Agnostic and religion-basher Pamela Bone makes many claims in her opinion piece (Australian, 15 August 2006), a few of them right, most of them wrong or just plain confused. Her rambling tirade against religion paints with too broad a brush, and is guilty of a lack of nuance and precision.
First, the good stuff. She is quite right to suggest that we do not need religious vilification laws. And she is right to suggest that religion should be able to stand on its own merits, rationally debated in an open society.
In a pluralistic society, competing truth claims should be allowed to slug it out in the intellectual arena, and religious views should be debated and discussed. While most religions are based on faith, some, notably Christianity, are based on faith informed by reason. Thus Bone is right to suggest that religions be open to rational criticism and careful scrutiny.
But it is all down-hill from there on. She celebrates trends toward non-belief in the West, arguing that this is a good thing. Many would disagree. The last century has been the most secular in the history of the world, and it has also been the most bloody. All the major blood-letting was the direct result, not of religion, but of anti-religion. Be it Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, millions of people lost their lives in the name of atheism and secularism.
Bone however simply dismisses the killing fields of communism, by claiming communist ideology is “similar to a religious ideology”. That is like saying Bone’s ideology is similar to Archbishop George Pell’s ideology. Her argument does nothing to lessen the charge of secular blood-letting. But her comment does make the case that non-religious people and their beliefs can be just as zealously promoted as any religious belief can.
She then suggests that for religious people to raise the issue of communism is like saying “there is no point in curing tuberculosis because malaria kills more people”. No that is not the point. It is Bone who is trying to make the case that secularism makes for better, safer societies. But the evidence tell us just the opposite. The fact that religious people have killed others is deplorable, but in most religious traditions, such killing is seen as tangential to the faith, as an aberration of it.
But in secular ideologies like communism and fascism, mass murder is fully justified in terms of their own worldview. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, et. al., were all fully prepared to justify the killing of millions. It was not a perversion of their ideology, but the fulfilment of it.
By lumping all religions together, Bone betrays a great ignorance of religion. Most religious adherents do not strap “explosives to their bodies” and kill “as many infidels as possible.” Indeed, most Muslims do not do this. But in her hatred of all things religious, Bone is quite happy to judge people as a group. It is just such an inability to treat people as unique individuals that led to the horrible acts of genocide during the last century, be it Hitler treating people as an ethnic group, or Stalin treating people as an economic class.
Bone also betrays a gross ignorance of history. She argues, for example, that the “holy books” were written before ideas about human rights and modern science were in place. But she seems ignorant of the fact that it is the Judeo-Christian religious tradition in particular that gave birth to both the notion of human rights and modern science.
This case has been argued by many scholars, most recently in the many excellent studies by American sociologist Rodney Stark. He documents the many ways in which the greatness of Western culture is directly attributable to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Says Stark, “Christianity created Western Civilization.”
Almost all of the benefits of modern “prosperous, liberal democracies” as Bone puts it, are directly traceable to the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus her assertion that all the “healthiest and wealthiest countries in the world” are based on non-belief is anachronistic. She has got the carriage before the horse. It is religion that made the West healthy and wealthy, not the other way around.
And many social commentators are now wondering whether the West will long stand as we enter a post-Christian age. Societies bereft of religion have historically had a short and nasty shelf life. Historians and philosophers have noted the connection between a healthy society and religion. Will Durant put it this way: “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”
De Tocqueville could say that “despotism may be able to do without faith, but democracy cannot”. Such remarks could be repeated at length.
The truth is, we are currently undergoing a grand social experiment to see what life is like when we reject God. This massive test is only recent, and the results are not fully in yet. The glorious triumph of atheism which Bone exalts in may instead spell the end of mankind and civilisation. Bone is simply being premature in her judgement here.
And if Bone is proved wrong, the results will not be good. It is easy for the secularists to tear down a society, but it takes ages for civilisation to arise. As T.S. Eliot once remarked, “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”
Or as Durant said: “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day”. Many more sober commentators than Bone do not like what they see. The rising secularism is not good news, but bad news indeed. As G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”
If Bone had read more widely she would realise that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, for all their faults, have in many ways been a force for good in the world. By taking off her very tinted secularist glasses, she may find a world in disarray and breakdown, not because of religion, but because of religion’s enemies.