A bit too non-linear

Did Ian Buruma write this in ten minutes, or what? It’s all over the place.

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness…

Oh get over it for Christ’s sake. Is there no end to the market for people complaining about this overwhelming flood of atheist books that add up to all of five which is as a grain of sand to a beach compared to the flood of theist bestsellers? There certainly doesn’t seem to be. Is this the top item in The Lazy Editor’s Handbook or what? ‘If nothing else occurs, get some windbag to have a tantrum about the uncontrollable torrent of atheist bestsellers.’

Can religion also be a force for good? asks Buruma, dopily. Noooo – religion can never ever ever be a force for good, not nohow. Duh. Of course it can – we don’t need to be told that ‘sometimes religion can be a force for good’ – we know that.

But it’s too late, Buruma has to tell us.

[W]atching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief.

You don’t say. And watching Saudi religious police send schoolgirls back into a fire to burn to death because they’re not ‘dressed properly,’ it is hard not to see some merit in atheism. So what?

[T]he monks and nuns took the first step; they dared to protest when most others had given up. And they did so with the moral authority of their Buddhist faith. Romantics might say that Buddhism is unlike other religions, more a philosophy than a faith. But this would be untrue. It has been a religion in different parts of Asia for many centuries, and can be used to justify violent acts as much as any other belief. For evidence, one need only look at Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is lashed onto ethnic chauvinism in the civil war between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils.

Um, okay, but I thought you were saying religion is sometimes a force for good? What’s the subject again?

[T]he moral power of religious faith does not need a supernatural explanation. Its strength is belief itself, in a moral order that defies secular or indeed religious dictators. Active resisters to the Nazis during World War II were often devout Christians. Some sheltered Jews, despite their own prejudices against the Jews, simply because they saw it as their religious duty. Faith does not have to be in a supernatural being. The Nazis were resisted with equal tenacity by men and women who found strength in their belief in communism.

Oh, okay, so you’re not talking about religion after all, you’re talking about belief, including belief in communism? Only, I thought you were talking about religion, because that’s what you said at the beginning.

Despite the horrific violence of Islamist fanatics, it should not be forgotten that the mosque too can be a legitimate basis for resistance against the mostly secular dictatorships in the Middle East today. In a world of political oppression and moral corruption, religious values offer an alternative moral universe. This alternative is not necessarily more democratic, but it can be.

Or not. Usually not. So your point is…?

Nevertheless, faith has an important role to play in politics, especially in circumstances in which secular liberals are rendered impotent, as in the case of Nazi occupation, communist rule or military dictatorship.

Oh, man – now I’m really confused.

Liberals are most needed when compromises have to be made, but not as useful when faced with brute force. That is when visionaries, romantics and true believers are driven by their beliefs to take risks that most of us would regard as foolhardy. It is, on the whole, not beneficial to be ruled by such heroes, but it is good to have them around when we need them.

Yes no doubt, but you were talking about religion, remember? Remember the beginning of your article? It’s not that long – you could have checked back once or twice while you were writing it. You started out with a dopy whinge about atheist bestsellers #17,985, then you asked if religion can sometimes be a force for good. How did you end up with romantics and heroes?

Dang – I wish I’d been Buruma’s editor for that piece; I would have thrown it back and told him to re-write it. Actually, I would have just said No thanks; it’s banal at best and incoherent at worst. Try harder next time.

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