Monday, 6 April 2009

Turning down the volume on religion

Madeleine Bunting's article in The Guardian this morning is the article on religion that I've been waiting for. I wish something so even-handed and understanding could have been written a number of years ago. It feels like deep therapy after years of shrill debate between the 'New Atheists' and assertive believers. From the comments on her piece, which are approaching 600 by mid afternoon, there are scores of people out there who feel the same way.

Contrary to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and AC Grayling, it seems to me that in a country where only 22% of the population know what Easter is celebrating, the greatest threat we face is not religiously inspired irrationality. It's no knowledge at all. I keep my religious beliefs or non beliefs to myself and this is a political not a religious blog but this vicious cultural war will have political and social consequences. It has been launched without any regard to these consequences. It is a road to hatred, violence, exclusion, racism, and bigotry.

Religion in my experience generally promotes compassion, openness, and togetherness. It is a source of comfort as well and in this world that is a good thing. Given that we can't even quantify how much we don't know- we might know 0.0000001% or less of all we can know or we might know 1%- it seems reckless to launch into such a cocksure attack on religious belief. Which begs the question on what calculation was the statement'there's probably no God' based? The ads, currently adoring the side of London's buses, were financially supported by scientist, Richard Dawkins. I'd love to see his probability calculation.

Religions do have many blind spots- the attitudes of some churches and, consequently, many believers to homosexuality are simply no longer tolerable in the modern world. And of course it can be used by those who aspire to tyranny, terrorism or subjugation. Of all the people I know who have faith, I don't know any that are homophobic, terror sympathising, authoritarians. It's just not the norm.

So hopefully Ms Bunting's article begins a process of reconciliation and of open discussion about religion and its role and influence in the world. Hopefully, we can begin to talk respectfully with one another again and come to some mutual understanding: religions can begin to understand that some of their viewpoints are dangerously out of step, and non-believers can begin to understand how faith can be a positive force. Not having an axe to grind, I look forward to that day. My guess is that I will be waiting a long time.


  1. There are, as you say, many positives in faith but surely that faith should be placed in the goodness of human nature. You are either very lucky or very naive if you believe that your friends with faith, particularly Chritian or Muslim faith are not Homophobic, and I disagree that this is not the 'norm'. You question Dawkins 'probability' but on what scale do you suggest that homophobia in religion is not the norm?

    I understand your point - and agree that the New Atheist response of, you believe in god? You're an Idiot - shows little of the intelligence that they claim as the basis for believing in 'science' but your statements above are as sweeping as those opinions it seeks to counter.

  2. Thank you for your comment. In fairness I did say 'homophobic, terror sympathising, authoritarians' not just homophobic. But look, I'm not going to get all defensive. I take your point- I think the main difference between us is that I have a greater tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt: not believing they are homophobic just because they happen to have faith. So I'm not sure my statements are sweeping- just more accommodating (no quantification- very deliberately.)

    Perhaps it's only the word 'many' that you have a problem with preferring 'most' or 'all'? Anyway, I'm satisfied with how it's expressed- the broader point is more important anyway- these culture wars are entirely negative.