The precious gift of humanists to religion
The age in which we are living is the best in which to be a religious believer for many centuries. That may seem a strange thing to say given the decline of religion. But religion has been its own worst enemy.
The essence of religion is the love of God. But love is a gift of one free person to another, and material and psychological freedom are essential if love is to flourish. Ever since the Donation of Constantine freedom has been constricted by religion itself. It has often been materially and physically constricted. It is not only that in a society where heretics are burnt alive the heretics are prevented from exercising their freedom. In such societies terror becomes their defining framework, within which the hearts and souls of everybody else become paralyzed by the inhumanity of what they know is happening. Elaine Scarry’s The Body In Pain is a fascinating and terrifying account of how authorities use torture not merely to extract information but to capture and control the inmost minds of whole populations. To be free you have to be able to breathe free air.
Religion has not only imprisoned people physically, it has often done so emotionally as well. Atheists tend to exaggerate the role fear of hell plays in religion – they need to meet a few Italians – but it is also true that religious authorities have often not hesitated to use it as an instrument of exercising power. Religion has also paralyzed freedom intellectually, often through the very excellence and commanding power of its own polemic. In a pre-Darwinian world Paley’s argument from design was so persuasive, it was so difficult to look at the wonderful contrivances of nature and find any other reason for them but an external creator, it was virtually impossible if you had half a brain to disbelieve. But Darwin offered us choice, and there can be no freedom without choice.
Perhaps because of the outraged attacks from the atheists, fear of hell plays little role in religious belief today, in fact perhaps all too little so. In view of the wanton destruction of our planet upon which we are currently engaged and our apparent inability to control our appetite for it, perhaps a fear of absolute and condign punishment, for that is surely what is coming, would not be amiss. Only ISIS commits terrible inhuman crimes in the name of religion today. Yet religion is such a potent factor in peoples’ lives evil people will always try to gain control of it, and misuse it as they have done throughout history. One cannot help feeling it is only the weakness of religion, its winnowing holding to account by humanists and atheists, that prevent it resorting to monstrous and terrible excess as it has so often done. But the current fact is that there is no social penalty or psychological constriction or intellectual straitjacket hindering disbelief today, with the paradoxical consequence that a free act of belief, hindered and set about with none of these things, has also become much more easily possible than it has been for many centuries.
And religion has a gift of freedom to give to humanists too, for they too have a problem with it, though they often don’t seem to realise it. Stephen Hawking tells us that there is no free choice. The molecular and neurological processes in making such apparent choices are so complex, and so deeply buried in our brains, we talk about free choice as a kind of short hand. But that is all it is. Dawkins cries out at the end of The Selfish Gene that only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish replicators. But his account of the total command of genes in all we think and do is so compelling and all-encompassing, it is hard to see how, in his frame of reference, we can escape them. I find his idea that when we give money to a starving African we don’t know, the genes are misfiring laughably lame. Has anybody ever seen genes misfiring? Anyway, if you are the victim of misfiring genes rather than firing ones you are still no more than their slave. You aren’t doing too much escaping from the selfish replicators. Humanists want it both ways. They want to say that there are only mechanical explanations for everything that happens but at the same time they go on and on about how they have freed themselves from religion. But the evidence from both the genetic and cognitive sciences that, on the material level, our choices are indeed only the product of purely physical molecular and neurological processes is now so overwhelming, it is only if we also belong to an immaterial dimension that transcends these physical processes, if we are concomitantly moving on another level altogether, that we can believe we are free. The paradoxical result of people freeing themselves from religion is that they have come to deny freedom altogether – but you do need half a brain to see that.