Religious Conflict

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

Dawkins provides other examples of ‘our society’s overweening respect for religion’:

  • The pusillanimous reluctance to call the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland by their religious names, preferring euphemisms like ‘Loyalist’ and ‘Nationalist; and
  • the description of the Sunni/Shia conflict in Iraq as an ‘ethnic conflict’, when it is ‘Clearly a religious conflict’ (p.43).

Well, in the Northern Ireland case, some of the reasons would be:

  • a desire not to misrepresent those Catholics who are not Nationalist and those Protestants who are not Loyalists – really quite sizable numbers;
  • a desire to name directly the political aims for which the two sides were struggling, rather than using religious names as proxies; and
  • a desire not to give a religious aura to the pretensions of either side (perhaps so as to avoid the ‘undeserved respect’ that such a religious aura would promote!)

Seems pretty reasonable to me.

There is a broader point, though – one that I rather suspect we will be coming back to. And that is Dawkins’ confident belief that the conflicts he mentions are ‘religious conflicts’, and that this means something fundamentally different from calling them ‘ethnic’ or ‘community’ conflicts.

Now, there are two routes that we could take, here, but each is going to make it difficult to make sense of Dawkins’ comments. On the one hand, we could define religion as a set of interconnected institutions, practices, and stories that embody and express the basic organizing categories for the culture of a particular group, and connect that culture to some sense of the way things most deeply are. So to talk about religion is to talk about the way of life of a community or a people, and the ways in which that people come to see their way of life as natural, proper, or legitimate. To speak about ‘religious conflict’ in these contexts is precisely to speak about community or ethnic conflicts: a clash between ways of life, between ways of seeing the world, between pervasive ways of organising human life.

Heading in that direction, however, does not seem to me to capture the specificity of Dawkins insistence on calling his examples religious rather than communal or ethnic – his belief that the latter forms of words hide the real nature, the real roots, of the conflicts in question. Yet if we go down the root of focusing on religious belief of the kind that Dawkins’ book attacks – belief in God, belief in the supernatural – it becomes far less clear that it is appropriate to describe these conflicts as in some sense inherently religious. That is, it is far from obvious that the roots, progress, ferocity, and outcomes of these conflicts connect specifically to the beliefs in and about God of the protagonists.

As I say, I suspect we’ll be coming back to this, so I assume Dawkins’ will eventually present some arguments about the religious nature of these or similar conflicts – and my guess (I haven’t reached the relevant chapters, yet) is that we’ll end up arguing about the function of religious beliefs and practices in strengthening or exacerbating the sense of identity, of legitimacy, of entitlement of the groups involved in conflicts. For now, however, all I can do is register my sense that the argumentative moves that Dawkins is making at this point don’t quite possess the breezy and transparent common sense that his rhetoric suggests.

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