughout history have been believers.
Society got along fine before the Abraham myth entered into the picture.
We have evolved morality.
There were a lot more gaps back until Darwin came along, so there was really no choice but believe in God.
Buddhists do quite well, and they don't believe in God (well maybe they call nature God)
And Sweden, Japan and Denmark are secular states with majority populations of Atheists/Agnostics.

Historically, religion and belief in God came hand in with agricultural revolution. It was just the extra glue that kept the ignorant people in the societies from causing havoc all the time, and again, God was the only way to explain lightning, so it was an easy sell.

Look at all the Islam nations and how they treat women. Do you think that is good? Do you think teaching hate and intolerance is a good thing?
The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition? Good things?

Religious wars in Ireland? I can go on.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Greg said...

baej: I agree that religion has caused plenty of strife among human beings. I'm sure, too, that both you and I could go on with that list for a good time longer.

But religion gives man a critical ethical standard by which to live. Without this standard, there's no knowing what would go on in our midst. I realize there are striving countries which are considered secular. In those countries, something replaces religion as an ethical standard for living. In Japan it's Buddhism, which by my definition is a religion; in Denmark and Sweden there are plenty of Christians if I'm not mistaken. Indeed, maybe a majority of those countries' populace is secular/atheist but there are religious elements, ones that are responsible for maintaining crusial laws and mores.

Now, you say "do away with religion and we'll have fewer problems." Not so in my opinion. You would probably agree that religion has given us a lot but I would go one step further and say that without a continuation of religion, the entire world would face an era of moral corruptness and negligent behavior.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Gert said...


Religion simply codifies what 99% of people, agnostic, atheist or theist, accept as normal behaviour.

You used to be secular, now you're rediscovering religion (correct me if I'm wrong). Well, before your emerging new religious beliefs, did you feel any more inclined to murder, rape, steal, commit adultery or anything like that? Almost certainly not. The 10 commandments are the word of man, not the word of G-d.

Religious people are no more ethical or moral than non-religious people (some, but not me, would actually argue the opposite). Nor are they any less (or more) inclined to crime or misdemeanour, statistically speaking. I'm agnostic/atheist and in no way inclined to murder. Not because the law (civil or religious) tells me so but because I simply feel it's completely wrong and would lead to a spiral of revenge and vindication for me and my family.

You're falling into a trap: in today's society, religion is more about being part of a group, social control, conforming to stereotypes than it is about morality or ethics.


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