A few years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote an article on being 'a bright' for the Guardian book review (The Future is Bright). In it, he argues that as language shapes perception, atheists need a friendly positive word to describe themselves, just as homosexuals adopted the word 'gay'. He adopts the suggestion of a pair of evangelical Californian atheists and uses the term 'a bright' - as in 'Mum, I'm a bright.' (As an aside - it's extraordinary for Dawkins to claim, as he does implicitly, that atheists suffer the same sort of persecution as gay men and women did until very recently in the western world, and still do in much of the rest of it. He regularly berates the public for not agreeing with him in print and on air, but still apparently feels marginalised.) Dawkins goes on to define 'a bright': "A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view." In a phrase that reminds me of Mel Gibson's father, who proclaimed that Catholics had the pleasure of always knowing they were right, Dawkins proclaims that brights like him "rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal." (Any religious fundamentalist would claim exactly this.) However, the point I took issue with above all is his simplistic view of what constitutes a religion. I therefore wrote a letter, which the Guardian printed a week later. Here it is:
"Richard Dawkins points out our absurdly arbitrary picture of the world where north is up and we unthinkingly assume we are the norm. And yet Dawkins is himself guilty of something similar. Clearly his main targets are the various branches of Abrahamic monotheism, and Christianity in particular, but there are other ways of being religious. A Hindu would, I think, consider the gods to be part of the natural order, not above it or set against it. For exactly this reason, a Buddhist would argue that the gods need the Buddha dhamma as much as we humans. As for mysticism, Dawkins does not define what he means by this nebulous word, but if he means experiences of something supernatural, he can say nothing against religious or meditative experiences, which are not held to contradict the natural order. On the contrary, I might hold that they conform to an order in which, as Blake put it, everything that lives is holy.
So what shall we who hold a non-supernatural religion call ourselves? Brighter-than-thou, perhaps? "
Now, I apologise to any monotheists who feel I have misrepresented them here. I don't think all Christians, for example, would divide the universe into natural and supernatural either. However, I am not a Christian, so I leave defending their religion to them. (And I am myself less sure where I stand than when I wrote the above.) Anyway, onwards and upwards: the following week, the Guardian printed a letter that, in part, responded to my own. The relevant bit says:
"As for the "non-supernatural religion" referred to in ----'s letter - given that religion exists to attribute supernatural causes to natural events I cannot help but feel this is a good candidate for oxymoron of the week."
(I have blanked out my name here, because I'm a little bit paranoid. In fairness, therefore, I have also left out the name of this letter's author - I shall call him the Dr, as he seemed rather keen to bash everyone over the head with his weighty academic credentials.) I was drafting a reply to this when a very close family member died. At that moment nothing could have seemed less significant than a spat in a newspaper about religion. However, since then it has rankled that I never replied. Did the good Dr even read what I had written? The point he makes is actually answered in my letter. He puts his finger on the nub of it when he says "given that religion exists to attribute supernatural causes to natural events...". This is not by any means a given, and this is what annoys me about so much of the public debate around religion. What the Dr puts forward here is a theory of religion, and a problematic one. My beef? He takes his position as self-evident. He simply makes an ex-cathedra statement.
Personally, I think the sort of position adopted by Emile Durkheim is much more plausible - that religion is primarily a practice and not a set of beliefs. For example, I know a theologian who argues that Christianity consists essentially of performing the Eucharist, and does not necessarily involve belief in anything. For Durkheim, religious practices served as a social glue that bound a society together. Myself, I don't quite agree with this either, though it has a lot to be said for it. I think that religion is a term of convenience covering a wide range of concerns, beliefs and practices - ranging from social respectibility to political activism to mysticism (itself a nebulous catch-all word). If you start to think in this way, you begin to realise how loaded our vocabulary is: 'faith' has at least some relationship to belief, and therefore to religion conceived as commitment to a set of doctrines; 'worldview' implies a more or less coherent philosophy, an interpretation of the world, although it tries to be friendlier than 'dogma' or 'doctrine'. The popular alternatives to the word 'religion' always imply something of this sort.
If our language contains these biases, all the more reason to reflect a bit before making public forays on the topic. If I made sweeping generalisations about science with only the most superficial knowledge of the subject, Richard Dawkins as well as the good Dr would rightly condemn it. They do not, however, seem to feel any need to think before they open their mouths and spout off about religion. The irony here is that in political terms, I agree with a great deal of what Dawkins says - for example about the "chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag", or the money grubbing of televangelists and their pernicious influence on US politics. I agree with Dawkins also about the strict separation of church and state. Come to that, I know committed Christians who would agree with Dawkins on most, possibly all, of these points. So has Dawkins become the thing he hates? Does his tone of voice - the self-assurance in his own views, the hectoring of others - sound like bigotry? I am afraid it does, and it is a great pity. A tolerant society depends on this thought: that we might be wrong. We need an eloquent, intelligent defence of secularism - a broad-minded and tolerant secularism. Dawkins could do it, if he was less concerned with sorting the scientific sheep from the religious goats.