This is an oddly controversial topic, even for my clearly-atheist blog. You can almost smell the qualifications and caveats I’m going to offer as I go. But religion is bad. From the religions which famously teach violence, like Islam, to the religions which teach unwavering peace, like Jainism, religion is bad. It doesn’t matter how tolerant and loving your Christian grandma or Muslim neighbour or Jewish uncle are; religion is bad.
Starting, first, without a moral care in the world, religion teaches us bad ideas; the claims of religions are wrong. That wouldn’t be so bad if religion, like science, offered a way to question and challenge claims alongside the claims it generates. Most rational ways of coming to know things include some sort of error-checking: the falsification of scientific claims is a good example. Religion doesn’t offer us this. Religion offers us claims that are completely incompatible with science, the world we see, observation and common sense, and it give us precisely no way to challenge that; whatever a religion claims is true, no questions. Ignore, for now, the content of the claims and focus just on the fact that we are not encouraged to challenge the ideas. Gods often call for their followers to punish people who challenge their dogma; is that a sensible way to approach issues of knowledge? You cannot progress without questions. This is simply the poorest “education” available.
Luckily, people do question these ideas. Challenging all things, and seeing worse ideas perish, seems to be human nature, and we have a history of overturning bad ideas. And this takes me on to moral considerations. Religion is a filter; an excuse to not actually consider the merits of an idea and delegate to an authority; an excuse to allow one’s own biases and prejudices go unchecked because, Lord knows, religious texts sure know how to excuse the occasional bias. This underpins the very idea of whether religion has a place in society.
To have a place in society doesn’t mean to simply exist, it deals more with whether—given the choice—you would allow it to have a place in society; considering what it may offer. Something has no place in society if it has no tangible benefits or if those benefits come with too great a burden. Religion offers people a certain amount of comfort1, so perhaps it has a place at home, and religion offers a focus point for small communities, which really is a tangible benefit for society. In turn, however, it encourages people to be content with not asking questions. Worse, biases and prejudices—homophobia comes to mind as a prejudice that encompasses many religions—are more than unchecked, they are promoted and encouraged. With those burdens in mind, it is worth looking at other ways to reap the benefits religion offers2.
“It gives me great peace to think that Elvis is still alive” or “My community is held together by the shared belief that the British Royal Family are reptilian aliens” are not treated with any level of respect, regardless of the “peace” and community cohesion apparently offered by them; normally society shuns bad for their lack of merit. The self-entitlement of religion in this regard is unsociable. It reminds me of the antisocial teen playing football against a wall with a sign that says “No ball games” and then excusing himself with the line I’m just having fun, mate, possibly followed with You can’t stop me; I know my rights. It teaches people to feel excused from really answering challenges. Sam Harris recounts a story of a bioethicist who admits she would allow a community to pluck the eye balls from new-born children if they could answer the moral challenge other people and societies would no-doubt offer with ‘it’s our religion’ (do a text-search for the word “eyeball” to find the passage I mean).
I hope extremism is conspicuous by its absence is my post. A post about extremism would be titled “Religion is Heinous” or “Religion is God-awful” (for the irony). Violent extremism often is compatible with, passively encouraged or mandated by religions. As I’ve said, humanity has a history of overturning these ideas. But moderates are part of the problem. The ingratiating face of religion today is welcome. But it has become the pathway by which no one is allowed to dialogue with the extreme sections of religion. Subjugation of woman, genital mutilation, race-based wars and terrorism—regardless of whether you accept they are a part of your religion—cannot be said to be wrong if they are religiously inspired. That is the ethical dilemma we have when moderate people who are not responsible for these actions themselves demand everyone respects their religion; we are also asked to respect the religion of the people we really do detest. Accusations like “religion is bad” are met like the indignant smirk of the religious moderates, and they stop the accusation getting to the people who really need to hear it.
1 – I feel I have always been much more comforted by the truth. Knowing family members are dead means I don’t have to worry about which post-life institution they went to. Better still, knowing they are dead means I don’t imbue them with an eye on Earth and the lasting ability to worry for me, be ashamed of me or laugh at me. Imagine eternal worrying about the wellbeing of those closest to you. Alternatively, imagine if a god made forget about those closest to you for the very reason of protecting your wellbeing or stopped you from having the healthy emotional response to knowing a loved one is in distress.
2 – This is what Alain de Botton was probably aiming at with his ‘Atheist Churches’. But, in all seriousness, an atheist church is simply a well-run community hall; everyone invited; no religion. And that does earn the community focus of a Church, without the guilt.