Belief in god – whether we’re talking about the monotheistic gods of the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic faiths, or one of the pantheon of other gods that’s out there in our mythology – is dangerous indeed. For an individual, living in a generally secularist, tolerant, and open society, belief may be a solace for them. In times of fear, loneliness, or bereavement, some people will appreciate the thought of a powerful entity who knows you deeply and cares what happens to you. Despite the lack of evidence in such a deity, many people cling to the ideals of the entity’s rules and teachings. If it works for that individual, then so be it. Everyone should be allowed to worship according to their own views, so there’s nothing wrong with that level of moderation and comfort, is there?
Maybe not, but as Sam Harris argues, in The End of Faith, moderate believers like this implicitly encourage the idea that faith is something to be respected – that it’s all right to believe in completely ludicrous things for which there is no evidence. And this in turn encourages religious faith, which is where the real dangers begin.
Think of the times in which the great religions began. All over the world, in villages, towns, or in great city states, there would appear epileptics who saw visions, charlatans who worked miracles by trickery, orators of great skill and persuasiveness, and all sorts of others who could gather small groups of followers around them. They still appear today and form cults that thrive for a while, and then usually die out. Human nature being what it is, their members want their own group to grow, and so bring in their friends, and persuade others that they have the answer to life’s miseries and mysteries, or that they are superior to outsiders.
Then there’s the cost of believing. Many are tempted by Pascal’s Wager: if I deny that God exists and I’m wrong, I might really go to hell, but if I believe in him and I’m wrong, there’s no problem. First and foremost, the insulting and ingratiating tone of that argument is rather odious, wouldn’t you say? If I was confronted by the ineffable almighty at the pearly gates or some such equivalent, what would he / she / it being rather impressed by? Honest, intellectual disbelief, based on reasoned argument, or a feigned belief in order to get into heaven? This is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order. Second, how can you be expected to feign faith? If you don’t believe, then you don’t believe; it’s as simple as that, and any god with genuine omnipotence would see through that charade in a heartbeat.
But there another problem; the enormous cost of belief. There is not only the mental and intellectual burden of having to take on false, disturbing, and incompatible beliefs, but the cost in time and money. Religious memes capture people’s time to get themselves spread. Just as the cold virus makes people sneeze to get itself spread, so religions make people sing hymns, say prayers, and chant, and so spread the word of God. They also induce them to part with large sums of money to build glorious mosques, churches, and synagogues and to pay the wages of priests who in turn spread the word of god.
Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. As a result, it doesn’t have anything close to a reality check, and it’s therefore uniquely protected against criticism, questioning, and self-correction.
The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities. Of course it has other elements – community, charity, philosophy, inspiration for art, etc – but those things exist in the secular world too; they’re not specific to religion. The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it’s not religion.
And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets raised up to an alarmingly high level – because there’s no reality check. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable – and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right – its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.
If God’s rules and promises aren’t working out, followers still follow them, because the ultimate judge and judgment are invisible. There is no proof, and no expectation that there should be any. In fact, with many religions, that idea that you should expect to have proof is blasphemy. A major part of many religious doctrines is that trusting the tenets of your faith without evidence is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. (“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” — John 20:29)
Religious extremists, whether the Taliban in the Islamic world or the Christian Right in the United States, don’t care about separation of church and state. They don’t care about democracy. They don’t care about respecting other people’s right to live differently from them. In very extreme cases, they don’t care about law, or basic principles of morality, or even human life. What matters is making god’s will happen. In their mind, god created everything that exists and therefore, God’s will trumps everything.
And since God’s will is invisible, inaudible, and entirely unverifiable, there’s no reality check on this dreadful path. There’s no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters. And since there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate what will and won’t get you a good place in that world, or whether that world even exists, the sky’s the limit. There’s no way in their world to test the assertion that god wants women to wear burqas and have their genitals mutilated, or that god wants us to ban same-sex marriage and teach children dangerous lies about sex. The brake lines of morality have been cut.
If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife, people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith. More commonly, if people believe in that bliss, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody. Oddly, this is often framed as a plus – “Religion gives people hope in hardship” – and people accept it.
If we prioritised this life, we would never terrorise children by telling them they’ll be tortured in fire forever if they don’t obey our rules. We would never tell them to imagine putting their hands in a fire, to imagine the crackling and burning and screaming pain, and then to imagine doing that for a minute. An hour. A day. A lifetime. Eternity. Not unless we were horribly abusive.
But when people think the next life is more important than this one – when people think the infinite burning and torture is really going to happen if their children don’t obey god’s word – they’ll gladly give their children nightmarish visions of pain and torture, dispensed by the god who supposedly created them and loves them. They’ll do it without a second thought.
Teaching children about hell is child abuse. Nothing but the unverifiable promise of permanent bliss or torture in the afterlife would make loving, decent, non-abusive parents inflict it on their children.
Religion provides a uniquely stubborn justification for evil. It is uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self-correction, and that this armor protects it against the reality checks that act, to a limited degree and in the long run, to keep evil in check. I’m saying that religion takes the human impulses to evil, and cuts the brake line, and sends them careening down a hill and into the center of town.
Even moderate religion does this. Not to nearly the same degree as extreme religion, of course. If all religion were moderate, ecumenical, separate from government, supportive of science, and accepting of non-belief – well, atheists would still disagree with it, but most of us would be able to allow it a place in society as it would become nothing more than a personal choice.
But moderate religion still does harm. It still encourages people to believe in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. And so it still disables reality checks, making people more vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse.
What’s more, moderate religion is in the minority. The oppressive, intolerant, reality-denying forms of religion are far more common, and far better at perpetuating themselves. And moderate religion gives these ugly forms credibility. It gives credibility to the idea that believing in things there’s no reason to believe is valid, and actually virtuous. It gives credibility to the idea that invisible worlds are real, more real and important than the visible one. It gives credibility to the idea that our seriously biased personal intuition is more trustworthy than logic or verifiable evidence. It gives credibility to the idea that religious beliefs, alone among all other ideas, should be beyond criticism; that the very act of questioning religion is inherently intolerant. (It also, I’ve found, has a distinct tendency to get hostile and decidedly un-moderate towards non-believers when questioned even a little.)
Without religion, we would still have community. Charity. Social responsibility. Philosophy. Ethics. Comfort. Solace. Art. In countries where less than half the population believes in God, these qualities and activities are all flourishing. In fact, they’re flourishing a lot more than they are in countries with high rates of religious belief.
We don’t need religion to have any of these things. And we’d be better off without it.