A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!

I have criticized Frank Furedi in the past quite a bit, so I was quite happily surprised at what a penetrating analysis of the anti-religious hysteria in Britain and the States he has written, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, one of the old European leftists of the ambiguously socialist variety. I think he gets it exactly right in the following passage:

“Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred…This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them…In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.”

There are so many perceptive elements here. It’s certainly true that there seems to be a growing intolerance in certain circles simply of people having religious beliefs, apart from how or even if they act upon them. And I have to imagine that it is in fact based on the persistence and strength, so baffling to leftists (Marxism is after all “dialectical materialism”), of a religious-based mindset that is not ostensibly based on material concerns. One hears constantly the frustrated complaint that this mindset “makes people vote against their own economic and social interests.” And so one sees a dramatic shift in attitude. The leftists who used to rant supposedly in favor of the poor, oppressed working-class, having seen that that working-class, even when given the choice, rejects their platform, turns on it for being stupid, fanatical and duped by the manipulation of superstition. And of course they attack the propagators of religion for having supposedly brain-washed the masses to ignore their best interests. And I would add another element: the zealously anti-religious, at least those mentioned in the article, frequently tack away from a direct argument as to the merits of the core beliefs of religion, atheism, etc. Instead, they focus on auxiliary, less controversial issues like the supposed intolerance or fanaticism of the religious. Well, let’s face it, believing you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong is inherently intolerant at some level, and in that respect there is no difference between, say, creationists and Darwinists. The secularists set up this bugaboo without acknowledging that everyone acts in defense of and to further their own beliefs. What it comes right down to is what beliefs you choose to adopt. I feel that there is a sort of uncomfortable awareness that if you get right down to, say, two naked propositions: “God exists” and “There is no God,” one does not really seem more inherently logical than the other, both seem like equally irrational (or rational) assumptions. But if you can cut the theists off at the base by condemning them for “intolerance,” then you don’t have to grapple with their actual beliefs, or, more importantly, the fact that your own are, at root, also just based on arbitrary assumptions.

Furedi makes one other excellent point. After reading most of the article, I was dreading the typical leftist idea that, having seen the power of religion, one should try to harness it even if one puts no credence in it, the attitude embodied by the London think-tanker who says “the liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things.” But as Furedi correctly points out, this is a totally cynical ploy, and hypocritical too in that it would involve leftists in the manipulation of religious beliefs in the the same way they accuse the conservatives of doing. He seems to imply that one ought to perhaps re-evaluate the strength and validity of one’s own beliefs rather than simply trying to manipulate others’. As for myself, I find it more empowering both on the indvidual and general level to provisionally accept the materialistic scientific view because it seems to make it easier to understand, to predict and ultimately control our environment when one assumes that everything is a manipulable object devoid of supernatural forces beyond our control. But this is not an ontological but merely an instrumental belief, and hence not based on the belief that it is true, but only that it is most useful. In one sense this is kind of a meaningless distinction, but the difference is one of emphasis and value; from my point of view the most important thing is that people adopt whatever beliefs most allow them to improve their own living conditions. The metaphysical beliefs are only valuable insofar as they support this project; they have no value in and of themselves. It seems to me that the really committed theists, atheists, etc. have the values of these reversed–our personal lives ought to be put at the service of these big beliefs rather than vice versa.

p.s. I think Furedi is right that religious fundamentalism, far from taking over, has been considerably marginalized, even in America. As he points out, the Intelligent Design equation of Darwinism+God to start the process is, in a sense, an enormous concession to science, certainly a long way from strict creationism. After all, it may be unwarranted from a scientific point of view, but since natural selection has nothing to say about how the whole process got started in the first place, it’s not necessarily any worse than any other speculation about ultimate origins. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that many of those propounding Intelligent Design themselves believe it sincerely, and I suspect that should they ever come to control school curriculae we would be back to purely scripturally-based dogmas soon enough.

3 Responses to “A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!”

  1. Dave Says:

    I too have wondered why the far left is so adamant in its attacks on religion, especially Christianity. Partly it is probably part of their program to destabilize all cultural conventions in order to prepare the way for their dreamed of people’s utopia. The interesting thing about them is their underlying quasi- religious puritanical attitude. They constantly denounce the enjoyment of riches, except their own.They have an exaggerated mania about equality and constantly harp on the plight of the victims of society such as women, gays and minorities who actually live in pampered conditions relative to the past. Partly this is masked by their approval of unlimited sexual activity and drugs, but at least in the area of sex, strong prohibitions against pornography and sex between men and women where there is a “power imbalance? represent puritanical equivalents. And don’t for get that the puritans themselves were vigorous suppressors of non- puritan religions. The intolerance of the puritans was justified by a belief that their behavior was obeying God and that they were helping to establish Gods kingdom. Since ultra leftists are by and largely atheists, I wonder about the etiology of their self-righteousness and desire to control other people’s behavior. Probably these people are like Cindy Sheehan and Jane Fonda who are miserable because they have no function in life. They think it is fun to be a Jesus-like prophet saving the world. But it makes them real mad when people don’t want to be saved.

  2. shonk Says:

    Weirdly, the ones who adopted the sternest and most terrible Old Testament moral tone were the Modern Language Association types who believed that everything was relative and that, for example, polygamy was as valid as monogamy. The friendliest and most sincere welcome he’d gotten was from Scott, a chemistry professor, and Laura, a pediatrician, who, after knowing Randy and Charlene for many years, had one day divulged to Randy, in strict confidence, that, unbeknownst to the academic community at large, they had been spiriting their three children off to church every Sunday morning, and even had them all baptized.


    Randy hadn’t the faintest idea what these people thought of him and what he had done, but he could sense right away that, essentially that was not the issue because even if they thought he had done something evil, they at least had a framework, a sort of procedure manual, for dealing with transgressions. To translate it into UNIX system administration terms (Randy’s fundamental metaphor for just about everything), the post-modern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomably complex computer system (viz. society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor, because they wre at a loss to deal with any deviations from what they saw as the norm. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least had some documentation, some FAQs and How-tos and README files, providing some guidance on what to do when things got out of whack. They were, in other words, capable of displaying adaptability.

    –Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, pp. 584-6

  3. Curt Says:

    I also find that being aware that your belief system is to some degree inadequate from an intellectual or rational point of view, as I think many of the more intelligent religious types in America are, does wonders for one’s support for tolerance. Many post-modernist secularists, being convinced that their beliefs are the newest and best possible, have no problem with villifying others simply for holding opinions they disagree with (which I think is the central demarcation point of fanaticism).

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