And there’s always dear Madeleine Bunting. How fondly I look back on her musings about how much happier ‘African’ lives are than those in the creepy dreary alienated consumerist West. How the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo must have chuckled if any of them were in a position – what with being so busy starving and being ill and dying and all – to find a Guardian and read her essay.

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is killing 38,000 people each month, says the Lancet medical journal. Most of the deaths are not caused by violence but by malnutrition and preventable diseases after the collapse of health services, the study said. Since the war began in 1998, some 4m people have died, making it the world’s most deadly war since 1945, it said.

Yes but at least they’re not all trivial and consumerist, and that’s what counts. Anyway, she has a stupid piece on religion and ‘atheism’ (her version), taking off from Richard Dawkins’s Channel 4 show on religion as the root of all evil. I haven’t seen the show, so can’t (and won’t! not if it was ever so) comment on Bunting’s take on that. But that still leaves lots to comment on.

His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled…Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there’s the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.

Well gee, why would we think that, do you suppose? Are we all crazy and delusional and dribbling with paranoia? How could anyone possibly fear that religion is on the march again right now, and how could anyone object if it were?

That lack of empathy also lies behind Dawkins’s reference to a “process of non-thinking called faith”. For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery, whether Islamic astronomy or the Renaissance. But his contempt is so profound that he can’t be bothered to even find out (in an interview he dismissed Christian theology in exactly these terms).

Yes but the fact that religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery (Bunting accidentally put that well) doesn’t mean that religious belief was useful or helpful or (certainly) causative of that thought and intellectual discovery, it just means it was there at the same time. It could be a correlation rather than a cause. So the fact that the two ways of thinking were sometimes in the same room doesn’t in the least contradict what Dawkins said. And after all, he’s right – ‘faith’ is by definition a process of non-thinking. That’s what the word means. Religious believers will say as much when their guard is down – that faith is not about believing things that are supported by evidence, anyone can do that; faith is about believing without evidence. In other words, non-thinking.

It’s also right for religion to concede ground to science to explain natural processes; but at the same time, science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe – such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos (Dawkins does finally acknowledge this point in the programmes).

Boy I get sick of that trope. It’s not clear that science can’t at least offer a plausible answer to that particular question, and in any case, religion can’t answer it any more than science or anything else can – and probably less. It can’t ‘answer’ such questions because all it does is say what it wants to say, and let it go at that. Excuse me, but that’s not an answer. Religion doesn’t have to check its answers against anything, it doesn’t have to have them peer-reviewed, it doesn’t have to do the maths, it doesn’t have to present them to audiences of restless ambitious rivals eager to show them wrong. It just says. That’s not an answer, that doesn’t count. Whenever people say that, with such an air of bovine triumph, we have some serious non-thinking going on. Because what they mean when they say ‘science can’t and religion can’ is that science can’t because it does have to check, it does have to meet certain criteria, and religion can because it doesn’t – because it doesn’t have to do anything at all other than run off at the mouth. Science ‘can’t’ because reality provides constraints and limitations and requires work, religion ‘can’ because fantasy doesn’t do any of that. So what is so impressive about this ridiculous idea that religion can answer all these deep questions?

Nothing. It’s an imbecilic line of argument, it’s sheer naked emperor. Must try harder, Madders.

54 Responses to “Bunting”