John Gray’s accommodationist waffle

different religios beliefs

In a lengthy post for the BBC magazine, John Gray tells us that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live”. The post is titled “A Point of View: Can religion tell us more than science?” – and while he certainly expresses a point of view, I don’t think it a particularly good one.

It’s obvious that how we live (our actions, in other words) is all that others can see, and all about us that affects them in any perceptible way. It’s also obvious that how we live is highly significant to our own welfare – you can make more or less risky choices, you can offend rather than placate, you can take homeopathic remedies instead of medicine.

But Gray’s argument goes further than those obvious truths. He uses this notion of our beliefs mattering to set up a straw man version of atheism, in which atheists (in particular ‘new atheists’) are guilty of the following:

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion. It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.

This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is – a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.

And yes, it is again (partly) true that atheists are dumbfounded by the strange things some religious folk say that they believe – and that some of these beliefs don’t really shape what you do in any way that should concern others. If your tradition involves the ritual of praying 5 times before breakfast, I don’t care, so long as you get to work on time.

However, the beliefs of the religious often go further than that. They are used to justify tax exemptions, removing a source of income from the state which could be deployed in other ways. They are used to shield paedophiles, on the basis of a belief that a man in a robe has some unique access to truth, and is allowed to enjoy and confer relative immunity from ordinary legal processes. Beliefs mattered for children like Kara, who died because her parents prayed instead of taking her to hospital.

Non-religious belief also matters, and can also kill when parents believe in the healing powers of sugar water over medicine. More trivially, our beliefs can cause us to waste money on things like PowerBalance bracelets or vitamin concoctions, and can allow opportunity for ghouls like John Edward to exploit our grief.

We’ve heard this accommodationist claptrap before, most notably from Karen Armstrong, who seems to want us to believe that every religion is some sort of social club, united by nothing significant in terms of actual propositional content. I’d really love to hear the response from a Mullah if I were Muslim, and were to tell him that Allah is an optional extra. On second thoughts, perhaps not, seeing as I might well end up dead, depending on which part of the world this happened in.

Of course some atheists are guilty of caricaturing religion. But whether they do or not does not affect an entirely separate argument, which is that we should be committed to holding true beliefs – especially when those beliefs affect what we do (oftentimes to others). If all religious folk held their strange views, but never acted on the basis of them, we (atheists) would care far less – but they don’t stop there. At least, many of them don’t.

Saying that actions matter more than belief is an intellectually bankrupt cop-out, which refuses to acknowledge that some actions are only possible via particular beliefs, and that challenging those beliefs – and the widespread social tolerance of them – is an essential part of the strategy for eliminating those actions.

Other responses:

  • Ambidexter

    If all religious folk held their strange views, but never acted on the basis of them, we (atheists) would care far less – but they don’t stop there. At least, many of them don’t.

    We see theists use religion to excuse all sorts of actions. Many fundamentalists use religion as the basis for a far right wing political stance. Boyd K. Packer of the Mormon Church and Fred Phelps use religion to justify their homophobia. The Pope lies about condoms and AIDS because he thinks God hates birth control. The Mullahs maintain tight political control of Iran because that’s what Allah wants.

    If the religious were to worship privately and otherwise keep their religions to themselves, then most atheists would take a live and let live attitude toward religion. It’s when goddists try to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else that we get annoyed with them.

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

      Indeed. I’d go so far as to say that religion that’s a private affair shouldn’t really be anyone else’s concern. After all, you’re free to harm yourself, or waste your time, in whatever way you see fit. But so often there are either children involved, or societal perks granted – making it more than just a private matter.

  • Bob

    Yes, beliefs motivate actions. That’s partly what makes them important. But then, I’m interested in beliefs even if they’re so metaphysical that it’s hard to see how they could motivate actions – they can still pertain to truth so they can still be interesting.

    But this is a philosophical objection and kind of gives the article too much credit! It’s factual and historical nonsense through and through.

    > “The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion.”

    What is this guy on? This doesn’t really do credence to vast swathes of more ‘orthodox’ or ‘conservative’ religious sorts. It makes sense of a more enlightened, mythopoeic concept, or a vague waffley Church of England kind of religion. But the world over and throughout history it is very clearly the case that the great majority took at least some of the tenets of their religion to be more or less factual, ontological kinds of claims. Most religious people have always thought they were saying something truthful about the world beyond the allegories and archetypes of poetry.

    I don’t believe for a second that the ancient Greek philosophers “invented” this in-the-world way of treating religious beliefs. They could only have been responding to the fact that most people did think that way about religious beliefs – that they pertained directly to the world, not via poetic resonance. Imagine, would philosophers today spent their time telling people that the dualistic soul is an unnecessary concept unless some people actually believed it was real. Philosophers may spend time attacking slightly out of kilter versions of each others academic theories, but they rarely criticise popular beliefs that aren’t actually popular beliefs.

    None of this is to disparage actual mythology, the value of literature, the truths that poetry can convey. It’s just to say that’s not what religion is exclusively about, probably not even what it’s commonly about, if you look at how most people have believed historically and even today. Gray seems to be imagining a modern church man, probably in England, calmly discussing the mythological nature of the Resurrection. All the angry, spitting heretic-hunters and murderous mullahs and oppressive theocracies are conveniently forgotten to fit his little story.

    Gray on the other hand seems quite capable of attacking views no one has taken. “The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories.” Who says this? One might say that science means we don’t need ancient myths *to answer ontological questions*. But no one is saying that all fictions, mythology, novels, poetry are suddenly extraneous. The world would be so much poorer without the spine-tingly inspiration and depth of art and story.

    But we must remember; Gray seems to be a humanist troll. Stuff like this really gives it away: “The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.” Assuming Gray isn’t a very smart chimpanzee in an uncontacted jungle somewhere, then he must be a very blind-sighted human not to have noticed that human beings (some of them) are already using science to change (remake) the world. So how can this already progressing phenomenon be equally as credible with the Christian idea (note: taken to be factual, not poetic, throughout most of history) that Jesus will rise us from the dead in the end times. I may as well say that the existence of wizards is only as incredible as the idea of little technological boxes with moving pictures on them being beamed into our living rooms.

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

      Good points, Bob. I can’t remember who it was right now (Harris, maybe?) who also made the point that, not only do secular folk get caricatured as “scientistic” and so forth, but that the religious perspective of the “enlightened” (whether it be Eagleton or more ambiguous sorts like Wright) are quite far removed from the perspective of religious folk outside of ivory towers.