Norman Geras asks:
Imagine two situations, both involving a religion with influence over large numbers of people. (1) The religion teaches that all are children of the same God and have a spark of the divine within them; and therefore one must treat others with respect. (2) The religion teaches that only some people are favoured by God and those who are not so favoured are contemptible and inferior or some such.
Could an atheistic, rationalist, egalitarian be indifferent as between these two situations and as to which of them is more likely to be strengthening of the moral and political values she subscribes to?
The background to this is a question Johann Hari asked:
I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up… Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right… isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives [Gordon] Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?
In answering both questions I’ll refer to the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube. Ncube and the Catholic Church have been in the news recently as forming one of the main strands of opposition to Robert Mugabe’s policies, which have devastated Zimbabwe. So much the good. Ncube is, I would imagine, a decent man with decent sensibilities. But his beliefs are informed by Catholic doctrine. In this instance Ncube’s beliefs align with mine. But in the future they might not — the catholic Church might speak against contraception, or gay people, for example.
How let’s consider Norm’s question. I think the question, as put, is badly worded. It’s not what the religion actually says that counts, it’s how followers of the religion behave. As an example, Pius Ncube no doubt thinks slavery is immoral. However, the Catholics’ holy book says that enslaving people is OK, as long as they are foreigners (Leviticus 25:44-46). And if you go back a few centuries, there were lots of Catholic archbishops who thought slavery was moral. And go back a few centuries and many Christians were slaveowners.
It seems to me that any religion is likely to cause a rift between believers and non-believers, and cause beleivers to think less of non-believers. If a religion asserts that certain things are true (e.g. that God exists), then followers of that religion will naturally differentiate between people who believe those things and those who don’t. And if a religion teaches that some acts are moral and others immoral, then believers will differentiate between doers of the two kinds of act. And people being people, they will naturally think more highly of those like them than those different.
So all religions are going to create a tendency for people to think less well of some people than of others. So to answer Norm’s question, I don’t think it matters as great deal what the religion actually teaches, since people are likely in any case to use the religion as a marker of who’s “one of us” and who isn’t (for example, Northern Ireland or Yugoslavia).