John Gray’s accommodationist waffle

In a lengthy post for the BBC magazine, John Gray tells us that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live”. The post is titled “A Point of View: Can religion tell us more than science?” – and while he certainly expresses a point of view, I don’t think it a particularly good one.

It’s obvious that how we live (our actions, in other words) is all that others can see, and all about us that affects them in any perceptible way. It’s also obvious that how we live is highly significant to our own welfare – you can make more or less risky choices, you can offend rather than placate, you can take homeopathic remedies instead of medicine.

But Gray’s argument goes further than those obvious truths. He uses this notion of our beliefs mattering to set up a straw man version of atheism, in which atheists (in particular ‘new atheists’) are guilty of the following:

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion. It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.

This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is – a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.

And yes, it is again (partly) true that atheists are dumbfounded by the strange things some religious folk say that they believe – and that some of these beliefs don’t really shape what you do in any way that should concern others. If your tradition involves the ritual of praying 5 times before breakfast, I don’t care, so long as you get to work on time.

However, the beliefs of the religious often go further than that. They are used to justify tax exemptions, removing a source of income from the state which could be deployed in other ways. They are used to shield paedophiles, on the basis of a belief that a man in a robe has some unique access to truth, and is allowed to enjoy and confer relative immunity from ordinary legal processes. Beliefs mattered for children like Kara, who died because her parents prayed instead of taking her to hospital.

Non-religious belief also matters, and can also kill when parents believe in the healing powers of sugar water over medicine. More trivially, our beliefs can cause us to waste money on things like PowerBalance bracelets or vitamin concoctions, and can allow opportunity for ghouls like John Edward to exploit our grief.

We’ve heard this accommodationist claptrap before, most notably from Karen Armstrong, who seems to want us to believe that every religion is some sort of social club, united by nothing significant in terms of actual propositional content. I’d really love to hear the response from a Mullah if I were Muslim, and were to tell him that Allah is an optional extra. On second thoughts, perhaps not, seeing as I might well end up dead, depending on which part of the world this happened in.

Of course some atheists are guilty of caricaturing religion. But whether they do or not does not affect an entirely separate argument, which is that we should be committed to holding true beliefs – especially when those beliefs affect what we do (oftentimes to others). If all religious folk held their strange views, but never acted on the basis of them, we (atheists) would care far less – but they don’t stop there. At least, many of them don’t.

Saying that actions matter more than belief is an intellectually bankrupt cop-out, which refuses to acknowledge that some actions are only possible via particular beliefs, and that challenging those beliefs – and the widespread social tolerance of them – is an essential part of the strategy for eliminating those actions.

Other responses:

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.