Tuesday, March 06, 2007

a delicious call to arms

the good guys from Oxford - Bateson, Krebs, Grayling and Dawkins

My reading diet has been rich lately. Inter alia, I've been enjoying the writing of philosopher A C Grayling; first his bio of Descartes, and now a collection of essays called The Form of Things – apparently his fifth collection. His take on religion generally, and our own overblown local version in particular, finds me naturally on his side. There are quite a few choice samples, especially in the section labeled ''Polemics'', but the following one, from his essay 'Answering Critics' is hard to beat, so I'll quote it at length and with relish. He writes about being amused by one particular class of critic, which

consists in folk of a religious turn of mind, who are annoyed by my dislike of religion and my attacks upon it, on the grounds of its falsehood, its moralizing oppressiveness and the terrible conflicts it has caused throughout history, and causes still. These critics call me dogmatic, narrow-minded, intolerant and unfair in what I say about their superstitions and the systems of moral tyranny erected upon them. Well: as experts in dogma and narrow-mindedness, they are doubtless in a good position to recognize it when they find it.

But I answer as follows. I believe in pluralism and the tolerance that alone makes pluralism workable, yes. But valuing tolerance does not mean accepting that anything goes. For example, believing in tolerance does not oblige one to tolerate murder, or folly or superstitious and fanciful world-views directly descended from the cave-man [which is what religion is]. What the evidence of history and reason shows to be an evil in the world, one must oppose: and where the evil is great, it must be opposed robustly. So those who believe in, and base their lives upon, the ancient fairy tales that once constituted all that human beings possessed in the way of science, technology, psychology, history and philosophy, and which has since been vastly superseded, cannot expect their absurdities to be handled with kid-gloves, not least because almost all of them try to foist their outlook on others; and far too many of them, throughout history and still today, are prepared to coerce and even kill those who do not agree.

Unlike the espousers of these absurdities, many of whom are avowedly intolerant of different beliefs or none, I am prepared to tolerate their existence, if they practise their religion in quietness and do not impose themselves upon others. Religion is like sex: it is mostly for the privacy of the closet [though public sex as entertainment is acceptable – far more so than religion], and when it takes aberrant forms or leaks into the open in disruptive ways it should be abated. But on the excellent grounds noted above, I hold that what religious people think and do is ridiculous and too often dangerous, which makes combating it a duty.

Stirring stuff, and in my view not one jot exaggerated. I despise religion myself, because I see its crippling effects everywhere. I can't help but observe how it twists and warps people's minds so that they seem less than fully human.

Of course I've met many Christian or religious persons I've liked – but not because they were religious. In fact, only when they show their non-religious, genuinely human face do they command respect and admiration. And another thing that maddens me about religious zealots is the way they batten onto those whose resistance to superstition is depleted. The frail, the weak, the sick and dying, the very young, the drug-addled and desperate, these are all seen as legitimate targets for our ministering missionary angels. Like a disease, they spread their message along the paths of least resistance. I've witnessed personally this gathering of vultures around enfeebled members of my own family – a curious, pathetic and disgusting sight. Of course we can and should seek to comprehend these religious compulsions through psychology and the adaptive benefits they confer, or conferred, but that doesn't make me want to deny or quash the revulsion I feel.



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