Religion – Iran's shoot-down of Flight 752 cannot be divorced from theocratic rule

As Iran’s theocratic rulers attempt to defend their shooting down of Ukrainian International Airlines’ Flight 752, their use of religion to divide rather than to unite is again on display.

Iranian General Soleimani was working to build up Shiia Muslim influence, as well as to disrupt the U.S. role in the Middle East, when he was killed in a U.S. drone attack. But thr U.S. (and Israel) are not Iran’s only enemies. It’s important to remember the Iranians, followers of the Shiia branch of Islam, have been traditional enemies of the Sunni Muslims who are dominant in Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian peninsula.

If it was strategically useful to have forces under Soleimani’s  control take out Sunni communities he did so, at great cost in human lives.

The split in Muslim belief has never stopped Islam from uniting races from the Sahara to the Indonesian islands, just as the cleavage of the Reformation has not prevented a modern Catholic upsurge in Africa nor an uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics in  northern Ireland. Fear that Brexit might upset that precarious relationship has been a sore point in UK negotiations with the European Union.

Is religion primarily a unifier or a divider? Two newish books shed light on that question.  In A Little History of Religion, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, gives us a rapid tour de force of the world’s religions. He asserts religion is still “the biggest show on earth” but leaves it to us as to whether we wish to “buy a ticket.”

Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, is more resolute in Outgrowing God – A Beginner’s Guide. He’s written a book that could be aimed at either young adults or plains folks who grew up in church-going homes and who haven’t been into religious questioning.

I read these books simultaneously – a chapter of one, then one of another. It’s an interesting comparison, looking at two distinct points of view side by side, before either have delivered their ultimate message.

Dawkins’s thesis is straight forward and undeniable – that the universe and everything in it can be explained through scientific rationale. There was no intelligent designer, the Bible is largely a collection of myths, and we can be confident that mankind will continue to learn more and more about what makes the physical world tick.

Dawkins writes more about science than he does of religion. After disposing of the plethora of Gods that we have worshipped since the beginning, he lays out the basics of evolution and why Darwin was right, and moves on to ask whether we evolved to be religious, or to be nice.

Richard Holloway’s purpose in A Little History of Religion is to give us a smattering of understanding of all the world’s religions, and how they developed. He concedes the commonality of belief between most of them, from the flood to the concept of theism – a single God who rules the universe.

The most useful part of Holloway’s book may be his last chapter. He takes up the question of whether religion is nearing its end, and of how the secular state rose to take the place of the church in deciding issues of public interest – what laws are made, how schools are run, and who can hold public office.

The contrast between theistic states and secular ones is so strong as to make one wonder why it took us so long to abandon the interference of religion in the public sphere. Yet it took secular states many generations to overcome oppression of women and gays, just two examples of how so-called sacred books taught society to accept rule by men – at least certain kinds of men.

Holloway finds “the gap left by the fading of Christianity” is being filled by secular humanism – a system that holds that humanity has grown up “and should now take responsibility for itself.”

That was the argument made more than a century ago by the man  who invented the word secularism, and who went to jail for atheism rather than bow to the prejudices of 19th century England. George Holyoake set in motion a belief system that has brought freedom of conscience to people around the world. He deserves more recognition, which is why I’m writing his biography – A Radical Life. His life story shows that secularism can be the great unifier of humankind, replacing a  world where religion continues to act more to divide than it does to unite.