This issue comes up often when criticizing some specific ugly or hurtful practice or ideology, such as Female Genital Mutilation in Islamic Somalia, or the virulent homophobia and misogyny in Fundamentalist Christian America. "It's not the religion," apologists exclaim, "it's barbarous cultural practices masquerading as religion."
I have to grant such apologists the point. It's not the religion, because religion isn't anything: It's all cultural. But in just the same sense, everything that's beautiful and humane is also cultural. Because religion is vacuous, it deserves neither the blame nor the praise for anything specific.
If religion isn't anything, why criticize it? As I mentioned above, I'm not precisely correct. Religion is something: It's a cultural artifact itself, common to human culture. And in every society with religion, it serves but a single practice: To use dogma to justify the specific arbitrary practices of that culture as truth.
Many specific arbitrary practices simply do not need dogmatic justification. A Seder need not be "true": It's how Jewish people get together and have a fine meal with family and close friends. Christmas carols need not be "true": The melodies and harmonies are beautiful in themselves, much of the poetry is good, and the connection to one's own history and traditions just as present if the words are no longer literally true. One can even sit on an uncomfortable bench and listen to a person of some wisdom expound on moral philosophy—and evaluate his words on their own merit—without relying on any sort of dogma to establish truth. These practices harm no one, and make the practitioners feel good. What more justification is necessary?
The only time when these arbitrary practices do require dogmatic justification is precisely when they are ugly and hurtful. Take out the the authority of the Koran to dictate ethical truth, and Female Genital Mutilation and the rank misogyny of many Islamic countries is blatantly indefensible. Take out the Bible's authority to dictate ethical truth, and anti-homosexual bigotry—indeed the whole apparatus of fear and hatred of the diverse glory of ordinary, natural human sexuality—becomes obviously the expression of nothing more spectacular than petty neurosis and low self-esteem.
I have some sympathy with the religious moderates. The best of them attempt to take an ethical philosophy which can earn on its own merits the respect of any ordinary, empathic human being and retroject it into their scripture to give it an illusion of dogmatic authority. Their project, though, is ultimately futile. Because to even admit that the concept of dogmatic authority is meaningful in the first place is by definition to leave the door open to the justification of what cannot otherwise be justified.
The most obvious problem is that the scriptures of most religions—especially the Abrahamic religions— are simply a mess from a modern ethical perspective. Taken literally, the Torah, the worst of the lot (and the one book common to all three Abrahamic religions) justifies slavery, human sacrifice, genocide, war of aggression, murder, incest, the killing of recalcitrant children and a host of what are, by modern standards, obvious crimes.
Trying to reinterpret these scriptures to justify modern ethics is an exercise in circular logic:
- We believe that stoning recalcitrant children to death is bad and providing loving discipline to your children is good
- Therefore, when the Bible says that stoning recalcitrant children to death is good it must mean that providing loving discipline to children is good
- Therefore providing loving discipline to children is good because the Bible says it's good.
But there's a much bigger problem, and the problem is not just flaws in the scriptures but inherent in the problem of employing dogmatic justification in the first place.
We can see this happening all the time in religions. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig asserts that Hindu culture, impressed by the usefulness of cows, began to attach divine meaning to their existence, and ended up adopting a dogma that invalidated the original justification by refusing to use them. Scholars have asserted that the Islamic attitude towards women was in response to their even greater persecution and exploitation in pagan Arabia. The Christian ideology of marriage, some assert, provided more security towards women than was available in earlier days.
These theses are controversial, but let's charitably grant their truth for the sake of argument. Justified on non-religious grounds, they make sense for their place and time, and it is in each person's own place and time—not some fantasied utopia—that she must make her ethical decisions. But it is precisely the attempt to establish dogmatic support for these then-benign ethical beliefs which has rendered them impregnable to change when the circumstances have changed in a new place and a new time. Irrevocable marriage might have made sense twenty centuries ago, given little or no birth control, the overwhelming economic power of children, the minimal economic power of women, and the blood-related clan as the primary political organization. But today? When most any woman can support herself? When she herself can choose both to have a normal, healthy sexuality and unilaterally choose when and how much she wishes to reproduce? When the nation and the geographical community, not the clan, are the primary political organizations? Such beliefs make no pragmatic sense today.
There is nothing wrong with our present state of ethical beliefs. They are what they are, and, to no small extent, they are who we are. But they are who we are here and now. We have no way of knowing what our great-great-great grandchildren's circumstances will be nor how their beliefs will evolve. By insisting on dogmatic justification for what we sincerely consider here and now to be naturally and humanly justifiable, we do nothing at all but saddle our grandchildren with impregnable anachronisms. If our ethical beliefs still make as much natural sense then as they do today, then no dogmatic justification is needed; if they do not, dogmatic justification is obviously harmful.
We can see the very same process of establishing dogmatic justification even in supposedly atheistic, secular beliefs. Leaving aside what Marx really said and meant, it's very clear that the Soviet Union and China treated Marx as some sort of dogma: Something was true not because it made sense, but because Marx said it. Marx, perhaps unwillingly, became a prophet rather than a philosopher, a man revealing truth, not presenting an argument to convince any rational listener. Had Marxism survived a thousand years, it seems almost certain that Marx would have been canonized and made divine.
(To a certain extent, scientists can fall into this trap: Light is a particle because Newton said so, not because the theory actually fits the facts. Scientists, however, tend to take only a generation to outgrow old dogmas, one or two orders of magnitude more quickly than the religious.)
It is against dogmatism itself that the uncompromising atheists struggle.
Indeed we are uncompromising only in the intellectual sense. I'll approve at least of the specific ethics of a moderate Christian even if I strongly disapprove of his effort at establishing a dogmatic justification by reinterpreting his scripture. I'll vote for a religious candidate if I find her political position more compatible than her atheist opponent. I would support a law forbidding religious proselytization in the schools even if it were introduced by a Christian to insulate his own sect's views from government establishment of alternative dogma. We are "uncompromising" only insofar that we will not keep silent on—much less indulge in hypocritical placation of—the vacuity, lies and bullshit of that chief purveyor of dogma, religion.
To be against dogma is not to be against truth. To be against dogma is to be against only the establishment of truth by anything other than natural reason and natural perception; in ethics, to establish the good—here and now's good—by anything other than natural moral intuition. If the words of scripture make logical, physical or moral sense, it is because a rational human being can naturally make sense of the words, not because God, or a prophet has revealed supernatural wisdom.
We uncompromising atheists (really naturalists) are a lonely minority, beset on all sides. We are beset by nihilists denying truth and attacking any confident, rational belief as "dogmatic". We are beset by the religious, claiming that truth can or must be revealed supernaturally or prophetically. We are beset by the accommodationists, demanding that we keep silent just one day more until this issue or that is resolved in our favor, ignoring that, until dogmatism itself is destroyed root and branch, there will always be one more issue, and another, and another: The world never stops changing.
But that's ok. I can live with being in the minority. Every new idea has to start somewhere.