Blunt Instrument

So, as promised, or threatened, a little more of the Counterblast on Religion in Politics. Because it raises so many issues, that are so very often danced around rather than addressed directly. Because the whole subject is so hedged about with squeamishness and politeness and tact and unexamined assumptions and let’s pretend and refusals to admit the obvious. Not, certainly, because I have anything new or original or profound to say. I’m not that delusional. But because what I do have to say gets drowned out by what the soapy side has to say. It’s the same point as the one Daniel Dennett made in that Op-Ed piece about the Brights: that if atheists are politely silent while theists never shut up, then atheists start to think they are a tiny peculiar insignificant minority, and theists get more and more domineering and aggressive.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for “liberating” them. I hadn’t realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They’d never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn’t believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

We don’t realize. We lose sight of the way our polite silence becomes not just polite silence but actual assistance for the ill-mannered people who would force religion on everyone else.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power — by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call “the side of the angels.”…Most brights don’t play the “aggressive atheist” role. We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage the “godless” among us. From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter.

Try to disregard the unfortunate ‘brights’ usage. Apart from that, everything he says seems to me to be obviously true. That diplomatic silence is, surely, a terrible mistake. So this is some of the explanation for Dawkins’ bluntness, and for mine too. All this politeness and mealy-mouthedness just lets the theocrats get away with it.

So, allow me to be blunt. It is understandable but mistaken for theocrats to confuse religion with morality. It’s not entirely mistaken for theocrats to think that religion adds some motivation or stiffening to morality – it probably does. It’s understandable and not entirely mistaken for theocrats to value some of the good effects of religion (I say ‘some’ because most of the effects of religion are so mixed, the good effects so difficult to disentangle from the bad ones) such as loyalty, community and so on. It is entirely mistaken for theocrats to think and to tell the rest of us that belief or ‘faith’ is a virtue. It is not. Not in the sense they mean it. Faith in a friend or relative, faith in democracy or equality or liberty, may well be a virtue, but faith in the existence of a supernatural being for which there is no good evidence is not a virtue, it’s a vice. In any other context we know that perfectly well. We don’t want to hear engineers’ ‘faith’ that the bridge will stand up, nor the pilot’s that the plane will fly; we want considerably more than that. Religion gets a special dispensation, or rather two: first, it is accepted on the basis of authority rather than evidence, and then that very acceptance becomes a virtue. That’s a bad thing, not a good one. Pointing that out only seems ‘glib’ or too blunt or blowhardism because we’ve been trained to shut up while the theocrats shout. It’s time to stop doing that.

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