John Stephenson argues for the need to ask religious moderates about the motivations behind their actions. Are moderates – seeing faith as virtuous – tacitly defending fundamentalists (who are the genuinely committed believers), allowing them to become the “tail that wags the dog”? Moreover are religious moderates actually engaged in religion because they are “humanists in disguise”?
One of the problems with engaging religious folk in conversation is the fact that, before falling victim to the charge of being “angry” or “strident”, we find that the rules of discourse and logic are warped and violated beyond recognition. Find me a religious fanatic who doesn’t endorse his faith through the actions supposedly committed in its name and you will have probably found me a liar.
It may not seem apparent during regular conversation – phrases such as “well as a practising Catholic” or “Judaism preaches kindness” are regularly greeted with admiration or at the worst, ambivalence – but it is when we strip away someone’s faith that such statements are shown to be contemptible. Are we really to believe that, without the promise of eternal life, the religious among us would resort to hedonistic violence and acts of self-indulgent debauchery? Suppose that next week the Abrahamic religions were shown to be apocryphal. Would we suddenly hear reports of Justin Welby snorting cocaine while out partying with Desmond Tutu and a gang of strippers? Of course not.
As is the case, kindness in the name of God or religion is done with a knife to your back. Good deeds done for fear of punishment or in receipt of reward are hardly commendable, yet believers still wish to play a numbers game – stressing the good work done in the name of Christ or Allah or some other Bronze Age almighty. Admittedly from my own experience some of the nicest people I know are devoted Christians yet, unlike the many who act as though this gives some form of credibility to the story of Adam and Eve, I pay them the honour of assuming they would behave in such a way if they did not have religion to fall back on.
Secularists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are keen to avoid a war of words with the religious over who “does more” – the understanding being that they are first and foremost passionate about the truth and not the resulting human behaviour of unproven tales. But perhaps more ground can be made by appealing to altruism before detailing the logical arguments against a given theology.
The fact that what we perceive as a sense of morality is innate within humanity as opposed to religion is evident by virtue of the cherry-picking so commonplace among moderate believers. Among casual Church of England Christians for example, the Sermon on the Mount may be advocated yet the more abhorrent elements of Deuteronomy or Leviticus will be ignored. I suspect that a large proportion of these individuals are religious in name alone and that, for the most part, their attendance comes as a result of habit or an intrinsically vague idea that to attend church constitutes as a “good thing”. These people have often given very little thought to the doctrine their religion entails, but understand church to be a place of warmth and community – things that most of us are drawn to.
Nevertheless, a decent case can be made for the idea that these moderates act to “shield” their more fanatical peers, whose sense of warmth and community has been replaced with homophobia, rampant prejudice and arbitrary ethical practise. If people are repeatedly told that faith – belief without evidence – is to be respected and deemed virtuous then it is easy to see why moderates will empathise with religious idiocy such as creationism or belief in the virgin birth. The result is that the more abhorrent groups within faith-based communities become the ‘tail that wags the dog”, free from criticism and protected by their quieter and less committed moderate cohorts. There is a reason, after all, that the most vocal of religious groups are fanatical.
Consequently, the need for to replace religion with a different form of opiate has never been greater, especially in light of recent scandal. Just last month the LSE oversaw the banning of “offensive” t-shirts critical of religion and Muslim employees of Tesco are likely to receive compensation due to the restricted access to their prayer room. Such occurrences are increasingly commonplace among western societies scared or unwilling to offend believers, placing free-speech in the firing line in order to prevent the faithful from playing the hurt feelings card.
Religious moderates are often humanists in disguise. They just don’t realise it and it is our responsibility to change this sorry state of affairs. The neurologist and celebrated atheist Sam Harris makes a decent point, commenting on the fact that for many individuals, religion is the only game in town when it comes to talking about feelings of “love” and “compassion”, so it is unsurprising that the “herd” will flock to wherever such expressions are voiced.
While a large proportion of charity and social work is carried out without the name of religion hovering over it; religious charitable work, in contrast, often entails a more insidious element or “catch” to it; this being the proselytization of the vulnerable during a time when human compassion is at its most treasured. The employment of aggressive conversion tactics or the use of aid as leverage for evangelism is part of the everyday spectre of “God’s work” and such behaviour should be deplored, yet the majority of believers are unaware that they tacitly support such vile activities.
If their beliefs remain immune to criticism then it is the motivations behind their acts that need to be targeted. As patronising as it sounds, by doing this we may be speaking a language they can understand.