Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins quotes a passage he wrote some time ago, when he was incensed at ‘the “sympathy” for Muslim “hurt” and “offence” expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion formers.’ He drew this parallel:

If the advocates of apardheid had their wits about them they would claim – for all I know truthfully – that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justifcation. The rest of us are expected to defend out prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.

Some problems with this:

  • Apardheid was given a religious justification.
  • That did not make many of its critics tiptoe away.
  • The giving of that religious justification provided grounds on which Apartheid could be argued against.
  • Those religious arguments were one reason why Apartheid lost legitimacy in South Africa.
  • It is simply nonsense to say that the ‘whole point’ of religious faith is that it does not depend on rational justification. (Someone obviously forgot, for instance, to tell the Roman Catholic church – which would certainly officially reject this description.)
  • I’ve yet to meet a religious person who regarded it as an infringement of their religious liberty if you asked them to justify their faith. Dawkins is roughing up straw men.

There are two things mixed up together, here. One is the question of ‘offence’ – and the great difficulty which we seem to have in distinguishing between ‘understanding’ and ‘condoning’. I do think it is important to understand the offence caused to Muslim’s by the Rusdie affair, and the reasons why it got stoked to such an amazing ferocity. That is not the same as ‘condoning’, though it might do a great deal to affect what I think appropriate remedies are. Commentators, and their readers, seem all too frequently to be unable to keep this distinction clear.

The second point, though, is the ‘rational justification’ point. And there’s an important distinction here, as well: between foundationalist and non-foundationalist argumentative strategies. Faced with a religious person expressing offence at some event, the foundationalist will say, ‘Can you justify that attitude of yours, starting from axioms that are unquestionable, or shared by all people of common sense and good will?’ The nonfoundationalist will say, ‘What premises do you start from when you justify that attitude of yours? And how do you argue from those premises to that attitude?’ Whatever one thinks of the viability of foundationalist strategies, the nonfoundationalist strategy is always open.

One thing you can be sure of. If you are asking a religious person about their justification for some attitude, idea, or practice x, you can bet that there is a long history of argument about the necessity or propriety of x within that tradition. And even if you do not share the premises from which people who are members of that tradition argue, you can be sure that the very fact that this x is presented as religious means that you will be able to find purchase within that tradition of argument for questioning it, perhaps challenging it and arguing against it. So, if apartheid is presented by someone as ‘Christian’, that means it is being presented as justified on some biblical or theological grounds – and that very fact opens up a whole realm of argumentative strategies that can be brought to bear against it.

Far from removing the prejudice from the realm of argument, the naming of some attitude or practice or idea as ‘religious’ brings it into a realm of argument.

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