Sunday 6 June 2010

Religion delivers what people want — but only to a few

Organised religion isn't about belief. It isn't about redemption. It isn't about morality or the fate of one's immortal soul. Organised religion is about power — the power of an anointed elite over everyone else.

There are are countless examples of this power — the Catholic Church is one, the Anglican Church is another, the two dominant Muslim sects, Sunni and Shia, are yet others. In all these examples we have a priesthood (the anointed elite) who presume to tell the unanointed what they are allowed to do.

In the politics of interpersonal and social dynamics there's one thing prized above all others, and it's not happiness, wealth or health. It's sovereignty. What people want most of all is not to be told what to do by someone else, and the surest way of achieving this objective is to become the person who does the telling.

Organised religion has the ideal hierarchy for this, because once someone is a member of the elite, their word goes, by virtue of their status, and it matters not one jot whether their authority is grounded on fact or fantasy — the religious elite commands power by arbitrary decree. Its members' assertions are largely unquestioned even when entirely lacking objective substantiation. In the past this elite has not expected to be challenged, and when in these more enlightened times it increasingly is challenged, religion has no real answer, falling back on tradition and the status quo.

"Accommodationists" — those atheists who maintain that religious and non-religious folk can engage in constructive dialogue with each other — are against such challenges, stating that the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers do atheism a disservice by being so stridently and militantly opposed to religion. Accommodationists maintain that there need not be conflict between religion and science. Well, maybe constructive dialogue is possible between the religious and non-religious — just not on the subject of religion.

I've no objection to religious faith, as long as those who profess it do not impose their beliefs on others who don't share them. It's in the nature of religious belief, however, that it must impinge on the rights and duties of everyone it touches, otherwise it's not much of a belief. It's this inevitable encroachment that persuades me that the accommodationists are wrong.

It's true that there are many religious moderates who profess a religious faith of some kind, at the same time as accepting the findings of science. But it seems to me that religious moderates are either suppressing their faith, or else they aren't truly committed to their belief. Accommodationists who claim that science and religion are compatible — on the basis that there are many excellent scientists who are also religious believers — are missing the point. It's quite possible to hold any number of incompatible beliefs, even if those beliefs are obviously inconsistent with each other. One can believe, for example, that the human mind is an emergent property of the amazing but entirely materialistic complexity of the human brain, while at the same time believing that we all have free will. These two ideas may be incompatible, but people can still simultaneously believe them both. Just because we believe something, however, it doesn't follow that our belief is true.

Despite what religious moderates maintain, organised religion does make specific claims about the nature of reality — claims that are plainly incompatible with scientific knowledge. Religious moderates may suggest that their scripture is not intended to be interpreted as making such claims, even if a superficial reading of scripture reveals that it does indeed make such claims. This, of course, is where the theologian steps in, like a mafioso's lawyer, to contend that though the text in question appears to be at odds with reality as we have come to know it, an "alternative" reading will reveal that the words actually mean something else. (It doesn't matter what the words mean, as long as the chosen meaning can be made to fit.)

But theology doesn't appear to be based on anything solid. Rather, theology1 appears to be entirely fabricated — arbitrarily — from nothing. It's like the scene from the film Cruise of the Gods in which a fan of a hit science fiction TV series delivers a lecture explaining the hidden meaning behind the names of all the fictional characters. Unfortunately for this fan's thesis the writer is in the audience, has had a bit too much to drink, and explains that in fact he named all his characters using anagrams of the items on the menu of his local curry house.

1. For a comprehensive analysis of why sceptics and atheists need not be concerned with theology, see Chris Ray at Factonista.