I have been thinking about my manifesto entry on religion, and I want to throw out an idea relating to it.
Atheists are prone to blame religion for many of the world’s problems. I think that there is an element of truth to this, but it has nothing to do with what religious people actually believe. Belief in the existence of god doesn’t actually cause any problems. Instead, I think the problem is in heirarchies. I am an anarchist, so obviously I am against all forms of heirarchy, but my purpose in this entry is not so much to discuss the problems of heirarchies per se (I may do this in a future manifesto entry on anarchism), but to see how it relates to religion.
There are obvious heirarchies in religions of most (all?) sorts. However, there are other sorts of secular heirarchies. In the democratic West we have political elites, usually well off, educated at elite institutions, etc. I think that the 2.5 party system we have in the UK demonstrates the danger in this – we have two main parties which are almost identical in their policies, and one hanger on that feels it has to ape the policies of the two main parties to have a chance. In Communist revolutionary situations we have Vanguards which become bureaucratic heirarchies. etc. I think most people can see the danger of heirarchies, even if they might say that they are necessary.
The problem with heirarchies is that it puts one person above another, and this problem does not need an institutionalised heirarchy to exist. The atheist who mocks the religious for their belief in god (for instance by saying that it’s like believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden) puts him or herself intellectually above the believer. They have created a heirarchy in which rational, scientifically minded folk like themselves are a level above people who believe in god. This is a problem because you cannot have real communication with people at a different level to you in the heirarchy. The relationship will, from the point of view of the atheist, always be one of condescension. Explaining things to the poor little religious simpleton who can’t understand very well.
So far, not much new here, but I believe there is a way to resolve this problem. I think that we need to make a commitment to being against heirarchies. This commitment will take different forms for different people. Suppose I am stronger than you. My commitment to being against heirarchy consists in my believing that my strength shouldn’t put me on a higher level than you, even though in a one-on-one situation it does in a certain sense (that is, I can beat you up if you don’t do what I say). For the strong, this commitment means relinquishing the power that your strength gives you. This belief is now almost universally recognised.
Suppose though that I believe I am more intelligent than you are. Now, my commitment to being against heirarchies means believing that this does not put me on a higher level than you. It means accepting that you have an equal right in political decisions, in deciding your own fate, etc. It means accepting this even if you are in some way more qualified in doing so than they are.
So the rationalist atheist must make a personal, moral commitment not to put themselves above the theist, and this is a hard thing to do because all the evidence, everything they believe about reason and logic and so forth tells them they ought to. Similarly for the theist, they have to tell themselves that their belief in god doesn’t put them above the unbeliever. This can be very difficult for them too. For example, for someone who believes that life begins at conception, it is very difficult to talk to someone who believes in abortion. Think about the magnitude of holding both those ideas in your head at one time – that what you believe to be murder someone else believes not to be and that the right thing to do is not to make them see it your way. Both sides need to make this commitment and it is an extraordinarily difficult one to make.