Easter media: theology takes aim at reason

The “Easter edition” of the Mail and Guardian includes an opinion piece by Steve De Gruchy (head of the School of Religion and Theology at UKZN), titled “Taking aim at the atheists“. Unfortunately, his aim is a little off – leaving me conflicted as to whether to go with the foot-in-mouth or bullet-in-foot cheap shot. De Gruchy begins with the claim that “Over the past few years the Mail & Guardian has given a disproportionate amount of column space on religion to the views of Richard Dawkins” – a claim that isn’t supported by a search of the M&G’s archives, assuming that we’re allowed to count pro-religion articles (including numerous articles by De Gruchy) in the “against” column of this alleged disproportionality. He continues:

I count it strange that while the M&G is deeply committed to reflecting on politics, law, business, economics and sport in our South African context, it deals with religion as if an Oxford don has offered the final word on God and religion for Africa. At the heart of this is a naïve confusion, and one which Dawkins himself perpetuates, between questions about God and questions about religion. As both Marx and Freud illustrate, just because one is an atheist does not mean that religion is insignificant. And as Jesus and the Hebrew prophets suggest, believing in God does not mean that one is starry-eyed about religion.

De Gruchy appears to be relying on some sort of relativism here, in the implied claim that god and religion is somehow different “for Africa” than elsewhere. While Dawkins uses examples that are familiar to him – and therefore doesn’t often discuss Africa – the themes he explores cut across regional and national dividing lines. If the foundations of belief in god or religion can be called into question, then it matters not at all where those unfounded beliefs are held – they would be as irrational in Africa as in Europe or the Americas. The “naive confusion” De Gruchy asserts is a brazen straw-man, combined with an appeal to authority (whereby Marx and Freud saying something apparently serves as proof of that something’s truth). It’s a straw man in the sense that Dawkins has never claimed that religion is insignificant. In fact, he seems to think it significant enough to devote a large chunk of his intellectual energy to. And yes, of course it’s not necessarily true that believing in god means that one is “starry-eyed about religion”, but Dawkins doesn’t need a relationship of necessity between these propositions – he simply needs to justify the more general claim that belief in god, and religion in general, is not the benign or positive force that believers think it is, and that this species may be better off if we were to limit or eliminate it entirely. Further in the article, De Gruchy argues that

Far from representing the kind of fantastical mythical world inhabited by Dawkins and his neophytes, our [South African] context has been about refugees in a Johannesburg church, Jacob Zuma in a Rhema church, Mvume Dandala leaving the Methodist church and Alan Boesak not leaving the VG church. And the list goes on. Religion is deeply embedded in our social life in Southern Africa in ways that defy the categories of modernity. It is like housework in the economy. Just as (male) economists completely ignore the most fundamental and foundational economic activity of any society because they themselves don’t do it, so (atheist) social commentators blindly ignore what is going on before their very eyes, simply because they themselves don’t “do it”.

Here one simply wonders whether De Gruchy has read any of the articles he’s complaining about. Part of Dawkins’ opposition to religion is that it’s deeply embedded in social life, and therefore that people can often no longer separate discussion and decisions related to social welfare or morality from religion. In other words, that the reliance on religious thought and discourse has crippled our faculties of reason in this regard, through supplying us with ready-made (and unfalsifiable) answers to various real dilemmas.

This illusionary practice does not assist the struggle for life in Africa for three reasons. First, it savages the agency of ordinary Africans who believe in God. Like latter-day missionaries, catechists of European secularism think they know better than the “natives”. The arrogance is astounding.That Marx, Freud and Dawkins are somehow of more importance to Africans than God, Jesus and Muhammad betrays a strange perspective on our social life. By all means let us deal with atheism and secularism, but surely the M&G can go in search of ways in which this is shaping and being shaped by Africans and African reality — rather than being some pale imitation of a European desire for patricide.

The emotive nature of this leads to instant suspicion, of course – the image of poor “ordinary Africans” being savaged by Dawkins’ illusions can’t but generate hostility towards these European secularists. It strikes me that De Gruchy’s analysis and language is far more Orientalist than Dawkins is – Dawkins is addressing a human phenomenon, rather than one based on any culture or nation. If there’s any offense, it’s by definition an equal-opportunity offense, and De Gruchy’s not-too-subtle playing of the race card simply makes him appear suspiciously defensive. We can all grant that various deities are more important to ordinary Africans than Marx, Freud or Dawkins – but the truth of that has no bearing on whether this should be the case or not. Perhaps the “struggle for life in Africa” could be served by fewer people believing in life-defining fictions. This is a serious question, which can only be answered by serious thought. Playground insults (“pale imitation of a European desire for patricide”) simply make theology look like it’s running away from doing any thinking.

Second, promoting naïve European atheism in our context creates enmity where there should be solidarity. Throughout the history of the struggle, religious people and leaders have worked alongside trade unionists, community activists and village elders. In fact many of the latter were rooted in faith communities, which is what gave the relationship its energy.While there is good reason to criticise some religions and religious actors, the fact remains that many of the good people doing good things in Southern Africa are people of faith. We are not a secular nation, but a religiously plural one; and the alliances of ordinary people that are necessary in holding together our social fabric require religious literacy and respect.

If the rules of De Gruchy’s game include a prescription that his opposition needs to be “naive”, then I guess we’ve lost. Well done, Professor. More seriously, this passage trivialises (or rather, ignores) the claims that secularists make for atheistic moral systems being a more rational, stable and useful platform for social harmony. Atheism only creates enmity when people are so fundamentalist, dogmatic, or closed-minded that they are unable to have a debate or discussion regarding their religious beliefs, and where their anger at being challenged leads them to consider atheism the enemy. And yes, of course many religious people have done good and charitable things in the past, and will continue to do so in future. It would not be surprising if we found that the majority of such deeds were performed by people of faith, simply because there are more of them than there are atheists. But it remains an open question whether they made these sacrifices because they were people of faith, or simply because they were good people. Unless, or course, the rules of the game also include the permissibility of post hoc justifications.

Third, it is crucial that we are open and honest about the real failures of religion in our context. But contra Dawkins, this reality calls for more theology, not less. If people sing badly, we do not shut down music schools. We train better music teachers.Religion is not going to go away in Africa (or elsewhere, actually). Laughing at its excesses, peering snootily at it and pretending that the forces of scientific rationalism are going to sweep away all false consciousness in some kind of atheist apocalypse is unhelpful.It drives religion underground and into the fundamentalisms that are dangerous.Rather, religion and religious actors need to be engaged in the public square, held accountable for their actions and appreciated for their contribution. And they in turn need to be able to do the same.In fact, unbeknown to many born-again atheists, faculties, schools and departments of religion and theology at South African universities are daily involved in this work, much like our counterparts in sociology, politics and psychology.

If “theology” means ad hominem attacks on atheists, and defeating straw man arguments, then we certainly don’t need more of that. But if theology and theologists are happy to engage in reasoned debate and dialogue, then I’m in complete agreement: religion is not going to go away (soon), and we need to develop the language and ability to think critically and non-emotively about religion and its effects on society. If Dawkins offers bad arguments, then theologians should certainly refute them. What I’d suggest they should not do is dismiss the arguments of Dawkins and others without engaging with them honestly and fairly. Emotive and unjustified rants such as this one from De Gruchy do little other than to prove Dawkins’ point: that religion is a threat to reason.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.