Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is Religion That Negative a Force?

Excerpts from Believers are away with the fairies by AC Grayling who argues that we'd be better off without religion and that religion has lost respectability.

There is an increasingly noisy and bad-tempered quarrel between religious people and non-religious people in contemporary society.

It has flared up in the past few years, and has quickly taken a bitter turn. Why is this so?

...Until very recently...Most believers did not brandish their faith publicly, society had become increasingly secular in most major respects, and memories of the past's murderous religious factionalisms had bequeathed a reluctance to revive the problem. The latter's lingering consequences in Northern Ireland anyway served as a distasteful warning.

But all the major religions have become more assertive, more vocal, more demanding and therefore more salient in the public domain.

...There are two main reasons for the hardening of responses by non-religious folk.

One is that any increase in the influence of religious bodies in society threatens the de facto secular arrangement that allows all views and none to coexist. History has shown that in societies where one religious outlook becomes dominant, an uneasy situation ensues for other outlooks; at the extreme, religious control of society can degenerate into Taliban-like rule.

Look at the period in which liberty of conscience was at last secured in Christian Europe - the 16th and 17th centuries. It was an exceptionally bloody epoch: millions died as a result of a single church's reluctance to give up its control over what people can be allowed to think and believe.

The famous Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 accepted religious differences as the only way of preventing religion from being an endless source of war. Religious peace did not come straight away, but eventually it arrived, and most of Europe for most of the years since 1700 has been free of religiously motivated strife.

But this is under threat in the new climate of religious assertiveness.

...The absolute certainty, the unreflective credence given to ancient texts that relate to historically remote conditions, the zealotry and bigotry that flow from their certainty, are profoundly dangerous: at their extreme they result in mass murder, but long before then they issue in censorship, coercion to conform, the control of women, the closing of hearts and minds.

...Religion has lost respectability as a result of the atrocities committed in its name, because of its clamouring for an undue slice of the pie, and for its efforts to impose its views on others.

Where politeness once restrained non-religious folk from expressing their true feelings about religion, both politeness and restraint have been banished by the confrontational face that faith now turns to the modern world.

This, then, is why there is an acerbic quarrel going on between religion and non-religion today, and it does not look as if it will end soon.

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