L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

15 July 2007 Blog Home : July 2007 : Permalink

The Need for God

I am, as I believe I have stated before, somewhere between an Atheist and an Agnostic, although not the sort of militant Atheist that insists that all those who profess a belief in some deity are idiots who need to be converted. Indeed I find such militant atheism, as practised by Richars Dawkins for example, to be little better than the religions that they claim to rail against. Hence I was amused but unconvinced by the to and fro between Christopher Hitchens and Michael Gerson in the WaPo over the last couple of days - Gerson gets the first shot here (What Atheists Can't Answer) and Hitchens responds here (An Atheist Responds). Why am I unconvinced? because, as is frequently the case when you have people arguing complex subjects, they argue past each other. I'm going to ignore most of the argument save to look at one thing stated by Hitchens:

Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

This is where I disagree. Religion, depsite the efforts of rationalists of all flavours pops up all over the place. Strong arguments can be made that the militasnt atheism of Dawkins, and Hitchesn, amounts to a religion in some cases. Certainly many atheists seem to substitute belief in some set of unproven ideology, or "science", instead. Witness the idiots who cling to Communism, the outbreaks of Bush Derangement Syndrome and those who slavishly follow the creeds of Evironmentalism and Climate Change and insst, with a self-righteousness that would rivals those of any religious fundamentalist that we must all don environmentally friendly hairshirts and that anyone who fails to subscribe to their "scientific consensus" is a heretic who must be forced to recant and whose writings must be ignored by all.

I think that, unfortunately, while there is no evidence of god, much of humanity has a desire for received wisdom from above. Indeed there was an interesting article in the Wapping Liar talkng about how easy it was for extremists to recruit the unemployed petty criminals and turn them into fellow extremists.

I found the person I had been talking to in the tiny office of a youth centre, next door to a mosque. He showed me a video reconstruction of how easy it is to convert some men in this country to terrorism. The grainy low-budget movie has been made by people who have had brushes with extremism, and it is horribly plausible. Gruelling images of torture and Iraqi casualties from BBC News form the backdrop to a conversation that begins in a gym and which ends up convincing a pretty average young man that “it’ll be us next; Iraq can happen here; the kufs are killing us; we must unite against them”.

The video was made by the Active Change Foundation. What is striking about its leader, Hanif Qadir, is that he talks about street crime, gang crime, drugs, as much as religion. These are the materials from which much of the extremism in Britain is fashioned. It seems that the recruiters are using what is an age-old recipe for many successful cults and gangs. They target kids who are doing drugs, or carjacking. They offer them a safe house when they come out of prison. They provide friendship on drug rehab. It echoes the kind of pyramid-selling perfected by drug dealers: get someone hooked, and use him to hook the next ones.

The journalist says this echoes the techniques of successful cults but I can't help but think of the Jesuit saying "Give me a child before he is 7 and he is mine for life". Also springing to mind is that saying about the devil providing work for idle hands and, for that matter, the one about religion being the opium of the masses.

It is perhaps tempting to claim that religion is for the stupid and uneducated, yet the example of the chattering classes seems to show that this is not the case. Indeed it seem sposisble to claim that the classic post war "liberal" tradition is, effectively, a religion with the examples of BDS and Econuttiness mentioned above being the extremist fundamentalists of the religion. Anthony Jay writes in the Torygraph (via Samizdata) about just how destructive a liberal "anti-" mindset can be and his article (extracted from a longer piece) shows how the mindset resembles a religion:

For a time it puzzled me that after 50 years of tumultuous change the media liberal attitudes could remain almost identical to those I shared in the 1950s. Then it gradually dawned on me: my BBC media liberalism was not a political philosophy, even less a political programme. It was an ideology based not on observation and deduction but on faith and doctrine. We were rather weak on facts and figures, on causes and consequences, and shied away from arguments about practicalities. If defeated on one point we just retreated to another; we did not change our beliefs. We were, of course, believers in democracy. The trouble was that our understanding of it was structurally simplistic and politically naïve. It did not go much further than one-adult-one-vote.

We ignored the whole truth, namely that modern Western civilisation stands on four pillars, and elected governments is only one of them. Equally important is the rule of law. The other two are economic: the right to own private property and the right to buy and sell your property, goods, services and labour. (Freedom of speech, worship, and association derive from them; with an elected government and the rule of law a nation can choose how much it wants of each). We never got this far with our analysis. The two economic freedoms led straight to the heresy of free enterprise capitalism - and yet without them any meaningful freedom is impossible.

But analysis was irrelevant to us. Ultimately, it was not a question of whether a policy worked but whether it was right or wrong when judged by our media liberal moral standards. There was no argument about whether, say, capital punishment worked. If retentionists came up with statistics showing that abolition increased the number of murders we simply rejected them.

It is interesting to note that Jay calls "media liberalism" an ideology. It seems to me that "media liberalism" with its dogmatic rejection of certain things and dogmatic acceptance of others is more of a religion than an ideology. Although perhaps one  can define the difference between the two as religions admit they have a supernatural origin for beliefs whereas ideologies claim a natural, scientific one. However this is quibbling.

The question that needs to be answered by Hitchens and co is whether the altheistic alternative they mostly support. Hitchens of course being the heretic from the true orthodoxy because he is not anti- everything "Western", is actually able to meet the same tests 2 that he brings up. Given that liberal apologists have spawned corruption throughout the developing world, nurtured repulsive dictators and failed to stop civil wars and tyrannical regimes all across the globe because the tyrants, from Pol Pot and Mao to Kim Jung Il, Ahmadinejad and Robert Mugabe have utterly ignored their toothless complaints, it seems fairly clear that liberalism is just as guilty of death as any of the religions it claims to supplant. Indeed one could argue that thanks to media liberalism's willingness to believe one dodgy scientific theory after another (from DDT to MMR) it has killed more people in the last 50 years than any other religion or ideology.

If we are to ensure that our youths do not fall into the clutches of extremists, be they Islamists, Enviromentalists, Scientologists or whatever then we need to provide some sort of alternative, because it seems clear that, for many people, religion fills a hole in their life. This is why I think that Hitchens is skating on thin ice. Rather than attack all religions equally we should perhaps support the more harmless forms of religion, such as Buddhism or mainstream Christinanity because while such religions aren't perfect, they seem preferable to the gaping void, soon to be filled by extremists, that results if all religions are attacked.