The question I’m addressing here isn’t “Is religion true” – I offer my views and arguments on that question elsewhere in my blog. The question I want to tackle today, especially in the light of further terrorist atrocities in Brussels this morning, is “Is religion a good thing or a bad thing?”
There are unquestionably some very positive aspects to religion, and some appalling ones. Why should this be? It is clear that evidence for the truth of any particular religion does not exist in any conventionally understood sense of the word “evidence”. I don’t need to base this assertion on my own personal view of the quality of evidence religious people present to support their views. Rather, I observe that as a consequence of differences of cultural and geographical origins, not all religions are mutually compatible; in fact, many religions contain elements which are fundamentally incompatible with others. This leads to the position of many (or indeed most) religious adherents that their particular religion is true, and that all other religions, which have conflicting dogma, are false. Such statements are made with seemingly equal conviction from many conflicting standpoints, but all fail to convince those of a different religion that theirs is wrong and another is right. It can therefore be asserted with confidence that no objective evidence can be presented for the truth of any particular religion: acceptance of any religion has to be based on faith rather than evidential proof. Indeed, religions commonly recognize this and try to present it as a virtue, imploring people to “have faith”, rather than rely on what can be demonstrated to be true.
Acceptance of a worldview on faith implies a bypassing of the normal processes one uses to decide whether to accept something as true, ie one’s rational judgment. It follows that buying into a religion is like opening your brain to a sort of Trojan horse: corollaries which the religion brings with it also bypass the rationality filter. Once this has happened, one’s humanity, which would normally prevent one behaving badly to others, is at risk of being bypassed too. If the religion requires abominable behaviour, then abominable behaviour can result. Blaise Pascal recognized this when he said: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
For most people, fortunately, the effects are fairly benign: they survive quite happily with this Trojan horse in place; their natural humanity is robust and persists unscathed, or even enhanced. But for others, the outcome is not so agreeable.
Let’s consider for a moment some of the beneficial effects of religion- this should help explain why it is so popular – why so many people are attracted to it and stick with it – and why societies generally value and support it. I have no wish to be cynical here and talk about religion as a means of exerting power and control over the masses – I will confine myself to more upbeat aspects.
For some people, religion offers great comfort, and helps them in dealing with the inevitable prospect of their own death, and with personal tragedies such as loss of a loved one or the affliction of serious illness, or with dreadful hardship and poverty. It provides some people with answers to difficult and deep questions about the purpose of their existence and the origins of life – answers which they presumably find satisfying and coherent. Religion inspires some people to devote their lives to good deeds and the caring for others, much more than they might otherwise have done, which is not only objectively beneficial, but also provides a strong feel-good factor. For huge numbers of people throughout the world, belonging to a religious group provides support, friendship, and a sense of community. Religion can promote a less selfish outlook on life, a consideration for others, and a willingness to give to good causes. Religious groups have engaged, and do engage, in a myriad of activities to help the poor, the lonely and isolated, the needy, the starving, and whole communities when afflicted by natural disasters or wars. Religion has inspired brilliant art, music, architecture – some of the most wonderful and uplifting of all human creativity.
The constraining effects of religion on human predilections and sexual behaviours has also been beneficial in practical terms, reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, for example, over the centuries when there wasn’t much we could do about such things other than abstinence. Religion also could be argued to have a beneficial effect on human relationships by attaching opprobrium to promiscuity and adultery, and virtuousness to fidelity. (I do of course realize that religious attitude to sexual matters is a double-edged sword , and I will come back to that in a moment).
That might not be an exhaustive list in support of religion, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. But even the most devout would accept that there are risks and downsides, as well as all the good things I’ve just listed, and other benefits I might have missed. So let’s now consider some of the downsides.
What sort of perversion of religion would result in indiscriminate suicide bombings such as the events in Brussels today, 22nd March 2016, or the twin towers of 9/11, or the gunning down of innocent concert-goers in Paris last November, amongst countless examples I could mention? Perhaps the key is the word “perversion”. Those intent on playing a part in Islamic terrorism would not regard it as a perversion at all. Rather, they would see it as a fulfilment of fundamental truth and purpose of their religion, carrying out to the ultimate extent the teachings of their faith. Are those people somehow “outside” their religion, having lost sight of what it should be telling them, or are they the real “insiders”, more true to the tenets of their religion than the millions who behave in a manner most of us would find unthreatening and perfectly tolerable?
To answer that question, we don’t need to look too deeply into the history of religions. The Christian church has a brutal history of oppression and violence – torture and burning of heretics and “witches”, the Spanish Inquisition, support for slavery, anti-Semitism (and arguably some connivance with the holocaust), religious crusades, etc. In recent times, all that is rather swept under the carpet, as secular morality has tempered Christianity’s excesses to a large extent. But the content of the Bible hasn’t changed, only the way in which we respond to it. Modern Christianity air-brushes out the nastiest bits, and presents itself as benign and a “force for good”. But not too far under the surface there lurk some rather nasty ideas and attitudes.
For some, the worst that happens is they tend to become a little self-righteous and sanctimonious, imagining their religion makes them superior in some way, which makes them a little less pleasant to know. But some people’s religious convictions are much more harmful. An egregious example is the attitude of many Christians and Muslims to homosexuality – they seize on parts of their religious texts to justify their dislike of “other”, which drives dreadful attitudes and behaviours towards LBGT people. In many countries this is even translated into the law of the land. Misogyny, with all its ramifications on society and the treatment of women, is another product of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy.
Religion also causes some people to lose a little of their freedom to enjoy their lives fully, because of the religious notion that personal denial is somehow virtuous, and will be rewarded in the “next life”; we have all seen such ideas taken to extremes. And this brings me back to the topic of the Church’s attitude to, or even obsession with, matters sexual. I’ve already conceded its beneficial consequences in the past, in reducing teenage pregnancies, inhibiting the spread of STD’s, and valuing fidelity. But the other side of the coin is hugely negative: repression of sex as part of life’s joy, attaching a sort of “dirtiness” and guilt to natural sexual desires and behaviours (calling masturbation “self-abuse”, for example); propagating the notion that sex for a woman is a “marital duty”, and she must “submit” to her husband’s “demands”; resisting proper sex education and preaching abstinence rather than safe sex for young people, which is shown to produce much worse outcomes in terms of unwanted pregnancies and STD rates, than where a more “liberal” evidence-based approach is followed.
Many of us will be aware that the Roman Catholic Church is at present in the process of beatifying Mother Teresa, yet she was known for withholding palliative relief to those in her care who were dying horrible painful deaths, on the belief that “more suffering brought people closer to God”. To many, she will be “Saint Teresa” – to the rest of us, an evil, sadistic, and misguided woman, responsible for huge amounts of human suffering.
The Roman Catholic Church is also a force for great harm and human misery in its approach to use of condoms. This has a regressive effect on family planning, increasing avoidable poverty, and proscribes one of the cheapest and most effective ways of limiting the spread of HIV and other STD’s.
All that would be bad enough, without religion’s trump card, fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism, you might argue, isn’t a great problem these days – we don’t see too many Christian fundamentalists fire-bombing abortion clinics (a few, maybe, in USA) but “Christian suicide bombers” is not a thing we need to worry about. But Christian fundamentalism does have its bad effects – there is whole anti-science movement in the USA, preaching Young Earth Creationism, and doing enormous harm to the education and life chances of young Americans. If you think I’m exaggerating, the data shows that about 40% of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old!
But where the fundamentalist approach is so dangerous is Islam. The core teachings of the Quran support it, and it is all too easy for a culture which holds up its one book as infallible truth, to be followed ahead of everything else, to produce the effects we see across the world today. Genocide of Yazidis by ISIL, religious civil war in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Yemen, Mali, the bombings in Brussels today – the list of slaughter and suffering is almost endless. Islam is in sore need of reform to bring it into line with the modern world, rather than trying to drag it back to the dark ages, but it is not clear where or how that reform can occur. In the meantime, millions of peaceful Muslims are at risk of being vilified and marginalized by association with Islamic extremists. It is very sad and alarming that the rancorous ramblings of Donald Trump have the traction they do.
People – human beings – are doing lots of very bad things in the name of religion -people who have lost their humanity to the Trojan horse of religion. The question I started with was “Is religion a good thing or a bad thing?”. I have to conclude that the bad vastly outweighs the good.
Can we keep the good bits and discard the bad? Great if we could, but the evidence points the other way. Atheism is not an answer, at least not on its own. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in a God or gods, based on a lack of evidence for any. It has no creed, no doctrine, no rituals, no special book saying what is to be believed, or how to behave. Perhaps the way we should try to go is Humanism – a positive idea that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. Humanism is based on trusting the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe. By following a Humanist approach, we can place human welfare and happiness at the centre of ethical decision making. We can be tolerant of the religious beliefs of others, but be very firm indeed about keeping them away from law, schools, and government, and from any attempt to impose them on others of different religious beliefs, or none.