I don’t have a problem with religion for the reasons many people do. It’s not the moral absolutism or the sexism by default (well…that’s not all it is). I don’t dislike it because I’m rebelling or because I want to be able to have sex before marriage. My whole problem with religion is that it is the blueprint for every school of thought that prizes obedience above reason.
Every time you’ve seen a person behave in a stupid, unreasonable or bigoted way and thought to yourself “how could they possibly think that’s okay”, that person was making same errors of critical thinking as someone who believes that God wants homosexuals to burn in hell.
Now there’s a discussion to be had about how fair it is to compare a person’s faith with the actions of a bigot. I would that most religious people are decent, kind, tolerant, but the reason that I think that all faith is bad, not just faith when twisted by extremism, is that all faith is constantly vulnerable to being twisted by extremism.
Faith (and the failings of reason and personality responsibility that underpin it) is like a virus lying dormant in the minds of everyone who has embraced it. It legitimises the idea that moral duties and responsibilities can and even should be accepted with no explanation or justification other than the authority of the person bestowing them. That questioning them is an act of weakness or insincerity. And that human beings have the power to speak in the place of this divine power.
Surely I don’t have to explain how vulnerable this leaves anyone who has accepted these notions to manipulation. Consider how many of the terrorist attacks of the last 100 years would have taken place of their perpetrators hadn’t believed in a God that wanted them to kill innocent people. Ask yourself how many people, particularly women, would be living happier, freer lives, with access to education, the ability to express themselves and their desires, and the freedom to dress and behave as they wished if religion didn’t exist.
And no, I’m not trying to lay all of the evil in the world at God’s feet. I recognise that non-believers kill innocent people and oppress women too, but the reason that the numbers are smaller because the reasoning required to persuade non-believers to act this way is more involved than saying “God wants you to.”
The task of removing all secular evil from the world is complex and daunting and may well be impossible, whereas the task of removing all religiously motivated evil from the world simply requires that we abandon our belief in things that there is no reason to believe. In fact, ridding ourselves of this weakness would very probably solve the problem of a lot of secular evil too.
I know what you’re thinking, “it’s all well and good talking about getting rid of religion to remove evil caused by religion, but what about all the good causes by religion?” This is a fair question, there’s no doubt that lots of people do good things and avoid doing bad things because of religion. If we get rid of religion, maybe we’d get rid of that too. I think to see this problem clearly, we have to address the question of necessity.
There is good and evil amongst theists and non-theists, so clearly a belief in God is not necessary for either good or evil. But I’d argue that every good that believers do, you could convince a non-believer to do because they believe that sharing is good, or that community is good. And you can convince a non-believer that these things are good without having to convince them that God exists. There are non-believers out there who risk their lives for the benefit of others, even though they believe that there will be no afterlife or reward should they die.
But I don’t believe you can do the same trick for the evil that is done in the name of religion. I mean yes, there’s plenty of evil in the world and would be whether or not religion existed. And yes, there’s no doubt that many people who might have done something evil were prevented from doing so by their faith, but we can’t pretend that God has always been sufficient to prevent evil. The abuses of young boys by priests in the Catholic Church, and more to the point, the efforts to cover it up by other members of the church, are all the evidence we need of that.
But though there doesn’t seem to be any evil act that requires one doesn’t believe in God, some evil acts certainly do seem to require a belief in God, or rather, certain evil acts would not have happened without a belief in God. How do you convince somebody to blow themselves up, killing as many random innocent people as possible, unless they’re religious? How do you convince somebody to kill their daughter because they were raped, unless you believe that God expects you to?
Religion, and the gap in reasoning that it relies on, makes it possible to bypass people’s reasoning, because if you can convince them that an invisible, all-powerful being wants them to behave in a certain way, the normal standards of judgement are much more difficult to apply. Our minds are fragile and most importantly fallible, and religion is a powerful way of taking advantage of that fallibility. Religion is so enormously comforting for so many people, I understand that even if religion could be proven to be evil, people wouldn’t want to give it up. But the difficulty of giving up something dangerous can’t be the measure by which we judge whether we should give it up.