Martin Rowson's 'Curate's Egg' illustration for New Humanist, Jan/Feb 2009The nearest I ever come to a mystical feeling, I suppose, is on drinking a glass of wine after a strenuous day. Then I suddenly feel, quite irrationally of course, that all is right with the world, in fact that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

As the author of these words lived through the Black Death in her early childhood, I think she must have had at least two glasses of wine when she wrote them. While I understand the argument that the existence of unhappiness is necessary for us to be conscious of our happiness, it has always seemed to me that the total quantity of unhappiness in the world is in excess of what is strictly required for us to reach that consciousness; and that therefore the argument does not answer the problem of evil faced by those who propound an all-benevolent deity.

Indeed, the argument would work just as well, if not better, the other way round; that an all-malevolent deity allowed us just enough happiness for us to appreciate our own misery and the evil in the world. The Manichaean view, of a permanent and unresolvable conflict between the principles of good and evil, seems to me quite an attractive one, at least on the level of mythology.

But these are all old arguments. By now, I imagine, there is nothing new to be said about the existence or non-existence of God, or about His supposed attributes, if existent. For myself, I am no more convinced of the existence of a deity than ever I was; the arguments that persuaded me in my youth persuade me still. What has changed is my tolerance of, or perhaps I should say my sympathy with, religion. I no longer experience any visceral dislike of it, at least of all of it; and when those nice women come to the door to distribute Watchtower and Awake, I no longer wish to humiliate them by demonstrating my superior philosophical acumen (for I have read Hume and they have not), though I regret to say that I once did. I remember Mr Venus’ words in Our Mutual Friend: “Don’t sauce me, in the wicious pride of your youth.”

It is not only that I have become aware of the terminal incompleteness of my own philosophical position (let alone my lack of understanding of modern physics and cosmology), that I do not now ever expect to be able to repair or make whole an awareness that seems to require both a degree of humility towards and tolerance of the philosophical positions of others; but I have rejected the historiography of religion of the adolescent or village atheist, according to which religion is responsible for harm and evil and nothing but harm and evil.

Of course, I still recognise that terrible things have been done in the name of religion, and continue to be done in that name. But it is possible to write the history of almost any human endeavour plausibly in the terms of the harm that it has done.

The history of medicine is a good example. At the time I qualified, the history of medicine was almost a form of ancestor worship. It was written mainly by retired doctors who wanted to keep in contact with the profession that had been the focus of their lives, and they assumed, almost axiomatically, that the task of medical history was to explain how past heroics had led to our current state of extreme enlightenment. This was the Whig interpretation of history applied to one small corner of human history as a whole.

Over the years, medical history has ceased, at least exclusively, to be written by medical ancestor-worshippers; the writing of it has largely been taken over by the sociologically minded, who have been more concerned to demonstrate the economic ambitions of the medical profession than its commitment to the betterment of mankind and success in procuring it. There has also been an enormous increase in the number of studies devoted to the absurd theories in which the medical profession long believed, and to the dreadful and harmful practices in which it long indulged. Quite a lot of famous people – as famous as Louis XIV and George Washington – were as likely to have died of their treatments as from the diseases for which they were being treated. Recently I reviewed a book, published by one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world, that purported to be a history of medicine as illustrated by the disasters it, medicine, wrought, on large scale and small.

Now the two kinds of history are both true and false. Both rely on what really happened; they do not falsify the record in the sense of fraudulently making up untruths of whole cloth. But neither tells the whole truth, which, of course, is complex. As a doctor, I am inclined to the Whig interpretation, because it seems to me as good an organising principle as any other, and it is flattering to me a member of the profession; but I do recognise that the fact that (for example) patients were bled by doctors for two millennia, not only without doing the pretty obvious experiments to establish the efficacy of this procedure, but without even realising the necessity to perform such experiments, is one that needs to be explained. From our current standpoint, at least, it is not one that is flattering to the collective intelligence of the medical profession.

Similarly, it would not be very difficult, I think, to build up a dossier demonstrating the disastrous effect of science and technology on human life throughout history. To take but a single point: technology has almost always soon been adapted to military purposes, so that more and more people can be killed at greater and greater distance. It is a banality that it is one thing psychologically to kill someone in a hand-to-hand fight, and quite another to kill hundreds, thousands or millions at the press of a button. Even the comparatively low-tech Rwandan genocide was completely reliant on 20th-century technology for its consummation. It could not have happened in the 19th century, for example, because there was no radio to spread incitement through the land contemporaneously.

However, no one this side of out-and-out Luddites would claim that the effects of technology on human existence have been wholly negative. An examination of the facts of demography alone precludes such a conclusion; and not many of us would be willing to forgo the marvels that are the most elementary part of our daily lives, but would have made the Sun King gasp in admiration or incredulity. Thanks to technology, the comfort of our most ordinary daily lives is incomparably greater and freer of pain than that of the most extravagantly luxurious monarchs of history.

Now it seems to me that the balance sheet – of good against evil – of the history of religion is likely to be so complex as to be impossible to draw up. Perhaps even the attempt is ridiculous, or the question itself meaningless. Apart from anything else, it necessitates the employment of counterfactuals of the most doubtful kind. What would the history of Western Europe have been if it were not for the Catholic Church and the Reformation? One can, perhaps, say what the history of smallpox would have been without Jenner’s discovery (though even this is not entirely without controversy), but surely not the history of Western Europe without the Catholic Church and the Reformation.

Despite the intrinsic unanswerability of the question, I think there is little doubt that many atheists feel very deeply, even passionately, about the subject. Their passion, in fact, far outruns any possible factual or rational argument upon which it could be based. Several of what one might call the new-wave atheist books seethe with hatred of religion, not merely rejection of its arguments. One begins to suspect an overdose of religion in their childhoods to account for it.

Extreme forms of argument abound: such as, for example, that the religious education of children is a form of child abuse. This means that huge numbers of parents in the past, perhaps the majority of them, were child abusers (75 per cent of children in Britain attended Sunday school in 1900).

Of course, it might be argued that they were not child abusers at the time because religion was not then known to be entirely false, but now that we know all forms of religious belief to be entirely false, still to bring a child up in a religious tradition is a form of child abuse.

This, however, is nonsense. The fundamental arguments both for and against religion have been known for at least two millennia. No modern atheist really knows more, or has better arguments, than Lucretius had. Moreover, to use a term such as child abuse, with all its extreme connotations, of religious upbringing of children, however mild, is as intolerant in its own way, and certainly would be as nasty in its practical consequences if anyone took it seriously, as (let us say) theocratic Islam. Indeed, it smacks of very much the same mindset.

When I once published a small article in which I stated that by far the best and nicest people I had ever known were religious, I received a torrent of unpleasant letters that equalled in nastiness of tone the theocratic Islamic websites (that are easily found) that assert, without qualification or awareness that some might find the point of view morally repugnant, that the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. I was not in any way endorsing the religious beliefs themselves, merely saying that, in these cases, they seem to have had beneficial consequences.

It goes without saying that I do not want to live in a theocracy, but I don’t want to live in a militantly atheist state either: and to call religious education child abuse seems to me virtually to be a demand for a militantly atheist state. Indeed, most militantly atheists states (with the exception of Albania) did not forbid people to be religious, only to teach religion – precisely the policy that those who call religious education a form of child abuse might be expected to endorse. Not coincidentally, these militantly atheist states were among the nastiest in human history.

The role of rationality in human life is a lot more complex and less unequivocal than we sometimes like to think; this applies as much to disbelievers as to believers. Militancy is usually a sign of impatience, as well as of a lack of prudence, justice and temperance: and, as I am sure that I do not need to tell you, prudence, justice and temperance are three of the four cardinal virtues.

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