Article produced 1980’s? Have we learnt anything, since then? The most horrible atrocities!
Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist and author of ‘The Blind Watchmaker’; here gives his reaction to the Rushdie affair. It was first printed in the ‘New Statesman & Society’ Richard Dawkins recently became an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association.
WHO IS the enemy of this deplorable episode? Is it an individual or a religion? I suggest not a religion but religion itself. Could it be faith that is the enemy? A letter to The Independent recently quoted Elizabeth Jenkins’s biography of Queen Elizabeth I :
In December 1580 the Papal Nuncio of Madrid wrote to the Pope on behalf of two English noblemen who wanted to know if assassinating Queen Elizabeth would be a sin. The Cardinal Secretary Como replied, “Since that guilty woman of England … is the cause of such injury to the Catholic faith and loss of so many million souls, there is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin, but gains merit, especially having regard to the sentence pronounced against her by Pius V of Holy memory”.
The facing page of the same newspaper documents the Vatican’s official condemnation of Salman Rushdie for ‘blasphemy’, and its ambivalence towards the murder threats against him. Church of England pronouncements, while tut-tutting at murder, nevertheless express deep ‘understanding’, ‘sympathy’ and ‘respect’ for Moslem outrage at ‘blasphemy’.
Government ministers echo this conciliatory tone. The Archbishop of Canterbury has magnanimously suggested that the blasphemy laws should be extended to other faiths.
There is something almost touching about such pathetic attempts to curry favour with a rival religion whose leaders would have an Archbishop for breakfast if he tried to chum up to them in person.
The same newspaper carried an article by an obviously nice, liberal, and incidentally courageous rabbi. He told how he and his friend the vicar had got together and invited local Islamic leaders to join them in community prayer-meetings filled with ecumenical brotherly love. They had to give up when the Moslem’s exploited the meetings by aggressively preaching the superiority of Islam over Christianity and Judaism. Vicar and rabbi were united in their disappointment. But what on earth did they expect? What on earth do they think religious faith is all about?
Faith is a state of mind that leads people to believe in something – it doesn’t really matter what – without a whisper of doubt or a wisp of evidence; and believe it so strongly in some cases they are prepared to kill and die for it without the need for further justification.
This is the terrifying thing about faith
Brains infected by it are not open to reasoned argument. They aren’t open to persuasion. Faith is powerful enough to immunise people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feeling. It can even immunise them against fear, since many of them honestly believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the neutron bomb. It just happens that in our time Islam is faith’s chief standard-bearer. With a few shining exceptions like Northern Ireland, Christianity has gone soft and almost decent, and that is no way to rally the faithful.
Our whole society is soft on religion
The assumption is remarkably widespread that religious sensitivities are somehow especially deserving of consideration – a consideration not accorded to ordinary prejudice. Without being religious, we may find all sorts of things offensive. If somebody finally murdered Esther Rantzen on the grounds that he found her deeply offensive, would he receive respectful ‘sympathy’ and ‘understanding’ of his sincerely held beliefs’ from religious and civic leaders?
No, because his prejudice happens not to be a religious prejudice. I admit to being offended by Father Christmas, ‘Baby Jesus’, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, but if I tried to act on these prejudices I’d quite rightly be held accountable. I’d be challenged to justify myself. But let somebody’s religion be offended and it’s another matter entirely. Not only do the affronted themselves kick up an almighty fuss; they are abetted and encouraged by influential figures from other religions and the liberal establishment. Far from being challenged to justify their beliefs like anybody else, the religious are granted sanctuary in a sort of intellectual no go area.
Even secular activists are incomprehensibly soft when it comes to religion
We join feminists in condemning a work of pornography because it degrades women.
But hands off a holy book that advocates stoning adulteresses to death. Having been convicted in courts where females are decreed unfit to give evidence!
Animal liberationists attack laboratories that scrupulously use anaesthetics for all operations. But what about ritual slaughterhouses in which animals have to be fully conscious when their throats are cut? If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim – for all I know truthfully – that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification.
The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify his faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.
Admittedly, faith is not always deployed towards evil ends. It may even do some good. The trouble is that faith, by the very nature of its vaunted detachment from objective reality, is a weapon that can be arbitrarily turned on any target. It is morally neutral, but very powerful and therefore very dangerous.
Have no illusions, this episode is just one battle: there is a long way ahead of us. Our best weapon is education, especially education in the secular scientific world-view. It costs money but it is money well spent.
Think of it as part of the defense budget.
THE PROPER (SCIENTIFIC) STRUCTURALISED VIEW OF THE WORLD