[The central idea of the book is that religion supplies lots of useful and supportive structures that atheists have rejected along with the supernatural. Can you expand on that?]
I think the origins of religion are essentially to do with the challenges of living in a community and the challenges of bad stuff happening to us, of which the ultimate is death. Religions are rooted in these needs. They are an attempt to control ourselves, heal ourselves and console ourselves. Some of these manoeuvres are accessible to non-believers and some are not. Belief in the afterlife is simply not there for a non-believer. However, the communal rituals might be utterly accessible to non-believers, and rely in no part on anything supernatural. There are some that can be incorporated into secular life without too much difficulty.
[What kind of rituals do you mean?]
I suggest various fanciful and not so fanciful interventions. How do you bind a community? It’s very simple - you need a host. You need someone who introduces people to each other. The modern world is full of gatherings, but they’re not hosted so they remain anonymous. You go to a concert but don’t interact with anyone. You go to the pub, but you don’t talk to anyone apart from the mates that you walked in with.
I also look at morality and the need that religions feel to remind people to be good and kind. This is seen as a bit suspicious by secular society. But we are weak-willed. We have aspirations to goodness but just don’t manage it. So it seems important to have reminders of these aspirations.
Alain de Botton
The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
As soon as they are born, babies start to try to make sense of the world around them. As they do so, their minds show regular tendencies. From birth children show certain predilections in what they pay attention to and what they are inclined to think.
One of the most important of these is to recognise the difference between ordinary physical objects and “agents” - things that can act upon their surroundings. Babies know that balls and books must be contacted in order to move, but agents such as people and animals can move by themselves.
Because of our highly social nature we pay special attention to agents. We are strongly attracted to explanations of events in terms of agent action - particularly events that are not readily explained in terms of ordinary causation.
This hair-trigger agent reasoning and a natural propensity to look for agents in the world around us are part of the building blocks for belief in gods. Once coupled with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, they make children highly receptive to religion.
It is important to note that this concept of religion deviates from theological beliefs. Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call “natural religion”. They have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.
Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.
Before the compromise, the spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went even further, arguing that entirely secular corporations, if owned or run by faithful Catholics, should be able to exclude contraception from their employees’ health-insurance coverage. “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell,” he declared, “I’d be covered by the mandate.” And even that would be unacceptable.
So Catholic doctrine should, according to the bishops’ spokesman, also apply to non-Catholics—even if they are merely selling burritos.
This kind of rhetoric is not about protecting religious freedom. It is about imposing a particular religious doctrine on those who don’t share it as a condition for general employment utterly unrelated to religion at all. And if that is the hill the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical right want to fight and die on, they will lose—and lose badly. Which may in part be why the American bishops, in responding to Obama’s compromise, suddenly took a much more restrained tone. Contraception is popular. Even in conservative Mississippi, a recent ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban the morning-after pill failed badly at the polls. If this issue won’t work for the GOP in Mississippi, they’ll have a hard time winning a general election over it. And if the bishops think opposing Obama’s compromise will rally Catholics to their cause, they are even more out of touch than they realize. This will indeed become a wedge issue—between the bishops and their flocks. Yes, finally a social wedge issue that helps Democrats, not Republicans.
There was a time not so long ago when Catholics and other Christians weighed various moral claims to find a balance. Sometimes, the lesser of two evils was preferable. For centuries, for example, Catholic theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, argued that human life begins not at conception but at some point in the second trimester. For centuries the Catholic Church allowed married priests. For centuries Catholics believed that extending the end of life by extreme measures like feeding tubes was a violation of natural death, which Christians of all people should not be afraid of. But this ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning has been rejected by the last two popes, who have increasingly become rigid, fundamentalist, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern world we live in. Their radical fundamentalism—so alien to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and to so many lay Catholics—has discredited the core priorities of Christianity, failed to persuade their own flock, and led to increasing politicization. And the obsession among Catholic and evangelical leaders with an issue like contraception stands in stark contrast to their indifference to, for example, the torture in which the last administration engaged, the growing social inequality fostered by unfettered capitalism, the Christian moral imperative of universal health care, and the unjust use of the death penalty. That’s why younger evangelicals are also alienated. They want to refocus on issues of the poor, prison rape, human trafficking, and the kind of injustices Jesus emphasized, rather than on these sexual sideshows the older generation seems so obsessed with
Is it true that the Bible teaches peace and the Koran war? Only if you approach the books selectively, taking the gentlest of Jesus’ teachings and setting them against the harshest of Muhammad’s.
Philip Jenkins’s challenging new book Laying Down the Sword shows that the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide. He argues that Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition, rather than hurry past them or ignore them altogether.
The most painful passages come in the books of Joshua and Judges, which Jenkins describes as an “orgy of militarism, enslavement, and race war.” The Israelites, emerging from the desert after their escape from Egypt, attack Canaanite cities, whose people are described by the biblical narrator as very wicked. God commands the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants—men, women, children, and animals alike, until nothing is left alive. Likewise in the Book of Samuel, King Saul eventually loses God’s favor not for his bloodthirstiness in war but for his restraint—he fails to annihilate his enemies. The prophet Samuel denounces him for sparing some of the Amalekites, takes up a sword, and personally hacks the captive King Agag to pieces. To make matters worse, says Jenkins, God sometimes deliberately “hardens the hearts” of other peoples, using them to chastise the sinful Hebrews. Then He raises up Judges, righteous Israelites, to smite and destroy them in turn. It’s almost as if He wanted the highest possible body count.
Jenkins offers a useful thought experiment, asking readers to view these stories through the eyes of the Canaanites themselves. To them, the Israelites would seem as terrifying as the Janjaweed militia of Darfur in our own day, or as the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, whose leader, Joseph Kony, has justified the mass torture and killing of men, women, and children in God’s name.
For centuries Jews and Christians have struggled to come to terms with these stories. One option was always to take them at face value and act accordingly. Crusaders in the Middle Ages, militant Christians on both sides during the wars of religion that followed the Reformation, and extremist Zionists in Israel today have taken the stories as evidence that killing your enemy without mercy is exactly what God wants. Sometimes, in their view, we must accept that God’s purposes are inscrutable but nevertheless just and righteous.
Similarly, the genocidal passages settled the consciences of European empire-builders between 1500 and 1900. They attributed “Canaanite” wickedness to their American, African, and Asian enemies, then exterminated them, noting that in doing so they had emulated God’s chosen conqueror, Joshua. One of the difficulties of becoming Christian for Native Americans and Africans since then has been God’s apparent willingness to victimize people like themselves en masse.
Not until the Enlightenment did significant numbers of European intellectuals begin to use the genocidal passages to argue against religion itself. Some, like Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and a hero of the American Revolution, regarded the God disclosed by these passages as so morally inferior that no civilized people should accept him. In The Age of Reasonhe described the Old Testament as “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” Paine became a radiant figure for skeptics through the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent heirs include our own era’s leading atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
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