People everywhere are talking about Richard Dawkins’ argument about ‘the God delusion’.
Dawkins has been a critic of religion for a long time now, but his recent work has gained a lot more public notice.
Dawkins and a number of other atheists have specifically attacked the
place of privilege held by religious institutions in many Western
societies. When this is defended in terms of the good work done by
religious groups, he counters that religion is in fact responsible for
so much of the destruction and violence in the world. It deserves no
such privilege, or respect.
I thought it worth offering a few responses.
1. I think I have to agree that the churches, in particular, do not have any inherent right to social privilege, or tax concessions.
In the Baptist tradition (though one might not have imagined this, from contemporary practice, in many areas), the forbears refused any such hand-outs from governments, precisely because to receive their ‘aid’ was to forfeit the right to challenge them prophetically.
I wish that we could reclaim this position.
If there are charities, as such, they merit support—whether religiously based or not. But the churches as such should not have special social or economic privileges.
2. Dawkins challenges the belief in God, as such. He denies that there is a God.
In response to this, one has to say that there are coherent arguments for and against theism.
There is so much seemingly random or undeserved suffering in the world that the idea of ‘intelligent design’ is seriously questionable.
On the other hand, one might just as equally ask what is the source of all the good, the beauty, and the love which is evident in the world. Is this, too, simply random? Is the universe simply an incoherent set of accidents?
Many people respond to these challenges by a retreat into privatism: They say that religion is a matter of individual choice, or preference. Some people are religious, some are not—much as some people enjoy sport, and some do not. It’s a private, or individual matter.
Dawkins quite rightly rejects this retreat. It is, he argues, a matter of public and moral consequence whether or not people engage in religious commitments, precisely because religions claim ethical and social implications.
Here I think he is right. As a Christian, I reject that kind of privatization of Christianity which has made possible the apartheid regime in South Africa, and many other forms of racism and prejudice.
Private faith and social irresponsibility ought to be challenged.
3. So, then, we must address Dawkins’ major claim that religions are systems of violence.
The facts cannot be denied. Throughout history, religion has been used to demean people—women especially, and those who are different, such as gays, or those of different colour. Similarly, religion has annexed itself to empires and systems of domination.
And today, religion in many forms has adopted fundamentist ideologies, in the name of which countless people are killed or oppressed.
These things are true.
But it is also true that in these religions—specifically Judaism, Christianity and Islam—there are also very strong traditions which critique and oppose this violence.
There are millions of Muslims who oppose the use of violence in the name of Allah.
So if we are to deal in the facts, we have to make two further points.
First, we must freely acknowledge that religion is something which can so easily (it seems) be annexed by political ideologies, and used for violent purposes. Something about religion, as a social, human phenomenon, lends itself to this distortion.
But, equally, none of these religions is inherently like this: Islam is not always and everywhere violent, any more than Christianity or Judaism are always and everywhere violent.
Rather, something in the social, political and economic conditions of certain places and groups lends itself to this distortion, this awful, rigid and fundamentalistic expression, which actually denies so much of what it claims to defend—human dignity, the goodness of creation, the freedom and love of people, family and so on.
4. Thus, finally, I think it has to be said that anyone who does espouse a religion and claims to believe in a loving, creative God today has to engage in several fundamental preventative steps, to ensure that in fact their religion is not dragged into the fundamentalist, ideological plots.
First, I think believers of all kinds need to be genuinely open to their critics. We need to dialogue with Dawkins. We need to listen to those who, as humanists or agnostics or simply as genuine people, pose the difficult questions for us. In doing so, they just might be saving us from an awful fate.
Second, and here I self-consciously identify with the way of Jesus of Nazareth, we need to keep close to the ‘little people’—those in our situation who are marginalized, poor or in some way disadvantaged. Jesus very intentionally did not find his friends with the religious elites, the politically powerful, but seems to have preferred roughing it with those who had not homes or not much of the world’s wealth, yet who were generous and genuine, in welcoming him and his message of hope.
If religion was to be more like that, again it would be saved from delusions of power and privilege.
We can only hope to move in this direction, beyond such delusions.