Sunday, December 5, 2010
A Mug’s Game
By Eric Von Salzen
Have you heard? A debate was held the other day between religion and atheism.
Although this debate is hardly in the same class as the infamous Oxford Union debate in 1933 (the one where the winning side affirmed that “this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”), it is nevertheless instructive.
The debate was held on November 26, 2010 in Toronto, Canada (no, really, please don’t stop reading this just because it happened in Canada). The proposition under consideration was:
Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.
For the affirmative was Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister. Blair is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. For the negative was Christopher Hitchens, a prominent polemicist for atheism, the author of God Is Not Great, among other writings. (Hitchens is dying of cancer, which has not softened his position on God, and which, to his credit, he did not exploit in the course of the debate.)
The transcript of the debate, and a link to the video, can he found here.
The religion side, as I said, lost. The vote was 68% against to 32% for the proposition. To be fair to Tony, the deck was stacked against him: Before the debate, the audience was 57% against and 22% for.
There are two lessons I suggest we can draw from this debate. The first is that a good polemicist will beat a good politician in debate any time. That shouldn’t be surprising. A polemicist’s role is to argue and score points, to make the other side look foolish, stupid, evil, uninformed, or whatever it takes to win. But a politician’s role is to solve problems, and (at least in a democracy) that means working with opponents, compromising, and downplaying differences of principle. Blair, who was able to lead his country through an unpopular but necssary war, never really had a chance in this debate.
Time and again, Hitchens slammed religion in general and every specific religion that came to mind, not fairly, of course, but effectively:
In the religious view, human beings are “objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well”.
God is “swift to punish [us for] the original sins with which [he] so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.”
“Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs? To appeal to our fear and to our guilt, is it good for the world? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal?"
Circumcision is genital mutilation.
The Old Testament is responsible for the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Roman Catholic church has “preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms”.
To none of these slanders did Mr. Blair offer a rebuttal. He eschewed (as a politician should) theological issues, and talked instead about all the good things that religious people do for the poor and down trodden of the world.
“[I]t is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion. It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion.”
“My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good.”
But, as a politician who wants to build and maintain relationships with any group that can be helpful in solving problems, he has to say that good works are not exclusively the province of religion, that non-religious people can do the same wonderful things that religious people do. He describes work done by religious people in Africa with children infected by AIDS, and says:
Is it possible for them to have done that without their religious faith? Of course it's possible for them to have done it.
Later he concedes that:
Yes, of course, it is absolutely true, they might decide to do this, irrespective of the fact that they have religious faith.
So when we say, well, that could be done by humanism, yes, it could.
Well, if there are bad things that could be ascribed, at least in part, to religion – the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland – and if the good things done by religious people can also be done by humanists, how do you conclude that, net, religion is good for the world?
The second lesson from this debate is more important, and it is this: It is folly to try to defend or promote “religion” as a generic concept. “Religion” is not a faith, it’s a category. Talking about “religion” in general is like talking about “husbands” or “wives” in general: The differences within the category render generalizations meaningless – unless you want to do stand-up, like Henny Youngman or Phyllis Diller.
If you try to defend or promote “religion”, you drain all the life out of the particular faiths that people embrace and end up with mush like this:
There is a basic belief common to all faiths, in serving and loving God, through serving and loving your fellow human beings.
It’s not that this Esperanto of “religion” is wrong, it’s just that it’s so weak, compared to, say:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Besides, beyond the “basic belief” that Mr. Blair says is “common to all faiths”, there are specific beliefs of specific religions, and, truth be told, some of them are hard enough for members of the religion to defend; so how much harder you make it for yourself if you set about to defend all “religion”. Mr. Blair was challenged not only regarding his own church’s positions on birth control and original sin, but also on the Jewish rite of circumcision and the supposed Old Testament warrant for Israeli expansionism, on the Biblical literalism of some fundamentalist Christians, on faith healing, and so forth. There was little he was able or willing to say in response.
The fact is, if you are a faithful believer in a particular religion, there are all sorts of beliefs of other religions that you think are unreasonable, repellant, ridiculous, or just plain crazy. Why should you set yourself up to be beaten over the head about them by becoming an advocate for “religion”?
The defender of “religion” also has to deal with the inconvenient fact that a great deal of the conflict in the world arises out of disputes between members of different religions: Israeli Jews v. Arab Muslims, Roman Catholic Irish v. Protestant Irish, Hindu Indians v. Muslim Pakistanis, and so on. Tom Lehrer put it so well, years ago:
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.
Mr. Blair argued that some religious leaders struggle hard to bring peace to places rent by sectarian conflict, like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Undoubtedly he is right. But if the question is whether “religion” is a force for good in the world, you don’t prove it that it is by showing that some religious people try to repair damage caused by religious differences. If you do, John Lennon answers you:
Imagine. . . no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
If you are out to defend “religion”, every religious conflict rebuts your argument. It’s different if you defend a particular religion. Your particular religion may be blameless with respect to, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and indeed may be playing a role in bringing about peace and tolerance. Even if your religion is involved in a particular conflict, the option is open to you, as a member of that faith, to defend your religion’s position (“we got here first”, or “they keep attacking us”, or whatever), or even to confess that your religion is in the wrong and you join with some of your co-religionists who are trying to right the wrong. You can’t do that if you are trying to defend “religion” in general.
You may devote yourself to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Hinduism, your life may have been changed by Islam, or Christianity, or Zoroastrianism, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has devoted his life to “religion”.
None of this means that members of different faiths can’t or don’t cooperate to accomplish common goals and to make this world a better place. They do so all the time, as Mr. Blair testified. But they do so as Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, as Roman Catholics, or Presbyterians, or Anglicans. There’s no need to submerge these powerful religious impulses in some amorphous thing called “religion”.