Friday, 10 October 2014

Ideas and Mother-Lodes: Should we care about holy books and doctrines?

I'm sure just about everyone knows about the Affleck vs Maher and Harris battle recently.  A particular phrase Sam Harris used stirred things up: "Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas".  I'm not going to agree or disagree with that phrase, instead I'm putting forward the suggestion that it might be an interesting and perhaps useful strategy to sometimes leave religion out of discussions of the consequences of religion, paradoxical though this may seem.

What do we really want most of all in the world?  Peace, equality, fairness, freedom.  That's a reasonable list, I think.  Does removing religion appear in that list?  Should it?  (A believer might ask the same about removing atheism!)  If you believe that some aspects of religion get in the way of those ideals, it might seem like a good idea to attack religion, and yet religion has considerable privileges and protection within our cultures.  Religion is precious to many people, and so there is understandable defensiveness when religious beliefs are challenged.

So, how about not challenging certain religious beliefs - not by ignoring those beliefs, but by putting aside the fact that those beliefs are religious in origin?

Suppose someone says that a woman's opinion is legally worth half that of a man's opinion, and they say that it is because of religious law.   How about responding that you aren't going to talk about religious law, you are going to talk about principles of equality?  Nothing strident, simply a statement like this: "Sorry, but I'm not going to discuss supernatural beliefs".  

You see, if you allow religion to come into things, you are allowing a barrier to be put up, a source of immediate conversation-stoppers.  So:

Don't talk about Christianity, talk about science and evolution.

Don't talk about Islam, talk about the equality of women.

Don't talk about Islam, talk about the importance of legal equality for same-sex couples.

Don't talk about Christianity, talk about the importance of stem cell research.

And, controversially, don't talk about Islam being full of bad ideas, just talk about the bad ideas.  If someone wants to mention Islam.... "Sorry, but..." etc. This is absolutely not a criticism of Sam Harris - it's only a suggestion for a parallel strategy for dealing with bad ideas.  

Who knows?  By not allowing the defensiveness that can appear when religion is mentioned, we might change more minds, and if someone believes in evolution and yet thinks they are still a Biblical literalist, do we care?

1 comment:

Ron Murphy said...

"Let's talk about the bad idea of killing apostates."

A religion isn't mentions, but you're already talking about someone's religion.

"Let's talk about the irrationality of choosing to believe in something that goes against the grain of all rational and evidence based discourse, the use of faith to tell you that some book contains a righteous incitement to hatred of homosexuals."

A religion isn't mentions, but you're already talking about someone's religion.

I'm not sure your suggestions are practical, without appeasing or ignoring how religious beliefs have an impact on behaviour.

The most liberal secular mild mannered Anglican vicar that relies on faith for his beliefs has no real argument against the most violent member of ISIS that declares that beheading is the work of God when both rely on their faith to tell them what to think. It doesn't matter that one can apply his personal rationality to avoid killing people while the other applies it to justifying his faith, because when faith is the enabler they are not going to listen to your reasonable explanation of what counts as bad ideas in isolation from their religion.

The religious regularly tell us how their faith informs their whole lives. Why not believe them when they tell us this? Why do you think they can separate bad ideas from religious ideas when in a religious context they don't see the ideas as being bad? When their holy book trumps your idea of what a bad idea is, why should they pay attention?

I think it is the direct language of the likes of Harris and Dawkins and others that have moved us forward a great deal.

It is true that Islam isn't much worse than the OT Bible. But there aren't that many Christians calling for the death for apostates:

Conversations with Christians tend to go like this: "So, you think the Bible is the word of God, but what about X.", "Well, X has to be read allegorically, or in its historic context, so of course we wouldn't do that now."

With Muslims, "So, you think the Quran is the inerrant word of God, but what about X.", "Well, it says so in the Quran.", "Yes, but do you think that applies here and now?", "Ah, but we live in a western state.", "So, if this western state became Islamic, would X apply?", ... and what follows is either an explicit agreement with X, or more dancing around the subject.

I won't do it now, but if you wish I can give you plenty of British Muslims doing just that on TV, in writing.

Perhaps Harris should say more explicitly that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas as implemented when the opportunity arises - as it does in some Islamic states.