The Samovar

Religion, atheists and heirarchies
September 22, 2006, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Anarchism, Politics, Religion

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.



Extraordinary difficult? I would venture to say “almost impossible”.

I think you are correct to say that the problem is not one of religion per se, but I’m skeptical of your assertion that hierarchies are mainly to blame. I’m also suspicious that hierarchies can simply be removed from human discourse. Hierarchies, to me, are not necessarily imposed. I would see them as a natural manifestation of the way we humans solve problems or accomplish tasks in a collective situation. To me, hierarchies are no more than a manifestation of how we humans organise ourselves in the most efficient way possible when confronted with a task that needs to be done. Over time, of course, sometimes hierarchies become part of the infrastructure and they can be maintained long after their usefulness has expired…

Are you proposing that we should all go against what might be a rather natural tendency to disagree with others when we find they are thinking something that is not to our taste? I’ve come to realise that collective solutions “we should all do this..”, while often worthy in themselves, are rarely practical. I was reared a Catholic, and while priests used to encourage people to “be better” every Sunday at Mass, rarely did their admonitions change the lives of people to make them better. We had as much skullduggery and back-stabbing going on in our country as ever – church or no church. I also see admonitions to burn less fossil fuels, reduce / reuse / recycle, be kind to the poor, and reject racism etc. fall on deaf ears most of the time. Until you are in a position to impose behavioural change through legal, economic, technological or military mechanisms, all the encouragement in the world is unlikely to help much.

Comment by woodpigeon01

Hi woodpigeon, thanks for the comment. 🙂

I think you’re right that heirarchies are probably quite natural, but that’s no reason to keep them. It does mean we can’t just eradicate them overnight. I might come back to this if and when I write my manifesto entry on anarchism, because I think it’s a complex and involved question, and I suspect there aren’t any abstract, general solutions, merely lots of particular things to say.

I’m not saying that we should all go against our tendency to disagree, I’m saying that we need to overcome our desire to impose our way of thinking on those we disagree with (sort of). I think the abortion example is quite a good one. Suppose you have a population in which a decent proportion of people strongly believe that life begins at conception, and another decent proportion strongly believe that it begins later, say at birth for the sake of argument. What does this society do? I don’t think this is a case of reason versus religion, although it’s often portrayed this way. As I see it, both sides have very sound reasons for believing what they do, and their views are not compatible in quite a fundamental way.

Now, even if they take the advice of this entry and manage to suppress their desire to make the other side bend to their will and beliefs, it still leaves a problem (which is that a legal framework needs to be found), but I do believe they have got further than if either side simply “wins” and forces the other side’s views to be ignored somehow.

But you’re right this isn’t a proposal for a solution. It’s easy to say that if everyone did this things would be OK. This is an attempt to diagnose the problem, and it might also be the case that this isn’t like the examples you give where the prisoner’s dilemma means that everyone ends up doing the worst thing because the best thing only works if everyone cooperates. It might be that each person that makes the commitment I mentioned improves the situation, even if the other side don’t. I’m not sure.

Comment by Dan Goodman

One of the things I think the article touches on is how many people prepare to do battle with their opponents. When faced with an opposing view, it’s an incredibly tempting option to resort to ad hominem attacks and to choose straw men to burn in effigy, and it happens all the time. It’s a common approach when attacking religion.

What is much more difficult is to understand where the opponent is coming from, what values underlie that idea, what the merits of their argument is, etc. Few people do it, but when it is done properly, a much more robust argument can be created. I agree totally with this approach. We need to be aware at least that most people are not complete fools, and many may have thought very hard about their particular intellectual position, no matter how seemingly unpalatable it might be to you or me. Easier said than done though.

Comment by Woodpigeon

Agreed, particularly with the bit about not thinking that people are fools even if they’re views are initially incomprehensible to us.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Christian theology teaches that pride is the greatest of sins. In this context, pride is defined as needing to put oneself over another. Those who are proud need another person to be inferior in order to be superior. C.S. Lewis writes (and I’m paraphrasing-don’t have the book in front of me) There is no other sin so wholly offensive when we see it in others, yet so completely unrecognizabl in ourselves. This is what you’re talking about, in purging our need to be superior, to look down on others, right? Personally, I have found exploring this tendency in myself to be fascinating, and it is a constant challenge to police it, but I do agree that it is wholly necessary.

Also ironic perhaps that a religion that espouses this view has the reputation of being so judging, so intolerant of other views, so…proud. So the theist also must make a commitment to not put themselves above the atheist, or above those of other religions. And, in fact, at least the Christian religions do actually acknowledge this in theory. The fact that the stereotype of a Christian is often a very judgemental person underlines how difficult it is. Which is why it is so important to discuss these concepts and try to really listen and respect different views.

Good website with interesting thoughts! I will definately check in regularly!

Comment by Sputnik

[…] In conclusion then, I prefer to look at religion as a purely social phenomenon, which happens to include the notion of God, but that could equally well be replaced with any other purely symbolic object and serve all the same purposes. Everything that I’m interested in as regards religion can be understood in this way: we can see how it is that religion is capable of both great evil, and great good, just as any other form of power can be exercised in ways that are harmful or beneficial. In fact, we can treat religion purely politically, and I think if we do this we’ll see that it’s harmful and beneficial precisely where political systems are harmful or beneficial. Harmful when hierarchical, centralised, authoritarian, and beneficial when democratic and driven by ordinary human needs and desires. See also my old manifesto entry on religion, and followup on religion, atheists and hierarchy. […]

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