Religion Vain quest for meaning of life
Near the end of his life, Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: “As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.’’ It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars’’, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
What preoccupied Berlin as a philosopher and historian of ideas was the very prevalent belief that somehow life is other than the one we live. “Things are what they are,’’ he was fond of saying, paraphrasing Bishop Joseph Butler, “why should we wish to deceive ourselves?’’He regarded the essentially religious belief that we could forgo our freedom now for some future society - Marxism was his particular bugbear - as ludicrous and against all the tenets of common sense. Freedom was, in his view, the freedom to conduct our own lives in our own way with as little interference as possible. He had no time at all for the idea that we are living with a false consciousness, which needs to be changed either by the religiously or the ideologically enlightened. In an age when fascism and communism were battling for the soul of Europe, he saw that they were essentially the same thing, offering a sort of heaven for those who gave up their personal freedom.
He had even less patience with the idea that life is politics. Instead, he acknowledged that people could have conflicting aims, and he concluded that politics was not the end of life, but the unavoidable activity to resolve these aims. This is the liberal way for which Britain has - rightly - been highly regarded. It pre-supposes a rejection of explanations that involve miraculous events, and unprovable explanations of existence and death. As a comfort or as a delusion or as a moral guide, these views are unexceptionable in a modern society, but when they assume a higher authority they have no value at all.
Ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely we should distance ourselves from religious explanations.
There is absolutely no reason for the Church of England to be represented in the Westminster parliament’s upper house (House of Lords) nor for Queen of England to be the Defender of Faith, (or - fatuously - faiths), nor is there any reason to take the Muslim Parliament or the (Jewish) Board of Deputies seriously if they claim to have special knowledge. Their role, like every other group’s in the UK, should be to lobby and persuade. We must eliminate any suggestion of a religious agenda: I have no doubt that a substantial proportion of Muslims in the UK believes that western society is anti-Muslim and that the Iraq war was directed against their religion.
So the current measures the Blair government is taking in the UK against mullahs and against religious incitement seem to me to be misguided. By pandering to the credulous while cracking down on “extremists’’, we are trying to maintain the fiction that we are semi-religious in a harmless, Hobbity sort of fashion. Interestingly, Berlin, while himself absolutely against any “vaporous clouds of nonsense’’ as guiding principles for society, believed that religions lost their meaning when they compromised their beliefs. Muslims — and indeed any other religious group — should be treated in a secular fashion: if they stray into crime, that is what it is, crime, nothing else. What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing the principles of that society.
And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life
has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto’’, the better. —The Guardian