Most weeks bring some new excitement about ethics, and the rules we choose to live by.
Abortion, euthanasia, assisted dying, marriage, and gender identity are some of the current ones.
One of the divisions in our decision making involves the tension between two groups of people; those who believe in a God who gives us ethical standards we can look to, and those who are confident that we can make up our own rules as we go.
This division between belief and atheism is not just about a private world view. It affects the way we make huge decisions, involving life and death. But the two groups don’t understand each other very well.
It’s striking how badly informed we seem to be in the public space about each others’ ideas. And whether it’s Donald Trump or Brexit, more and more people succumb to the twitter-like trap of rubbishing not just the ideas they don’t like, but also the people who hold them.
I have a friend whose mother is permanently cross about Donald Trump. And often, at a family meal, in front of her granddaughter, she will vent her anger at his shortcomings as she sees them. The problem isn’t really Trump himself. It’s that the grandchild is being exposed to perpetual scorn around the dinner table. Trump will be gone before she has grown up. But it will matter if she learns that scorn and rage are the normal ways of doing conversation about people and ideas.
One of the more shallow ideas we can’t seem to shake off, that contributes to this scorn is the supposed difference between religious and non-religious belief.
But everyone has beliefs. You might say, everyone has ‘gods’. ‘God’ is a vague word which at one level stands for whatever is the most important thing in your life. For some it’s a loving, ethical creator who is passionate about justice and love; for others, it’s their own comfort and simple self-interest. Chaqu’un a son gout; chaqu’un a son ‘god’. Depending on the quality of the ‘god’ you get different quality world-views.
We ought to hope to see two things in particular in our public debate. One is that people can change their minds as they grow in experience of themselves and the world around, and the other is that we learn to understand each others’ values better.
One of the ways of doing that is to challenge some of the distortive parodies of each other when they appear in the public forum
One in particular that keeps cropping up is that “you can’t trust religious values, because religion is bad; it causes violence and wars.” This keeps on appearing in this newspaper as in others.
For many of the people who hold it, it’s an ‘idee-fixe’.
Although this critique has been around for a long time, it’s simply not true and needs to be revisited. Richard Dawkins hasn’t helped much. He’s one of the people who has given it a new popularity. But then just as there are fundamentalist believers whose ideas never change, it seems there are fundamentalist atheists as well.
One of my personal atheist heroes is a writer and philosopher called John Gray. He’s written widely about the danger of political utopias. Despite no believing, he ‘gets’ belief and faith, and is irritated when others mispresent it through narrow mindedness or laziness.
He’s written a book recently called ‘Seven types of atheism.’ In it, he takes Richard Dawkins to task as one atheist to another for what Gray thinks amounts to a prejudice against religion. Especially this nonsense that holds it responsible for wars and violence.
Gray points out the Sigmund Freud, who was also an atheist, developed the metaphor of a death instinct, ‘Thanatos’ buried in the human unconscious. Freud was trying to find a way of dealing with the impulses of hatred, murder and cruelty which are so universally integral to the human psyche. In other words, all people contain an inner violence irrespective of their belief system. People cause wars; but they use beliefs or world views to justify them.
The real question about violence and wars, is whether a religion tries to restrain the violence or not. Christianity distinctively does, by commanding forgiveness and the ‘turning of the other cheek’.
Twentieth century, secularism didn’t do much to restrain them. Mao Tse Tung notched up 80 million victims; Stalin’s’ 40 million, and if you only count the Jews in the holocaust, Hitler 6 million.
Gray chides Dawkins for not having an open mind. He goes further. He says Dawkins isn’t really an atheist. Gray claims there are a group of people, Dawkins among them, who seem so consumed with a hatred of the idea of god, that they don’t qualify as atheists at all. Their non-belief morphs into a kind of anti-faith. They define themselves by the idea of the god they are cross with. That’s not atheism. Nor is open minded or intelligent.
We can disagree with each other. We can recognize that we have different tastes, priorities imaginations and different experiences. But we shouldn’t misrepresent each other. And if we find we have done, then there’s always the opportunity to change our minds when they’ve been better informed. Sometimes life and death depend upon it.