New Atheists were the first political movement I encountered online. These were the people who actively attacked Christianity, arguing that it was evil. They would find the most unflattering Bible verses possible and use them to argue that it wasn’t worth reading. Alternatively, they’d bring up the crusades, or the fact that children die, to “prove” that God is malevolent and therefore couldn’t exist. Suffice to say, their takes weren’t hot, but they made up for that with their burning passion.
My introduction to this group came in 2013. Youtube had started recommending me videos with titles like “why religion is stupid.” I’m still unsure how my watch history of top 40 music and Minecraft tutorials made them think I was interested, but I guess they were right. Usually, these videos featured an unkempt man rambling about the latest unpleasant thing a Christian said or did. They were fascinating—my first experience with soapbox orators.
As Youtube continued to feed me this content, I went from an amused spectator to a convert. I began to uncritically espouse Christopher Hitchens’ doctrine that “religion poisons everything.” Thankfully, I grew out of this “edgy atheist” phase; I had matured, and become more skeptical of dogmatic philosophies. However, like any belief that enters your mind at an impressionable stage, it left its mark on my psyche. When I first read Duke’s motto of “Eruditio et Religio,” alarm bells started ringing.
A thought came to me: aren’t knowledge and religion opposed to each other? After all, militant atheists loved bringing up Galileo, who was attacked by the church for proving that the Earth was round. Nowadays, this story lives in the back of my mind, waiting for someone to mention science and religion in the same sentence. Faith being anti-progress is another talking point I’ve internalized. Sadly, there’s a grain of truth in these accusations. Even at Duke, the Methodist church was one of former President Nannerl Keohane’s biggest opponents in pushing for LGBTQ+ inclusion.
As I wondered whether religion opposed knowledge, I was back to imagining it in monolithic terms. In fact, I could’ve used “Christianity” and “religion” interchangeably throughout that reflection, but I’d imagined that these stories applied everywhere. I’d attribute this to my New Atheist experience, too. Most of their commentary was based on Christianity and, occasionally, Islam; however, they’d use that to insult spirituality broadly. I don’t think they considered that, as a phenomenon, faith is far bigger than a fringe group like the Westboro Baptist Church or the Taliban. Just as I hadn’t considered that organized religion was bigger than the Methodist or Catholic churches.
Entertaining the thought that religion might be a force for regression was disturbing. It felt like I was capitulating to ways of thinking that I knew to be inaccurate and crude. Even then, I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a feature of faith. Looking beyond my Western experience, I still found more examples. Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, or India’s violent persecution of Muslims, are also related to religion. Still, I couldn’t believe that was intrinsic; I already knew that most religious traditions were tolerant, humble and willing to learn. The question remained, then, of why so many shameful actions are associated, or justified, by invoking them.
The answer I’ve come up with, unsurprisingly, is the corrupting effect of power. Religion is a benevolent force, but it exists within an intolerant hierarchy.
It’s reminiscent of the “moral person who joins a toxic organization” trope. Whatever their intentions, once the person rises high enough, they realize that they are part of that toxicity. Trying to change that, regardless of whether they succeed, will endanger them. If it works, they will lose the privilege they earned by tolerating, then leveraging, whatever bothered them. However, should they fail, they’ll be exiled or lose all the social capital they’d gathered. The essay “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop,” gives an insightful look into this phenomenon, specifically, in police departments. Oftentimes, upstanding people end up abandoning, or enforcing, harmful structures. Organized religion, however, can’t just “abandon” the structure of society—it’s the difference between leaving your country and flying to the moon. That leaves them with one option: uphold it.
The example which comes to my mind is the Medieval Catholic church. Throughout Europe, the clergy held huge amounts of land and had massive influence over society. They were in a comfortable rung of the hierarchy. Feudal society was horrific, though. Economic exploitation, sexism and injustice were often perpetrated—all things which Christianity doesn’t endorse. At the same time, directly challenging the nobles responsible wasn’t worthwhile. They had limited political capital, and had to choose their battles, much like any political entity. Therefore, the churches were often limited to doing charity—creating change within the system. They were altruistic people, feeding the poor, but unlikely to confront the extortionate nobles who made this charity necessary.
The church was, oftentimes, the major promoter of societal well being. Hospitals and schools were frequently established by priests. Therefore, they logically needed money and power to continue serving the people; their continued relevance led to a social good. Given their privileged position, I imagine that this was best achieved by maintaining the status quo. An end to serfdom, for example, might’ve cost them revenue. Therefore, if it was uncertain how a reform would affect the church, they were likely to lose rather than to gain. I imagine that’s why rich abbots opposed the French Revolution, whereas impoverished, parish priests were one of its greatest supporters.
Similarly, because religion can be a touchstone, a powerful, shared identity, people use it when communicating, especially to justify an argument. Kings would often claim that they ruled by divine right—even Napoleon, a secular ruler, had the Pope attend his coronation. Appeals to the Almighty are rhetorically powerful and universally used. The liberation of women, or the end of slavery, were both opposed and supported on religious grounds. Your belief, or lack thereof, was never shorthand for a political stance. As is the case now, religious people are found sides of any issue—many progressives are extremely religious, Sam Harris, a noted New Atheist, is rather credibly accused of being intolerant.
What tied religion to opposing progress is the ability of those in power to decide the narrative—they have platforms to describe themselves. In a religious society, it’s helpful to posture as the side of God. Progressive policy usually threatens the powerful, so it’s no surprise they leveraged faith to oppose it. Fox News’ appeals to Christianity are more visible than a single progressive pastor’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re the “faithful” side, not unless you’re judging by conspicuity. It is because of this hierarchy, which makes some voices far louder than others, that concept of religion seems opposed to progress. There is no inclination for Christianity to be pro-establishment; Jesus was a bit of a rebel himself.
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When I look at modern day examples of “religion,” either as an institution or philosophy, opposing change, I see much of the same thing. It’s either massive churches, worried about losing influence (like the Methodists at Duke), or it’s powerful people using faith as a rhetorical tool. Because they hold power and influence, their actions get more exposure. It’s like how many feminists in Saudi Arabia are Muslim, but they don’t control a mass media system that will hype up their faith. Therefore, we’re led to imagine that conflict as one between a monolithic Islam and secular thought.
In fact, religion is as much a tool of opposing change as its alleged enemy, logic, is. As the prominence of secular thought began to eclipse religion, it underwent the same process. It’s now a tool of enforcing hierarchy. After all, when a Ben Shapiro type argues that healthcare isn’t a right, he appeals to reason. However, him being associated with “facts and logic” doesn’t mean his opponents are illogical liars, nor does it mean that logic is innately anti-healthcare. Similarly, many think tanks—which traffic in facts—are bought and paid for by oil executives, but that doesn’t make them the enemy of climate science either. Both logic and religion are valuable and benign, it’s a shame that they must exist in a flawed society like ours. That’s when the problems start.
It’s ironic that these canonically opposed ideas both “belong” to those who oppose progress now. Their historic clash, exemplified by Galileo’s arrest, feels like a coincidence in light of that fact. Perhaps all popular ideas will be framed as supporting the status quo. We value freedom, and we’re told that most progressive policies are anti-freedom, for example. However, if we reframe our perspective, we’ll see that those ideas never took a side. So, no, Duke’s motto isn’t an oxymoron, at least not inherently. Religion and knowledge aren’t engaged in an eternal struggle, and they can exist harmoniously. If we recognize that, and how much benefit both these things can bring, it’s not only a coherent motto, it’s a beautiful one.