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The Religion Debate


Sorry to be slow on the uptake here, way too much to do, should have known better than throw one of my it’s-getting-too-quiet-around-here stink bombs into the Corner last week. A few at random.

Michael Novak: “It is not credible for atheists to say believers don’t care about evidence.” Yes it is, Michael. The Christian religion is founded on the belief that an invisible spirit impregnated a human woman. Not only is there no evidence for that, it is hard to see how there could be any! If I tackle a believer on this point, he invariably says: “You just gotta believe” — i.e. not care about the absence of evidence, or the absence of even the possibility of evidence. QED.  Of course, if Michael has a different answer, I’d be glad to hear it.

For Kathryn’s priest, who wants me to engage in a rigorous course of theological study before I pass any opinions: The Courtier’s Reply. (Yes, I know Myers is an obnoxious lefty, but stopped clocks etc. He nailed this one.) And has our priest himself engaged in such a course of study covering all the many thousands of texts and exegeses produced this past 1300-odd years by Islamic scholars, so that he can be quite sure his doctrine is superior to theirs? If he has not done that, on what grounds can he believe, as I presume he does believe, that Islam is false? And of course he should familiarize himself with the Taoist Canon (it runs to about a million pages, most of them unfortunately available only in Chinese) before settling into the “condescending” conviction that that religion is false. And then, let’s see, the Upanishads …

K’s p. engages in a lot of other stuff that makes even less sense. E.g.: “The most monstrous evils of human history were the totalitarian wars and genocides of the twentieth century, most of which were perpetrated by unbelievers, yet fellow unbelievers express neither acknowledgment nor remorse.”

So because I decline to believe in some of the same things that Lenin declined to believe in (heliolatry, the Divine Compassion of Avalokitesvara, Hollow Earth Theory, the Easter Bunny, Christianity, witchcraft, Unkulunkulu, homeopathy, the Great Manitou, … there must be quite a lot …), then there is a presumed “fellowship” between me and Lenin? I’d be offended by this if it weren’t so toe-curlingly silly. How about noticing that Lenin & Co. did the beastly things they did because they believed certain particular things, and then applying guilt-by-association only to people who believe the same things?

Again: “The believers that Derbyshire criticizes are not disciples of Universal Love, Compassion, and Brotherhood; they are disciples of Jesus.” So those are not attributes of Jesus? Here we are with the closed system I talked about. The answer is: No, they’re not, except when it’s convenient to claim they are. Then they are. Religious apologetics always bring to my mind Arthur Koestler’s quip about the Japanese language. You could, said Koestler (and it’s a quip — please do not email in to tell me it’s untrue) you could put the word “not” before the main verb in an average Japanese sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Doubt: Here I think I should yield just a little, as perhaps I was uncharitable. (If I was, my uncharitableness has been repaid to me by email, yea, an hundredfold.) It’s no crime to change your mind, and a believer might of course doubt his belief. There’s a lot to be said, though, for just getting on with life, and in particular for resolving your doubts. Having come to doubt you’re on the right path, weigh the evidence as best you can. Then either stay on the path or (as in my case) get off it onto some other. What seems unconvincing to me is the claims by some believers to have wrestled with doubt for years or decades. To people making those claims, the only thing I can think of to say is: “Isn’t it time you, like, made up your cotton-pickin’ mind?

There are wide differences of opinion among believers on this matter, though, with some of the opinions looking gratifyingly similar to mine. I refer readers to Fr. Edward Oakes’ very illuminating essay on the topic in First Things.

Faith of the Founders. There are different opinions about this too, and I am not competent to judge which of them is correct. Certainly thoughtful and erudite people (my New Criterion colleague Brooke Allen, for instance) have maintained the opposite of the thing Mark Levin maintains.

I note that the Founders all believed in the Four Humors theory of human metabolism — a belief that led, in at least one case, to untimely death from excessive chirurgical bleeding. Fortunately they did not put that theory into their Constitution, so we are not bound by it. They did not put their religious beliefs in, either; so we are not bound by those, either, whatever they were.

To the claim that without Christianity there would have been no U.S.A. (or Western Civ, or science, or orchestral music, or Froot Loops breakfast cereal — the claims here seem to be innumerable) I’ll give the answer Macaulay gave two hundred years ago: Even if I allow the claim, it is just as true that you need a midwife to bring a child into the world. Once the delivery is accomplished, however, the midwife is no longer required. That Christianity was necessary in order for X to come about, even if true — and the arguments here strike me as feeble, but let’s allow them — does not prove (nor, of course, disprove) that Christianity is necessary for the continued existence and health of X. That has to be proved (or disproved) independently.

Historical crimes: I don’t see how anyone surveying human history could deny that horrid crimes have been committed by warlords and tyrants of all beliefs, and all shades of belief, certainly including Christian belief. (Though I think you could make a case that the very process of getting to be a tyrant, in any time or place, does not favor the success of compassionate, contemplative types …)

The only thing I myself have ever been able to deduce from the social and historical evidence is that religious belief is an intensifier, what statisticians call “a dispersive factor,” flattening the bell curve to push more of us into the tails of the distribution. Religion, in other words, has the general tendency to make good people better and bad people worse. That it does both things in some cases at least, must be obvious to anyone who looks around him. It does not follow that the overall effect, net-net, is a wash, but that is my own best guess, and I don’t see anything in the historical record that refutes it.

“Scoring” historical horrors on a belief/unbelief scale seems to me a pointless exercise. Human beings will do wicked things, sometimes very wicked things, with or without religion. I really can’t see that it makes much overall difference. Twentieth-century tyrants racked up particularly bad records, but then they had 20th-century technology at their disposal. If tyrants of past times, including pious ones, had had machine guns and poison gas, I see no reason to doubt they would have “achieved” on the Hitler-Stalin scale.

(And I am parting company with Hitchens & Co. there, please note. They think religion makes things worse; believers — at least the ones who argue this point with me — think it makes things better; I think that on balance, it probably makes no difference. It’s just a coat of paint on human nature, which contains a component of cruel beastliness, always and everywhere, under all systems of belief or unbelief.)


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