The atheist manifesto
There can be no peace unless believers and atheists share an equal place in the public square of a free and democratic society, argues Frank Brennan
BEFORE the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, I had presumed that in Western intellectual circles the atheists were ahead on points and that they were little troubled by the doings of those they regarded as well meaning, slightly befuddled religious people. Like them, I had strong concerns about fundamentalists who used their simplistic religious beliefs to buttress their commitment to violent or undemocratic action.
I now realise that Dawkins and his ilk are upset even by religious people such as me, perhaps especially by religious people such as me. Dawkins claims that moderation in faith fosters fanaticism: ‘‘ Even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.’’
Dawkins’s ‘‘ take home message’’ is that we should blame ‘‘ religion itself, not religious extremism, as though that were some kind of perversion of real, decent religion’’.
The same argument would not be made for scientific inquiry. Imagine a call to ban all scientific inquiry because those who engage in responsible scientific inquiry may be providing the opportunity for fanatics to harness science for their own purposes. Dawkins and his ilk think religious belief of any kind is meaningless, infantile and demeaning so nothing is lost by agitating in the most illiberal way for the suppression of all religion, and not just religious extremism that causes harm to others.
The successful marketing of The God Delusion has unleashed a steady flow of anti- religious rantings from intelligent authors who have thrown respect for the other and careful argument to the wind. Instead of proposing strategies for weeding out religious fundamentalists who pose a threat to the freedom, dignity and rights of others, these authors are proposing a scorched- earth policy of killing off all religion.
Christopher Hitchens has visited most of the trouble spots of the world. He is an acute journalistic critic of warring parties in any dispute. But in God is Not Great he is not the bystander adjudicating between the fundamentalist Muslim suicide bombers and the conservative Christian backers of the Bush White House. He is a belligerent, unyielding disputant asserting that religion ought to have no place at the table of public deliberation.
While he, who is not Irish, thinks Mother Teresa had no right to express her opinion about divorce law reform in Ireland, he has no hesitation in telling Australians about what we should be doing in Iraq. Why not the same rule for political intervention by outsiders, whether or not they are religious?
In the wake of death threats for having offered shelter to his friend Salman Rushdie, he concludes with one of his many universal judgments against all religions and religious persons: ‘‘ The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee. Is it not obvious to all, say the pious, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognise it have forfeited their right to exist?’’ It is not obvious to me.
Hitchens has dedicated his book to British novelist Ian McEwan, ‘‘ whose body of fiction shows an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural’’. Hitchens had never been religious, but in his Marxist phase he admired Trotsky, who had a sense ‘‘ of the unquenchable yearning of the poor and oppressed to rise above the strictly material world and to achieve something transcendent’’.
Now he sees no need for transcendence beyond the strictly material world; he is content with an elucidation of the numinous in the written word as from the pen of McEwan.
He does concede that ‘‘ religious faith is ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.’’ He does see a place for conscience, ‘‘ whatever it is that makes us behave well when nobody is looking’’. For him, ‘‘ Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.’’
Some of us do find that we can form and inform our conscience even better when we believe that a loving God is accompanying us in the lonely chambers of decision. Some of us stand tallest when we submit and surrender to death, darkness and the other with dignity, and love, with a religious sensibility.
Michel Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto is one of those books you can judge by its back cover. It depicts the French author against a blank wall with a vacuum cleaner at his feet. His book is the result of a flurried, philosophical spring- clean of history. He has swept up a potpourri of antireligious content through the centuries and prefaced each collection of detritus with sweeping assertions such as: ‘‘ monotheism loathes intelligence’’; ‘‘ in science, the church has always been wrong about everything: faced with epistemological truth it automatically persecutes the discoverer’’; ‘‘ monotheisms have no love for intelligence, books, knowledge, science’’. The Catholic Church ‘‘ excels in the destruction of civilisations. It invented ethnocide’’; and ‘‘ monotheism is fatally fixated on death’’.
The argument for the last assertion is supported by the outrageous claim that John Paul II ‘‘ actively defend[ ed] the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi by the Catholic Hutu of Rwanda’’. There is no evidence for such a claim. Consider the former pope’s address to the African bishops a few days after the killings began: ‘‘ I feel the need to launch an appeal to stop that homicide of violence. Together with you, I raise my voice to tell all of you: stop these acts of violence! Stop these tragedies! Stop these fratricidal massacres!’’ Onfray begins the book with the stylistic flourish of a series of ‘‘ mystical postcards’’ and assures the reader, ‘‘ In none of those places did I feel superior to those who believed in spirits, in the immortal soul, in the breath of the gods, the presence of angels, the power of prayer, the effectiveness of ritual, the validity of incantations, communion with voodoo spirits, haemoglobin- based miracles, the Virgin’s tears, the resurrection of a crucified man. Never.’’ By the book’s end, the reader realises that the answer was not ‘‘ never’’ but ‘‘ always’’. Onfray writes with a haughty and dismissive arrogance towards any person who has a religious sentiment.
He even denies equality of treatment in the public square to any religious believer.
‘‘ Equality between the believing Jew and the philosopher who proceeds according to the hypothetico- deductive model? Equality between the believer and the thinker who deconstructs the manufacture of belief, the building of a myth, the creation of a fable? Equality between the Muslim and the scrupulous analyst? If we say yes to these questions, then let’s stop thinking.’’
What are we to do, start fighting? Do we not need to accord equality to all these people in the public square of a free and democratic society,
applying the same rules to each of them whether or not they are religious? And is this not the real challenge for us in this post- September 11 world?
Tamas Pataki has contributed an Australian home- grown polemic, Against Religion. He is less shrill and more measured than the French and English pamphleteers, and adds local colour with attacks on Peter Costello, whose ‘‘ appearances at Hillsong received an unusual degree of attention from the Australian media’’. The ‘‘ mendacious John Howard’’ joins company with ‘‘ the apocalyptic Tony Blair’’.
He argues that religion captures the mind when reinforced and held in place by unconscious needs and fantasies. According to Pataki, religious people are narcissistic individuals who want to be loved and to feel special. They find it difficult to accept that ‘‘ there is nothing higher than earthly human love because the love of ordinary men and women is so fragile and incestuously tainted for them. So they must seek something ‘ higher’, something transcendent.’’
All three authors find it inconceivable that a religious person can accord reason and science their due place, can live a balanced life without being sexually repressed and can welcome the insights of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell. Hitchens asserts, ‘‘ Thanks to the telescope and microscope, [ religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important. It can now only impede or retard.’’ Regardless of the knowledge provided us by the telescope and microscope, every person, generation and culture has to make existential sense of the abyss that will always lie beyond the reach of the telescope and the microscope.
The thinking, self- critical religious person parts company with these three authors at the edge of what can be known about the self and about the world. For these authors, there is nothing beyond that edge because it is not knowable. US liberal Ronald Dworkin has recently set down the only realistic choice for the modern nation- state: ‘‘ A religious nation that tolerates non- belief? Or a secular nation that tolerates religion?’’
In our globalised world, there will always be a Mother Teresa or a Hitchens wanting to make their contribution to public debate about law and policy even in those countries where they do not enjoy citizenship. We need rules of engagement that apply equally to people of religious faith and those with none. We need to distinguish the role of the individual citizen and the role of the person in a position of public trust. That public trust must be discharged faithfully whether or not the office holder is a religious person.
Religious beliefs and philosophical standpoints may well help to inform the discharge of that public trust. It is too simplistic to assert that engagement in the public square or in a position of public trust ought to be open only to those who have no religious beliefs or who leave their religious commitments at home.
Public intellectuals such as these three authors may relish the public expression of scorn and disdain for all religions. But they do nothing to assist the needed public discernment of the limits on personal opinions and preferences in the public square, and in law and public policy. Sadly, these three intelligent, gifted and illiberal authors have demonstrated that it is not only Islamic fundamentalists who fail to understand the rules for civil discourse and engagement in the postSeptember 11 public square. Frank Brennan is a Jesuit priest. His latest book is Acting on Conscience. He appeared at the Sydney Writers Festival with Tamas Pataki and Michel Onfray yesterday.