I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.
The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.
I have many problems with the Dawkins-Dennet-Hitchens crew, and the first is their rudeness. The ‘new atheists’ pretend to be ‘scientific’, and then engage in sweeping generalisations, sensationalist hysteria and a cultural arrogance which sees all religion, and all religious people, as backward and childish. Of course, the rich West is far less religious than the rest of the world, at least according to conventional definitions of religion, and it is unsurprising that Hitchens supports wars of terror against the non-West.
Despite Hitchens’ love of current conflict, the new atheists claim that war is always caused by religion, not by secular struggles for power and resources. I’ll be as patronising here as the new atheists generally are: that’s precisely what I believed when I was a teenager. I grew out of it as I learned more about the world. I saw, for instance, how parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland used a religious vocabulary, and how the British media explained the conflict with such labels. But a slightly closer examination revealed that the fight had nothing to do with the transubstantiation of the body of Christ or the theological meaning of the Papacy; it was about power, empire, land and civil rights. Of course religion always plays a role in conflict because religion is ultimately entangled with social identity; and since people are inherently religious creatures they will always use religious language to express their strongest emotions. But no war in history, not the Crusades nor the Taliban’s fight against NATO occupation, has religion in the abstract as its cause. Certainly not the belief in God. And the biggest wars and genocides in recent times have been started by self-avowed secular (but just as religious as self-avowed religious) regimes: the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the United States, and so on. The claim that religion is responsible for all war is as absurd as the claim that religion is responsible for all charity.
The new atheists argue that science disproves religion. It is true that a literal belief in, for instance, the creation of the universe in six twenty-four hour periods, is no longer feasible, but most religious people throughout history have understood that such details are metaphors. It’s only one form of fundamentalism (more common in Christianity than in other religions) that insists on the literal truth of such stories. And the question of whether or not there is a governing intelligence in creation is not a matter of empirical evidence but of interpretation of evidence. Several top-level scientists, especially physicists, are religious.
No doubt some of them have had personal experiences, as many of us have, of the telepathic, or of time getting jumbled, or of meeting strange presences. These experiences are real, whatever causes them. They don’t prove or disprove anything, but they are real. An empirical fundamentalist would deny them, but this denial would be a religious choice. He would say: because I know this thing that I see and hear to be untrue, I will ignore it. A bit like a Bible-belt fundamentalist ignoring the fossil record.
Science and religion are different discourses. Neither can disprove the other. Only fundamentalists, atheist as well as religious, confuse the two. Dawkins believes that someone who believes in the virgin birth of Christ should be disqualified from being a scientist. But the believers in miracles know that a miracle is miraculous precisely because it’s an exception, an anomaly. In any case, a lot of the ‘hard science’ marshalled to prove the non-existence of the soul, or the location of a ‘God-spot’ in the brain which produces visions when tickled, is not in fact very hard. “The Spiritual Brain” by neuro-scientist Mario Beauregard shows how some of the more high profile and more absurdly reductive ‘discoveries’ of recent years are based on experiments that can not replicate their results when conditions are changed to eliminate suggestibility in the subjects.
The new atheists believe science is inherently superior to religion because it doesn’t require suspension of disbelief. Scientists who preserve their sense of wonder in the face of reality, however, whether theists like Max Planck or atheists like Einstein, are not ashamed to admit the seeming illogicality and contradictoriness of their discoveries. Perhaps it was Max Planck who said, “If you understand quantum physics, you haven’t understood it.” In order to work with the theory (and it does work in the real world), you need to in fact suspend disbelief, to ignore the illogicalities. What about a particle being a wave at the same time? According to the basics of logic, this is an impossibility. Anyway, religion doesn’t necessarily require suspension of disbelief; it demands engagement.
It strikes me that the most intelligent response to this strange experience of being here, and to the mysteries of time, matter and life, is awe and humility, which translates to a profound agnosticism, a confession that we don’t and can’t understand. The best of religious people have this realisation underlying their leap of faith. Their belief is not an arrogant assertion of personal certainty but a movement of trust. The worst, or most anguished, of religious people, like the extremist atheist crew, are distinguished by their complacent, egotistical and excessively unawed tone.
Western atheists are often blind to the belief systems current in their own milieu. I’ve already mentioned some political religions. The philosopher John Gray in “Black Mass” has shown how Dawkins etc have a very Christian faith in linear history and progress, even if the hero in the story has become a scientist instead of God. The general urge to belief, and beyond belief to ritual and sacred story, is evident all around us. Narcotic plants, drums and dancing are at the root of Shamanic practice, and we find them in combination in night clubs and dancehalls in every Western town. These are churches. Another of the current religions is Celebritism, and I’m not making a cheap point here. The screen is to us what a stained glass window was to Englishmen in previous centuries: it’s a portal to a higher, more authentic realm. Brad Pitt is a psychic superhero. His screen roles and the rumours of his private life merge, and we wish this man we’ve never met well, we worry about his health, we fantasise about him. Brad Pitt inhabits our dreams. What else? In the West we have faith in the trustworthiness of our leaders, even after they’ve been proved to be liars. (This is a religion which doesn’t exist in the Arab world.) Even if we get sick of one president’s lies, we don’t question the background that has thrown him up. We believe in ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘British fairplay’. We become disillusioned with the spokesmen of these articles of faith, but the faith itself continues. Individual magicians are revealed as charlatans and tricksters, but our faith in their magical theory remains untouched.
The greatest religion, the one which generates our whole way of life and – increasingly – death, is consumerism, the system by which we invest meaning and purpose in our purchases, center our dreams around them, measure our success by them. Interestingly, the capitalist acquisitiveness that we think of as materialistic has exploited our spiritual natures very effectively, albeit in a perverse way, and exploting our capacity for addiction at the same time. Marxism, on the other hand, has been as materialist as it possibly could (I mean theoretical Marxism, not the state religions which grew out of it), and thus has arrived at irrational conclusions about the world. The belief in the historical inevitability of socialism is the Christian belief in divine plan revamped. The rigid explanatory doctrine of economic base and ideological superstructure is simplistic and insensitive to reality. People are motivated by symbol, myth and story, and by local belonging, as much as by immediate economic interest. Marxism’s spiritual vacancy has been a key factor in its failure to mobilise popular energy.
At least the various Islamisms represent an attempt (if failed) to understand and accept the ideological background that contemporary Muslim society has come out of. Dawkins doesn’t seem to be aware that he functions in and is a product of an ideological background. He seems to think that he is magically free of ideological conditioning, that Science has raised him on its silver wings out of the realm of assumption and into a realm of pure sight. In this respect, most Islamism is more progressive than Dawkins.
I’m not suggesting the solution to our trouble is to believe again in our traditional religions because, sadly, this is impossible. To believe in a traditional religion is to live a traditional religion. And it is not possible for us to do that if we have left the village of our fathers for a city, if education and media has made our thinking ‘modern’, if we travel and consume and participate at all in the globalised economy. It is the impossibility of traditional life that led to all the fundamentalisms in the first place. A writer telling a ‘modern’ person to believe in traditional religion is like a doctor telling a patient to stop having cancer.
But we need something. We need something better than what we’re managing presently. Capitalism, certainly in its corporate-consumerist phase, is unsustainable both psychologically and environmentally. I believe this is obvious, and that only deep belief structures stop us all from agreeing on it. Resistance to capitalist-imperialist expansion usually expresses itself religiously, or at least spiritually (whether the icon is Che or the Imam Hussain). Politically and personally, we need spirituality if we are to survive the changes coming. Alastair McIntosh has written an excellent book called “Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition” which suggests some ways in which we might begin. I recommend it not only for its message, information and style, but because McIntosh is a fine example of a scientist still capable of flexible thought and feeling.