Sholto Byrnes, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t entirely buy Peter Hitchens’s line on atheism.
For while Stalin’s atheism may have been a necessary condition for the atrocities he committed — I completely agree with Hitchens that “without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order” — it is not a sufficient one. I part company with him when he claims that his preceding sentence proves that which follows it: “Atheism is a licence for ruthlessness, and appeals to the ruthless.”
Good about parting company, but I part company earlier than that. Atheism is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for committing atrocities, and it isn’t necessarily the case that ‘without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order.’ Given holy wars, the inquisition, religious massacres, the revolting ubiquitous cruelty of the Irish church, it just isn’t obvious that atheism permits atrocities any more than theism does. It’s clear that atheism doesn’t rule out horrendous savage murderous violence – but it’s clear that religion doesn’t either. It’s clear that religion doesn’t necessarily make people more compassionate or generous or fair or kind – just as atheism doesn’t. It could be that one or the other tends to do better, but it’s simply not possible to argue that either one reliably prevents – makes not ‘possible’ – any extreme of human brutality.
In as much as the absence of God leaves any system of morality floundering when it comes to unarguable proof of its truth, Hitchens is on to something. An atheist society does not have the in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority that religion would supply, for instance.
Would, if what? Would, when? The trouble with that thought is that there have (to put it mildly) been theist societies that had no built-in defences against the will of a tyrannous majority, at least none that worked. This is a massive stumbling block for the whole ‘belief in God makes people good’ idea. If belief in God really did make people good – good in the sense that people tend to mean it nowadays: compassionate, non-violent, kind – then there wouldn’t have been so many Christian supporters of slavery in the 19th century US. If belief in God made people good then sharia wouldn’t include so many savage punishments and such relentless limitation of women’s rights and freedom. (Sharia as practiced in the real world. People like to point out that various nasty things are not really part of sharia. Maybe they’re not, but that’s not much help when the relevant people think they are.)
Atheism too, of course, has no in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority. In truth nothing does, apart from constitutions and bills of rights. That’s why such things are needed. Depending on the good will or the religious or atheist conscience of millions of people is a terrible idea. Neither religion nor atheism reliably makes people good, or bad either. On the other hand, religion does give a gloss of pseudo-goodness to bad actions, in the minds of people who have been raised on harsh religious beliefs. Atheism can’t put that kind of gloss on things.
I was thinking all this earlier today while I read the piece, and then I suddenly bumped into my own name. That’s an odd experience!
Last summer, I found myself in the middle of a minor fuss after I wrote a scathing review of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s Does God Hate Women? for the Independent on Sunday. Put simply, my objection was that they detailed terrible barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people, chiefly Muslims, and then pretty much laid the blame on religion, again, chiefly Islam, for those crimes.
Actually it wasn’t the analysis we disagreed with, it was the wild inaccuracy of many of the factual claims, but never mind. Let’s consider the analysis now. I’ll just say what I said there:
We do lay the blame for certain kinds of barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people on religion, for the reason that the perpetrators of the crimes themselves cite religion as the justification for the crimes. We take them at their word. We quoted people saying things like “We will do what Allah has instructed us” (p 174). Without that, a bunch of men stoning a young girl to death in front of a crowd of people would be universally seen as a criminal act; with it, it is seen by some as pious, and not only permitted but mandated. This fact really does make a difference. It makes the same difference that the phrase “church teachings” makes when the pope and bishops fight equality legislation in the UK.
We don’t claim that all religion always makes people act like that, or that some religion makes all its adherents act like that. We do claim that religion makes brutalities that would otherwise be obviously unacceptable into pious acts, and that that fact makes a major difference.
That’s what I said there. Well it’s undeniable, surely. It’s not an all or nothing claim, it’s a something claim. That ‘something’ is not an invention or a fantasy. Just look at the self-righteous way the Vatican hierarchy is carrying on. You don’t see the Mafia acting that way! They don’t give sermons in huge churches saying all this fuss about child rape is just ‘petty gossip.’ They just shoot their way out, or bribe everyone in sight, or both. At least with them there’s no confusion.