Thursday, November 30, 2006

British MP defends religion -- sort of.

British member of parliament Boris Johnson, a Conservative, has written a rather odd defense of religion. It is odd because he does not argue that religion is true merely useful.

Two cretins attacked a young man and stabbed him to death. They continued to stab him long after he had given them what they wanted, his cell phone and Oyster card (the card which admits one into and out of the London tube system). Johnson confesses he wants to see these men suffer for what they did. Who doesn’t?

But he says that we are better off if they “repent” and change. And the only means he can see for that happening is through religion. He says his “own faith is a very feeble tinsel object” but “if we throw out religion, then we lose a useful tool in changing lives.” “Before we go all the way with Dawkins and chuck out religion” we should look at these scum “and reflect that, if we are to have any hope of changing them for the better, then God is a useful card for society to keep up its sleeve.”

As I’ve pointed out several times the boundaries which Johnson believes are set by religion are not particularly strong. The believer is more likely, not less likely, to be a criminal. The US is a wonderful example. It is far more religious than most Europeans nations and far more crime prone. And the Bible belt states have higher crime rates than the godless liberal states in New England.

There is no doubt that religion can change lives. Any obsession or fanaticism can do that. The young men who went down into the London Tube with bombs had become very religious. The young men who drove those airliners into the Twin Towers were strongly religious. The young men who beat Matthew Shephard to death for being gay were religious.

Now it should not matter if these two killers repent or not. Why? Because they ought to be in prison for the rest of their natural lives. Killers like them don’t deserve freedom ever. Whether they repent and become sweet guys is not relevant to the rest of us if they remain behind bars. I’m all against the death penalty but heinous crimes like this deserve life and life in prison ought to mean life in prison. Letting such thugs out in five years is a monstrous injustice.

But using false claims about a deity is just silly. Johnson is pulling the old Santa Claus trick that parents used on children. “You better be good because Santa is watching and you won’t get anything nice for Christmas unless you are.” Did that ever really work?

I would think that the religious would be insulted by Johnson’s suggestion. Surely whether or not a deity exists is important. This utilitarian approach to god is not only likely to fail but is insulting to those people who choose to believe such tales. If Johnson wishes to insult such believers then do so openly and not with this backhanded form of praise.


Blogger Richard said...

Just about anything Boris Johnson does is strange (he is one in a line of English eccentrics).

I agree that Johnson's argument is a little strange. There are I think two issues here:
i) The idea that 'religion' is somehow the social conscience for society. Johnson says for example that 'religion sets boundaries; it suggests to bad and loveless people that they are loved. It provides a framework'. I think there may be some truth in this (I am a Christian and hence it is clearly true for me). However, I am highly dubious of such 'religion as chaplain' ideas as they are often nostalgic after a lost age or used as a means of maintaining a conservative status quo. The Christian Right's longing to return the the (invented) faith of the Founding Fathers or the defence of slavery or subjugation of women are examples of this.
ii) Do you not think that religion can change people for the better (as opposed to the examples you used). Obviously I do but I see nothing in the question that assumes that to think so entails a belief in the truth of this religion, it may be that there materialistically explainable psychological explanations for this. This I think is Johnson's point. If it takes a religious belief to change someone's life for the better so be it.

Like much of Johnson's thought it bears little impact to me, I largely find him irrelevant. I am sceptical whenever politicians use religion for political ends but I'm not sure it's insulting to say that religion can on occassion serve as a reality-check. It would be offensive to say only one religion or indeed only religion can serve this purpose but then Johnson han't said this.

Anyhow, sorry the the long post.


December 02, 2006

Blogger GodlessZone said...

Richard: Thanks for the comments. Johnson is an eccentric. After reading his article I read several articles about him. (I usually do that sort of thing.)

Now the idea that religion suggests to someone they are loved is dubious. Really depends on the religion and the person involved and what they believe.

I don't know what you mean by the Christian Right wanting to return to the invented faith of the Founding Fathers. The Christian Right and the Founding Fathers are miles apart. That is if you mean Founding Fathers in the normal usage.

Do I think religion can change people? Well yes. But its a crap shoot whether it will do so for the better or the worse. And since I don't think there is any outside power to religion, that is it is all a state of mind, that also means the change comes from within the person entirely. And my point about him saying somnething offensive is that he basically treats religion like a tool and not not something real. I would think those who take religion seriously would have a bit of a problem with that.

December 02, 2006

Blogger Richard said...

With regards the the Founding Fathers I agree, they are miles apart but not in some of the CR's mind which has created a mythic idea of a previously "Christian nation" to be recovered. This is what I mean by the nostalgia

Speaking personally I don't find it offensive that Johnson has a more utilitarian approach to religion (indeed, if he didn't and insisted on its truth for political purposes there would be more severe Church-State issues there). I have no qualms about saying a Sikh, Muslim conversion or whatever is (potentially) beneficial, much like involvement in a non-religious community such as AA. He is saying that religion can be beneficial on pragmatic grounds I (possibly) would say there is more to it than that, they are not mutually-exclusive so I can live with that.

That said, this argument can be used to support other arenas such as Faith schools (an issue here in the UK) and the so-called faith-based initiative your side of the pond. I am not in principle opposed to them but they very easily slip into religiously exclusivist modes that is dangerous.


December 03, 2006

Blogger GodlessZone said...

Richard: we are then in agreement regarding the Founding Fathers. They were not what the Christianists have invented at all. I was just unsure what you meant prevously.

December 03, 2006


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