[ Mon. Aug. 11. 2008 ]

Nature, one of the world's leading science magazines, normally carries obituaries only of Nobel prizewinners and scientists of similar stature, but it made an exception for Sir John Templeton [subs nec] [4], the financier and philanthropist who gave hundreds of millions of dollars to promote the scientific study of religious beliefs [5]. He thought they were true, or at least referred to real facts about the world, and thus could be studied with profit by real scientists. Naturally, this infuriates the Dawkinsian atheists, who, for all their talk of applying reason to religion, want in fact to abolish it and extinguish its memory except as something with which to frighten children. So I was aware that writing the obituary was a controversial undertaking.

I only had one letter back, though, which surprised me, and it was a reasoned and interesting one from which I learned a great deal. A reader in Dallas, Texas, write in to protest because I had said that people who believed the universe was amoral must think of themselves as being on the losing side.

To many nonbelievers, like myself, we are perfectly content with believing that the universe is amoral and without purpose. Believing this way takes nothing away from our fascination with this place or its mysteries, nor does it make us less emotionally 'positive' than others. To me, believing this way feels neither false to the facts nor to be on a losing side. I assume that those who do believe in a purpose-driven, moral universe also don't feel that they are on a losing side.

Obviously you can be moral and still believe that the universe is not on your side: in some sense, morality wouldn't be morality at all if it consisted only in signing up with the big winner. But it seems to me obvious that if you believe that in the long run all good deeds are worthless, this will clearly influence your attitude, and your tendency to defect in moments of crisis.

This is not quite the same thing as saying that the universe is an amoral thing. I don't see that it is possible to make any reliable judgment about the character of the universe as a whole, or whether it is the sort of thing that could be said to be moral or amoral. At a minimum, though, one has to suppose that the universe has room for goodness as a fact. It's not just a delusion, which we are free to shuck when it is convenient.

So I wrote back to say this, and got a response saying that he did not disagree with this, necessarily. What he minded was the constant use of religious language in American political discourse, and the way that this seemed to exclude all atheists from full citizenship. I can't argue with that. It's a commonplace that to call yourself an atheist in the US is to render yourself unelectable. Richard Dawkins' agent, John Brockman, told me once that he would never identify as an atheist, even though he is one. The last 29 years have been terrible for American believers in reason and progress. They have been pushed further and further to the margins of a society where once they could believe themselves the vanguard. The process started with the election of Ronald Reagan, but it was Jimmy Carter before him who made it clear that evangelical Christianity was something that could elect presidents. Carter, a devout, old-fashioned Baptist, believes in the separation of church and state. But his successors as Christians in public life have not been so scrupulous.

What's worse for American atheists on the left is that the only way for the Democrats to fight back against the religious right has been to adopt religious language and codes themselves. Barack Obama is absolutely on the side of God. "I just want all of you to pray that I can be an instrument of God... I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on earth," he said in this campaign, according to my correspondent in Dallas. It's not far from here to the position that no atheist should be president of the US. One can see how this would upset atheists, especially the sort convinced that religion is an affliction of the stupid, which clever people must grow out of.

The question is whether anything can be done about this kind of exclusionism, which would not replace the exclusion of atheists by the exclusion of religious believers. Is it really possible entirely to exclude religion from politics? Obviously, we can exclude theology from politics. But religion is not theology. It is far more about belonging and behaviour than believing; and the awful thing is that belonging matters more to us than behaviour. We want our opponents to be unprincipled fools. Morality, in this sense, is not absolute, but always relative to the moralists: it is a question of sharing our values, and our priorities. It's logically possible that someone working for my destruction and that of my family is good and right, but I will never come round to understanding that emotionally unless I feel, as in wartime, that we are both in the service of some greater good against some greater enemy. Nor should I.

Now, it does not in fact matter whether the atheist is immoral. What drives this kind of exclusion is the perception that in times of crisis only moral people should vote: and "moral" means here those who share the values and interests of our tribe. That is very hard to argue with. If you think that liberal democracy is the highest value, one form of the dilemma is to ask whether we should tolerate parties which are dedicated to its overthrow: the traditional answer has been something like "Yes, providing they don't get too powerful". That is why Germany has laws against various neo-Nazi parties, and why we have considered [6] banning Hizb-ut-Tahrir [7]. In the end, because religion is about belonging, religious allegiance provides a shorthand answer to the desperately important question of whom you can trust. This is a question that the market makes chronic and painful, since everyone in it is always on the lookout for a better deal. In Europe we tend to think, still, that we can trust the state, though this is wearing out (how many people now trust the NHS?). In the US, they don't seem to trust the federal government for anything. That's partly the result of a sustained propaganda campaign from Reagan onwards. So the need for some other way to distinguish the trustworthy from the untrustworthy becomes more urgent, and religion is one of the most effective ways yet discovered to produce a social identity.

It used to be the case that party allegiance, in a democracy, told you who you could trust. But that doesn't seem to work any more. When party politics go post-ideological, we need huge ideologies to tell us who are really friends or foes. And anyone who thinks it peculiarly disgusting or illiberal that these ideologies should be religious in the US might ask how a commitment to "Enlightenment values" feels to a religious believer in Europe.