Non-random Rant on Religion

This is going to be a real rant. Today I am really, really angry. So angry that I’m afraid this article probably won’t be funny (at least, not intentionally).

Over the past few six months, the Atheists and Agnostics Group has been hacked, restricted and twice deleted from MySpace because they professed views that upset various religious groups. With over 35,000 members this was thought to be one of the largest self-organized groups of atheists and agnostics in the world (atheists being by nature a group not given to large-scale organization). This group has been insulted and threatened, despite doing nothing but openly discussing their beliefs with others who share them in a forum that everyone else is quite at liberty to ignore, if they wish.

So why, you may ask, has there not been an uproar? When major search engines started censoring content in China at the behest of the Chinese government, newspapers and pundits across the world started screeching from the rooftops about freedom of speech and the role of the internet. So why, when MySpace (part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire) starts effectively curtailing people’s freedom of religion, is there not more fuss? Why are the only articles so far in the Boston Globe, The Cleveland Plain Dealer and now in an obscure and irrelevant business school newspaper?

I would hope that a country that prides itself on upholding freedom of religion would be equally concerned about people’s right not to have a religion, but it seems not. In a 1999 Gallup Poll more Americans said they would vote for a Presidential candidate who was Mormon (79%) or Jewish (92%) than one who was openly atheist (49%). Given that these percentages are far higher than the proportion of Mormons or Jews in the population it seems that people are far more distrustful of people who choose not to believe in God than those who believe in a different one.

Would Satanists be more acceptable, in that at least by worshipping Satan they accept his existence, and therefore by extension take at least some of the Bible seriously? Or is it just an expectation that by having any kind of religious belief a leader would be more tolerant of those of other beliefs? A rather naive and flawed conclusion, given the historical evidence.

Am I overreacting? After all of the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion; after centuries of persecution of various religions by other religions, sects and governments, I’m annoyed because someone’s widdle webpage got deleted? Well, yes, because in many cases the ability to freely discuss one’s religious beliefs is one of the first things to go. Then it’s the freedom to practise your religion, and finally the freedom to believe. Or not, as the case may be.

I am coincidentally* writing this as I am halfway through reading Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’, which I personally believe should be a required text for anyone who wishes to express a religious opinion. I don’t agree with Dawkins 100% percent, but at least he is prepared to a) defend his beliefs with logical argument b) agree to change his mind if presented with compelling evidence and c) take a remarkable amount of vitriolic, inaccurate and occasionally frightening criticism with good grace. He also prefers to describe himself as a scientist rather than an atheist, as he does not seem to believe that the questions are at all separate.

The events on MySpace were originally brought to my attention through a mailing list I inadvertently ended up on last year after attending the Harvard Humanists Chaplaincy conference last year, to which several of the most active members of the Atheist and Agnostic Group were also invited.

This conference was an extremely eye-opening event for me in many ways. I attended along with a broad variety of my friends who classify themselves as, variously; agnostic; Christian but curious; tentatively atheist; humanist; secularist; and ‘I don’t know what I call myself, but it looks interesting and Salman Rushdie is going to be there’.

The discussion was equally varied: an ex-Rabbi talking about the difference between community, morality and faith; a Humanist Chaplain talking about humanist funerals and ‘birth celebrations’ as a way of bringing families together and many people confessing to missing the traditions of holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which they feel as atheists they may not have a right to enjoy. This wasn’t a place for people who hated religion, but people who loved intellectual inquiry and valued honest scepticism, and wanted to explore different ways of leading a fulfilling and moral life.

One of the things that struck me about the whole event was how very ‘religious’ the proceedings seemed. The atmosphere was very church-like. There were readings. There were various humanist speakers who, for want of a better word, ‘preached’ to us from what looked remarkably like a pulpit. On the other hand, there was a lot more humor, a lot more disagreement and a lot more uncertainty in much of what they said than I have ever found in any church service.

It did amuse me that because most of us have grown up used to religion having certain trappings and structures, we like having them as a kind of comfort blanket, even if what we are talking about is the non-existence of God.
I have never formally studied theology, and I am certain that many people reading this have a far deeper knowledge of the various relevant theological doctrines and theories than I. However, I hope that by bringing the subject up I can at least encourage some of the Future World LeadersT here at HBS to consider their response to atheism and agnosticism.
One final note – this seems an appropriate week to publish this story, as February 11th is Darwin’s birthday and as such celebrated around the world by Humanists who are as eager to have a holiday as any religious group. So, Happy Darwin Day, guys.

*Coincidence, or divine providence..?