Respecting Religion

By Namit Arora | May 2007 | Comments

Images2 Religious folks are a diverse lot. In their public acts, they exhibit a host of inspirations, both religious and secular. We can guess but usually can't be sure about the mix. Forget the average pious bloke, even a suicide bomber's inspirations are rarely plain. Yet, to the extent a religious inspiration is evident in a public act -- whether good or bad in its effect -- what should we make of it?

Religion is so entwined with history that it's hard to imagine what an alternate world would have been like. It is not sensible to say that the world would have turned out better (or worse) without it. When militant atheists like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens attack religion as pernicious and irrational, they tend to equate secular with rational. They forget that being secular (or an atheist) is not a positive virtue; it doesn't make one more reasonable, kind, or caring. History is also replete with secular horrors. Might as well aim for rational rather than merely secular.

Reacting to militant atheists, moderate atheists often wince and point out the mixed record of religion -- that religiosity is not all bad; in many, it has also inspired charity, altruism, and resistance to inhumanity and injustice (e.g., the Civil Rights movement, Anglican Church on Apartheid, etc.). It is likely that without their religiosity, many of these folks would not have acted as they did. Religiosity can also hold society together, provide succor and strength in trying times, etc. Moderate atheists call this "good religiosity" and prefer to object only to "bad religiosity". As a corrective and a call for greater tolerance, this seems reasonable. But we wonder: Is there more behind their "mixed record of religion" argument?

Allow me to use an analogy. If I know that a socially good outcome came from a selfish motive (fame, glory, thrill, riches, power, etc.), I won't dignify the doer. I recognize that without the selfish motive (which, perhaps like religiosity, issues from an evolutionary instinct), the doer may not have acted and thus prevented the good from occurring. I readily appreciate the good but, privy to the motive in this case, I still refuse to put the doer, or his instincts, on a pedestal. Many such acts might make me more tolerant of others' selfishness, but they won't make me respect it. When evident, I'll elevate enlightened motives over selfish ones. Looking at motivation (and means, not just the ends) is rather central to how I make value judgments.

Likewise with the "mixed record of religion". Good deeds inspired by religiosity still do not raise my respect for religiosity. Sure, without it they may not have happened at all, yet the doer and the inspiration fail to earn my respect to the extent the motive is religious. I readily appreciate the good results; they tend to make me more tolerant of public religiosity, even as I continue to see its roots in fear and unreason. But even if falsehoods comfort, bind, and keep the peace, do they deserve my respect ? Many moderate atheists perhaps confuse tolerance with respect, thereby sounding like apologists for religion (not to mention paternalistic). As an atheist myself, I dislike the intolerant zeal of militant atheists but also harbor no respect for religiosity itself, including the "good" kind.

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