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How Dangerous Is Religion?

Friday, 27 November 2009 - 12:00am
How Dangerous is Religion?

Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics recently held an excellent lecture and discussion on the topic “How Dangerous is Religion?” The lecturer was the Australian philosopher, Tony Coady, who argued that religion is not dangerous. He did a fine job of sorting through the complexity of the claim, including the difficulty of defining religion for such purposes, and the fact that religion can be used for both good and ill (so too with non-religious ideologies). More interesting still was the subsequent discussion. A number of those present offered the following critique of Coady's argument: while religion itself isn’t necessarily dangerous, fanaticism and extremism are dangerous and certain features of religion make it more susceptible than atheism to those pitfalls. What are the features of religion that create this propensity? Coady's critics suggested that religion’s dependence on ‘faith’ means it cannot be accountable to rational reflection and critique. While this understanding of faith, as an alternative to reason, is not what Christianity means by the term, I will leave that for another day. Instead I want to respond to the critics' broader claim: Religion is not accountable to reasoned reflection.

The claim is an important one that deserves to be taken seriously. First, however, we should note that even if religious people are more likely to be fanatical than atheists this is not by itself a strike against religion. It depends on what alternatives the absence of religion has to offer. If the alternative to fanaticism is apathy and quietism in the face of injustice, I’m not sure I’d make the trade. Many of the Christian leaders of the American civil rights movement were considered fanatics for their devotion to the cause; Martin Luther King was investigated by the FBI for alleged radical ties. Bishop Tutu was considered an extremist for his opposition to South African apartheid. Of course, Christians fell on both sides of both issues, as did atheists. My point is that fanaticism might be a worthwhile risk in a quest against injustice, over and against alternative risks (such as the risk of apathy). Of course, it might not be worth the risk. Which risks are to be preferred is a complex question, and people of good will could be expected to fall on both sides of the question. It is a parallel case to how pre-modern and early modern political philosophers tended to fear chaos and mob-rule above all else, while the classical liberalism of modernity tends to fear cruelty above all else. We have to pick our poison. But on all this, I would expect Coady's critics to agree: before we say “Let’s prevent fanaticism by eliminating religion,” we’d want to know what we’re getting in its place.

Second, I turn to what is my primary concern. The critics' claim is simply too general to be of any use. To say ‘Religion is not accountable to reasoned reflection’ is like saying ‘Sport is violent.’ It is? Rugby can be violent, as can American football. Boxing and mixed martial arts are violent, but lawn bowling and golf are not. So the answer is, and must be, ‘It depends.’ So too with religion. The theology of Thomas Aquinas takes reasoned reflection extremely seriously; in particular, Aquinas holds himself rigorously accountable to his understanding of Aristotelian philosophy, which he combines with what he learns from Augustine (who himself learned from Plato, but also Cicero), as well as the Bible, as interpreted by various others. So the charge wouldn’t apply to Aquinas, at least not without a great deal of further explanation. For similar reasons it doesn’t apply to countless others such as Luther, Calvin, and Barth. We should note in particular those late scholastic and early modern thinkers whose work comfortably spanned across disciplines such as Theology, Literature, and Philosophy, before those disciplines were as segregated in the academy as they now are. Think of Ockham, Erasmus, Milton, Locke, and others. As for how even one of these thinkers relate reason to revelation, or theology to philosophy—that is a subject for countless dissertations. At the lecture, Coady called one critic's comment ‘Nonsense’ and I think this is what he had in mind. To make a general claim without engaging, or even showing an awareness of, the genuine diversity among religious believers on this question is clearly missing a step.

On the other hand, I have been to fundamentalist churches in the southern United States where some of the members do fall under the critics' description. They stubbornly resist my most charitable attempts to engage them intellectually. But even these cases can be understood only by reference to the particular historical narrative under which they emerged. This ultimately traces, as various historians have shown, to disagreements within the church about how to respond to the Enlightenment, disagreements which came to a head in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A certain brand of fundamentalist Christianity saw the excesses of the Enlightenment as a feature of higher education as such, thus those churches became militantly anti-intellectual, and hence you can now find Southern Baptists who think the world is a few thousand years old. But this isn’t a feature of ‘religion’ any more than fistfights in ice hockey are a feature of ‘sport.’ (Perhaps what the critics really have in mind is that such anti-intellectualism reveals how public reason is exercised differently by The Educated as opposed to The Masses, but that is a problematic feature of democracy, not religion.)

When it is suggested that religion exempts itself from rational engagement, I wonder what people think goes on in theology tutorials at Oxford. If any of my students responded to my critiques of their tutorial papers by saying, “Well, it’s just a matter of faith so that’s the end of it,” I would tell them to go away, stop wasting my time, and try again next week. So what does go on? I have an analogy to propose that might help Coady's critics understand better. Were they to find this a helpful analogy, I think we could then investigate what lies at the heart of their objection to religion’s public role. Because despite the objections listed above, I think the critics' concern is an important one.

What goes on in the Christian theology with which I am familiar would probably strike Coady's critics as rather like both philosophy and literature. The discipline is primarily an engagement with texts, and thus requires the sorts of skills demanded of a student of literature or, perhaps in some cases, of a legal theorist adjudicating cases. It is true that theology requires a certain imaginative ‘entering 'in’ to the texts in question, but this is not unlike the immanent critique expected of a philosophy student reading Mill or a medical student watching Gattaca. The student cannot respond by saying ‘Mill is rubbish’ or ‘I hate the genre of science fiction.’ She must take on the assumptions of the text so as to engage it internally, on its own terms. So too with the texts central to the discipline of theology.

Perhaps what the critics really have in mind as objectionable is that the texts central to theology—the Bible and, for Catholics at least, certain papal teachings—have a certain kind of authoritative status that makes them exempt from rational engagement. Not only is this untrue, it misunderstands the role that interpretation plays in any text—not just in weighing its normative force but also in simply reading it. I think the role the Bible actually plays is more analogous to the way a favourite novel might become ‘authoritative.’ For example, one of my favourites is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird, especially for its protagonist Atticus Finch. I wish I could be the sort of father that Atticus is. I wish I were as kind to my children, as wise to my colleagues, as generous to those less fortunate.

Atticus FinchIn this sense, the novel and its protagonist have a certain kind of authoritative status for me. And this influences my public life, including my voting habits, what I choose to write, and so on. Now in a sense, I am taking this ‘on faith,’ for what I find compelling about Atticus isn’t something for which I can offer a deductive proof. I could not necessarily persuade you to model your parenting after Atticus as well. I simply find it compelling, and it may well be that when I reach the end of my life I will regret having Atticus as my hero. I may say, ‘What a fool I was to pour my life out working, as he did, to repair injustices against racial minorities, to help my children see past disability and difference, to display character and integrity even when acting in secret.’ I might conclude that, but until I've lived more of my life, I won’t know for sure. Until then, I’m going on faith: I cast my lot with Atticus.

But this doesn’t mean that the novel’s authoritative status within my moral imagination is exempt from rational thought. Even someone who doesn’t share my love for the book could potentially persuade me (a) intra-novel, that my reading of Atticus’s character is faulty or (b) extra-novel, that I ought not model my life on Atticus because the book is morally corrupting. So too with Christians in public. If someone seeks to ban the sale of pork because it is unclean, we need not simply throw up our hands and say, ‘There’s no reasoning with these people!’ There is a long way we can go provided we are willing to generously enter-in to the perspective of our anti-pork interlocutor, seeking reasons that might persuade her given her own presuppositions. This is what philosophy tutors expect of their students; it is what a literature tutor expects even from a student who hates the set text for that week. It is certainly what I aspire to when engaging fellow theologians or a philosopher: I would read his work, the work of those he is drawing on (whether Aristotle or Kant or Mill or Singer, or whoever), and so on. Eventually, of course, we might reach an impasse, but that’s true of all conversations.

Now in light of all this, is there any merit to the critics' comments at the recent lecture? I think there is, and it’s well-worth exploring. But it would need to begin from a different point, one far less general. They claimed that the way religion relates reason to revelation can create fanaticism. To evaluate that, we’d need to have a much more particular description of religion in mind. Perhaps we could instead ask, ‘Does recent Roman Catholic theology run the risk of fanaticism because it is hierarchical?’ Or, ‘Does American-style Christian fundamentalism run the risk of fanaticism because it is (a) nationalist, (b) anti-intellectual and (c) Biblicist?’ (Or even, ‘Are Platonists potential fanatics because they have a singular view of the good?’—which was the argument of Richard Rorty, who considered epistemological foundationalism dangerous in the same way someone like Julian Savulescu considers religion dangerous.) Those are all worthwhile questions, but asked in these terms we see how complex they really are.

It is a hopeful sign that in May 2010, Stephen Clarke of the Science and Religious Conflict Project is planning an event on the topic, 'Does Religion Lead to Tolerance or Intolerance? Perspectives from Across the Disciplines.' And in August 2010, the European Society of the Philosophy of Religion will meet in Oxford for their annual conference, the theme of which will be Religion in the Public Square. Both events will be worthy places to continue this conversation. –John Perry