All belief systems have their fanatical adherents

 

Stripping the world of religion would remove only one outlet for man’s innate tendency towards extremism, writes DAVID ADAMS.

THE SIGHT of people praying at a tree stump in Co Limerick set me thinking about religion, and then to thinking about Richard Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion. When I first read The God Delusion, I was uncomfortable with it, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Not because I think there is a God. Like Dawkins, I find it impossible to believe in a supreme being (I am Protestant only in the Northern Irish tribal sense).

Nor was there any difficulty with the book’s claim that religion has brought untold death and misery to the world. What rational person could argue with that? The obvious enjoyment Dawkins takes in attacking religion irked a bit. Somewhat reminiscent, at times, of a child taking delight in telling his siblings that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

But it was more than that. After a second reading, it struck me that what was so unsettling was the hectoring tone and, in particular, the absolute certainty of Dawkins that he has all the answers.

I began to think, “This guy is as fanatical as a religious fundamentalist.” Frankly, I am far less disconcerted by people praying at a tree stump than I am by the ultra-confident assertion of Dawkins that we would be infinitely better off without religion.

It is one thing to point out the contradictions and irrationality of religious belief, and the dangers it can sometimes pose (and it is absolutely crucial that we ensure religion is kept separate from government, and is held publicly accountable and open to criticism). However, it is something else altogether to argue, as Dawkins and others do, that we should dispense with it altogether.

Are we meant to believe that murderous fanaticism would disappear along with religion? Apparently, yes. But to believe that, we must also accept that religion alone breeds such fanaticism, or at least is more prone to producing dangerous fanatics than any other belief system. Yet, this is simply not true. Certainly religion has its extreme adherents, and they can cause great harm, but the same is equally true of virtually every other belief system.

One only has to consider the havoc wreaked by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot, and numerous other atheistic dictators, to realise that religion is far from the only ideology capable of producing fanatics whose stock in trade is mass murder. In fact, if we were to make a judgment based on body count relative to length of time in existence, then religion wouldn’t get a look in. On that basis, we would surely be arguing that the notion of organised politics, including the liberal democratic variety, should be dispensed with. Which raises the awkward question: should we blame politics or religion where a heady mix of both has resulted in murderous mayhem? Genocide doesn’t even require the underpinning of a coherent belief system, as proven by the likes of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe. The root of the problem lies not with religion, but with human nature, and specifically our innate tendency towards violence and extremism.

Although buried in most of us, this tendency is there nonetheless and can easily arise. There are those within whom it is buried far less deeply. They do not need religion. They would be equally fanatical about whatever cause or belief system they happen to attach themselves to.

The dangers for the rest of us come when such people manage to get themselves into positions of unaccountable power and influence. And nowadays this applies to political leaders at least as much as to their religious counterparts.

If forced to choose, would you opt to live in Iran or North Korea? If we were to strip the world of religion, we would succeed only in removing one of a multitude of possible outlets for those with a predisposition to fanaticism.

Dawkins appears to believe that if humankind could but free itself from religious superstition, through science and rationalism alone, it would develop into a more pacific and reasonable species. This flies in the face of everything we know about the true nature of man. Further, this is the same science that, as well as being so wonderfully beneficial, has developed weaponry capable of destroying life on a barely imaginable scale. And a rationalism that, besides its benefits, has underpinned the bloody terror of the French Revolution and countless other bouts of “rational” bloodletting since the Enlightenment.

Dawkins, a biologist by profession, has developed a theory about natural selection he calls the selfish gene. I would suggest the existence of a “religious” gene, which drives man to seek comfort in one set of beliefs or another. The biggest delusion of all is to imagine that we could ever rid ourselves of conventional religion without something – probably much worse – immediately filling the vacuum.

What, if not religions in all but name, were the ideologies of Mao, Hitler, and Lenin? To paraphrase Churchill on democracy: conventional religion is the worst belief system, except for all those other belief systems we’ve tried from time to time.

I do not believe in God, but I believe we need Him.

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