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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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