Is religion a force for good?

Do we need religion in order to be moral? The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread, but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even many people who explicitly deny believing in god harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Perception, quite clearly, does not equate to reality.

The religious do not have a special claim on moral behaviour. To terrify children with the image of hell, to consider women an inferior creation; are either of those things good for the world? In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”

  • Religion confuses obedience with morality.

  • It insists on many principles established by an ignorant bronze age community.

  • It encourages various forms of tribalism.

  • Each religion asserts that it is the “correct” one, and denies the validity of opposing viewpoints.

  • Most religions actively encourage various forms of bullying and oppression of minorities.

  • Some religions have adopted policy positions which are utterly hostile to modern civilised values.

  • Do religions honestly expect us to believe that, before Moses brought down the tablets of stone from Mount Sinai, that everyone were fornicating like mad and coveting their neighbours’ asses?

Assuming we could all agree on what it means to be religious and what it means to be moral, how might we go about investigating the relationship between them? One common approach simply involves asking people about their beliefs and behaviours. For example, surveys indicate that those who score higher on indices of religiosity – those who report praying regularly, for example – reliably report giving more money to charity.

So does this mean religion promotes charitable behaviours? Not necessarily. There is evidence that religious individuals are more motivated than nonreligious individuals to preserve a moral reputation, so it could be that the religious are more likely to report charitable behaviours simply because they care more about making an impression.

To circumvent this problem, a number of studies have employed “priming” methods in a bid to establish relationships between religious concepts and morally relevant behaviours.

For example, in a recent study, Mark Aveyard had 88 Muslim students listen to an audio recording of a busy city street, and asked them to count the number of vehicle horns they heard. In one condition, the Islamic call to prayer could be heard on the recording. The students then took an unsupervised mathematics test on which cheating was possible. Aveyard found that participants exposed to the call to prayer cheated substantially less. This finding is consistent with the results of other priming studies, which have also found that religious priming enhances cooperation and generosity towards others.

So, religion may promote a love for thy neighbour (or at least neighbourly behaviour), but how big is the neighbourhood? The positive picture revealed above is complicated by the results of other studies, which have shown that religious priming also elicits a range of aggressive and prejudicial behaviours. For example, Brad Bushman and colleagues found that participants who read a description of violent retribution commanded by God were more aggressive in a subsequent task than participants who read the same description but with the passage about God’s sanction omitted. And Megan Johnson and colleagues have found that participants primed subliminally with Christian concepts display increased racial prejudice and negative attitudes toward African Americans. Another recent study by Joanna Blogowska and colleagues revealed that self-reported religiosity predicted the helping of a needy member of the in-group but also physical aggression towards a member of a moral out-group (a gay person).

As 14 year-old Malala Yousafzai sat on a bus in the grounds of her school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, a gunman shot her in the head. After proudly claiming responsibility, the Taliban told the world that the teenage education activist’s work represented “a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter”. The “obscenity” was the education of girls.

The Taliban felt no shame. They know that what they have done is right because their god tells them so. Gods have been used to justify almost any cruelty, from burning heretics and stoning adulterers to crucifying Jesus himself.

On the other side of the world, Anders Behring Breivik slaughtered 77 Norwegians. Breivik seems to have seen his murderous spree as a way of getting rid of Muslims, yet his 1,500-page manifesto revealed, at best, a weak attachment to religious belief. To Breivik, Christianity seems important mainly because he sees it as white. Breivik, like the devoutly religious Taliban, also appears to feel no shame.

Atheists like Mao or Pol Pot have murdered millions in the name of political totalitarianism. Hitler used a quasi-mystical racist philosophy to exploit the ancient hatred of the Jews by Christians.

Indeed, while the religious have murdered throughout history in the name of their god, I’ve been unable to find any evidence of atheists killing anyone in the name of atheism. Atheists are capable of evil, to be sure, but it seems that murder, particularly mass murder and war, is a sin of commission. In other words, human beings are generally only prepared to fight and kill in the name of something. It can be a god, but it can also be a political philosophy – like nazism or communism. Many fight for patriotism: for country, tribe or race. Some kill because they’re psychologically disturbed, but none – so far – in the name of atheism.

We’d argue that all mass murder and war are fought in the name of a bigger-than-self philosophy or idea. Atheism, simply lack of belief in a god, has not yet proved compelling enough to motivate murder. So far no one has gone into a crowded public space and blown themselves up while shouting, “No god is great!”.

Atheism by itself is, of course, not a moral position or a political one of any kind; it simply is the refusal to believe in a supernatural dimension. When people say – and they have done – that Nazism was the implementation of the work of Charles Darwin, it is right to be blunt in your reply; that it is a slanderous, and wicked lie, one to be ashamed of. Darwin’s thought was not taught in Germany; Darwinism was derided in Germany along with every other form of unbelief that all the great modern atheists, Darwin, Einstein and Freud propounded; they were all despised by the National Socialist regime.

Let’s discuss the most notorious of 20th century totalitarianisms; that of National Socialism, the one that fortunately allowed the escape of all these great atheists, thinkers and many others, to the United States, a country of separation of church and state, that gave them welcome.

If National Socialism fought an atheistic war from an atheistic regime, then how come – in the first chapter of Mein Kampf – Hitler says that he’s doing god’s work and executing god’s will in destroying the Jewish people? How come the fuhrer oath that every officer of the Party and the Army had to take, making Hitler into a minor god, begins, “I swear in the name of almighty god, my loyalty to the Fuhrer?” How come that on the belt buckle of every Nazi soldier it says Gott mit uns, God on our side? How come that the first treaty made by the Nationalist Socialist dictatorship is with the Vatican? It’s exchanging political control of Germany for Catholic control of German education. How come that the church has celebrated the birthday of the Fuhrer every year, on that day until democracy put an end to this filthy, quasi-religious, superstitious, barbarous, reactionary system?

We would be good without religions. It is part of our biological inheritance for every human to be a social animal. Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it. Natural selection, the survival of the species, ensured that humans care for each other. As Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg said: “With or without religion, good people behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil that takes religion”.

Would there be sectarian violence in an atheist or agnostic Northern Ireland? Would there be settlements in Muslim areas of Palestine, leading to conflict, if the ultra-Orthodox Jews did not believe that the land was given to them three millennia ago by Yahweh? Would the Palestinian Muslims be so volatile about the “tomb of Ibrahim” if he (Abraham) were a Jewish ancestor and not a Muslim prophet as the Qur’an insists? Would there have been thousands of Muslim and Hindu deaths in India if the Hindus did not believe that Ayodhya was the birthplace of the god king Ram? And that the Mughal emperor Babar destroyed the Ram temple there and replaced it with the Babri Masjid mosque in 1528? They all must face up to the fact that history cannot be reversed.

Nowhere is this divisiveness and hatred more apparent than in the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. For example (9:5) “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them …” (60:4) “Enmity and hatred will reign between us until ye believe in Allah alone” (98:6) “The Jews, the Christians and the Pagans will burn forever in the Fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures”.

Then there is the stagnation caused by religion. Muslims give a number of reasons for the decline of Islamic civilization. But the main one was fundamentalism: Muslim intellectuals such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, al-Farabi, Omar Khayyam, al-Kindi, and Ibn al-Haytham were persecuted, had their books burnt, or lost the patronage of rich rulers due to fundamentalists such as Ghazali. Even today they oppose stem cell research (which will lead to viable body parts or repair cells for hearts, brains, spinal cords, liver, lungs, pancreas, etc) on moral and ethical grounds. They say that the use of embryos several days old is “infanticide” long before the stem cells have differentiated into organs or the blastula even attaches to the womb.. The Catholics are as bad.

Then there are the religions’ attitudes towards women and sexuality. Both Judeo-Christianity and Islam are patriarchal religions where women are, to varying degrees, the property of men with restricted rights. Women’s inheritance in the Qur’an is only half that of a man, and women in Britain received equal property rights only relatively recently. Muslim women may be kept as virtual prisoners in the home, lack credibility as witnesses, have to be chaperoned by male relatives, treated as unclean (can’t even go into a mosque when menstruating) and in “pure Islam” receive little or no education, have to cover themselves and cannot wear cosmetics or perfume.

Paul saw celibacy as the ideal state, and argued that marriage was only for those who would otherwise burn. Islam fears female sexuality. It interferes in sex between consenting adults, but is pedophilic in allowing child marriage after the Aisha / Muhammad model. (She was nine and he was 53.) The Islamic Republic of Iran still has nine as the age of marriage for little girls. No wonder there is such a high maternal mortality rate in many Muslim countries. The Qur’an and Hadith respectively punish pre-marital sex with 100 lashes and adultery with stoning to death – the victims, more often than not, being the female party. Rape, on the other hand, usually goes unpunished as by Islamic law there must be four adult male Muslim witnesses to actual penetration.

So, is religion a force for good? Quite simply, no.

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