A hard pill to swallow for atheists

15 05 2008

This is a summary of an introduction I gave for a ‘Thinking & Drinking’ session in May 2008.

Throughout History, Religion has been responsible for some of the darkest moments in mankind’s conscience. Whereas the Twentieth Century might be seen by some in the future as a period ‘light-relief’ from religiously-motivated violence and destruction, the Twenty-First is already seeing its renaissance. The terrorist outrages of September 11th 2001 have released an enormous swell of hostile feeling between some elements of the Islamic faith and the ‘West’.


As we look to the future, conflict over shortages of land, water, oil and food looks almost certain. It is easy to see religion becoming a catalyst for yet more violence. Consequently, I have ever sympathy for those who call for religion to be thrown out of our society. At this moment in history it might feel easier to reorganise our world community along strictly secular lines. To me, though, that is a very dangerous route, and I oppose it for two reasons.


First, to take religion out of society would be to lose the myriad of positive benefits religion brings. In a world of conflict, it is more important than ever to have large groups preaching tolerance, forgiveness and generosity. All major religions do this, and are more effective at it than anybody else. Think of organisations like the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, CAFOD and Christian Aid. These are all distributing unqualified humanitarian aid in a way that governments could never do.


My second reason, though, recognises the dangerous potential of religion. I don’t know whether issues relating to divine authority are inevitably prone to conflict, but it certainly seems that there is always an element predicated to it. That is why we cannot afford to abandon religion – whether we are people of faith or not. Shunning the religious elements of our communities and forcing them to the edges of our society will only cause resentment, anger and isolation. If our dealings with Al-Qaeda teach us anything it must be that these are lethally potent emotions when mixed with religion.


Many of us may feel uncomfortable with religion positioned in the mainstream of our society – in political debate, in our schools and in our civic ceremonies. However, that discomfort is a necessary payment for keeping religion in the open. Keeping religion in the private sphere may appear an attractive option, but how then can we know what is being practised and taught? It would encourage an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust – the worst possible outcome at the moment.


My solution to this dilemma? We must embrace religion. Much like a boxer might hug his opponent so close that he cannot be hit, we must bring religion right to the centre of our lives. This will be a hard pill to swallow for the many people who take a valid and respectable position as atheists, but it is a disguised remedy to many of the things they find most repugnant about religion.




One response

10 02 2011

So you are essentially saying that we should keep religion at the centre of public life, because it inspires so much charitable work? Well, fine. The Scientologists and the Nation Of Islam claim to get people off drugs and booze. Hamas runs hospitals and welfare for poor, hungry Palestinians. Should we bring them into the Big Society, since they are motivated by their faith, too?

Apart from ignoring the good work of numerous secular organisations (Doctors Without Borders, CentrePoint, Oxfam, UNICEF, FairTrade, Live Aid, Age Concern, George Soros…)., you are implying is that the supposedly religiously organisations listed above would only do their good deeds because God tells them to. The huge donations made to Pakistan recently and after the 2004 Tsunami by millions of ordinary Brits, many of whom hardly ever see the inside of a church, shows this is not the case.

The question for religious people, is why are you actually doing a good action – if it’s to evade a wrong action or to book a nice spot in Paradise then your motivation is either servility or self-interest, rather than true altruism.

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