Monday, April 19, 2010

A typically feeble defence of religion

A Christchurch minister, Rev Martin Stewart, wrote this piece in the opinion pages.

There's nothing particularly wrong with anything he says. Clearly, Rev Stewart represents a perfectly respectable, moderate church. Evolution doesn't contradict Creation, he says. Very nice, and all that.

But, for a piece titled "What's right with the church," he doesn't say very much about what's right with the church. These two (consecutive) paragraphs vaguely mention things:

Despite the flaws, the church is still among us. Sometimes strong and often weak, the church is still here. Indeed, the story of most of our communities is also a story of the contribution the church has made to the social cohesiveness of our neighbourhoods: child and youth activities supporting young people as they find their way in life; quiet but generous acts of kindness towards those struggling with life; the provision of a framework for understanding who we are and what it means to be a good neighbour; a means of marking the special transition times in life - birth, marriage, and death; a place for the very real spiritual impulses within us to find form and meaning; and sometimes a prophetic word to jolt us out of our comfort zones.

I'm part of a proud church tradition that fosters things like good education, caring for people who struggle, and helping elderly people negotiate their last years with dignity. Armed with a lively thinking faith, I have constantly been encouraged to do something with all that I have been given - a call to heed the two-sided teachings of Jesus and the great Jewish tradition - to love God and to lovingly serve my neighbours.

The first paragraph is basically factual. Churches undoubtedly have had a major influence in our societies - because a great deal of people have gone to them. They have marked births, deaths, marriages, because such ceremonies have been done by churches. This says nothing about "what's right with the church" - it is simply the function which churches have served. (And less so in modern times. At least the last two weddings, and the only funeral, I have been to, weren't in churches. We don't actually need churches for these things.)

The second paragraph - again, it's mostly factual. Churches have been involved in education. Whip-dee-doo! That doesn't mean they have to be, or they are better at it than anyone else. This, and caring for the disabled and elderly, are things that have historically been associated with religion - because historically, the good people who have set up such institutions have, like most people in what was after all a religious society - believed that religion is the source of morality. Then there's a vague spiel about Jesus and God and all that whatever.

There's very little of an argument, just a bunch of things we already know. Religion is involved with these things. Nobody is denying that, it is clear to anyone that a lot of schools are religious. What is being said is that religion has done a bad job of it - molesting children it's been educating, and the like.

It's a very, very, insubstantial defence of religion. (A good chunk of it, is directed not to the critics, but back to the flock: "Amid the noise and clatter that criticises and dismisses, I want to express a few words of gratitude to the people of our churches. Good on you! Keep at it! Don't lose heart!"

I have two more comments to make about this feeble argument.

1) The fact that most Christians are moderate excuses nothing. Nobody, I repeat, nobody, thinks that "all Christians must be paedophile loop-fruits, with wacky ideas who don't live on planet reality like the rest of us." I agree that "most Christian people they are kind of normal - even average." The problem is that these normal Christians are merely embarrassed by the excesses of their religion, and the issue is uncomfortable. This is not good enough. History shows a million instances of large swathes of a population embarrassed by the excesses of their bretheren - large swathes of Germans under Hitler were uncomfortable with what went on, plenty of white Americans in the southern states of the U.S. disliked the racism in their society. But just because most Germans weren't Hitlers, and many white Americans were uncomfortable with segregation, does not excuse the huge flaws in those societies. The heroes were the people who stood up and said, this is wrong, often risking their lives. By the same token, good, moderate Christians are not standing up enough to say, this is wrong. (And nobody's life is at stake in any scenario here)

This is the reason that Dawkins, Hitchens, and such are being heard with regards to the abuse scandal. They speak loud, but proud atheists are vastly outnumbered by proud Catholics. The voices of atheism speaking out on the scandals in the Catholic Church should be outnumbered, outshouted, by the collective outrage of good, moderate, Catholics. I have seen one story about an outraged Catholic priest in America. Where are the rest?

Enough timidity. The appropriate response to this is vocal anger. These are probably among the worst crimes mainstream religion has committed in the West in the last century. The timid, defensive response of moderate Christianity is ammunition for atheism - better ammunition than the crimes themselves (after all, Christianity admits the existence of sin anyway, it can perhaps at the very least somewhat rationalize the crimes).

2) Christians are average? This is a largely unrelated point, but there's something the Reverend said in his meaningless waffle that was a bit weird.

They [most Christian people] try to be good and do good - but are usually pretty average at doing that when it comes down to it.

 Well that's a bit stupid, then isn't it? I always thought that morality was, allegedly, something that only makes sense with regards to religion. Hence you'd expect religious people to be a bit gooder than the heathens. But apparently, Christians are just ordinary people - just average at trying to do good and doing good. Makes it all seem a bit pointless. So what we could say is, purely on account of things said by this religious apologist, extremist religion is bad, and moderate religion is pointless.

Looks like atheism is a good choice, then.


  1. Maybe moderate religion serves as a club of niceness and hopeful goodness, however imperfect, that some kinds of people enjoy. That isn't pointless if you enjoy a particular social milieu. This may not be the apparent goal of religion but it is one of the possibly positive outcomes.

  2. I don't think very many of even the most moderate of clergy would be happy if that were all their church was, though.