Not Contempt but Outrage

Norm has a post on religion and Hitchens and the vexed subject of ‘contempt for religious believers and what they believe’ that I have – however reluctantly! however ashen with misgivings, trembling with nerves, tottering with distress, quaking with anxiety, keening with regret – disagreed with him about in the past.

It might be suggested on Hitch’s behalf that, whether it meets such needs or not, because religious belief isn’t substantively true, all it merits is contempt from atheists and humanists; and its adherents, likewise, only deserve disrespect in one or another mode. But that religion isn’t true cannot be a sufficient reason for this; it is quite standard in democratic and pluralist societies to disagree in a tolerant and non-contemptuous way with beliefs and opinions we hold, or even sometimes know, to be false.

Yes – up to a point. Or maybe not so much up to a point, as depending on how you define contempt. In fact that’s what I disagreed about last time I disagreed – I didn’t, and still don’t, think that what Polly Toynbee expressed was contempt. What she expressed was something more like outrage, and it was directed primarily at the Vatican, the news media’s sycophantic coverage of the Vatican, and Blair’s knee-bending to the Vatican. Now, given the Vatican’s murderous condom policy, I think that outrage is highly appropriate.

But this time it’s a fair cop. Hitchens does express contempt – and – I find what he says bracing and welcome in contrast to the endless diet of whining and reproof directed at atheists – but at the same time, I can see what Norm means. I’m not sure I agree with it – because of that endless diet – but I can see what he means.

At the same time, it is a straightforward empirical fact that countless numbers of people – and I use ‘countless’ here advisedly and literally, not just loosely to convey the sense of very many – have been moved by their religion to do good in the world, to behave well…Think of a person who has illusions about the character of someone he loves – his mother, his children – and has those illusions because he loves them and so is unable to face certain unwelcome truths about them. That he has such illusions may certainly end by doing him, or them, harm. But so may it lead him to do a lot of good things he otherwise might not do.

True. I think that is one way – one of the few ways – religion can work in a kindly as opposed to brutal way. I think the analogy is more literal than Norm means it in this argument – I think many people do think of God that way, and that that thought is what inspires them to do good things. I think that God serves as a sort of Platonic idea of what a completely good, kind, loving, benevolent, compassionate being ought to be (it may be Mary or Jesus instead, because God-God is a god of wrath). Once you have that idea – of an entity that is all about kindness and goodness – then you want to please it by being kind yourself, and not pain it by being cruel. That’s a crude way of putting it, but I think that is how it works. Unfortunately not nearly often enough – unfortunately all too often it is the punitive, vengeful aspects that loom largest – but sometimes.

But that’s only one aspect of the problem. There are others that have to do with secularism, democracy, rational discussion, education, the media – with the extent to which ‘democratic and pluralist societies’ can survive in a world of theocracies. But that’s a large subject, and I have to go. My colleague is briefly in town, and if he doesn’t get lost, we’re supposed to meet up for a chat. I’ll tell him you said hello.

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