There is undoubtedly a great deal of money to be made by writing a book against religion. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been among the best sellers for well over a year; yesterday (12th April) it was the 27th best-selling book on Amazon, which, when you think about it, is an amazing achievement. Ahead of it are the usual cookery books and popular novels, but to have a philosophical work so highly placed on the Amazon lists demonstrates that there is a real hunger among the British and Irish reading public for serious works about religion, particularly iconoclastic ones. God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, Against all Gods, by A.C. Grayling, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell are selling well too; so well, in fact, that I thought that today I would give you a few tips so that you can get your snout in the trough and make a little money yourself.
However, there is one major problem. We Unitarians have a lot in common with those who vent their spleen on conventional religion, and as I was reading through Dawkins’ book a few months ago, and re-reading Hitchens’ book on Friday, I was struck – a little reluctantly I must admit - by the number of times I felt I had to agree with them. Both authors are strongly critical of the religious indoctrination of the young, both reject the idea of ‘revelation’ (obviously), and both lament the way in which religion’s metaphysical claims, which, by their very nature, cannot be proved, have been – and still are – barriers to the acceptance of the rational and evidence-based conclusions of science. Unitarians would generally find themselves in the same camp on all these matters, so there is no doubt a great deal that these two books can teach us, and I would recommend Hitchens’ book particularly. Hitchens is one of the foremost journalists in the English speaking world, and he has an engaging, witty and accessible style which enables him to make sophisticated arguments in beautiful and intelligible prose. In addition, he doesn’t feel he has to be objective. His book is a polemic – an attack -, and he is not afraid to sprinkle his paragraphs with highly entertaining, if, at times, excessive, put-downs.
So this is lesson one in our course on writing a profitable anti-religious book: do not strive to be fair. There’s no need. We are living in a time when religion is on the back foot, struggling to maintain any vestiges of credibility, so few people among the ‘chattering classes’ are going to admonish you for your lack of objectivity. Certainly no Guardian columnist will do it. The intellectual climate is on your side; religion has become something to sneer at, so sneer away.
In addition, try to cultivate an air of cultural superiority, showing how religion is primitive, and comes, in Hitchens’s fine phrase, ‘from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species’ (page 64), but how you are now part of the grown up portion of the human race. Exhibit, even when you deny you are exhibiting, what E.P. Thompson calls ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, that is the wonderful benefits of hindsight which enable you to look down on the people of the past and to belittle their efforts at understanding.
Next, don’t be afraid to blame religion for things which it may have played a part in but which it certainly hasn’t caused. A world without religion, says Richard Dawkins, would be a world
with no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, ......no persecution of Jews as Christ-killers, no Northern Ireland troubles, no ‘honour killings’....[i].
Goodness! Does he really think, for example, that the Northern Ireland troubles were – and are still – just about religion? Religion has played its part, but has Dawkins so little sense of history, so little knowledge of sociology, of economics, of politics, of human nature – and particularly the psychological make up of young men -, that he can lay the last 40 years of Northern Ireland violence squarely at the door of religion? Does he think that the average member of the Provisional IRA gave two hoots about the veneration of the Virgin Mary and transubstantiation, or that the Red Hand Defenders believed that unless one had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ one couldn’t be saved? Such ideas are preposterous – and Dawkins knows it, or else he is incredibly naive. His paragraph is rhetoric – unfair, biased and myopic; which, of course, are the very charges he levels against religion.
However, once you’ve made your wild and unsubstantiated claim, you can spend a good deal of your book analysing these various world ‘trouble spots’, showing how the ugly face of religion has been responsible for countless thousands of deaths, implying all the while that had religion not been a factor, everyone would have been able to live in peace and harmony. Maybe Professor Dawkins could be forgiven for such an outrageous intellectual gaffe, because his expertise is in biology not in sociology, but Christopher Hitchens cannot. As an ex-Marxist, he cannot have forgotten so quickly one of the basic tenets of his former faith: that people fight and kill over jobs, land, money, and power, not over doctrines. Doctrines are among the weapons employed, but they are not the cause of the conflict.
And while you’re in the business of setting up ‘straw men’- that is easy targets for you to demolish - have a cursory read through the Bible and pick out a few choice bits which seem to show God or Jesus in a bad light. And make sure when you do this that you take everything literally; don’t allow for any scholarly or liberal interpretation; don’t make any concessions for the time your chosen passages were written or for the style they were written in. Take them absolutely at face value, just as do the fundamentalists whose ideas you attack with such vehemence. And don’t worry about getting your terminology wrong or about making elementary blunders. So what if, like Hitchens, you think that the word ‘synoptic’ is a synonym for ‘canonical’. These things don’t matter. Only a few people will realise that you don’t know what you are talking about.
In order to ensure that you don’t get lost in the multitudinous ramifications of religious activity, make sure that you keep your definition of religion simple. Restrict your analysis to religious ideas, creeds, metaphysics, all of which form part of the religious experience, but which do not exhaust it. In fact, it would be a good idea not to delve too deeply into the way people actually live their religion, by considering how the average believer understands the creeds and doctrines and applies them to her life. Mention the strident anti-abortion fanatics, and the anti-homosexual bigots, but don’t say anything about how millions of ordinary believers ‘will daily be giving some thought to their souls through prayer, meditation, Bible-reading and the like, activities which reach into the depths of the soul where the switches are thrown between kindness and cruelty, hope and despair’[ii]. This would be far too lengthy a process, and require much more sophisticated analysis than you have time or patience for. The less you know about religion the better. Professor Terry Eagleton, who, as far as I am aware, is himself no friend of conventional religion, says that Richard Dawkins has written a book about religion when he knows virtually nothing about it. ‘It’s like someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject comes from The Book of British Birds’, says Eagleton.
But don’t let criticisms like this put you off. Not everybody can be an expert on biology, but, as we all know, anyone can appear to be an expert on religion.
This leads us to what I consider to be the most important ingredient in your book: make sure that you don’t include very much about women. Religion, as Dawkins and Hitchens understand it, is about men arguing and fighting over doctrines, so it is a good idea to disregard the female experience. It is a strange fact – one that both our authors ignore – that while almost all religion is controlled by men, its main practitioners are women. Just like nursing and primary school teaching: women do them, but men are generally in charge.
Christopher Hitchens has another book on the go at the moment: The Portable Atheist, and a very useful and interesting book it is too. It contains 47 contributions, but only 3 are by women, and one of those is George Eliot who, while certainly not a believer, was not a militant atheist either. In fact, she was associated for a while with the Unitarians in Shrewsbury. Judging by all these tomes, women have played very little part in the anti-religious movement down the centuries. This is not to imply that women can’t be atheists; it’s just that they don’t seem to have had the desire to shout too loudly about it.
Women approach religion differently from men. This is a deliberate generalisation, but it’s not without substance. Doctrines are not that important to women, and fighting over them is certainly not important. Women come to religion in search of community, of belonging. They are impelled by those aspects of their experience that reason and logic can’t make anything of, the feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that they are connected to this ‘something’ and to the world in subtle and mysterious ways. Women are more open to the numinous, and are less likely than men to dismiss so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences as irrational and delusory. Women are acutely aware that, in the words of our second reading today,[iii] you can’t say to your child ‘evolution loves you’, because the story ‘stinks of extinction’, and has no power, in itself, to explain those feelings of love, tenderness, and belonging that are undoubtedly part of our make-up, and undoubtedly necessary for our sanity.
So, if you are going to write your anti-religious book, it would be advantageous to be a man. What’s more, it’s probably a good idea for you to be born under the zodiac sign of Aries – the sign, as we discovered last year at this time, of the pugnacious crusader. All four leading figures in the current group of anti-God campaigners were born in late March or early April: Richard Dawkins on 26th March; his American counterpart, Daniel Dennett on 28th March, A.C. Grayling, author of Against all Gods, on 3rd April, and Christopher Hitchens is 59 today, 13th April. Now the female mind might be tempted – as I am tempted – to consider that this strange fact might have some significance, but the male attitude is to say that it is statistically meaningless, and to push it out of sight into a big box labelled ‘coincidence’, which has been specially constructed to accommodate every anomolous fact which offends against the materialist premise upon which their whole intellectual edifice is built.
Which brings us to another stance you will have to take: throughout your work: you will have to claim that your system of thought doesn’t have dogmas, but is based entirely on rational and empirical deductions from observable facts. This is the biggest con of all, because Materialism, i.e. the doctrine that the material universe is all that exists, and its corollary, Epiphenomenalism, which holds that consciousness is a by-product of matter, are cornerstones of the whole philosophy, and are unwarranted assumptions, as much religious dogmas as anything emanating from the Vatican.
Do you remember the episode of Father Ted in which three bishops come to Craggy Island to elevate the Holy Stone of Clonricket to a grade two relic? At the end of the episode, Father Dougal is asked by one of the bishops, ‘Are you having any trouble with your faith, Father?’ Dougal replies, ‘You know that stuff about God creating the world in six days, and his son Jesus coming to earth to die for our sins and after three days rising from the dead?’ ‘Yes,’ says the bishop. ‘Well, that’s the bit I’m having trouble with!’ says Dougal. I feel the same about the dogmas of Materialism. ‘You know that bit about there being nothing and then there was a big explosion when everything came into existence, and then after billions of years that little speck of matter called the Earth had just the right conditions for life to start, and then after millions more years life developed in such amazing profusion, culminating finally in the incredible mystery of human consciousness? And how all this happened because of a series of accidents? Well, that’s the bit I’m having trouble with!’
Don’t let any doubts like this enter your anti-religious book; it would be fatal. Make sure that you belittle anyone who entertains such ideas, implying that they are intellectual pygmies, or soft minded fantasists, lacking the courage to accept the bleak and pointless universe you offer to them.
And finally, don’t weaken your case by mentioning that there are religious systems which are not based on dogmas or on metaphysical speculation, which are genuinely open to insights from science, literature, philosophy, introspection, even though you use the work of people who were members of or sympathisers with such groups. So, quote liberally from Thomas Jefferson, as both Dawkins and Hitchens do, without mentioning that he was avowedly a Unitarian in outlook even if he was never a formal member of any Unitarian church.
So there you have it: a recipe for a bestselling anti-religious book. Have a go for yourself. Make a little money. Or maybe not. Perhaps it might be best to save your energies for a book about genuine free thought, unhindered by dogmas of any kind, a book which would not start from the arrogant assumption that certain superior members of the human race (‘Brights’ as Dawkins call them) have come out of infancy and moved into intellectual adulthood, but from the much more modest – and realistic – assumption that we are all still in our collective intellectual childhood, and that we have a long way to go before we come of age.
A sermon given in Dublin Unitarian Church on 13th April, 2008