Monday, March 8, 2010


There is a story that Bertrand Russell was once giving a public lecture on astronomy, at the conclusion of which an old lady buttonholed him and said that she’s found his lecture very interesting, but did he not realise that actually the earth was a flat disk resting on the back of a giant turtle. Russell then gently asked what the turtle could be resting upon. ‘Don’t you try to be clever with me, young man’, she retorted. ‘It’s turtles all the way down’.

This is what I’m reminded of every time I hear a ‘Thought for the Day’ speaker twisting logic in order to insist on divine beneficence in human affairs in the face of unmistakable evidence to the contrary, even someone normally as sensible as ex-bishop Richard Harries. Fundamentalist notions are easily dismissed, but I’ve sometimes amused myself by imagining how I might devise a convincing defence for Christianity if I happened to be one of the faithful and was trying to avert temptation to disbelief. I always fail, for no matter how I twist the theology and the evidence around each other any such defence always produces contradictory incompatibilities.

Another favourite clerical trope is to insist that humans are naturally attuned to a religious sensibility. Now, in a sense that actually happens to be true, depending on how you interpret ‘naturally’. Humans, for good evolutionary reasons, are intrinsically pattern-seeking, and consequently very prone to ‘false positives’, ie seeing patterns where none actually exist. In a non-scientific universe supernatural beliefs are indeed perfectly natural – they provide ready explanations for natural phenomena, both physical ones and instances like dreams. They also, when socially shared, as is always the case, promote social cohesion and adherence to tradition, and above all they answer the eternal question, ‘Why me’? The true answer – ‘no reason other than the law of averages’, is neither very welcome nor very comforting. The promise of life beyond death is more ambiguous – all historic cultures have assumed an afterlife of some sort, but for most, prior to the emergence of what Michael Mann has termed the ‘salvation religions’, it was normally believed to be drearily unpleasant.

The present danger
For some time recently it was possible to assume that a developing secularisation process would steadily eliminate religion, and in the meantime increasingly marginalised believers could be left to their own devices. To be sure, in Western Europe at least, orthodox Christianity continues to decline numerically, but throughout the globe the reality has turned out to be very different – as one enthusiast declared ‘God is back’! Unfortunately this is not just an intriguing sociological reality, but constitutes a serious menace.

To refer again to Bertrand Russell, he once remarked that the problem with religion arises when it gets hold of power or authority of any sort – or rather its representatives do. At best that situation allows them to levy tribute upon everybody at large and not only their own adherents, but more often they cause the state which they dominate to enforce their superstitions in its law codes – obvious enough in Europe before the twentieth century or in much of the Muslim world today. Paradoxically, it has also, and to a degree still is, true of the United States though its constitution specifically forbids the establishment of any particular religion.

It must be admitted that religious organisations have in the past and continue in the present to promote welfare activities among the victims of unequal societies. Indeed in this respect they often put secularists to shame. That is how Hamas established its standing among the Palestinians. One of the most admirable people I ever was acquainted with was the minister of an obscure Christian sect in Lerwick, Shetland. Apart from his religious duties he spent all his time visiting hospitals, old people’s homes and suchlike, with small gifts and comforting conversation without ever parading his faith. He was loved by everyone, and deservedly so. On one occasion, when his barely furnished cottage (he lived on his own) was burgled, spontaneous donations poured in making him wealthier than he had ever been – of course he gave it all away. When he died the municipal flag was flown at half mast.

Instances of people such as him who are better than their faith are certainly not hard to find. Notable contemporary ones who come to mind are Bishop Tutu or Bruce Kent, Bishop Harries or the late Cardinal Hume. But they are not typical of organised religion. In this context it is Lord Acton’s famous observation about power and absolute power which comes to mind. The Church of England (in England) though still the established religion, is no longer the ferocious beast it was in the days of its power, but it is a different story in Uganda, where the Anglican church is among the lobbies pressing hard to make gay activities a capital offence. Nor, even in Western Europe, and the USA more so, have the churches given up trying to intrude their dogmas into the legal system, such as forcing people to stay alive who for good reason no longer wish to do so.

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins are frequently criticised less for their arguments than for being too strident about them, but this is a misconception. Atheists in the recent past tended to disregard religion rather than attack it – only the aggressive and vocal promotion of all manner of supernatural obscurantism has provoked their response. There is, regrettably, still plenty of work for secularists to do.