The novelist Mary McCarthy once said about the communist playwright Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
This is absolutely true in spirit. However, technically speaking, it’s a slight exaggeration. A writer is statistically unlikely to rely exclusively on mendacious words in his prose.
Or at least so I thought until today. Oliver Kamm’s article Secular Values, Not Religion, Make Us a Tolerant Society in The Times has disabused me of such romantic notions.
The assumption here is that tolerance is ipso facto a virtue. But this is false: tolerance to, say, evil, immorality, tastelessness, perversion, treason isn’t exactly virtuous. It’s suicidal.
Then exactly which religion does Mr Kamm mean? Using this word generically, at least in this context, is rank ignorance. Comparing, say, Christianity with Islam or Judaism with Buddhism, one ought to realise that there’s no such thing as religion in the abstract.
There are only separate religions, each with its own dogma, practices of worship, cosmology, ethos, culture, social and political organisation – civilisation. Does Kamm think that Christ, who told people to love their enemies, and Mohammed, who told people to kill them, created equally intolerant religions?
He probably does, which betokens not only ignorance, but possibly a mental disorder as well. Not to worry, in the unlikely event that he reads this, I number several psychiatrists among my friends. We’ll fix you up, Oliver, just relax and think nice thoughts.
Meanwhile, my friends’ future patient presses right on: “Religious belief resolves no moral problem and yields no knowledge.” If his own example is anything to go by, atheism isn’t a fount of knowledge either.
A religious person, Oliver, and I mean specifically a practitioner of the religion that created our civilisation, tends to practise what his church preaches – or at least to feel guilty if he doesn’t.
Are we to assume that this is less likely to ‘resolve moral problems’ than the belief that one is the fulcrum around which life revolves and therefore, as Hemingway wrote, anything that feels good is moral? Or, to be kinder to atheists, that every man can set his own moral rules and follow them even if they clash with everyone else’s?
Hold your breath, we’re still in the first paragraph. It gets better: “I’d settle for the victory of moderate forms of religion, which accept science and pluralism, over absolutist ones.”
This proceeds from the assumption that there exist in the West immoderate forms of religion rejecting science. Actually they don’t exist, and believing they do exacerbates my fear for Oliver’s mental health. For one finds it hard to accept that anyone can be so ignorant as to think that, say, Christianity opposes science or indeed has ever done so.
In fact, our civilisation is the only one that has produced real science – specifically because, as Collingwood showed so brilliantly, Christianity corrected the Greeks’ metaphysical error of treating the world as existing only as our subjective perception.
Once mediaeval scientists, armed with Christian philosophy, proved this was wrong, they could be certain that nature obeyed universal laws – it was after all created by a universal law-giver. Moreover, these laws and indeed the world itself existed objectively, outside man’s senses.
The scientists’ job was understood to be finding out what those laws were, and this understanding lies at the heart of every presupposition of modern research. (This regardless of whether the scientist has lost or preserved the original faith.) That’s why science eventually became incomparably greater in the West than in any other civilisation – only Christendom possessed and cultivated the essential prerequisites.
As to religious absolutism, it would be easy but tedious to enumerate modern disasters directly attributable to moral relativism. In Kamm’s case this would also be pointless.
“The ideas of Spinoza and Russell appeal to me…” Between you, me and the lamp post, Ollie, have you actually read those authors? Come on, you can tell uncle Alex.
I’d suggest that anyone whose every word screams intellectual inadequacy and general absence of basic education would be physically unable to work his way through rather long and involved arguments. Just say you prefer deism to Christianity, Oliver, and leave it at that. This name-dropping may drop you into… well, an embarrassing situation.
“…Religions typically have a lethal [my emphasis] assumption in common: that faith is a virtue.” Of course it isn’t, Ollie, we all know that. What is a virtue is believing that you yourself are your own God.
The first century, the twentieth, in which this virtue reigned supreme, elevated evil to a level never before seen in history. Between two world wars, ideological mass murder (the ideology inspiring it invariably regards atheism as its key tenet), artificial famines, countless smaller wars, concentration camps in Russia, Germany, China (complete your own list), more people, by an order of magnitude, were killed in that atheist century than in all other centuries of recorded history combined.
“Liberal, secular values have tamed religion as a source of conflict.” Fine. But exactly those same values either greatly contributed to the crimes I mentioned above or acted as their sole cause. Do your own sums, Ollie, and decide which ‘source of conflict’ is preferable.
“The decline of religious observance in modern societies is an important civilising influence.” All I can say is, see above. Or walk through London on a Saturday evening, especially after the local team’s home match, then peak into a church on a Sunday morning and compare the two crowds.
Still think that tattooed, puking plankton is a better sample of civilisation than the well-dressed, sober families one sees in places of worship?
In theory, one has to be a moron to think that faith in God, whose judgment we’ll have to face, has no civilising effect, while believing in nothing (which, as Chesterton quipped, means believing in anything) does. In practice, one has to be blind not to see how manifestly false this is.
“The more potent form of faith seeks to justify doctrines and practices that defy rationality and compassion.” Right. Christianity, history’s most rational religion bringing together Athens and Jerusalem, defies rationality. As to compassion, read Matthew, Chapter 5, Ollie. You know how to read, don’t you?
Then Kamm accuses ‘religion’ of resisting abortion and homomarriage. “It takes religious dogma to do that.” Not necessarily, my friend. Common decency would be a good start.
“Civilisation depends on overcoming [faith],” is the last sentence in this drivel. I’d say civilisation depends on keeping deranged ignoramuses out of formerly respectable papers.