About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
How to do away with religion, really
Kitcher suggested that frontal attacks are simply not going to do much for atheism. I do find Harris, Dennett and Dawkins to make good points in an refreshingly uncompromising and often funny (if sometimes philosophically naive, in the case of Dawkins) manner, and I therefore recommend their books to people who aren't afraid of a bit of blunt talk about religion. But I also think Kitcher is fundamentally right about the ineffectiveness of this approach, which could, in fact, even generate a backlash, if the several nasty reviews these books have gotten even in progressive media outlets is any indication.
During the Q&A, Kitcher and I got to think about what might, then, change the currently perilous trajectory of the United States toward a theocracy (only partially slowed down by the recent Republican debacle in the 2006 elections), not to mention ameliorate the sorry state of most of the non-Western world when it comes to religion. Kitcher's first suggestion was that we need a coherent and positive humanist alternative. Yes, we do, but I doubt that even that will change things much. Moreover, there are several countries (mostly in Western Europe, but also Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and – most significantly – Japan) where religion doesn't play anywhere near the role it plays in the US, and yet there is no unified nationwide secular humanist movement to counter it.
What could be the cause, then? Kitcher pointed out that all of those secular countries have two things in common: the kind of social networks that are largely absent from American society, and the sort of government-sponsored safety net that makes people feel like they aren't constantly one short step from total ruin, should they lose their job or health insurance. Not coincidentally, these two things are precisely what churches worldwide strive to provide, and it works.
Think of why, for example, one of George W.'s first actions once in office was to start funding “faith-based” initiatives, in flagrant violation of the separation between Church and State. Think also of why a nasty group like Hezbollah is so popular in Lebanon: because they help people who are in the most need, despite their violent and uncompromisingly ideological bent. Think of why the Catholic Church has always sent missionaries to “help” the poor worldwide (yes, they do help, but my point is that this is a strategy for conversion as much as a genuine will to do good).
So, if we want to counter religion's hegemony worldwide, let's not waste any time trying to get scattered (and usually fiercely independent) secular humanist and atheist groups to rally together and propose an “alternative.” Religion's best death – as shown by modern highly secular Christmas – is by thousands of small cuts that make it progressively irrelevant and a far less attractive choice than a secular life. What we need to do, therefore, is oppose public funding of “faith based” initiatives, start taxing churches for what their properties are fully worth to the public coffers, support community groups at the local level, and work toward a more progressive society where health care, pensions, jobs and housing are the kind of priorities we want our governments to focus on. Religion worldwide will then progressively be reduced to the status of the Church of England: a quaint, mostly harmless institution whose main functions are entirely ceremonial and largely unattended. What a wonderful world would that be!