Of course there has been a surprisingly effective propaganda war happening against religion for many years now. As scholars have pointed out from early on, the irony of the “New Atheists” was just how much of a lack of genius for innovation they evinced. Every one of their characteristic arguments was well-worn, familiar, decades or even centuries old, and perhaps some would say, a little bit tired.
I’m not sure that irreligion has ever done a very good job of making the case publicly in favour of itself, in any way that has truly been absorbed into the popular consciousness, but so far it hasn’t needed to. If they can make religion look bad enough, then what other option will people have?
It’s the intellectual equivalent of a political “smear campaign.” Vote for me — after all, look at the other guy, am I right?
One of the tactics employed to this end has been to emphasize the propensity of religious people toward extremism. But to me, that’s like warning against courage because it could lead to rashness. It’s like criticizing studiousness on the grounds that some truly evil things have been done in the name of scientific learning.
To my mind, it makes far more sense to characterize religion as the mean between two opposing extremes, just as courage rests between cowardice and rashness, and studiousness between blissful ignorance and boundless curiosity.
Religion is the good and praiseworthy middle ground. Religion can degenerate into extremes, of course. One such extreme is obviously its inherent tendency toward superstition or bigotry. Religion’s other extreme, though, its other darker self — is irreligion.
Religion is deeply in touch with the inescapable reality of human ignorance: our ignorance about that which is beyond the physical world, for one thing, but also our inability to understand comprehensively what is at the heart of a human person or a human society.
Religions (and keep in mind that I distinguish religions from superstitions) know that when we forget our fundamental ignorance, we are continually in danger of growing hubristic, insatiable, destructive. Hence, to keep us from forgetting, it enshrines rituals and imagery to ensure that the powerful unknown will never be too far from our thoughts.
Superstition forgets our ignorance unintentionally, by convincing itself that it knows just how to manipulate all the unseen forces to bring about desirable outcomes.
Irreligion forgets our ignorance intentionally, convincing itself there is nothing to fear in forgetting because perhaps indeed there is nothing to forget.
To my eyes, both extremes are irrational and unwise. Some might wish to deliberate upon which extreme is more dangerous or less rational, but that doesn’t interest me here. I only want to suggest that they are both deficiencies.
My intention is not to rebuke or alienate people on these extremes. Not at all! My goal for this blog is always to encourage myself more and more toward virtue, and secondly, to encourage my readers likewise. I believe that to practice religion well, as I have described here, is a virtuous endeavour. I realize that we all find ourselves in different situations as well, however, and so whatever small steps we can take in a good direction should be celebrated as progress, in the sort of virtue that is worth progressing in.