It wasn't so long ago that religion was a subject you didn't discuss - it was a private matter. It was also boring - who would want to talk about that? But in the last few years God is very much back on the agenda, with a number of high profile and militant atheists publishing virulently anti-God books (as others have noted), and regular articles about religion in newspapers and magazines.
And so last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald there was an essay by Christopher Hitchens (originally published in slate.com), in advance of his forthcoming book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Hitchens does not attempt to disprove God, although he briefly indicates his view that there are four reasons to disbelieve:
- it "wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos";
- it combines "the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism" [the view that the self is all that can be known to exist] - I'm afraid I can't understand what he is getting at here;
- "it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression"; and
- "it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking."
But after this brief, and unargued, opening, most of the essay is a diatribe against what he dislikes about religion, including .....
- "Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". Religion is "man-made", it is "vanity" to think we are part of a divine plan and accordingly he mocks the idea of prayer.
- Religion cannot be reconciled with modern science, and so requires repeated modification as new discoveries are made. "How many needless assumptions must be made and how much contortion is required to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to 'fit' with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities."
- He criticises believers for their "stupidity" and "pride", and describes church attendance as gathering "every seven days to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness".
- "Religion poisons everthing". "Religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow."
- attendance at "mainstream denominational churches" still appears to be declining while Pentecostal church attendance is still growing;
- up to one third of all churchgoers are "recent recruits", indicating that many people, especially young people, are still moving from unbelief to faith, with many moving on to train for ministry; and
- new recruits, and churches generally, seem to be fired by a new commitment to "help their communities and do charity work".
Then in today's SMH, Rachel Kohn has a column in which she argues that the high profile atheists like Richard Dawkins, Michel Onfray and Christopher Hitchens (though he is not mentioned specifically) have misrepresented the facts. Her main points:
- Atheists put their trust science and scientists to build a brave new world. However, referring to historian Michael Burleigh's book Sacred Causes, she discusses the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Eastern Europe and Mao's China and warns of "the readiness of 'rational' scientific types to help mad regimes to deliver untold suffering to millions".
- Michel Onfray portrays religion as "a litany of horrors, from superstitious beliefs to organised oppression, while believers are compelled by infantilism, hallucination and a fear of death", but Kohn argues: "his caricatures make it hard to imagine that religious organisations could provide the network of socially responsible services to the public that they do or produce the army of volunteers who lend a hand to the needy."
- Richard Dawkins may deride "people waving their hands and singing 'praise Jesus'" as irrational, but she points out that "if Germany in 1933 had been invaded by people in prayer singing 'praise Jesus' instead of Nazis in jackboots it would not have presided over the worst mass killing in history."
It seems likely that militant atheism will continue to press the point, and that our western culture will become more critical of those who believe their religious or spiritual beliefs are actually true. At the same time, it seems that people are tiring of the dogmatism of science which appears to lead to dehumanising view of life, so perhaps "softer" spirituality and religion presented in more sensitive ways have an easier future.
It is notable that most of the arguments (from both sides) in the articles referred to above are based on how believers behave, and whether the end result has a good or bad effect on society (for more on this, see road tests). For me, as for Dawkins, the most important question is "what is the truth?", but I'm inclined to think that argument will not be how the matter will be settled.
I can't help thinking that the future of christianity in western culture will depend more on whether believers can demonstrate that their way is loving, caring, serving. That's the challenge!