Atheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them. So said Conrad Black in a recent National Post column. Black seems to be increasingly theological in his writing; perhaps he has had some sort of epiphany in prison. If so, it seems to be pushing him towards a Pauline-style intolerance and exclusivity, religiously speaking. That attitude is not conducive to dialogue, but it certainly suits the writer.
And, as he has been in the past, he is wrong about both religion and atheism. He speaks from the position of the True Believer for whom no other perspective, let alone dissent, is tolerable. Black, a convert to Catholicism, wrote contemptuously of other religions in 2009:
… Anglicans, moreover, have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope,” though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation.
The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism…
Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13th-century decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. … the 80% of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiff-necked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him.
It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilization, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith.*
Let’s start with a simple clarification: everyone is an atheist in that there are many gods a lot of people don’t believe in. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Conrad doesn’t believe in Moloch, Zeus, Baal, Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Hera, Shiva,, Ganesh or Odin. That makes him and everyone else who doesn’t believe in them an atheist to those who do. Those whom many people normally label as atheist merely believe in one less deity than those who claim to be believers. Atheism is thus relative.
The full paragraph he wrote is about his meeting with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book Heretic, about the need to ‘reform’ Islam:
The author’s summaries of problems and solutions is plausible, but if her suggestions were enacted, Islam would become just a Golden Rule fellowship; her authority to recommend anything so radical, moreover, suffers for her being not just an apostate, but an atheist. This, as I gently suggested to her, is where her heartfelt argument becomes tenuous. Atheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them.
Well, what’s wrong with a ‘Golden Rule fellowship’? Buddhism has been that for the past 2,500 years: it is less a religion than an ethical and philosophical framework. As are Taoism and Confucianism. These have served their cultures well for the past 2,500 years. Black arrogantly dismissed Eastern religions, however, in 2009:
The Eastern religions, to the very slight degree that I have studied them, are philosophical guides to living, not frameworks for the existence and purpose of man.
It’s hardly radical to separate deism and theism from the moral and social practices of a culture. Romans and Greeks had dozens of gods without resorting to them for morality or law. Yet add some ritual to these ethical practices and you have almost everything you need for a religion. But then add some swords, crosses, stoning pits and stakes… and you get what most atheists dislike in religion: the handling of dissent.
Why shouldn’t atheists reform religions? Atheists may refrain from belief or ritual, but that doesn’t mean they do not become involved in the political aspect of religion – which is where reformation lies. Three atheist bloggers have been brutally murdered by religious fanatics in Bangladesh because they dared try to suggest reforms to Islam; five other bloggers who also criticized Islamic fundamentalism have also been attacked. They showed an enormous amount of courage to write in face of such threats.
Who better but atheists to advise religions on reform? Atheists look from the outside in a way no insider can. In a similar vein, it is the outsiders – often the media – who can best point out the flaws of a political party.
Andre Comte-Sponville author of, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, wrote that,
Atheism is a way of humility. It’s to think oneself to be an animal, as we are actually and to allow oneself to become human. Presentations de La Philosophie
Black’s logic is that only those who are believers can reform an institution. Clearly that hasn’t worked within Black’s own Catholic Church, which remains mired in 16th-century attitudes towards abortion, sex, homosexuality, and divorce, despite attempts at reform from within. It hasn’t changed fundamentalist Islam or Christianity. And reform does not mean change for the good: fundamentalists want ‘reform’ that increases intolerance and punishment.
Black also comments:
Mohamed started out as Jesus Christ spent his whole life, as a preacher…
Not so for either. Mohammed was a salesman; at age 40, he told his wife he had had a dream in which he had been visited by the angel Gabriel – that started his religious revelations, which continued for 23 years. Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptised – age unsure, possibly 29, but clearly an adult. Neither started out as a ‘preacher.’ Both had many years before they started their ministry.
Black also writes, erroneously as is his wont:
While no knowledgeable person would dispute that Christianity has been invoked as an excuse for a good deal of unjustifiable militarism, it is comparatively tolerant, and has very rarely claimed the right to extort adherents under pain of death, which is unfortunately rather commonplace in the history and current practices of Islam.
Comparatively tolerant? Sure, if you ignore the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch craze, the Holocaust, the residential schools, anti-abortion violence… and a thousand other transgressions against the human spirit, mind and body in the name of Christian faith. One only has to read the misanthropic comments of the Westboro Baptist Church to realize that Christian intolerance is alive and well in modern America, and there are Christians today who would willingly kill and torture others in the name of their faith
And lest we forget, Christianity’s own history is one of two millennia of martial strife between its own various schools, cults and beliefs. Christians have shown a remarkable lack of tolerance for dissension within their own ranks. The bitter wars between Protestant and Catholic factions are but one chapter in a long book of religious strife. The first five or six centuries of Christian history are a record of internecine battles for orthodoxy and political supremacy.
Back in March, Black – who seems to have a persecution complex over criticism of his wild pronouncements on religion – facetiously claimed,
…societies uninfluenced by serious considerations of a divine intelligence do not have as advanced and institutionalized notions of ethics, equity and impartial justice as those that have been; that the atheist militants generally refuse to admit atheism, too, is a faith; that they can’t really dispute the existence of spiritual forces in the world, other than by consigning them to the hitherto unknown, or the conjurations of hysterics, the delusional, and charlatans.
In that bit of pomposity, Black both dismisses most Asian cultures and ignores western history. It is fatuous to assume that only religion can impart a sense of ethics or justice into a culture. Nor is there any valid reason to assume an atheist dismisses these concepts upon becoming an unbeliever. Atheism is not nihilism. Atheists pay the same homage to law, justice and morality as do believers; perhaps moreso because they are not borne out of dogma.
But the latter part is simply bunk: not only is atheism not a faith, it can easily dispute imaginary beings and ‘spiritual forces’ with simple words like “show me” and “give me proof.” Atheism has none of the trappings of faith, the political hierarchy, the ritual, the formal declarations – and, of course, no deity. A rejection of faith-based principles and practices is not in itself a faith.
Faith itself depends on the communal experience. Atheism is a solitary experience, with no public, communal declaration.
There’s no little irony in Black’s whinging criticism of those who criticize him.
Coincidentally, Toronto Star religious writer, Michael Cohen, wrote at the same time about his own recent experiences when he went from Catholic to Anglican faiths:
I was fired from three regular columns in Catholic magazines, had a dozen speeches cancelled and was then subjected to a repugnant storm of tweets, Facebook comments, emails, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts where it was alleged that I am unfaithful to my wife, am willing to do anything for money, am a liar and a fraud, a “secret Jew,” that my eldest daughter is gay and I am going directly to hell.
As an outsider to both faiths, the argument over a change of religions looks more like the debate over how many angels can dance on pinheads, yet it sparked a torrent of hate mail and email. Religion sometimes has that effect: intolerance writ large.
Modern British Muslims who challenge the fundamentalist views of their fellow Muslims get the same, but worse, as a recent story in the Guardian tells:
The danger is confirmed by Imtiaz Shams, an energetic 26-year-old who runs a group called Faith to Faithless, which aims to help Muslim nonbelievers speak out about their difficult situations. Shams has a visible presence on YouTube and has organised several events at universities. “I am at physical risk because I do videos,” says Shams. “I don’t like putting myself in the firing line, but I had to because no one else is willing to do it.”
As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”
Cohen goes on to add,
Over the years I have been attacked by various people in various camps, but I have never witnessed such an organized, personal and unkind campaign — all from men and women who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, a Messiah who preached turning the other cheek, empathy and endless light. I’m trying to forgive because as a Christian I’m in the forgiving business. But I tell you in all honesty, it’s hard.
Conrad Black’s comparative tolerance is a self-imposed illusion. Religion has historically proven itself intolerant of any form of dissent, apostasy or heresy; today fundamentalist elements in every faith are active in attacking such challenges. Which only continues to push societies towards a polarization between the secular and religious, between choice and dogma.