Not Beliefs — But Behaviour

Fundamentalist religion is an unpleasant spectacle. It does serious damage to people's thinking and their lives. The 'new atheists' (such as Wolpert, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens) have written books making clear the pernicious nature of that kind of religion. All religion is bad. It has people believing crazy things. It leads them into destructive behaviour. Their case has been well argued and their loud message has been widely welcomed.

Squeals of protest from the usually peaceable folk whose religion the new atheists are not describing have gone unnoticed. They say to the new atheists. Yes, but not all religion is of the kind your arguments demolish. Fundamentalist and literalist religion is only part of the wide spectrum of religious faith; the other end is not touched by new atheist arguments.

Thoughtful, non-dogmatic and tentative folk protest gently that religious faith does not require us to accept as factual what is clearly fictional, mythical, poetic or interpretive, but it does require us to take seriously and celebrate the sacred and to recognise as potentially truth-bearing the stories and insights of the religious past.

Such cogitative souls are unlikely to make themselves heard above the present noise of battle. Since a challenge over religious beliefs is unlikely to achieve a high profile, might it be better to focus on the behaviour that correlates with religious belief?

Could an effective challenge be mounted by showing that many religious groups engage in positive and constructive behaviour? This was the thought that motivated the late Kit Widdows (Vice-Chair of Sea of Faith) to propose working towards widespread agreement over what constitutes highly constructive versus highly destructive behaviour. Such criteria could be used to assess the contribution to society made by faith communities.

Were children encouraged to think for themselves or were they expected to accept unquestioningly what they were told? Did a group's practice enshrine human equality or did it exemplify or teach discrimination? Did the group respect and value those with different ideas and beliefs or did it excoriate them? Questions such as these could help in identifying socially desirable religion.

If criteria about assessing the social worth of religious groups were widely agreed, it should be possible to demonstrate that not all religion is associated with destructive behaviour.

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