A Strange Alliance

by Theodore Dalrymple (Nov.2007)

It used to be said that one should not talk of sex, religion or politics in polite company. So much the worse for polite company, I thought in my days of adolescent enjoyment of disputes for their own sake; and certainly there are subjects that a journalist should avoid if he wishes to avoid an angry response whatever he says about them. In my experience, which admittedly is limited, those subjects are modern art, chronic fatigue syndrome and religion: but of these, religion is the greatest. 

I haven’t written much about religion, but I have been surprised by the vehemence, not to say the violence, of the response to that little that I have written. This vehemence has been provoked by the fact that, though not religious myself, I am no longer anti-religious as I was when it occurred to me as a child and then a teenager that God might not or did not exist. Indeed, I can see many advantages, both personal and social, to a religious outlook. The usefulness of religious claims is not evidence of their truth, of course, though that usefulness probably depends upon a belief in their truth.

Probably, but not certainly. Gibbon tells us that in Rome, religious observance, highly syncretic in nature, was adhered to by people who did not accept the truth of the beliefs that supposedly underlay their observance. They continued with their observance because of the social value of religion: in other words, truth was less important to them than social coherence. Before we denounce those Romans as hypocrites and liars, we should remember how often, for the sake of social ease and convenience, we say and do things that are neither true nor convenient to us personally. Show me a man who is sincere all the time, and I will show you an insufferable boor.  

A young and cultivated Dutchman of my acquaintance, appalled by the thinness and superficiality of modern culture and its deliberate disconnection from the glories of the past of our civilisation, recently told me that he was going to convert to Catholicism. He was far from a believer but, rightly or wrongly, he saw the church as the only possible bastion against the tide of cultural barbarism that is engulfing most of Europe.

He told me also that he played the music of Bach (one of the supreme artistic achievements of our civilisation) on the piano every day, and hoped to do so until he died; and this led me to suppose that he did not altogether exclude as a possibility the existence of God, for Bach’s music, which he loved, was surely inspired in very large part by the belief in God, and indeed is inconceivable without that belief. The connection between the music and belief in God was a psychological one rather than a logical one, but was a strong one nonetheless; and, as Pascal said, the heart hath its reasons which reason knows not of. This, after all, is true of most of us most of the time.

And once my young Dutch acquaintance was open to the possibility of the existence of God, I suggested, it was also possible that the belief would come with the observance rather than the other way around. If it did, I could see only advantages to him. It seems to me that a sense of a transcendent meaning or purpose to existence is a great comfort, and something that is sorely lacking for the great majority of young Europeans. 

This is not at all the same thing as wishing to live under a theocracy, in which conformity to the outward observances of belief are enforced. But some of the responses I received to an article I wrote recently for The City Journal, in which I suggested that the best-selling books by militant atheists, that have appeared with the suddenness of a change of hemlines in the fashion world, did not advance any new arguments against the existence of God (indeed, you would have by now to be a very great philosopher to advance a new argument either for or against), and that used a historiography of religion that was fundamentally flawed and dishonest, were so vehement that you might have supposed that I was Torquemada or Khomenei rather than a mere scribbler expressing an opinion that was, in effect, a plea for greater subtlety of understanding.

I do not want to repeat my arguments here. Instead, I ask the question why these books - of Michel Onfray, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett - have appeared all of a sudden, and sold so well, when (with the exception, perhaps, of Daniel Dennett’s book, which advances an evolutionary explanation of religion that put me in mind of Marx’s explanation of it, except that it refers to biology where Marx refers to economics), they say little that is new.

Fashions are not unknown in publishing, of course. Often, several biographies of a relatively obscure subject or figure, neglected for many years, appear at more or less the same time, without there having been any collusion between publishers - indeed, such collusion would be against their own interests. For example, several books in Britain recently appeared all at once about the tulip mania in Holland in the seventeenth century; and then there were several books about Eliza Lynch, the Irish consort of the Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, who led his country in what was possibly the most disastrous war in the history of the world. There is evidently a tide in the affairs of authors and publishers…

Still, something more than fashion needs to be invoked, I suspect, to explain not only the appearance but the success of the new atheistic books. The books about the tulip mania and Eliza Lynch did not become best-sellers. The atheistic books did.

Let me here say, to avoid the charge of resorting to ad hominem arguments, that the reasons for the appearance and success of these books is evidence neither of the validity nor of the invalidity of their arguments, which must be assessed by quite other means and on quite other grounds. But this does not mean that the question of the reason for their appearance and success now, at this conjuncture, is unimportant or uninteresting. My speculations are not susceptible to rigorous proof, but if we were allowed to think about only those things susceptible to such proof, our minds would soon be empty.

I think there are two conjunctures, one mainly American, and one global, that explain the appearance and success of these books.

The rise of evangelical Christianity as a political force in America has provoked a reaction by the freethinking intelligentsia that sees in that rise a threat of theocracy. Whether this threat is real and genuinely feared I rather doubt; surely the American political tradition and the Constitution itself are strong enough to prevent a theocracy from ever arising in America. But all intellectuals love bogeymen to shadow-box: I do so myself on occasion.

It is true that the evangelicals exert a strong influence; but that is what democracy is about. There are, after all, a lot of them in the country and they cannot be disenfranchised. No doubt they have a moral vision that they wish to impose on the country, but so does everybody else. To argue that a woman has a right to an abortion because she is sovereign over her own body is no less a moral position than that to kill a conceptus is ethically equivalent to shooting a man in cold blood in the street. Personally I think that both these positions are wrong, and that so long as the debate is posed in these terms it will remain crude and generate a lot of hatred. But evangelical Christian political influence in a democracy in which there are millions of evangelicals is perfectly normal, and implies no slide into theocracy; and it is worth remembering that the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

The second conjuncture is, of course, the rise of Islam as a global force for a new totalitarianism. This is not the place to argue whether Islam is, or is not, an intrinsically totalitarian religion (though it is worth remembering how few of us gave any attention to it as a serious political force only twenty years ago). I suspect that the downfall of the Soviet Union - which, of course, was also responsible for the ending of apartheid in South Africa - and the consequent destruction of the possibility of socialistic nationalism as a means for poor or desperate countries (poverty and desperation not being the same thing) to escape their predicament, stimulated the rise of Islam to the position of latest utopian pretender. There had been Islamists before the downfall of the Soviet Union, of course, but they offered only one bogus solution among other bogus solutions. After the downfall, Islam had the field to itself, apart from liberal democracy, which is inherently messy and unsatisfying for the lazy and impatient.

Islamism is a real threat, made far worse by the cowardly response to it by most western governments, including that of the United States. From the European perspective, the war in Iraq is but a trivial sideshow by comparison with the Danish cartoon crisis, which was much more significant for our civilisation and way of life in the long run. There the British and American governments failed the test miserably; de facto, they gave aid and succour to the Islamists.

The new atheists are quite right to see the threat of theocracy in Islamism. But in attacking all religion, they are like the French government which banned not only the wearing of the headscarf in schools, but the wearing of all religious insignia whatsoever, despite the fact that wearing a Star of David or a crucifix has and had a completely different social signification from wearing a headscarf. In the name of non-discrimination, the French government failed to discriminate properly: and proper discrimination is, or ought to be, practically the whole business of life. If there were large numbers of Christians or Jews who were in favour of establishing a theocracy in France, who had a recent record of terrorism, and who terrorised each other into the wearing of crucifixes and Stars of David, then the banning of those insignia would have been justified too. The wearing of the headscarf should be permitted again when Islam has become merely one personal confession among others, without the political significance that it has now.  

In attacking all religion so indiscriminately, the atheist authors are, I am sure inadvertently and unintentionally, strengthening the hand of the Islamists. In arguing, for example, that for parents to bring up a child in any religious tradition, even the mildest of Anglicanism, is to abuse a child, with the natural corollary that the law should forbid it (for how can the law permit child abuse?), some of the authors are giving ammunition to the Islamists, who will be able with justice to say to their fellow-religionists, See, it is all or nothing. If you give the secularists an inch, they will take a mile. No compromise with secularism is possible, therefore; cleave unto us.

Islamism is a worthy target, of course, but by now one that has been pretty well aimed at (though I recommend very strongly the forthcoming book from Encounter Books, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, by Caroline Fourest). To suggest, however, that all forms of religion are equal, that they are all murderous and dangerous, is not to serve the cause of freedom and tolerance. It is to play into the hands of the very people we should most detest; it is to hand them the rhetorical tools with which they can tell the gullible that our freedoms are not genuine and that our tolerance is a masquerade. It is to do what I should previously have thought was impossible, namely in this respect to put them in the right. 



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