The redeeming value of malevolence

One of the redeeming values of religion.
One of the redeeming values of religion.

On 29 December fellow Google Plus commentator Alexander Becker drew my attention to a blog by New York environmental journalist and lecturer Keith Kloor. The premiss of the piece appeared to be that atheists should concede some benefits accruing from religion.

There was a quite well-mannered debate in Becker’s thread, but it ended before it really came to grips with Kloor’s quoted position

The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I’m no fan of institutional religion. I’m also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What’s more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don’t dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can’t (or aren’t yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone.

There was something about this position I found deeply disturbing, so in the midst of year-end festivities I endeavoured to acquaint myself in more detail with Kloor’s position and the nature of the dispute he was having with biology professors PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which appeared to have caused the blog post in the first case.
What emerged from that exercise was a deep sense of disappointment because it was inescapable to conclude:

  1. Kloor’s blogs certainly don’t reflect anything of his profession, obfuscating with tortured language rather than illuminating his topic;
  2. The ‘dispute’ seems to have been manufactured to generate publicity for Kloor rather than to make any cogent point; and
  3. Kloor’s rhetoric is a potent ally for his opponents rather than a credit to him, nor a serious attempt to deal with a topic that deserves to be dealt with sincerely.

If that seems a harsh assessment, let me explain how it’s possible to get there by carefully decoding Kloor’s message of 27 December.

He asserts that ‘two long-running debates involving the supposed purity of science have flared anew’ based entirely on opposing editorials in the British newspaper The Guardian and its periodical sister publication The New Statesman. These editorials are in themselves unsatisfying, offering no new insights at all. The position remains that science can tell us many things, but never how to act politically, because science never mandates any particular political policy. That much has been known for more than a hundred years.

However, by the fifth paragraph it became uncertain what point Kloor was trying to make, implying that he had either broken or abandoned a cardinal rule of journalistic comment: state your premiss early and clearly, or that he was unclear in his own mind about what he was trying to say. Had I come to Kloor’s blog without Alexander Becker’s outtake as the hook, I would have stopped reading at that point, dismissing Kloor as confused and careless.

That impression did not diminish as he shoehorned the preceding ‘controversy’ into a new one he was fabricating: about vocally ‘atheist’ scientists being needlessly hostile to others who are in favour of not criticising religion. I use the term atheist in quotes because I think much of the hostility referred to is actually not directed at deists so much as religionists, with religion always implying inevitably political hierarchies of clergy and self-appointed busy-bodies pursuing material, political agenda that sometimes appear to be related to religion only by the bald assertions that they are. A religious superstructure, so to speak.

What deities must think of our religious righteousness.
What deities must think of our religious righteousness.

This is where Kloor’s position becomes disconcerting. Looking at his paragraph quoted above, at the beginning of my comment, Kloor appears confused about terminology. There is no argument that science is incompatible with religion. It is a logical certainty. Science deals with observation, measurement, hypothesis, tests, and incremental improvements on notionally successful hypotheses. Religion deals with blind faith closed off to evidence or tests. Just as Americans sometimes confuse the freedom of speech with the demand that even ridiculous opinions are accorded respect and consideration, so the idea that evidence based methodology is compatible with anti-evidence ritual is ludicrous. What may be true is that some people are able to reconcile these contradictory concepts in their own mental processes. This latter possibility, however, speaks more to psychology than to compatibility.

Next Kloor singles out Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne as proponents of what he implies is a vexatious argument. Oh dear. What a sad bear trap for his own rationale. In making that statement Kloor has denied outright the context in which Dawkins and Coyne write their material. That context is an unrelenting, brutal, misanthropic war being waged against science and scientists in America by the most despicable, ignorant, malevolent, and politically influential Christian religionists in the Western world: the American Religious Right, and its affiliated analogues elsewhere in the world.

That warfare is not mannered and restricted to written words, the way Dawkins and Coyne conduct themselves, but extends to the use of church congregations to undermine careers, getting teachers and academics fired and blacklisted, and sometimes to outright violence and murder (think of some abortion clinic shootings, if you will).

The absence of any reference to this context in Kloor’s blog suggests one of two things: a remarkably sheltered, blinkered life for a middle aged American journalist, or wilful disingenuity. That latter conclusion becomes easier to reach when Kloor then proceeds to declare himself suspicious of religious superstructures, and an atheist, but argues that he thinks Dawkins, Coyne and others like them make an enemy of ‘virtually the whole world’. The thing of it is that religionists have gone out of their way to make enemies of everyone who doesn’t agree with them first. The only way to avoid that is to surrender to their imbecilic demands about how others should conduct their own affairs.

In other words, Kloor has revealed himself to be either woefully ignorant about the history of religion, or a deliberate apologist for its excesses by glossing right over them. That focus appears to become even sharper in his next statements in which he makes an absolute balls-up of grouping together the Taliban, the Dalai Lama and Jesus Christ to ask what they have in common. It’s pretty simple: group like categories together, and they become transparent. So, when the Taliban is compared to the American Religious Right, its analogues elsewhere in the West, some orthodox Jewish sects, and the Ratzinger faction in the Roman Church, these zealots are distinctly alike in their methods, and in their unethical, malevolent hatred of each other and all others who oppose their primacy.

Now, group together people like the Dalai Lama, the Pope, senior Ayatollahs and Rabbis, and you again have a group which behaves in very similar ways, preaching surrender to the evil demands of the first category of footsoldiers who make the second category privileged, wealthy, and powerful. They may sing the praises of prophets and deities like Jesus, Mohammed, Budhha, etc, as symbols of peace, love and virtue, but their followers and their own actions actually turn them into icons of violence, rape, torture, pillage, and murder. Let me emphasise that this last point is not to say that prophets or deities are necessarily evil in themselves, just that they are made symbols of that by the people who say they act in their names, and they certainly don’t seem to do much to moderate the savagery of their followers.

Again, one must wonder whether Kloor is just naïve and ignorant, or whether he has deliberately obfuscated the relationship between religio-political organisations, their leaders, and their supposed inspirations. Kloor’s version of this appears to be an infantile fairy tale in which there is virtue attached to things that clearly lack it just by invoking certain names.

In this context I find it disheartening to read Kloor’s less than clear, or less than honest, phrasing when he accuses ‘atheists’ of not ‘daring’ to acknowledge any positives in religion. What would be so daring about doing that? Why the provocation? I guess I already revealed my suspicions about this: Kloor needs to stoke a controversy to sell himself during a lull in his career. A strategy that worked well for that other famous contrarian, Christopher Hitchens. With one big difference. Hitchens was an eloquent polemicist and superb writer. Kloor is not. And Hitchens relied on facts, many of them drawn from personal experience of events and people, to back his arguments. Kloor relies on … well … his own rather artless, uninformed, bourgeois opinions.

Kloor’s closing is inflammatory rhetoric seeking a response. Kloor is just being silly to call anti-religionists fundamentalists: you cannot be called that accurately for debunking childish fantasies and rejecting any notion that respect should be automatically granted to religions because they demand it.

How people are usually persuaded of the value of religion.
How people are usually persuaded of the value of religion.

Since Kloor’s brain fart was published, there has been some back and forth in the domain of blogs, but nothing worth writing home about, because none of it really illuminates the one question that Kloor could have posed and offgered some to that would have made his blog post worthwhile: if you are an atheist, or anti-religionist, is there really no redeeming feature to religion?
So, let’s get the clichés out of the way.

What about the recent neurological evidence about ‘natural’ inclination towards religion. The answer is pretty simple. It is the same that applies to known neurological dispositions towards theft, rape and murder. We are expected to behave like civilised people and suppress such urges. Why not also religion, which seems a principal excuse for satisfying those other urges.

What about all the charitable work done by churches? Well, the answer is, of course: what about it? Hardly any of it is done for altruistic purposes. Anyone who doubts this ought to read Hitchens’ exposé of the less than saintly Mother Theresa, whose function was to entrench and prolong disempowerment of Indian women. All the protagonists of the charitable Christian argument ought to look into the economics of providing charity and the ultimate benefits accruing to the churches rather than charity recipients.

There are of course exceptions to every generalisation or rule. But the question remains, is religion generally to be exonerated for all the misdeeds done in its name by even putatively considerable charitable efforts? To put that question another way, should a gang of murderous thugs be excused on the basis of providing charity to some poor people? I think I know the only rational answer to that question.

So, what about the truly pious faithful? Do they serve to exonerate religion? I suspect they serve only to do credit to themselves, which might well be diffused when they do not take a stance against the corruption and malevolence of their sects.

Part of the apparent difficulty in answering the question arises out of the unspoken assumption that ‘atheists’ are some homogenous group, like a church, or party, the way religions are structured. But atheists and anti-religionists are mostly individuals for whom life is not defined solely or dominantly by their refusal to participate in mysticism, the way religion can so often completely dominate the lives of the faithful.

Looking at atheists and anti-religionists as individuals, then, the answer becomes much more clearly into focus. The redeeming features of religion are to be found solely in righteous action by other individuals who call themselves religious, but never in the institutions and mobs that accrete around such superstructures.

A much more interesting question occurs to me at the conclusion of this consideration: is there some merit to the argument that religion has cultural redeeming features? A question to consider another day.

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