Having a faith is a very big life decision. After all, which faith is the right one? Do you follow your family’s faith, like most people do, or do you break away and join a different church or mosque or synagogue? There’s always the option, of course, of becoming an apostate, an unbeliever, an atheist.
It’s funny; I’ve spoken to people of faith who get very tense and angry when discussing their beliefs without me saying anything more challenging than, “So tell me why you believe what you believe.” They seem to think I’m taking the piss. I can be accused of low wit on occasions, even sarcasm, but if you have a sincerely-held belief, proclaim it. Others are completely comfortable with their religion, and don’t have the need or the urge to convert, to justify or to explain; their faith is based purely on a personal connection they feel they have, and good for them. We disagree passionately, but at least there is a passion there.
Religion has had the ability in the past – and even now in some far-flung parts of the world – to unite people and give comfort, a sense of unity, and a commonality of purpose. It’s fair to say that, in some parts of the world, religion is one of the most divisive forces going; Ireland, India, the Middle East have all experienced large-scale sectarian violence, and this is still going on in huge swathes of those, and other, countries.
Now, this blog is going to be critical of religion. I want to make something else very clear; I am not hostile to people of faith who have quiet, private beliefs. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t know what anyone believes because it wouldn’t impact on my life at all. However, religion does impact on my life – through access to healthcare, contraception and equality of service, and attitudes toward sexuality, war, land, and education.
I would argue that;
- Religion gets people to believe something untrue.
- Religion stops many people thinking in a rational and objective way.
- Religion imposes irrational rules of good and bad behaviour.
- Religion divides people, and is a cause of conflict and war.
- Religion doesn’t give equal treatment to women and gay people, and thus offends basic human rights.
- Religion obstructs scientific research.
- Religion wastes time and money.
There’s a perception that rejection of religion is a modern phenomena, but not so; it’s only in modern times, with the rise of faster, quicker methods of communication, that we’ve been able to share views and opinions more effectively. To Machiavelli, writing in the 16th century, religion was merely a tool, useful for a ruler wishing to manipulate public opinion, whilst Voltaire in the 18th century was strongly critical of religious intolerance, and David Hume claimed that natural explanations for the universe were perfectly reasonable. And, of course, I’d of course be doing a disservice by not mentioning the New Atheists – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens – who have come to prominence as critics of religion in the internet age.
I want to touch briefly on some main criticisms against religion, as they’re the primary ones I’m interested in;
- Religion often conflicts with science.
- Religion demands behaviors that aren’t sensible (the Old Testament prohibition against wearing garments of mixed fabrics, or punishing children of guilty parents, for example).
- Many of the faithful will pick and choose passages from their holy books to follow (women being treated as second-class citizens and gay people being vilified, whilst working on a Sunday).
- Revelations will often conflict with other stories (discrepancies in the Bible among the four Gospels of the New Testament).
It’s important to note that religions come and go; Christianity has only been around for 2,000 years, a blink of an eye in historical terms. Greek, Roman and Norse religions had hundreds of thousands of adherants in their time, but have now died out and turned into mythology. If one of those faiths was the true faith, then would their god really allow that to happen?
Religious texts were created to fulfill biological and political needs. Daniel Dennett has argued that, with the exception of some more modern religions such as Raëlism, Mormonism, Scientology, and Bahá’í, most religions were formulated at a time when the origin of life, the workings of the body, and the nature of the stars and planets were poorly understood.
These texts were intended to give solace and a sense of self in relation to forces bigger than just us. Now that we have evolved further, and have other forms of solace (philosophy and science, for example), do we still need those former systems when the new ones are so much more beautiful and mind-expanding? Just look through the hubble telescope; isn’t just one tenth of what you would see through there far more stunning and awe-inspiring than a burning bush of dubious extraction?
Richard Dawkins has argued that religious belief often involves delusional behavior, and others, such as Sam Harris, compare religion to mental illness, saying it “allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.”
There are also psychological studies into mysticism and the links between disturbing aspects of certain mystic’s experiences, and their links to childhood abuse. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, presented his case for the miraculous sightings of religious figures in the past and the modern sightings of UFOs coming from the same mental disorder. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of the brain artificially with a magnetic field using a device nicknamed the “God helmet,” and was able to artificially induce religious experiences along with near-death experiences and ghost sightings.
Let’s talk sex. I take particular exception to the role religion has played in condemning this perfectly natural function. There might be a particular irony in having an asexual defending sex, but I strongly believe in live and let live. None of that stuff does anything for me, but does that mean it should be banned? Of course not; it’s not disgusting, rude or vile if it’s done between two – or more (hey, this is the 21st century) – consenting adults. Sex is not unnatural and shouldn’t be prohibited. Why are people so excised by what happens behind closed doors? And why do people get particularly excised by homosexuality? Humanity isn’t the only species that has gay sex, but we are the only ones who see it as something wrong and base. It’s not. None of it is. Sex is natural.
Now that we’ve taken a whistle-stop tour through all of that, let me come back to something I mentioned briefly at the beginning. Religious warfare is incredibly prevalent all across the globe, and all throughout history. In my view;
- Religions sometimes encourage war (Crusades, Jihad), violence, and terrorism to promote their goals
- Religious leaders contribute to secular wars and terrorism by endorsing or supporting the violence
- Religious fervor is exploited by secular leaders to support war and terrorism
Although the causes of terrorism are incredibly complicated, at least some acts are justified by fanatics believing that God is on their side and will reward them in heaven for punishing unbelievers.
These conflicts are among the most difficult to resolve, particularly where both sides believe that God supports them and has endorsed the moral righteousness of their claims. One of the most infamous quotes associated with religious fanaticism was made in 1209 during the siege of Béziers; a Crusader asked the Papal Legate Arnaud Amalric how to tell Catholics from Cathars when the city was taken, to which Amalric replied: “Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaitra les siens,” or “Kill them all; God will recognise his own.”
One thing that I genuinely feel angry about is when religion comes into conflict with science. Whilst I accept religion’s right to assert its opinions on morality amongst its own followers – not anyone else – it doesn’t have the right to impose its will on others, and certainly doesn’t have the right to manipulate or suppress scientific truth for its own ends; the trial of Galileo and Giordano Bruno’s execution being just two examples. The church should be ashamed of itself.
Recent examples of scientific-religious tensions have been the creation-evolution issue (I won’t call it a debate, because there’s nothing to debate – creationism is infantile and belongs to the childhood of our species), controversies over the use of birth control, opposition to research into embryonic stem cells, or theological objections to vaccination, anesthesia, and blood transfusion. Science – proper science, that’s researched, studied and peer-reviewed – is based on fact and knowledge and questioning. Religion is based on faith, and does nothing to expand human knowledge. I know which one I’d prefer on that basis alone.
In the 19th century, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that teaching some ideas to children at a young age could foster resistance to doubting those ideas later on. Richard Dawkins maintains that the children of religious parents are often unfairly indoctrinated because they do not have yet sufficient maturity and knowledge to make their own conclusions. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins use the term child abuse to describe what they see as the harm inflicted on children by some religious upbringings.
Dawkins states that labeling children as “Muslim child” or “Catholic child” is unreasonable since children are not mature enough to decide major questions in life for themselves. In his view, no reasonable person would speak of a “Marxist child” or a “Tory child”, for instance. He suggests such labeling is not seen as controversial because of the “weirdly privileged status of religion”.
I actually went to a Catholic secondary school in the UK, which was an interesting blend of Christianity and secularism. It followed the National Curriculum, but held regular mass services that coincided with science – and you know what? I went. At the time, I considered myself to be Christian – I was quite religious, to be honest – but I went to Holy Cross purely and simply because a couple of my friends from primary school went there and I wanted to be with them. The school helped me deepen my religious faith, and it was only after I left, and I was exposed to different arguments, opinions and points of view, was I able to make an informed decision about my own views.
It’s for that reason that I’m intensely opposed to schools that are sponsored (financially, pastorally, whatever) by religion. I would only send my child to a secular school, because I’d want them to be exposed to as many points of view as possible.
What I’ve just said doesn’t, however, mean that I’m against the teaching of religion in schools. I believe that all faiths should be discussed, in classes on morality, ethics, citizenship and so on. I also believe that philosophy, secularism and humanism should be taught, as should the wonder of science and the mystery of the universe. Allow children the freedom to broaden their minds without being labelled or guided down particular paths, and do them the respect of filling their minds with truth, permission to ask questions and the ability to seek out their interests.
I take particular issue with the attitude of most faiths towards women. Islam practices female genital mutilation (FGM) – the purposes range from deprivation of sexual satisfaction to discouraging adultery, ensuring virginity to their husbands, or generating the appearance of virginity. It also performs honour killings, which are barbaric, and Christianity portrays women as sinful, untrustful, deceiving, and desiring to seduce and incite men into sexual sin. It’s also misogynistic and, according to Polly Toynbee, “Women’s bodies are always the issue – too unclean to be bishops, and dangerous enough to be covered up by Islam and mikvahed by Judaism”.
One criticism of religion is that it contributes to unequal relations in marriage, subordinating the wife to the husband. The Hebrew for husband, used throughout the Bible, is synonymous with owner and master. Hitchens argued that the commandment of “Thou shalt not covet” is sexist because it “throws in ‘wife’ along with the other property, animal, human, and material, of the neighbor” and considers the wife as “chattel”.
I’m very passionate about religion and faith (can you tell?), but let me assure you; even at my angriest, even when I’m the most annoyed I can possibly be about all the ills religion foisters on society, I wouldn’t ban it. I wouldn’t forbid its churches. I wouldn’t stop a single person worshipping according to their own beliefs. What I would do is cast the full light of day on its practices. I would prevent it from having control over any part of life, and I would teach all faiths on equal footing, but with priority given to the truth, open enquiry, and scientific literacy. I would give children and adults permission to talk, discus,s and think. Would religion give us the same courtesy?
Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe.
Religion is incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Religious faith — faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc — is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. The difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. Iron Age beliefs — about God, the soul, sin, free will — continue to impede medical research and distort public policy. In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a age long gone with all the facts at their disposal.
To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude when they are encountered. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that don’t require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We should be able to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.
When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths. Only then will the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu be broadly recognised as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.
Religion will always retain a certain tattered prestige, as it was our first attempt as a species to make sense of the cosmos and of our own nature, and because it continues to ask “why”. Its incurable disability, however, lies in its insistence that the answer to that question can be determined with certainty on the basis of revelation and faith.
We do not know, though we may assume, that our pre-homo sapiens ancestors had deities that they sought to share with other tribes. Alas, no religion of which we are now aware has ever taken their existence into account, or indeed made any allowance for the tens and probably hundreds of thousands of years of the human story. Instead, we are asked to believe that the essential problem was solved about two-to-three thousand years ago, by various serial appearances of divine intervention and guidance in remote and primitive parts of what is now (at least to Westerners) the Middle East.
This absurd belief has, of course, inspired masterpieces of art and music and architecture as well as the most appalling atrocities and depredations. The great cultural question before us is therefore this: can we manage to preserve what is transcendent and ecstatic without giving any more room to the superstitious and the supernatural. (For example, can we treasure and appreciate the Parthenon, say, while recognising that the religious cult that gave rise to it is dead, and was in many ways sinister and cruel?) A related question is: can we be moral and ethical in our thoughts and actions without the servile idea that our morals are dictated to us by a supreme entity?
Christopher Hitchens believed that the answer to both of these questions is a simple “yes”. “Tremendous and beautiful things have been achieved by science and reason, from the Hubble telescope to the sequencing of the DNA of obscure viruses,” he tells us. “All of these attainments have tended to remind us, however, that we are an animal species inhabiting a rather remote and tiny suburb of an unimaginably large universe. However, this sobering finding — and it is a finding — is no reason to assume that we do not have duties to one another, to other species, and to the biosphere. It may even be easier to draw these moral conclusions once we are free of the egotistic notion that we are somehow the centre of the process, or objects of a creation or a “design”. Dostoevsky said that without belief in god men would be capable of anything: surely we know by now that the belief in a divine order, and in divine orders, is an even greater license to act as if normal restraints were non-existent?”
If Moses and Jesus and Mohammed had never existed – let alone Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy or Kim Jong Il or any of the other man-made prophets or idols – we would still be faced with precisely the same questions about how to explain ourselves and our lives, how society should live, and how to treat all beings on this planet. The small progress we have made so far, from the basic realization that diseases are not punishments to the noble idea that as humans we may even have “rights”, is due to the exercise of skepticism and doubt, and to the objective scrutiny of hard evidence, and not at all to faith or certainty. The real “transcendence”, then, is the one that allows us to shake off the notion of a never-dying tyrannical father-figure, with its unconsoling illusion of redemption by human sacrifice, and assume our proper proportion as people able to be free, and then free to outgrow the fearful supervision of a supreme overlord who does not forgive us the errors he has programmed us to make.
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 don’t believe 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 dangerous, and to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
Let me summarise a few points on human morality at this point, because it’s vital that we are all – as it were – on the same page here.
- 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 non-religious 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 I’ve just describe 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 knew that what they have done was 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 – have killed 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 science was not taught in Germany; it 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.
National Socialism 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, and which gave them welcome. But that’s by the by. 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 celebrated the birthday of the Fuhrer every year, on that day until democracy put an end to that 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 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, after all that, is religion a force for good? Quite simply, no. It really is as simple – and as complex – as that.