John Gray's talk on Radio 4's Point of View called Can religion tell us more than science? (transcript here) claims that 'too many atheists miss the point of religion, it's about how we live and not what we believe'.
Gray maintains that 'We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe'.
Firstly, who is this 'we'? Secondly, don't be patronising by pretending to include yourself and then showing very clearly why you're not one of we.
He blames this assumption on western philosophy (yes, all of it, apparently) and 'the dull debate on atheism'. Again with the patronising. He continues: 'In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempt to frame true beliefs about the world'.
Religion is not just that, it's also about morality, among other things. It tells us how to live. Science, on the other hand, makes no attempt to tell us how we should live. Nor is it based on a supernatural world view but on observable evidence. The activity of science is about how to interpret that evidence. Religion decides what the truth is, science attempts to uncover it. So yes, fundamentally different.
Gray likes his generalisations. He lays the blame for the false view of religion partly of the feet of Frazer and his book The Golden Bough, which he says has been 'immensely influential'. He claims it lies behind the assertions of the 'new atheists'.
Many atheists and others know that there are many reasons to belong to a religion, some cultural or social, some historical and some emotional. The majority of people do not objectively analyse their religion or weigh up the relative evidential merits of all of them before plumping for one. Some aspects of religion, like creation, are examined by some believers in an attempt to find evidence and even then, they are trying to justify their beliefs to others, not to themselves. Only a small number of theologians and thinkers actively examine their beliefs as a whole. It's not common practice to weigh up the evidence for the Sermon on the Mount or accepting Jesus as your personal saviour in order to win eternal salvation.
And religions do rest on what we believe - take the Credo, for example, which is Latin for 'I believe' and is followed by a list of things the believer believes in. They don't like it very much if you think it's just words when you're preparing for First Communion. Belief, or dogma, matter very much to the Fathers of the Church. Heresy is about believing the wrong things, so are schism and apostasy. They're not just about doing the wrong thing but believing the wrong thing and then acting on it.
He continues:'the idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as itself incredibly primitive.'
Again, this is not the only or the dominant thought about religion among atheists who he is far too keen to tar with the same brush. The human mind has not evolved a great deal since primitive times. It is not now a sophisticated machine compared with the neolithic brain. One common idea is that religion is a by-product of the way our brains evolved (see Pascal Boyer, for example) - and the way they still function, which is why we still have religion. There are elements of religion that come from early societies which are not relevant today but which still form part of the core beliefs but many of these are to do with identity and difference as much as trying to explain the universe in an animistic or divinely controlled way.
Then he gets to the nub of his argument: 'Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.'
This is a little simplistic to say the least. Actions are informed by beliefs. And beliefs do matter to the people who hold them. There are rituals that are performed without conscious analysis of the beliefs that underpin them but that doesn't mean the beliefs themselves are unimportant. One way they matter is in defining the difference between one set of believers and another. Rituals can be comforting, they can bind groups together and they can structure our time but without the beliefs they rest on, they would not have the hold on the mind that they do. And there would be nothing to distinguish them from any other ritual behaviour. He's positing a kind of religion as OCD.
When he says that it's actions that count - what does he mean by 'count'?
Gray then turns to science. 'Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better'.
This is where there is a bit of slippage between his uses of 'belief'. Scientists don't believe a theory, they know that it is either true or that it's the best current approximation of the truth. Non-scientists don't believe theories either, they accept that some expert or other knows what they're doing. Not all our current theories will one day fall apart.
He says: 'If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.' This is a bit of an odd if...then scenario. Science doesn't produce theories we can use without believing them because no-one believes a theory, they either know it to be true or the current best guess, as I said. So his initial statement is false. Moreover, religion is not a repository of myth to the people who believe it, it's revealed truth except for the half-hearted who just go along for a bit of a sing. And while it contains stories or parables, it also contains instructions on how to behave that rest on the basic tenets. If you don't believe those tenets to begin with, then your actions are empty.
He then says: 'Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.' He's being a bit slippery with his use of 'true' here. Knowing that a scientific theory may be a workable approximation is not the same as knowing that a myth didn't actually happen while containing useful guidance to behaviour or insight into the human mind.
Apparently, 'some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself'. Well yes, some myths are better than others but this nostalgia, this 'myths aren't what they used to be' approach overlooks the fact that there are also non-religious myths that contain lessons about ourselves. Privileging religious myths without any kind of quality control is fruitless.
Darwin's theory of evolution , he says is 'unlikely to be the final truth'. Who says it is? There have already been plenty of refinements, additions and corrections to it.
He then attacks the 'myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world'.
There is no such generally held myth. Rational people think that some parts of science can be a useful tool for improving our lives. This is partly based on evidence - medicine and technology have demonstrably improved lives. That the improvements have yet to benefit most of the Third World is not a failure of science but of politics and, in some cases, religion (for example, banning condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, contraception and so on). Moreover, many scientists are more than aware of the destructive potential of science - nuclear war and global warming for example. They are not singing hymns to the power of science. Gray says that 'it can't save the human species from itself.' as if this were some great insight.
He claims that science is a human invention, just like religion. Yes, they are both the products of the human brain but religion is entirely made up whereas science methodology is based on phenomena. It's a bit like comparing cheese and a pyramid - not a comparison that tells us anything very useful about either.
Evangelical atheists, he says ' think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.' Historically, when attempts have been made to try and get everyone to believe the same thing, these things have generally not been evidence-based but ideological. Getting everyone to believe that we'd better look after the planet rather than letting it fall apart is not such a bad idea.
Gray concludes that we should 'stop believing in belief' because 'What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live'. So if you feel like joining a religion, 'just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there'. Should you just do what you're told without examining why? Follow the rituals and never mind the theology? Just taking it from there may not do you much good in some religions or denominations if you happen to be female or gay.
Gray is seriously misrepresenting science and all but a handful of the most extreme atheists - who in fact are not very scientific in their approach, lacking an understanding of human nature. But he is also misrepresenting religion, selling it short as deeds not words - and without any kind of assessment of what price you or others may have to pay for that kind of cavalier, mindless approach. Never mind, let's all just sing a hymn together, it'll be a marvellously uplifting, bonding experience. Better still, sing it in Latin so we don't have to worry about what the words mean. He's right that it's how we live that matters, but he's wrong about everything else.