I don’t want to belabor Chapter 5 of The Irrational Atheist, but there is a remarkable quote on page 87 that I think is worthy of special attention.
John Julius Norwich goes so far as to write of the First Crusade: “The entire Crusade was now revealed as having been nothing more than a monstrous exercise in hypocrisy, in which the religious motive had been used merely as the thinnest of disguises for unashamed imperialism.”
Vox wants to use this quote to try and discredit the idea that religion contributes anything substantial to wars, but in fact it actually goes to show that the New Atheists have a very good point indeed.
In Vox’s book, if any other factors (such as imperialism) were involved, then religion is off the hook. Imperialism is a Bad Thing, so let’s blame the whole Crusades phenomenon on imperialism instead of religion. The problem, however, is that this is precisely the main point about what’s wrong with religion: God does not show up in real life, does not speak to people (not even believers), and does not tell us what His will is. In God’s absence, those who strain to hear His voice are bound to hear something if they try hard enough. That something, however, is not going to be the voice of God.
In 1952 the American composer John Cage wrote a piece entitled 4′ 33″, which consists of three movements during which the instrumentalist(s) sit there doing absolutely nothing. For four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the audience is treated to a “symphony” of environmental noises, most of which come from the audience itself. The performance ends up being created, not by the performer, but by those who have come to experience it. Listening for God’s voice turns out to be much the same sort of experience.
The reason the Crusades were motivated by imperialism (and greed, and lust for power, and so on) is because God was not there to lead Christians anywhere else. Those who listen for God’s voice when God does not speak, inevitably end up hearing whatever background noise is being supplied by their own desires, ambitions, fears, and so on—which they then attribute to God, thus making their own selfish ambitions into a divine mandate. The fact that the religious impulse behind the Crusades evolved so rapidly into naked imperialism merely demonstrates this key weakness in religious faith. In God’s continual and universal absence, religion has no choice but to draw on the things men supply from within their own hearts.
We see the same phenomenon today in Christians who listen for the voice of God, and hear only the voice of their own prejudices and fears regarding homosexuals, or abortion, or evolution, or liberalism, or what have you. And of course they’re entitled to have these fears and prejudices if they want. The problem is that religion takes these highly personal and subjective biases and exaggerates them into some kind of divine imperative, to be imposed on others regardless of personal religious conviction (and often regardless of well-documented scientific fact). And, as Sam Harris points out, religion does this under a social presumption that religion is entitled to do this solely on its own say-so. No evidence is needed, let alone proof. It is religion, therefore it is valid by default.
But that’s a foolish assumption. Obviously, religions that contradict one another cannot all be correct, so we’re guaranteed to be wrong at least most of the time if we assume religious conclusions are justified by default. We need to have some kind of real-world justification before we accept such conclusions as valid. But in God’s continuous and universal absence (as in Allah’s, and Thor’s, and so on), no such justification can be provided. Yet people assume that if religion cannot provide such things, that means they shouldn’t be expected to! What a colossal non sequitur!
The problem with religion is not only that it inevitably assumes the form of whatever human motivations lie behind it, but that society in general allows it to do so without question. The New Atheists are not calling for religion to be outlawed, they are merely saying it was time we all held religion accountable for its claims, in terms of providing real-world, objective, and verifiable evidence for the things it wants us to accept as true. And what, after all, is wrong with that? Vox can argue against the New Atheists all he wants, but until he’s prepared to confront the issue of God’s existence, it’s all just an exercise in denialism.