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18 February 2009

Faith and moral priority

In the second of a series running this week, author David Hillstrom reflects on the position of thos

By David Hillstrom

Discussions between people of faith and non-believers often break down because of tainted perspectives on both sides. The religious frequently dismiss atheists by insisting that such a world view is devoid of meaning and would lead to an immoral and chaotic society. A number of secular authors on the other hand have attacked religion by blaming the evils of history on religious conflict. Both of these positions are simplistic and false upon honest reflection.

Let’s consider the secularist attack on religion first. It is quite easy to point to violent acts by fanatics. Whether we call to mind Christian fundamentalists who place bombs in abortion clinics or Islamic radicals who detonate suicide belts, it is hard to fathom, let alone condone, their acts.

Secularists also point to conflicts which appear to be based upon religious differences, whether in Sudan, Nigeria or the Middle East, and they seize upon these to question the value of religious belief. Yet we know that the root causes of these phenomena are exceptionally complex and not due solely to misplaced beliefs. We should also acknowledge that at the core of all religions there is a message of love and compassion. Religious groups are some of the most active in humanitarian activities. This is true of missionaries, of churches in local communities and of Hamas in Palestine.

The arguments against non-believers are similarly bogus. There are countless atheists worldwide who support humanitarian work, despite their denial of religion. While self preservation may be in our nature, most of us whether atheists or believers are also compassionate. The science of evolution may be based upon the concept of natural selection; in fact the scientist Richard Dawkins proposed in one of his books on evolution that the impetus for self preservation acts at the level of a single gene and not merely at that of an individual. But science also tells us that evolution has favoured cooperation and altruistic behaviour in numerous species. So in addition to original sin there is also original saintliness.

In all honesty it doesn’t require much effort to discover that the arguments on both sides are tantamount to attacks upon straw men. A better approach is to think positively and to consider pragmatically what social and political conditions lead to compassionate and peaceful societies. The answer to this question is neither illusive nor hidden. When there is broad consensus within society, civilisation flourishes. And when commercial and cultural exchanges exist between societies, civilizations successfully avoid clash and confrontation.

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The challenge then is to seek out ways to promote consensus. Some of my critics have said that seeking consensus is utopian. Yet it is perfectly clear that there is no viable alternative. The exercise of coercion by one social group over another or one nation over another through authoritarian or imperial rule is not sustainable. Our sole option is to promote consensus tirelessly and to have faith that our efforts will bear fruit.

David Hillstrom is author of The Bridge a new look at philosophy, science and religion

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