Monday, May 31, 2010

Is religion dying?

A C Grayling dares to hope so. I suppose I dare to hope so too, though I don't dare to hope too much. The Catholic Church, in spite of its continuing strength in Latin America and its massive encroachment into Africa, is not the political power it once was near to its own home, and its grip on the African populace is not going uncontested as might have been the case a couple of centuries ago. Islam, in spite of the concerns of European and American xenophobes, is unlikely to make serious inroads in the west. And as Grayling points out, the numbers of the professedly religious are dropping in Britain, Europe, Australia and even the US. However, the picture is enormously complex. Pentecostalism is still trending upwards, and the still-religious seem to be digging ever deeper into their positions. Outside of the multinational religions, regional cults are perhaps thriving every bit as much as they did before Christianity came on the scene. These cults or belief systems may well be strengthening a sense of local, tribal or group identity, but they also can do great harm to the innocent with their promulgation of notions of witchcraft and good and evil spirits and the like. It's always a vexed question how much these belief systems should be tolerated. Some anthropologists and analysts become very defensive on behalf of these local and often threatened religions, but you can be sure they never go so far as adopting the belief systems for themselves.
On second thoughts, it's clear that these local religions aren't thriving. As with the Australian Aborigines, and the many tribal believers of one sort or another in Africa, Christian mission work has made serious inroads. Africa, by and large, seems to be a battleground between Islam and Christianity. It's not surprising that atheists are most concerned with these religions - they are two of the most politically powerful forces on the globe. The new atheist movement, if it can be so called, has emerged, I think, because we have become concerned over the spread of insidious falsehoods and practices that threaten people's freedom and even their lives. Homophobia, the oppression of women, the indoctrination of children, attacks on science and 'modernity', these are features of Islam in general, and of Roman Catholicism and of fundamentalist Pentecostalism, that rightly alarm non-believers. Much of the dogma emanating from these purveyors of 'revealed truth' is in direct contradiction to the human rights developments that have been such a feature of the late twentieth century.
We know more about human nature than ever before. We know, for example, that homosexuality will always be with us, that there are no such things as 'demons' that inhabit and corrupt people, that there is no 'fundamental role' for women or for men, and we know that human nature isn't static, that we are evolving physically and culturally, to a point where we understand that there have been many religions, most of them now extinct, having passed away with the cultures that gave them life. Yet people lived by those religions and those gods, they killed for them and they died for them, and they worshipped them as fervently as any modern Moslem or Christian worships her version of deity. With this understanding comes scepticism about the truth of any religion as well as wonder about the function of religion and the need for it. In any case, once we've eaten from the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence.
So I do think that religion will continue to recede as an option for the more reflective and speculative members of society, though that set of society has always been a small one. I don't think religion is going to die in the near future of course [and neither does Grayling] but I do think it's going to find it increasingly difficult to justify itself intellectually. It will continue to try to do so though, and so the flaws in the arguments of religious apologists will have to be pointed out again and again - a painstaking and often boring task, but a necessary one.
This is important. We shouldn't be sentimental about religion. This doesn't mean we should be vicious and vitriolic - though sometimes moral outrage is justified. We should be lucid and logical and firm in our criticisms. There is, as we know, a lot of argument, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, about whether non-believers should 'play nice' with believers, especially those believers who are liberal and open-minded and acceptors of evolutionary theory. This is a real issue for me personally, as there are some people quite close to me who are believers, and I've had clashes with them. My attitude is that I will not go out of my way to challenge them, but if they make claims about the world which are religiously based and in my opinion false, I'll try not to let it pass. For religion is not just a personal, private matter. Religions are social constructions through and through, and they distort the world in ways that I find damaging and unfruitful. Religious people have children who they take to their churches and educate in their religious schools, and they congregate together in groups that support each others' beliefs and effectively shut out alternative understandings. As for liberal and open-minded believers, clearly their beliefs limit that open-mindedness. I agree with Jerry Coyne, for example, that where believers are also pro-science, they tend to water down their science to fit their beliefs. It is pretty essential, for example, for Christians to believe in humans as 'made in God's image', as his special creation, and so their attitude to evolution tends to be something like the Catholic Church's official attitude - that evolution is compatible with Catholic belief, but that, truth is, humans are special to God, his 'favoured creatures'. A belief that is really really hard to square with evolution as we know it. It raises questions for example about when humans, or their ancestors, became 'favoured'. Were Neanderthals favoured? Any of the Australopithecus species? Homo erectus? And what about other species, such as sperm whales, which have evolved in an entirely different way to be highly sophisticated?
We live in interesting times, and I look forward to the continuing struggle between believers and non-believers in understanding what our world really is like. And I hope I can contribute to it in some teensy way.

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