Thursday, 2 February 2012

Religious Goggles

Richard Dawkins has written a piece on Salman Rushdie's non-appearance at Jaipur, linking it to Nick Cohen's new book - You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom. The article is excellent, and the last quote from Nick Cohen is bang on the money about the many accommodationists who complain about "Richard Dawkins and his ilk":
The complaints boiled down to a simple and piteous cry: “Why can’t you stop upsetting them?”
Some have compared faith to a drug, and it does seem to me that, just as some people don the beer goggles at the end of an evening in the pub, some set aside their reading glasses and replace them with 'religious goggles' when they read the new atheists. The goggles are available in a variety of styles, for believers and non-believers alike.

Ophelia Benson has been discussing a case which I think illustrates this inability some have to see vocal atheists in a reasonable light because of these goggles; the blogger in question misrepresents the atheist desire for theists to see the error of their ways as an insistence that theists 'convert' to atheism. During the course of his piece he conflates proselytising with forced conversion, and so pronounces it 'evil'. Accommodationists often compare new atheists to religious fundamentalists, which betrays a similar goggle-induced error. I would be surprised if anyone did not want others to agree with them; at least, I'm sure most of us think that, which, seen through some accommodationist goggles, becomes evil proselytising, on a par with the most aggressive religious fundamentalism. But the goggles are only worn, apparently, for religious discourse; similar arguments on political or cultural matters are enthusiastically joined. It's a genuinely barmy misfire of the brain, I think.

It's all the more infuriating because I think some incoherent accommodationist posturing might be coming from a good place. That good place is the value of diversity and a distrust of conformity to some all enveloping 'truth'. Through Mill, Orwell and Isaiah Berlin, for example, the Western tradition has become wary of an authoritarianism which tries to force an idealised truth on people for their own good. All fine and dandy - I value a diversity of opinion and debate too, as a method for uncovering the truth, finding better ways of living and resisting totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean that there are many truths, and we should all be relativists. And, more to the point, no-one is a relativist on most matters under discussion in the public square. It mainly rears its head when people reach for the religious goggles.

Coincidentally another 'accommodationist' of sorts, Julian Baggini, has just had an article published arguing his position against some critics of religion (I think it's safe to say he means 'Dawkins and his ilk'). He doesn't appeal to diversity or multiculturalism, but draws an analogy between religion and the family, to support a softly-softly approach:
I think there is a lesson here for atheist critics of religion. No one wants outsiders trying to break up their families, even when they recognise all its faults. Too often we heathens play the role of over-invasive social services, sometimes quite literally worried about child protection. But if we think a religion is a problem, we might do better to take on the role of family therapists, trying to lead them to see that certain members are behaving in unacceptable ways. Sometimes that does mean challenging false beliefs, but it never means treating doctrines as though they were free-standing claims that can be dissected irrespective of the role they play in the family dynamic. This approach won't necessarily make us the most welcome of guests, but it might mean we at least get a hearing at the table, and find some allies there.
The family analogy seems plausible to me, and goes some way to explain resistance to argument. I'm not sure this is any different to other families, however, such as political or footballing ones, and he wouldn't be shy about arguing with those beliefs, would he?

Leaving that aside, sure, many people don't want outsiders to break up their families. But some do, and for good reason. They're vulnerable and not in a position to assert their autonomy. If such people exist, then it would be our duty to intervene. The problem with disallowing a more vocal expression of disagreement with religion is that you are placing the value of this notional family above the individuals in it. That's not fair on them, in my opinion.

I approve a multi-faceted approach to combating harmful beliefs, and I've yet to read an accommodationist piece that has argued persuasively, with evidence, to make me think that vocal criticism of religion should not be one of those facets.


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