Armstrong performs an invaluable service by showing that religion is not the uniquely violent force demonised by secular thinkers. Yet neither is religion intrinsically peaceful – a benign spiritual quest compromised and perverted by its involvement with power. The potential for violence exists in faith-based movements of all kinds, secular as well as religious. Evangelical atheists splutter with fury when reminded that a war on religion was an integral part of some of the 20th century’s worst regimes. How can anyone accuse a movement devoted to reason and free inquiry of being implicated in totalitarian oppression? It is a feeble-minded and thoroughly silly response, reminiscent of that of witless believers who ask how a religion of love could possibly be held to account for the horrors of the Inquisition.
Conventional distinctions between religious and secular belief pass over the role that belief itself plays in our lives. “We are meaning-seeking creatures,” Karen Armstrong writes wisely, “and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives.” We are unlike our animal kin in another way. Only human beings kill and die for the sake of beliefs about themselves and the nature of the world. Looking for sense in their lives, they attack others who find meaning in beliefs different from their own. The violence of faith cannot be exorcised by demonising religion. It goes with being human.
As a disagreeable person who enjoys some biting polemic I do appreciate the New Atheists for the role they play in the ecology of ideas. They do not hide behind the post-modern fixation on “tolerance” and “diversity.” But my ultimate judgement about them is that their foundational propositions about human nature are wrong. In other words, I stand with cognitive anthropologists such as Scott Atran as to the roots of religion. Though in the God Delusion Richard Dawkins exhibits some familiarity with this literature, in the end his rhetoric and central thesis seems to take it for granted that religion is a contingent cultural invention, and adherence is a feature of improper implementation of the principles of rationality. My own position, in line with cognitive anthropologists, is that supernatural ideas are relatively inevitable human intuitions given the architecture of our minds, which are far less dominated by the ability to reflexively reason than 18th century rationalists would have believed. The more elaborate specific institutional aspects of religion are also probably rather inevitable given the needs of mass society after the Neolithic Revolution. In other words telling people to stop being stupid probably won’t have the effect that the New Atheists think it should. People are just…well, stupid. I do have to admit that there seems a bit of irony in this, insofar as the New Atheists promulgate a world-view predicated on adherence to the empirical facts, but have the normal human bias to discount those data which conflict with their prior model.