Reader Daniel Sharp, a student in Edinburgh (I’m informed that he’s now graduated), sent me a link to a very nice essay he wrote for his Substack. As you can see, it was intended for Quillette but fell through the cracks. His intro:
I just wanted to share with you a little piece I just published on my Substack. I was commissioned by Quillette to contribute to one of their ’roundtables’, where various people answer a particular question, either positively, negatively, or, if you like, agnostically. In this case, the question was about religion, and I had fun donning my ‘New Atheist’ hat. Alas, the feature wasn’t published because they couldn’t find anyone to take the middling position, so I published it on my Substack instead.
Click to read:
A couple of quotes (indented):
As a good old-fashioned New Atheist type, I have long been of the view that religion is most certainly not good for humanity. At best, it is irrelevant to the task of creating happy, free, and prosperous societies. At worst, it is an enemy of truth and a driver of hatred and conflict.
Let’s take truth first. The question at hand isn’t really about the veracity or otherwise of religion, but I think most people would consider truth, all else being equal, to be a good thing for humanity, as I do. This is by no means a given, I concede, and we shall have to skate over difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions about what exactly we mean by ‘truth’. But if we believe that truth (meaning, broadly, the accurate understanding of reality) is good, then religion, almost by definition, cannot be good for us.
I’m not one of those milquetoast atheists who hedges their bets, let alone a respectably stuffy agnostic. No, I think one can say, with great confidence, that Christianity, Islam, and the rest are utterly false. We know, and even believers have had to admit, that all the holy books are riddled with.
As for the idea that religion acts as a social glue, well, perhaps it does for members of a congregation or faith, but surely not for humanity as a whole. I can’t imaging a more divisive force save nationalism.
Questions of truth and knowledge aside, what of the social effects of religion? We live in a generally secular age, in which religion (or at least some religious sects, and mostly in the West) has been mostly defanged. I think this explains why so many people have a hard time understanding that genuinely held delusional beliefs can be a powerful motivator to action. This is why we find it hard to comprehend the cruelty of medieval inquisitors and the murderousness of modern jihadists. We rationalize their evils as being rooted in grievances or economics. But make no mistake: religion is an extraordinarily effective engine of evil.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that one could pick almost any conflict at random, historical or contemporary, and quickly see the poisonous influence of religion. Putin’s war on Ukraine, for example, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin sees himself as the restorer of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For him, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.
To head off another likely response: I am not saying that religion is the sole cause of every conflict. But it appears, one way or another, as motivation or motivator, in most of them, and makes them even harder to resolve. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his 2007 broadside against religion, god is not Great, “Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”
After Jordan Peterson’s quasi-religious spiel at the academic freedom conference yesterday, I was discussing with a friend the notion that “wokeness” is a form of religion—the claim of John McWhorter in his antiracism book. Yes, I agree there are many parallels, but I couldn’t say that wokeness is a replacement for religion: filling the “God-shaped hole” that many are supposed to have.
I think the parallel is largely on the basis of similarities in some tenets of wokeism and of religion (e.g. “original sin”, authoritarianism, and moral purity), but the parallel goes only so far. There is nothing supernatural about wokeness; it’s a purely human phenomenon. This makes wokeness “religinoid” rather than “religious”. Moreover, when you look at countries outside the U.S.— countries that used to be religious but are now largely atheistic (e.g., Germany, Scandinavia, etc.), they are neither particularly “woke” nor do their inhabitants feel the need to replace religion with something similar. The disappearance of religion doesn’t seem to have left a God-shaped hole. (What did Danes or Icelanders fill their God-shaped hole with?). Nor is Britain particularly religious compared to the U.S., though it is woke.
Rather, the tenets of “progressive leftism” that we consider illiberal come from tribalism, not religion. That may be a distinction without a difference, but I get queasy when I hear about that “God-shaped hole”. I see religion as something that arose when we didn’t understand the world, and because we were (and still are) afraid to die. Wokeness doesn’t fill either of those needs; science and reality do.
One could, I suppose, test the “GSH” hypotehsis by seeing if the woke, compared to, say, centrist liberals, used to be more religious but gave it up: they are more likely to be “nones.”
This is just a digression having nothing to do with Daniel’s fine review. But I put it out there because I’m sitting at the SF airport with nothing to do but write.
In the end, I can make weaker and stronger versions of my argument. At its strongest, I can say that religion is not just harmless but harmful. At its weakest, I can say that religion is irrelevant. Either way, religion is not positively good for us. We have no need of it. Humanity is weak and foolish, yes, but it also contains what Saul Bellow in his great novel The Adventures of Augie March so beautifully called the “universal eligibility to be noble”.
I submit, finally, then, that the highest, noblest path that humanity can pursue is one without religion. We must face the uncaring universe with our chins up. . . .
Remember, when you’re arguing about whether the phenomenon of religion itself is now (or was in the past) a net good or net bad for the world, you have to consider all of humanity, not just the United States. If Northern Europe can survive perfectly well without either religion or a religion-resembling replacement, then so can we all.