I would be willing to be called theist in the sense described in this previous post, and I would like to encourage others to try to understand what that means. I hope that this will help other people to find for themselves a better sense of their own role and possibilities. I also affirm the right of atheism to express itself in the world, with full rights of citizenship, and to earn all the respect it can by motivating good lives and work for peace, justice, science and all the arts.
This post is a continuation of a theme I addressed in a piece on fascism on August 23rd. You may ask, why did I include a piece on fascism in a blog about science and religion? It is because I think I can detect totalitarian thinking in some of the material published and positions advocated in this area. I already discussed one issue related to this, namely the attempt to suppress dissent by redefining the very words that other people have adopted:
In this post I will expand on another issue: assessing people not by how they behave but by how you label them.
This labelling is a well-known aspect of religion gone bad, when by the use of labels such as ‘heathen’ or the ‘unsaved’ or the ‘infidels’, people have looked down on others and treated them either patronisingly, or, at worst, as sub-human. Another example is the medieval use of brands to literally brand people as thieves or as ‘blasphemers’. Something similar goes on today in bad journalism, and in bad politics. Another modern example is, having first redefined the word “faith” so that it has a nasty rather than a lovely meaning, to label people as “faith-heads”.
Another word that has been largely redefined is “believers”. In its context, the Greek word in the New Testament that is usually translated “believe” did not have the connotation of adopting a “belief” in the sense people now mean. It meant forming an opinion for good reasons, about the truthfulness of a message, and then welcoming the message. “You believed the message” has overtones of “you understood and beloved the message”; they were those who were pleased and positive about the message of what Jesus had shown and done. But the word “believer” has been gradually redefined to suggest some sort of alternative to being rational. Then after adopting that unwarranted redefinition, the word is used as a label, a way to label a section of the human race which you can look down on without losing your own integrity.
Another widespread contemporary example of the abuse of labels is the way the label “atheist” is assumed by some to imply some sort of lack of moral stature, and the label “religious” is assumed by others to imply some sort of lack of intellectual integrity. As a matter of fact, both these words cover a spectrum of behaviours and attitudes, some of them bad, some of them good. But the totalitarian approach chooses to ignore that. It says, “never mind those large numbers of good people over there, somehow they are behaving well in spite of their X” (for X read atheism, or religion, or whatever), “it is these small numbers of bad people over here who show us the truth about X. So here is the thing: when anyone presents some policy or idea, don’t ask ‘is it true?’ or ‘is it good?’ or ‘will it encourage people to live and think well?’ Instead ask ‘is it X or is it non-X?’ That is the issue; that is the determining criterion.”
This is what labelling does, and the mind-set behind it is totalitarian.
I have heard, on national television in the U.K., a well-known and well-liked commentator say:
“The aspirations of ordinary people to knit life together into a peaceful, rationally coherent, meaningful and motivating whole: don’t you just hate it?”
Actually, he didn’t say that. He said:
“Religion: don’t you just hate it?”
You see, this commentator chooses to ignore the fact that literacy, universal education and secular democratic politics and science and health care and a number of other goods have significant religious roots (even, arguably, largely religious roots) and have all been bravely promoted by thoughtfully religious people against determined opposition. He ignores also the peaceful and constructive efforts going on in contemporary churches to relieve debt, promote fair trade, raise ecological awareness and so on and so forth. Instead he buys into the practice of labelling and of demonizing religion. His comment is an example of the sort of labelling that is the modern-day equivalent of those medieval brands. It is not as brutal, and not quite as mindless, but it is nasty and promotes ignorance.
I have, as a tutor in Oxford, had to bite my tongue as a young student at a dinner idly spoke of “the religious people” as if we all understand that this is a group which is all about unscientific wishful thinking, superstition and so on. I said nothing because I have to be careful not to abuse my position in the university, which is about science education not religious affairs, and this student was fresh from school. I just hoped he would learn. But by the time he left, he had not learned. And the university did not help him to learn.
That way of speaking and thinking is the beginning of a crusade. A crusade is when you don’t stop to look at and listen to the phenomenon you are trying to sweep away. It suffices that it is under the banner to which you are opposed. But such an attitude is only ever valid in the case of moral abstractions such as “injustice” or “cruelty”. Things like atheism and theism are not like that. They are ways of seeing the world, and consequently living in it. Both have shown themselves to be capable of promoting both good and bad. A crusade against either is itself immoral. A crusade which succeeded would thereby fail.