Jacobs gets down to business in the third paragraph:
Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience — but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.
Intriguing! On the other hand, people often justify the extraordinary things they do by invoking religion, so we should not be too quick to dismiss the possibility that they’re serious. Let’s see what Jacobs has in mind:
Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.
You can probably sense what is coming. There is a big difficulty with Jacobs’ analogies, however. In both of his cases there is an obvious alternative explanation for the conduct other than the one given. The politician illegally siezing power is obviously helping his own selfish ends by doing so. And the CEO would certainly want to put a good spin on the effect of some recent economic shock (or whatever we are supposed to imagine is the real reason for the drop in prices).
But for the evils laid at religion’s feet, it is hard to imagine any motive except religion that can explain them. What motivates the Iraqi suicide bomber if not his belief that he is doing God’s will? Likewise for the person who bombs an abortion clinic. Or, less dramatically, the person who believes in teaching creationism or in forcing children to pray in schools. There is usually a clear logical path from what many religious zealots claim to believe and the evil they do in God’s name.
What examples does Jacobs have in mind?
Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?
Jacobs continues his discourse on what atheists think in the next paragraph. For now I will simply wonder why, if Osama bin Laden is lying about his motivations, he thinks invoking Islamic imagery is an effective strategy for justifying the unjustifiable. Isn’t it telling us something significant about the role of religion in society that when people want to rally the troops to an unsavory cause, or provide a public justification for some heinous act, they find religion to be the proper tool?
And while we’re at it, the thinking continues, let’s not look too closely at the many other statements by Osama that link his program to ethnic rather than religious shame — to his sense that the Arab people have declined in the world and need to have their pride and power restored. After all, surely if religious sentiment were erased from the world, ethnic prejudice would instantly evaporate as well — wouldn’t it? Mr. Dawkins certainly thinks so: He is on record as saying that if we simply ceased to teach religion to our children we would soon have “a paradise on earth.”
It is here, I am afraid, that Jacobs has abandoned his desire to make a serious argument, preferring instead the low road of caricature and straw-man construction. Osama bin Laden, one suspects, does not make a distinction between religious, ethnic and political motives. His views on the proper distribution of global political power is inextricably linked with his views on religion. It’s not as if we must say he is motivated either by religion or by politics. He can be motivated by both simultaneously.
But let us suppose for the moment that Osama bin Laden is a pure cynic. He doesn’t care one whit about God or religion or Islam, he just uses that kind of language for its rhetorical effectiveness. Are we really going to hypothesize the same for his legions of followers? The ones who flew planes into bulidings, or the suicide bombers on the streets of Baghdad, for example. When they tell us in their statements and their videos that they expect to be rewarded in heaven for their deeds, are they lying? Are they actually just acting from political motives, but think religious language is more appropriate to the situation? When threats of violence and bloodshed erupt from throngs of people irate over some tacky Danish cartoons or a novel authored by an obscure British novelist, are we to suppose that they too are lying about their religious motivations?
Jacobs is being silly in the last half of his paragraph. No one, not Dawkins not Hitchens not Harris, believes that religion is the source of all, or even of most, of the evil in the world. They believe simply that it is a major source of bad things, and one singularly worthy of attention because of the bizarre societal taboo against criticizing it.
As for the line about Dawkins, I think Jacobs is referring to this interview. A look at some of the surrounding dialogue makes it clear that Jacobs is badly oversimplifying Dawkins’ view:
Sheahen: You’ve said that baptizing a child or saying “this is a Jewish child”–that is, pasting a religious label on a child–is child abuse. In your letter to daughter, you ask her to examine what she’s told based on evidence. What do you hope the world would be like if all children were raised without religion, according to your theories?
Dawkins: It would be paradise on earth. What I hope for is a world ruled by enlightened rationality, which does not mean something dull, but something of high artistic value. I just wish there were the slightest chance of it ever happening.
Sheahen: So if people lived according to rationalism, you envision, for example, no more war?
Dawkins: That might be a little bit optimistic, but there would be a much better chance of no more war. Obviously nothing like 9/11, because that’s clearly motivated by religion. There would be less hatred, because a lot of the hatred in the world is sectarian hatred. For example, in Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan. You wouldn’t have an awful lot of the prejudice and trans-generational vendettas that humanity suffers from. There would be less waste of time. People would concentrate on really worthwhile things, instead of wasting time on religion, astrology, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling, things like that.
Sheahen: Some might see the situation in Northern Ireland not as religious, but as class conflicts. The haves vs. the have-nots. There are struggles where religion isn’t a factor–in America, whites vs. blacks, even if both groups were, say, Southern Baptist.
Dawkins: That’s absolutely right. But the thing about religious labels is that they’re gratuitous; there’s no need for them to be there. You can’t do anything about your skin color, but religion could go.
I see a bit more there than just, “Don’t teach kids about religion and suddenly everything is sweetness and light.”
It seems to me that skepticism about religion doesn’t consort well with overtrustfulness of human motives and human honesty. I would counsel our contemporary atheists to study some of their more consistently skeptical ancestors: George Orwell, for instance, who exposed the fundamental and incorrigible dishonesty of most political speech in his great essay “Politics and the English Language.” Or, better yet, Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” with its ruthless exposure of the ways that the Christian emperors of Rome manipulated religious language for the foulest of ends. Surely Gibbon would help even the most optimistic modern atheists break the habit of trustfulness.
We have already addressed this point. Even if we hypothesize pure cynicism on the part of certain political leaders and suppose they are merely using religious language to further political ends (which I have no doubt is a fairly common occurrence in global politics), you still have to explain why this language is so effective. The people on the street responding to this language are surely being sincere about their motives.
Jacobs addresses this point in his final paragraph:
Is religion powerful? I suppose it often is. After all, if people were not religious — or, to take a Gibbonesque view of the matter, if people did not want to be thought of as so — no one would use religious language to promote political or social or ethnic goals. That those seeking to acquire or keep power do use such language, and regularly, indicates that religion has influence. But the idea that without religion people would stop seeking power, stop manipulating, stop deceiving, is just wishful thinking of the silliest kind. Though it may seem ironic for a Christian to be saying this, it’s time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide.
There’s no supposing about it, alas. As for silly wishful thinking, this is more straw-man-ism. No one believes that religion is the sole source of evil in the world. Only that it’s an especially important source of evil, which would seem undeniable.
As for religious language being used to hide the dark forces in all human lives, I think Jacobs has it backward. The issue here is people using religious language to bring those dark forces to the surface. We’re talking about using religious language to rally people to evil causes, after all.
It is often said that atheists want to eliminate or get rid of religion. That is not really an accurate way of putting things, since it suggests a desire for some external force to come in and remove religion from society. What atheists really want is for people to become persuaded on their own that religion does not deserve the respect it so frequently given. If that were to happen, we argue, civilization would be a lot better for it.
This is not a theoretical point. The despotic theocracies of the Middle East are a good example of what happens when religion is permitted too great a role in the political life of a country. Stalinist Russia is a good example of what happens when you use government power to try to subvert religion, but it is not an example of what happens when everyone becomes too rational in their outlook.
On the other hand, modern Scandinavia and many Western European countries are good examples of what happens when people voluntarily allow religion to loosen its hold on society. Can anyone really look at those societies and argue they are suffering for their lack of religion in their politics?