In my flitting around the internet, I came across an opinion piece by a former classmate of mine at Notre Dame on 5Why. It is entitled The Religion Debate and I have taken that as an invitation to do just that. The piece a response to the terrible happenings of the 15th of December, which also happens to be the anniversary of the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Events that would seem to vindicate his well-known view that…
[Organised Religion is] “the main source of hatred in the world”; [inherently] “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry.”
I recommend that you read his argument in its entirety first before continuing below.
I would like to begin by my response by expressing my sympathy to argument Hyde makes, mainly because, I made arguments like that myself. I was (and still am) a great admirer of Christopher Hitchens. He was an incredibly gifted writer and thinker who awakened me and pushed my thinking further and deeper than anyone else could have. He is also the reason that I am now Catholic, but that is a story for another time.
Once upon a time, I would have read this piece and smugly patted myself on the back for my enlightened ways of thinking and be rejoicing that someone else was making such sense. I am now humbler (still working on that) and far more knowledgeable than I ever was during that period of my life.
There are two major philosophical threads behind Hyde’s argument that I would like to challenge.
The first is centred on this paragraph.
We do not have time to be warring, maiming and killing in the name of gods and faiths, vestiges of the infancy of our species. The challenges of the future cannot be resolved by the man-made wish thinking of Antiquity. Reason, science, critical thinking and humanity must prevail.
This is a very old, and tired mischaracterisation of religion that is very common amongst people who identify themselves as Atheists, including myself. Religion is infantile, it is man-made, it is superstitious, unreasonable, irrational etcetera, etcetera, [insert the opening paragraph of The God Delusion to cement the point].
I could go through all the many arguments that faith and reason are totally compatible, but that has been done by many, far more intelligent people than I.
It is the last line that I would like to challenge. “Reason, science, critical thinking and humanity must prevail.” I’m no so sure we that one’s ‘faith’ in reason and science is entirely justified. Reason and science are not fool-proof. People can still commit gross offences against human dignity in the name of science just as they can do religion. An example off the top of my head would be Dr Marie Stopes, a eugenist and advocate for forced sterilisations of ‘imbeciles’ and ‘needless burdens’. She spent her career trying to eliminate poverty by eliminating poor people. Or during the late 19th century when it was an mainstream scientific ‘fact’ that criminal’s cranial shape was different to law-abiding citizens and thus the were born that way and had no hope for their rehabilitation.
Rationality does not equal morality. Logic is amoral. You can construct a logical argument for the most evil of acts, just as you can have an illogical one. You can construct a logical argument for the most incredible acts of love for another human being, just as you can have an illogical one.
Quite frankly, I don’t share Hyde’s faith in reason and science or even critical thinking. They are human creations as much as the rituals and motions of religious practice. Since human beings are imperfect, so are the things that we create, whether it is with our minds or with our hands.
This then leads into the second philosophical thread of Hyde’s argument that I object to begins like this…
We live in a democratic, peaceful, tolerant, multicultural and pluralist nation. We are the exception, not the rule. This is something to be cherished and something that we should strive to protect and maintain.
Nothing wrong with that. We should be immensely grateful for the democratic stability that we enjoy and take for granted. It truly is exceptional and takes constant vigilance to maintain. However, I do take issue with the following closing point.
The only way to meaningfully achieve this is to cast off the chains of religion and forge ahead as a secular nation which, whilst respecting different cultures and traditions, governs and administers itself on the principles of science, reason and critical thinking.
It is exactly that kind of thought that is as dangerous as the fundamentalism it seeks to eliminate. Secularism is not neutral, it is not the absence of religion. It is an ideology with weight in its own right. A student of history would note that secularism and secular ideologies has as much blood on it’s hands as ‘religion’ is responsible for (see Stalinist Russia or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia).
I would hope that the people who govern and administer the affairs of our nation can do much better than relying purely on the principles of science, reason and critical thinking. Science is not an ideology or system of governance and nor should it be. Science needs absolute freedom from politics in order do what it does best, which is to unfold and reveal the workings of the universe around us. From the vastness of the cosmos, to the tiny minutiae of atomic particles, science reveals the beauty, intricacy and complexity of our universe. It’s purpose is the fruit of the human need to know things and to understand how things work.
However, it is not the answer to life, the universe and everything. Science can’t fill every need, and it is not the answer to the other very human need to know why we are here and what is our purpose in life. You cannot hang your hat on a hook that cannot bear its weight. Demanding that reason, science and critical thinking prevent people from committing evil acts is asking the impossible.
This is because broken, flawed people will use ideas, things and other people for their own selfish ends. The opposite of love (an act that puts another needs and interests before your own) is not hatred, it is usury. People use religion to belittle and dehumanise others, and people use science and reason to belittle and dehumanise others. This is what Man Haron Monis did when he walked into the Lindt Cafe with a sawn-off shotgun. He used the bits of Islam that made him feel powerful and in control to justify his actions. He used the hostages to make him a household name and to make him feel powerful and in control.
What then, are the lessons we to learn from this incident? Is religion to blame for the deaths of two innocent people in Sydney or the one hundred and thirty-two in Peshawar? Is the solution to marginalise religion further?
I would argue no. Religious faith has a unique ability to tap into our humanity that science and reason cannot. A vibrant, harmonious society is one that has a deep respect and reverence for the human desire for transcendence and gives everyone the freedom to pursue it, and be informed by it. It is also one that does not ask science to do what what it cannot do, but gives it the freedom fulfil its purpose. Science and reason inform and enrich our humanity and so does a humble, religious faith. We need both to be fully human as individuals and as a society.