Here’s a post from the vaults. I wrote it almost a year ago, but never got around to finishing it and posting it.
We are a categorizing species. We like to divide the world up into distinct types of things: animals and plants, men and women, natural and artificial. This tendency is useful – perhaps even necessary – but it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these distinctions are artificial. They are products of our perception and our thinking, rather than inherent features of the world.
I’ve just listened to a conversation between atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (audio link here), which has me thinking about another distinction that is prominent in many people’s minds: that between religion and atheism.
I encourage you to kick back and listen to it. Hitchens is in fine form as always, barbed and eloquent. Sewell is pleasant, and doesn’t let Hitchens’ thorns throw her off. Come back when you’re done.
Ready? Let’s carry on …
In the conversation, each of the speakers expresses some ideas and attitudes that I agree with, and some I disagree with. I am an atheist and a member of a Unitarian community (a state seems contradictory, or at least dissonant, to many atheists).
My own way out of this apparent problem is to see it from the perspective of my primary “worldview affiliation” (for lack of a better term): humanism. This is a label that I think applies equally well to both Hitchens and Sewell (and generally to both atheists and Unitarians).
I agree with Hitchens (as did Sewell) when he says that there is no moral act that can be motivated by religion but not by an atheistic worldview. I accept this “atheist” claim that religious belief is unrelated, in general, to ethical behaviour.
Sewell asks, however, whether Hitchens can accept that some people are motivated by their religious beliefs to do good. It seems clear to me that some people find inspiration for doing good from their religious beliefs. Others, like Hitchens and me, find our inspiration for good behaviour from personal experience, or from science, or from philosophy. I suspect that many people draw on both religious and non-religious ideas to motivate their good acts. Hitchens evades that question in the conversation. Rather than admitting that at least some people act better because of religious belief, he falls back to his customary reel of evil deeds motivated by religion.
I think he could acknowledge her point without conceding that religion is always a good thing, or even that, on balance, it produced more good than harm. But it does sort of weaken the punch of his book’s subtitle: How religion poisons everything. Everything, Christopher? No.
On the other hand, Hitchens and I (and many other humanists, I think) are frustrated with the Unitarians’ definition of themselves as religious. Sewell uses the Bible as inspiring literature.
I consider myself a Christian. I believe in the Jesus story as story, as narrative, and Jesus as a person whose life is exemplary and that I want to follow. But I do not believe in all that stuff [referring to the crucifixion as redemption for sin] … (around the 10:15 mark in the audio)
She doesn’t think it’s literally true, but the stories embody common human themes and metaphors. She prefers Biblical stories to other stories perhaps – so I (a science-fiction enthusiast) would call her a “bible enthusiast”. But religious? Not in any normal sense of the word. (Perhaps I’ll cover that in a future “definition” post.) With apologies to my Unitarian friends, I have to agree that it’s odd and often misleading to call themselves religious.
So, where does that leave us? Like I said above, I think I basically agree with both of them about the important stuff. I share Hitchens’ dislike for the Christian story – either as literal history or as an inspiring fictional tale. I agree with Sewell that religion does inspire some good, and that it works for some people where the non-religious alternatives might not work for them.
I still haven’t completely resolved, for myself, the odd identity thing with Unitarians – are they “religious” (in which case I’ll need to accept a very eccentric definition of the word “religious”) or not? I think it is around this question that my own reluctance to call myself a Unitarian revolves.
Hmm … that gives me an idea. Stay tuned …
(Thanks to Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for pointing out the exchange between Hitchens and Sewell.)