A Point of View: The perils of belief

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The evangelical urge to make other people share our beliefs is a blight upon civilisation – and religion is by no means the sole offender, says John Gray.

"Whatever happens they are all doomed to disappear shortly from this earth." Reported by Norman Lewis, a great travel writer with a passionate interest in indigenous peoples around the world, this was the judgement of a fundamentalist Christian missionary with whom Lewis talked when he visited Vietnam in the 1950s. The missionary made the declaration with a shrug, but also with some satisfaction. He viewed the country's tribal peoples with distaste and even disgust. In their majestic, steeple-roofed long houses, they lived with their pigs, hens and dogs, taking little thought for the morrow. For them wealth was embodied in ancient gongs and jars, which they collected and treasured. Feasting and drinking their traditional rice wine as often as they could, they only worked for wages when compelled to do so.

Though they would later be persecuted and displaced from their homelands when a Communist government came to power, for the missionary the tribal peoples were no better than communist themselves. He welcomed the fact that they were forced to work in the French rubber plantations, often being beaten or tortured, since in these conditions there was no possibility of escape and a return to their wicked ways. Some of the French colonial civil servants, who along with the rubber companies ruled Vietnam at the time, took a more intelligent view. One of them, a doctor and anthropologist, considered the tribes to have one of the happiest and most attractive civilisations on the planet. Yet he too believed the tribes were about to be wiped out from the highlands where they had lived for more than 2,000 years. The men who were taken as forced labourers by the planters sometimes didn't return, while the missionaries were seizing the priceless ancient gongs and jars. So when the missionary told Lewis that the tribes and their way of life were about to disappear from the earth, Lewis could not disagree: "I was sure he was right."

Missionaries of the kind Lewis encountered show religion at its worst. Destroying traditional peoples, these earnest evangelists illustrate the horrendous crimes human beings can commit when they are possessed by an all-encompassing belief. Belief of this kind needn't be religious, and in recent times it has more often been secular. Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason.

Written By: John Gray
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

22 COMMENTS

  1. “Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason” – Such as? I understand that the two Word Wars were secular, but I’d dispute they started out of “belief in reason”.

    “Victims of secular evangelists?” – No, victims of Communism. Secularism protects a person’s right to practise their religion as well other’s rights to be protected from religion.

    • In reply to #1 by Johnny_O:

      “Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason” – Such as? I understand that the two Word Wars were secular, but I’d dispute they started out of “belief in reason”.

      Nope! WW1 was between theist monarchists, and WW2 was instigated by Hitler and Mussolini (Catholics) and a religious Japanese Shinto god-emperor! ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/history/emperor)

      • In reply to #6 by Alan4discussion:

        In reply to #1 by Johnny_O:

        “Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason” – Such as? I understand that the two Word Wars were secular, but I’d dispute they started out of “belief in reason”.

        Nope! WW1 was between theist monarchists, and WW2 was instigate…

        To imply that the theism of European Monarchs in 1914 was the reason for WWI, and again implying that the at best ambiguous catholicism of Hitler and the catholicism of Mussolini was a causative feature of WW2 is simply wrong. To add to it the role of Hirohito in Japan just compounds the error.

        WWI was initiated by a resurgence in economic imperialism and triggered by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand. The admitted religiosity of all concerned is irrelevant. Theism was far more universal, especially among the official “Protectors of the (various) Faith(s).” It is worth remembering that WWI was initially fought by Russia and Germany, conflict that ended with the defeat of the Russian army at Tannenburg, August 1914.

        Japan by 1940 had expanded for reasons of securing supply of raw materials and economic expansion into an empire that included Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea. Tojo, and the military junta that effectively ran the country had far more to do with it than Hirohito, despite his being the figurehead. Again, his role in promoting the conflict, as MacArthur agreed by not prosecuting him as a war criminal, is ambiguous at best.

        While it is tempting to blame religion for every bit of bastardry that history can document, and there are many cases where one can, it is not universally and invariably the root cause.

        • In reply to #9 by Sheepdog:

          In reply to #6 by Alan4discussion:

          In reply to #1 by Johnny_O:

          “Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason” – Such as? I understand that the two Word Wars were secular, but I’d dispute they started out of “belief in reason”.

          Nope! WW1 was between theis…

          Exactly. You could make a case that religion played a role in both the German and the Japanese fascism. Hatred of the Jews was obviously religious and was a big driver to bringing the Nazis to power and the religious (and Buddhist for those of you who think Buddhism isn’t such a bad religion) nature of Japanese society where the Emperor literally was worshipped as divine; all those things clearly played a role and helped make the war more likely (and harder to end — especially for the Japanese) but the economic causes you described were clearly a major factor as well.

        • In reply to #9 by Sheepdog:
          >

          Tojo, and the military junta that effectively ran the country had far more to do with it than Hirohito, despite his being the figurehead. Again, his role in promoting the conflict, as MacArthur agreed by not prosecuting him as a war criminal, is ambiguous at best.

          MacArthur made a big deal out of pretending to determine the responsibility of the emperor before giving him a pass but IMO that was all just politics. The allies had agreed to it as part of the surrender and MacArthur (who IMO was a mediocre general but a good politician) realized it would be more trouble than it was worth to prosecute the emperor.

          There was an absolutely awful movie on the very interesting question recently called Emperor.

          • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #9 by Sheepdog:

            Tojo, and the military junta that effectively ran the country had far more to do with it than Hirohito, despite his being the figurehead. Again, his role in promoting the conflict, as MacArthur agreed by not prosecuting him as a war criminal, is ambiguous at best.

            MacAr…

            A small but significant point, the Emperor, then and now, and despite his until recent status as divinely descended, was not so much “worshipped” as he was, and still is, venerated. There is a strong difference, and the loss of his divinity has not dented his status one bit.

            I agree with you about MacArthur being the better politician than General. Possibly the least recognised but most essential and greatest skill of the American military is their logistics and supply chain. The integration of civil industry, naval forces and air power in landing and supporting the ground forces in the Pacific was brilliantly done, and deserves greater recognition than it has been given.

        • In reply to #9 by Sheepdog:
          >

          and again implying that the at best ambiguous catholicism of Hitler

          There is no “ambiguous Catholicism of Hitler”. Hitler was a Catholic who was never excommunicated, and along with Mussolini was in cahoots with the Vatican in a relationship of mutual support.
          Hitler was also in cahoots with the Lutheran churches, some of which marched to support him, while others benefited from church taxes on the people which his legislation provided to fund the churches.
          http://nobeliefs.com/images/DeutscheChristenBadge.jpg
          http://nobeliefs.com/mementoes/HitlerYouthCross.JPG
          Gott Mit Uns (God With Us) Nazi Buckle – http://nobeliefs.com/mementoes/buckle.jpeg

          and the catholicism of Mussolini was a causative feature of WW2 is simply wrong.

          Their religious links were certainly related to their rise to power and political support.
          I did not suggest the political and religious ideologies were exclusive causes.
          What I disputed, was the claim “that the two Word Wars were secular” ,

          To add to it the role of Hirohito in Japan just compounds the error.

          There is no doubt that the deification of the emperor was a massive factor in motivating Japanese troops and promoting the ideology, – as the link I provided explained.

          • In reply to #13 by Alan4discussion:

            In reply to #9 by Sheepdog:

            and again implying that the at best ambiguous catholicism of Hitler

            There is no “ambiguous Catholicism of Hitler”. Hitler was a Catholic who was never excommunicated, and along with Mussolini was in cahoots with the Vatican in a relationship of mutual support.
            Hi…

            Yes there is ambiguity in Hitlers catholicism. Certainly he was never excommunicated, quite what that proves I don’t know, nor did he attend mass, and certainly not confession. So what? Yes, he cynically used religion when and how it suited him, and RD has pretty much covered the selection of contradictory quotes from the belt buckle (which predates Hitler, BTW) to his repeated denunciations of god, and also his “I will always be a catholic” that justify the use of the word “ambiguous.”

            And, if you read what I said, I did not define Mussolini’s catholicism as “ambiguous,” just Hitler’s.

            The BBC link cherry picks a little. As I said before, worship and veneration are different things, and yes Hirohito did little to curb Japanese expansion, why would he, he was after all a man of his time, and Imperialism was still in fashion. Japan’s reliance on imported raw materials, particularly oil, was, and is absolute. Protecting their supply was a paramount national objective, and Tojo’s “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was to be means of it’s achievement, one analogous to Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”

          • In reply to #14 by Sheepdog:
            >

            Yes there is ambiguity in Hitlers catholicism. Certainly he was never excommunicated, quite what that proves I don’t know, nor did he attend mass, and certainly not confession. So what? Yes, he cynically used religion when and how it suited him,

            Ah! Hitler was not TRRrrooo Catholic.

            and RD has pretty much covered the selection of contradictory quotes from the belt buckle (which predates Hitler, BTW)

            Yes the earlier version of the “Got Mit Uns” belt-buckle was worn by those allegedly secular German troops in the WW1 too.

            to his repeated denunciations of god,

            Could you produce the quotes from Hitler you refer to?

            and also his “I will always be a catholic” that justify the use of the word “ambiguous.”

            “I will always be a Catholic” sounds pretty unambiguous to me!

            To suggest that NAZIism was secular is just comical!
            http://nobeliefs.com/images/DeutscheChristenFlag.png

          • In reply to #17 by Alan4discussion:

            In reply to #14 by Sheepdog:

            Yes there is ambiguity in Hitlers catholicism. Certainly he was never excommunicated, quite what that proves I don’t know, nor did he attend mass, and certainly not confession. So what? Yes, he cynically used religion when and how it suited him,

            Ah! Hitler was not TRRr…

            I am not sure quite what we are arguing about here, or why. Ambiguity about peoples attitudes is something that comes from conflicting information, and there is certainly enough of that. The quotes actually come from “The God Delusion.” I do not have the book with me, so I cannot give you a better reference, but it is from the chapter in which RD discusses the supposed atheism of Hitler and Stalin. He also describes Hitler’s Catholicism as “ambiguous at best,” (quote from memory.)

            I am not quite sure where it was that I suggested that either WWI or WWII were purely “secular.” I certainly never intended to. Dynastic (WWI) yes, Imperialistic economic, yes, downright Gothic tribalism (WWII) with religious and quasi religious ritual, yes. Purely secular, like (maybe) Vietnam, I do not believe so.

            Despite semantic disagreement, I think we are on the same side.

          • In reply to #18 by Sheepdog:
            >

            I am not quite sure where it was that I suggested that either WWI or WWII were purely “secular.”

            I think you just lost track of my original comment @6 where I disputed that they were secular and pointed out religious aspects.

            I certainly never intended to. Dynastic (WWI) yes, Imperialistic economic, yes, downright Gothic tribalism (WWII) with religious and quasi religious ritual, yes.

            I think we are agreed on that.

            Purely secular, like (maybe) Vietnam, I do not believe so.

            I think the Vietnam War was more ideological American Xtian capitalism V communism. – Not quite fully religious, but thinking along similar quasi-religious lines.

            Wars with both sides claiming “god on their side”, are well known, and while they usually also have commercial and empire-building motives in their religio-political leadership, they are not “secular”.
            Similarly colonial conquests have been strongly linked to religious conquests of the native peoples as part of their being dominated and dispossessed by the invaders.

          • In reply to #20 by Marktony:

            The Shocking Story of the Catholic “Church’s” Role in Starting the Vietnam War

            Thanks for the link. I had some (small) knowledge of this, hence the “maybe” in brackets. I will dig into it later. I served in Vietnam during the war in a limited way (Australian Navy) and I saw enough of it to realise even at a young age that it was an utterly immoral conflict (are there ever truly moral ones?) and one that we, both the US and Australia, should never have been involved with.

  2. John Gray is incoherent.

    He fails to make a distinction between belief, wish and faith, and mixes them as if he is using them like ingredients in a recipe. The result is very unappetising.

    He is undoubtedly correct that words are misused – whether wittingly or unwittingly is not important – to claim that change is progress, providing it is ’my’ kind of progress. He is also, surely, correct to say that people make mistakes – they get over-excited by a new idea. We have all fallen into the trap of being over-ambitious or too enthusiastic about something.

    But does that equate to evangelism?

    Not in my book. Oh wait, I don’t have a book. Okay; not in my current view then.

    I must say I find the confident assertions of unbelievers more ridiculous than any religious myth.

    It is true that some newer atheists still haven’t latched on to the message: Continue to be sceptical. Indeed, many show signs of never having developed their sceptical skills beyond the basics. Does that mean they are evangelists blindly driving others to misfortune. No.

    So either Mr. Gray is saying: “I’m an Atheist but … “ or he’s saying that atheism is a belief, or he’s saying something else and is in line for a medal for being Most Confusing of 2014.

    At its best, religion can serve as an antidote against … credulity. If you think human beings are incurably flawed, you’ll be unlikely to fall for the latest panacea for human ills.

    Given that, as an Atheist, Mr. Gray must surely be in line with the rest of us – shaking his head at the credulity of the faithful – that sentence simply makes no sense whatsoever. Flawed is a highly subjective word, and who is Mr. Gray to sit in judgement anyway? And who, I would very much like to know, is selling panaceas outside the religio-politcal class?

    I gave up after that.

    Peace.

  3. How many times must we debunk the idea that secularism, humanism and atheism are just like religion? Wars may erupt over territorial disputes, social inequality, or resources – all of which may claim to be of a non-religious nature – but I have yet to hear of genocide such as that perpetrated against the Jews or Native Americans that did not have religious ideology at its roots. We all know that Hitler was a Catholic who used Christian hatred of the Jews and the religiously-inspired idea of “Aryan” supremacy to whip Germans into a genocidal froth; Catholic and Protestant Europeans used Biblical ideology to justify their annihilation of Native Americans and their culture and the confiscation of their land. By some estimates over 65 million Native Americans died as a direct result of European colonization. They later used the Bible to justify slavery, on whose backs an entire economy depended. Stalin was a megalomaniac who couldn’t tolerate the competition of religion – he wanted all the attention, wealth and power for himself. All of the boogeymen held up as “secular monsters” perpetrated their crimes not for the sake of secularism but to keep from having to share power. Even the horrors visited on Africans by other Africans, such as happened in Uganda and Rwanda, usually have their roots either in megalomaniacal control or ideological or religious differences between regions or tribes. Just because a conflict isn’t started by rabid Christians, Muslims, Hindus or whatever doesn’t mean it is caused by secularism by default.

  4. “Some of the greatest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of belief in reason.”

    No they were not!

    They were carried out in the belief of ridiculous notions which served dogmatic political ends and nothing else; that’s the opposite of reason.

    Reason stems out of the knowledge of what is true, and can be verified or falsified as such, not out of prejudice, fear, loathing, ignorance and pseudo science.

    In 1952 Bertrand Russell wrote “I do not believe that a decay in dogmatic belief can do anything but good. I admit at once that new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and the Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds [sic] if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth. Stalin’s language is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary in which he he received his training.”

    Dogma is dangerous, but science and reason are not dogmatic, and cannot be implicated in any of the crimes mentioned.

    I submit that what’s being put forward here is an Argumentum ad Populum.

    I stand to be corrected.

  5. IMO wars are not fought for any other “reason” than gaining, protecting, land resources, strategic places and the like, which the army of a rival government would love to grab hold of. All the propaganda for war is all “defensive”. Every single modern war has been a “defence” of something or other. Freedom, liberty, democracy, the motherland, protecting civilians and the like. Religion is often brought on board so that God is on the army’s side, and the enemies are no better than rats.

    During the invasions of Iraq, 2003 and Libya more recently, no mention of “oil” or “gas” was allowed to escape the voices of the politicians advocating such invasions. Indeed Donald Rumsfeld famously denied that “oil” had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq ! HAH !

    It’s an expensive business waging war. Every bullet, shell, bomb, grenade, cruise missile, drone, is just so much wasted wealth. In the case of a cruise missile it reaches its target, blows up, kills many and causes devastation and it cost ?$250,000 .

    Mr. Gray’s “reason” amounts to no more than the struggle for power and wealth in capitalism.

    As Chief George said: “When the white men came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Now they have the land and we have the Bible”. How true.

  6. But as an atheist myself, I must say I find the confident assertions of unbelievers more ridiculous than any religious myth. It seems to me hard to believe that God can deliver us from death, but at least that’s acknowledged to be a miracle. Yet it’s quite common these days to find people scoffing at religious ideas of the resurrection of the body while imagining they can become immortal by having a virtual version of themselves uploaded into cyberspace – to my mind a far more absurd idea.

    Anybody who is familiar with physics and computer science know full well that “uploading” one’s conscience into a machine is a product of classic science-fiction lore (Frankenstein, Robo-Cop, etc..) which has nothing to do with actual science and even less with atheism.

    Now to say that this is a “far more absurd idea” is in itself absurd. Because it’s in fact the same idea: the notion of the mind-body duality. The idea that our conscience can exist outside of our physical brain. Whether this ethereal conscience is reincarnated into a biological brain or a sufficiently complex electronic one is a mere detail. The core belief is the same in both cases.

    So this “uploaded conscience” belief has nothing to do with actual atheism which constitutes in the ABSENCE of belief in the supernatural. IMO, belief in a disembodied conscience in the absence of any evidence qualifies as belief in the supernatural.

  7. The author seems to have used the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy” as the basis for his article. This is where one shoots at a barn and then proceeds to draw a bulls-eye around each bullet hole (see; “The Critical Thinkers Dictionary by Robert Carroll). The article has formulated an opinion (shot at barn) and then picked examples to use as his bulls-eyes.

    He uses the term “Ancient Beautiful Civilizations”; if they are ancient how can one know they were beautiful? We weren’t there; could they not have been ugly and built on the cruelty of the times. The tribes of New Guinea practiced cannibalism until it was finally abolished, should we regret they are no longer having each other for dinner? Joseph Stalin was educated at a religious seminary perhaps he learned how to purge his enemies via church examples of purging heresy.

    History, no matter how accurately portrayed, is only a keyhole view into the past and is not a good predictor of the present nor future. I don’t mind being told unpleasant facts but I don’t buy the comparisons as presented.

  8. Perhaps the understanding of the brain is the key to all our belief problems, religion being just one (and not necessarily the chief one) of a huge number of belief institutions that we identify with in order to give our lives meaning and security.

    Nationalism runs a close second (if not more so) in galvanizing people to a belief – the belief in my country being more right, more free, more open, more educated etc., etc. Religion is often blamed for the troubles in Ireland and it has been said that the cause was/is nationalism (the conflict between pro-British and pro-Irish) and that religion is a convenient way to identify protagonists.

    Also resources; Britain and other European countries fought wars around the world to exploit the resources of the conquered. Today oil can be the cause – when resources run low in rich countries, poor ones beware.

    The main belief we hold is the belief in ‘me’. Whether it is religion, country, politics, race or even a football team we will fight to protect it, or rather, protect my concept of what I perceive as comprising ‘me’. Through identification we maintain a ‘’me’ construct that when threatened in any way reacts.

    Religious people identify with their beliefs. To combat religious superstition and myth the brain and its processes that create belief need to be understood but also, perhaps we need to understand the processes that create our own identities – that separate us from others.

  9. Secularism would prevent a priest or a religious believer being classified as a “former person”. Communism was bad for so many reasons not least that it wasn’t secular. More than ever i think argument mapping is far more suited to analysis of topics than words strung together into articles. Articles tend to serve as jungles where clarity and meaning get lost.

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