On Religion

A semi-long essay on religion for our english-speaking readers.

A blessed childhood
As a kid I went from agnostic to atheist, when I came to the conclusion that this religion-thingy with God and Jesus was rather silly, and really didn't add much to my understanding of the world – rather subtracted actually. That said, I suspect I have been rather blessed (pun intended) having grown up in one of the most secular parts (inland) of one of the most secular countries in the world (Norway).The only people who went to church where I come from (except Christmas eve) were old people, born at the start of the 20th century, and in this perspective I used to think that religion would die out by it self within a few decades.

When I moved to start my university education (physics), I however met new people, and realized that religion was much more present in even Norwegian society than I imagined, and even some people I know and respect were prone to this kind of thought. I was astonished, and somewhat bewildered, but this made me think more about the aspects of religion. They did not make me religious – by far, but it made me start to wonder Why smart people believe weird things. (Ref. Michael Shermer)

Who created who?
One important reason I am not religious is a knowledge of history. Looking back at the development of human society it becomes quite obvious to me that different religions develop in different societies based on the historical development and material basis of that society. Nature religions develop in egalitarian tribal societies who live in close contact with nature. The divine lies in the natural things, and gives the respect of nature necessary to survive in it. As societies evolved the gods also evolved to god-complexes that mirrored that society, like the Greek and Roman gods, or the Nordic gods for that matter.

When the societies continued to change and later solidified as hierarchical societies with a single ruler – an almighty king or an emperor at the top, it is no wonder that some of the new monotheistic religions gained new ground. They reflected a structure people recognized, and therefore seemed “common-sensical”(ref. Gramsci). That it was Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and not some of the other monotheistic religions who existed in the Middle East at the time, may be a coincidence, but when we look at how these religions have changed during the past 1000 years, it may well be that other religions could have developed to something similar. To paraphrase Shakespeare – a god, by any other name...

When we look at this and, compare with the differences and similarities of religions who have developed in other parts of the world. The conclusion to me becomes obvious: God does not create man, man creates god!

Dialogue or confrontation?
Of course the religious people I encounter are rarely of the dogmatic type, and many of them hesitate to talk much about their belief (to me anyway – it may be they are tired of the same conversations over and over again with different people). They rarely try to rationalize it, they keep it separate from their scientific work and knowledge (however I sometimes wonder how they manage to do this completely – but that may not be so important). None of them are creationists or believe similar strange things about the natural world (although I know some such milieus exist even in my country), and this may have had an impact on my views on confronting religion.

I have had many interesting experiences reading literature from many participants of the international debate between reason and dogma. I have enjoyed Michael Shermers “Why people believe weird things”, Carl Sagans “The Demon-haunted world”, and also some of the books of Richard Dawkins. And I do believe – to put it in the words of physics gangster-rapper MC Hawking

“maybe there is still hope for the young,
if they reject the dung being slung from the tongues,
of the ignorant fools who call themselves preachers,
and listen instead to their science teachers.“

However the question is rather what is the best path to take if one wishes to achieve this goal. Confrontation yes, but with what, and in what way.

The root of evil?
I have as said enjoyed much of Richard Dawkins writings, and I'd say I agree with him about 95%. I won't spend much time on the areas in which I agree with Dawkins, but rather point out a couple of areas in which I believe his thinking is flawed, or where he at least exaggerates greatly.

One point where I believe he makes a grave mistake is when he describes religion in it self as the cause of a number of cases of conflicts and oppression. Undoubtedly religion can often be used to mobilize people (for good or bad), and to justify oppression, but it is rarely the root cause.

When Dawkins portrays religion as the cause of the conflict in Northern Ireland e.g. (The God Delusion), he can not have read his history books particularly well. The same goes for the situation Israel/Palestine.

In both cases we are speaking about a people who has had their country occupied by another over long period of time – that mobilizes resistance. Dawkins seem to be blinded by the fact that the historical-political dividing lines coincide with religious lines (and that religion is therefore naturally used to mobilize) – to look upon religion as the cause. That, I believe, is nonsense.

Let's illustrate briefly the two concrete causes N-Ireland/Palestine with two similar historical examples – the Basque country, and apartheid South-Africa. Both are parallel cases – the situation with the Basque country and Spain is similar to that of N-Ireland and England, and the system Israel has created in occupied Palestine is becoming increasingly similar to the South-African apartheid/bantustan-system (ref. Desmond Tutu), as are the conflicts. In the Basque/S-A cases religion is rarely looked upon as a cause of the conflict, and they serve well as a reminder that the conflicts in Israel/Palestine and N-Ireland probably would be more or less the same without religion. There is no lack of other structures to mobilize people behind – nationalism, racism, fear (of muslims, sure, but historically fear of e.g. communists has served just as well) etc. - and all people will resist an occupation, no matter if they share religion with the occupier or not.

To be fair, Dawkins briefly touches in on this in "the God Delusion" (chapter 7), calling religion a "label" rather than a "cause" but this doesn't seem to penetrate into the rest of his book, and his rethoric about religion in common. Dawkins is quick to accuse other people for being unscientific, but in this aspect I believe he is quite unscientific himself in his analysis of society and history.

The context of critique
Again in "The God Delusion" Dawkins briefly touches upon the subject of the "Muhammad cartoons" published in Denmark, which caused a stir in several Muslim countries after a series of propaganda-actions to that effect by a group of Imams. Dawkins criticized (as have many others) the newspapers who did not print the cartoons, but I think such a critique is flawed because it does not take into account the entire context of the publication of the cartoons.

In Europe over the past couple of decades new extreme right-wing parties have popped up in many countries, like the BNP in England, the Front National in France, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, FPÖ in Austria, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark etc. Their common denominator is that they – like their predecessors – blame the problems in society on a minority. As crude 1930s racism has little appeal these days, they have brushed up their appearance, and replaced brown shirts with blue suits and talk of race with talk of culture and religion. In the post 911- world (and even before) the focus of these groups have increasingly been Muslims. These are the western counterparts to the imams who preach hate in the Muslim communities, and they are – in Europe (I believe history shows) – the most dangerous. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons I believe we saw the ugly dynamic between these groups quite well – Imams stir up Muslims in Muslim countries by showing of the cartoons and saying: "Look what these people do", while right-wingers in Europe then can show to wild mobs in the middle-east to scare Europeans with these dangerous Muslims who are trying to take over our country.

The reason I place the "cartoon episode" in this context is that Denmark, at least in the Nordic countries is known to have the most brutal raw and confrontational public debates (and sometimes also more than debate) on immigration in the region. The only Norwegian newspaper who initially printed it was a small extreme Christian weekly called Magazinet, and it of course did so in a spirit of enticing hatred between Muslims and the "Christian west". Many of the participants (on both sides) in the debate after the publications had just this agenda, but here in the West many tried to push "freedom of speech" in front of them, and denying that there is a difference between that a statement should be allowed to be printed, and that it should be printed.

So I was quite skeptical to the printing of these cartoons, not because I am against religious satire – on the contrary, but because i think it (like all other statements) should be practiced with a thought of the context it is published in. I would e.g. in principle not hesitate to criticize Judaism, even by using cartoons, but I would be very skeptical in doing so in 1930s Germany. Likewise, I would be very careful in what I say in the current discussion regarding Islam, so not to be misused by similar ugly forces rearing their heads once again.

I'm not saying one shouldn't criticize Islam – by far, but I'd be careful how I did it. I e.g. find it useful to point out the similarities to Christianity in many aspects when I do so, so as no to be abused by forces who have an agenda along the lines of Muslim=Arab=immigrant=bad and Christian=westerner=us=good.

So I feel this complicates the picture. Not only religion can be used for evil. Critique of religion can also be used in a similar fashion. I am e.g. slightly scared by how a person like Christopher Hitchens couples a critique of religion with ferment support of George W Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The regimes of the Taleban and Saddam Hussein were brutal, but if you do the math, the attacks and subsequent occupations and civil wars of these countries (with Iraq you could add the long period of sanctions prior to the occupation as well) have been far worse. And there is no doubt that the "War on terror" also has cost more lives than "terror" (meaning "their" terror against "us") has done since long before it was started.

George W Bush of course thinks God is on his side, and would never think of justifying his wars by attacking religion, but some who support them do, and bombing people because they believe in God, is just as bad as bombing them because they believe in the wrong one in my book.

Type of confrontation
Another aspect I fear is hindering Dawkins from achieving his goals, is the one Lewis Krauss is pointing out in a debate with Dawkins in Scientific American. A to hard confrontational line may be counter-productive in achieving the goals of making people opening up to scientific thought rather than dogma. This can also be expanded by the perspective of the Norwegian atheist author Jon Michelet in his latest book “Brev fra de troende” (Letters from the Believers), in which he writes (my translation):

“Something troubles me when I hear talk of the “fight against religions”. That might lead the thought to militant struggle. And that is hardly what we need. I wonder weather we atheist should not say that at the present point in history, we should concentrate on fighting what we see as aspects of religious fanaticism that are damaging to humanity, and that we should do this together with religious people.”

My experience is that when you approach people in an confrontational manner, they quickly go into a defensive position, and it effectively hinders any process of learning and expanding ones perspective.

In the Dawkins-Krauss-debate, it seems their differences are in reality small, and I suspect more in the area of style and emotional state when it comes to religion, than deep-rooted theoretical disagreements on science vs. religion. Krauss, I believe touches a central aspect when he says: “Telling people [...] that their deepest beliefs are simply silly—even if they are—and that they should therefore listen to us to learn the truth ultimately defeats subsequent pedagogy.”

Personally, I find the Socrates-approach of asking (sometimes leading, but still...) questions to students, whereupon they themselves can do the reasoning, and come to the right conclusions, is much more effective than simply telling them. Although I think Dawkins basically would agree with this, he is a biologist, and not a psychologist, and sometimes lets his passion get the better of him, and comes on a bit stronger than what is effective.

One example of this can be seen in the last part of the series “The Genius of Charles Darwin” where Dawkins encourages a group of science teachers to confront their students religious beliefs. If I had believed it had worked, I would have agreed, but I fear his confrontational line, is counterproductive when it comes to defeating religion, and I also (as mentioned in the first point), think he is exaggerating the power and threat of religion.

The Selfish Gene
In his debate with Krauss, Dawkins says that “no one would fly planes into tall buildings on purpose if it were not for a belief that God was on their side”. There I would actually disagree. In fact the world's leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka - a secular group. (ref. Robert A. Pape) Believing in God might help, but it is not necessary, and I believe Dawkins himself has part of the answer.

Dawkins has himself helped explain the huge flaws of social Darwinism. As a socialist, I am deeply opposed to the idea that there should be something “natural” with a society where every man was an island and every individual acted in its own self-interest. We can look into human (and (other) animal for that matter) societies, and see that it is not so. Solidarity and selflessness are just as much a part of the human nature as selfishness is, and it is logical as well, as Dawkins explains. It is not the individuals that are carrying the properties that are passed down in the evolutionary process, it is the genes, and the genes are largely shared within groups of individuals. It may therefore be logical from an evolutionary perspective for an individual to sacrifice its individual needs if it benefits the group as a whole.

For how large groups and how large sacrifices this would apply will of course be a mathematical and statistical question where one would have to put into the equation how many of the genes in question are shared to how large an extent, how large the benefit and sacrifice would be – but human emotions are not operated by equations so directly, and these parts of the human psyche, normally appreciated as very positive traits, can therefore also be manipulated to make sacrifices we sometimes think of as extreme. You might disagree with the goals, as most would with the 9/11-attacks, or you might agree as most would with many selfless actions by the resistance-movement in Nazi-occupied Europe during WW2. The human emotions called upon in acts of extreme self-sacrifice may however be the same, and can be awoken not solely by religion, even though religion naturally is one way of evoking them.

In conclusion
Personally, there is no doubt in my mind that religion is basically false. It does not bring anything new into our knowledge of the world, and a look on history shows us how religion is created by humans. It would therefore be beneficial, I believe, to diminish religions influence on human society. I do however not believe that this is best achieved by a confrontational line towards religion in itself, but rather by attacking the extremist aspects of religion, and promoting scientific method, logical thought and reason, so that they might grow in the consciousness of society.

I don't really understand how you come to your conclusions. OK, I understand it, but I think it's a little bit superficial.

Religion has many manifistations, and some would say that is the genious of them. Allmost all religion has both exoteric and esoteric components. The exoteric components are the components that is believed to be external and independant of individual experience. Related to external reality. These components of the world religions are of course often on collision course with science, as they operate in the same domain. A modern religion would have to modify these things to survive, as i.e the catholic church har modified it's doctrine over the years(allthough they are not quite in a rush to do it)

On the other hand, the esoteric part of religion has to do with the inner parts, the practices, the self-enquiring, the contemplation, the meditation and the prayer. These does not conflict with science the same way as the exoteric part. They are also much more cross-culturally similar that the exoteric counterpart. So my guess is that these will be a major part of the future's universal religion.

So, to your argument that religion should be diminishes because it does not bring any new knowledge of the world. Then I claim that mathematics doesn't either. It is a purely internal exercice. So it should be diminished in our society.

Of course not. The reason is that mathematics help us live better lives as a tool for the sciences. But in itself it gives no new information of the material world. To my mind, modern religion is a great internal tool of the mind. Remember: The goal of religion is salvation. What is that? Happiness. It has the internal tools via the esoteric traditions to achieve more peace and happiness. It preaches that these things does NOT come from without, but from within. And on top of all it has had thousands of years to embedd in our culture to make the ideas more graspable to us. It would be madness to diminish such a tool. However, it would be very rational to embrace it and to use our rationality to peal away that wich does indeed collide with modern science. To just dismiss it on basis of superficial arguments wuold be very irrasional indeed.

I think modern scientists would benefit from being humble, because almost no human beings are free of theistic/dogmatic notions and thoughts, even rational physisists(you actually said it yourself), and scientism is quite widespread(Dawkins certainly has been accused of it. Rightly or wrongly I'm not sure.). Religion tells us this, and warns us about this!

So, while I agree that religion in its _present_ form should be evolved, I strongly dissagree that it should be diminished, especially on the basis of superficial arguments that has noww dived very verydeep into the topic.

I'm sorry I haven't had time to reply to your comment sooner, Pat, but I'll manage a short reply now. You talk about a "modern" religion that doesn't make any exoteric claims. That is basically not what I am discussing in this article, as 99% (roughly) of religous people today do not take part in any such religion. On the contrary the vast majority of religious people are actually quite dogmatic (eg. the majority of US-americans believe the Bible tells a _literal_ truth), at least when asked, if not allways in their daily lives. So the religion you are talking about is allmost non-existent (allthough I am sure you can find som examples that it is in fashion amoung some milieus of relatively well-off and well-educated westerners), that is why I am not talking much about it.

Also - if something doesn't make any supernatural claims of any kind - why call it religion (in my mind it wouldn't be)? Why not call it a meditation technique or sometning like that? I believe such a labelling is erraneous, and only contributing to confusion.

Mathematics is a formal logical system - a language if you will. And hasn't mathemathics brought new knowledge into the world? It has been used as a tool in many sciences and proved itself quite effective. It is interesting to speculate about what mathematics really is - but when proving itself so effective in dealing with the world we live in, I believe it has at least proved to have som connection with that reality. I therefore believe comparing math with a religion is quite erraneous.

I have not seen any evidence that religion has actually brought more peace and happiness, on the contrary - I have heard many arguments that it has done the opposite (again religions who actually exist amoung larger parts of the human population naturally, and not your completely "internal" religion). And, Dawkins argues that even more "modern" religions are problematic because they widen the space for their more extreme brothers and sisters. (I'm not sure I neccesarily agree with him completely there, but it's a valid argument at least.)

Skriv ny kommentar

Innholdet i dette feltet blir ikke vist for andre.
  • E-postadresser og URLer vises automatisk som linker.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Linjer og paragrafer brytes automatisk.

Mer informasjon om formatering