I strongly suspect that bête noirs area sign that one needs to get out more. All the same I have mine, among which one of the chief ones is the idea that Giordano Bruno was a martyr to science, being burnt at the stake for his Copernican views. This is a myth. Rather, he was condemned for all manner of religious heresies. Mentioned among them at his trial was the idea of a plurality of worlds, which is of course not explicitly Copernican. Evidently Bruno did have Copernican sympathies, although it isn’t clear how well he understood Copernicus’s arguments. But there is no reason to think that the Church would have burnt him for those.
The myth has doubtless arisen because of the proximity of Bruno’s execution to Galileo’s persecution. But there is no real relation between them, and after all Galileo himself was initially granted considerable tolerance for his own Copernicanism. Now, none of this excuses the Church one whit for a barbaric and dogmatic act. But it is frustrating to see his canard trotted out as some kind of evidence in the “battle” between science and religion, especially when it comes from such an otherwise erudite individual as A. C. Grayling, who, in the April issue of Prospect, castigates Frans de Waal for being so tolerant of religion. (One could doubtless make merry play with Grayling’s remark that the Copernican cosmology was ‘geocentric’, but no one can seriously doubt that Grayling knows very well that Copernicus put the sun, not the earth, at the centre of the universe – such a blunder simply reminds me of how horribly easy it is to commit howlers to print with a slip of the pen.)
Grayling’s attack rehearses all the familiar ‘new atheist’ condemnations of religion, including (I should really have thought this beneath him) references to fairies. Much of what he says is entirely fair, such as how deplorable are the religious fundamentalist attacks on science, women, homosexuality and civil freedoms in general. What I find so endlessly frustrating is the childish conviction among the new atheists that such things will evaporate if religion is ‘vanquished’ – a refusal, in other words, to see these things as expressions of power and prejudice for which various religions provide convenient justification. (I have just seen Richard Dawkins flogging on his website a T-shirt saying “Religion: Together We Can Find the Cure”, and I’m afraid my opinion of him fell several notches.)
The idea that they are putting the cart before the horse is not simply one they reject; it seems to infuriate them. It certainly infuriated Sam Harris, who said this in response to my own remarks to that effect:
“Who does Ball imagine the Taliban would be if they weren’t “Muslim extremists”? They are, after all, Homo sapiens like the rest of us. Let’s change them by one increment: wave a magic wand and make them all Muslim moderates… Now how does the world look? Do members of the Taliban still kill people for adultery? Do they still throw acid in the faces of little girls for attempting to go to school? No. The specific character of their religious ideology—and its direct and unambiguous link to their behavior—is the most salient thing about the Taliban. In fact, it is the most salient thing about them from their own point of view. All they talk about is their religion and what it obliges them to do.”
This is so characteristic of the new atheists in its implication that if one could (hey, literally!) wave a magic wand to wish away the ills of religion, all would be well. (And you know what the magic wand is? Reason! Because reason and religion cannot coexist in a single mind!) It’s a tragically naïve tautology: “if we could make these awful people nicer, they would be nicer.” What is particularly astonishing here is that Sam seems not to have realised that his nice Taliban are… still Muslims! In other words, presumably it was not religion per se that was making them this way, but something that was inducing them to interpret their religion in a punitive, intolerant and murderous way. Whatever that thing was, it was presumably not prescribed by the Quran, since as Sam admits, it is possible to interpret the Quran in a far more moderate way.
Now, I share what I perceive to be Sam’s frustration that religious texts, notoriously the Bible, are so contradictory that one can find in them justification for whatever views one prefers, whether as a Quaker pacifist or a member of the National Rifle Association. But this is the whole point: that one’s interpretation is therefore surely shaped by other factors, related to culture and history and doubtless also individual personality and upbringing. If religion is magicked away (and oh, it will have to be powerful magic), those factors are not going to vanish – as countless secular oppressive regimes show. But addressing predilections instilled by culture and history (for which, I freely admit, religion often functions as a brainwashing tool) is hard. Arguing that religion is a tissue of unsupportable beliefs about the nature of the physical universe is so, so much easier.
Many reviews of Grayling’s latest book The God Argument have implied that this debate has got very tired, and that the argument has moved on. I agree.