Monthly Archives: October 2008

On The Danger of Religious Faith

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to debate people. I actually find it a very fulfilling experience, for two reasons: I get to learn about other people’s views and attitudes, and I get a chance to show them mine. It’s a wonderful exchange, and I wish more people enjoyed doing it. 

I suppose two people could debate almost any topic. Politics is particularly popular. And I think that most people would agree that debating politics is not only fun, but it is very important. After all, the best way to raise our moral and ideological consciousness is to learn about alternative perspectives. In politics, as in anything else, there is an inherent danger in being “stuck in your ways.”

I’ve had many heated debates with people whose politics I disagree with. I find, however, that when we’ve made our points and agreed to disagree, neither debater feels personally offended, disrespected, or personally attacked. There is one topic, however, that seems to always have this result. That topic is, of course, religion.

I suppose it makes sense – when you debate a religious person, you’re not just challenging their opinion; you’re challenging their entire system of beliefs. Religious people are, by and large, raised to think in a certain way. As children, they are indoctrinated by religious authorities into perceiving the world as if it were designed by a supernatural being (himself, apparently without a designer). Children are also told that beleiving in this being will eventually grant them access to an eternal paradise, and that failure to believe will result in never ending torture. It is, therefore, easy to see why even some grown adults are reluctant to concede that they may have doubts about the existence of their particular god.

Religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. Human beings are inquisitive by nature, and every human society has found a need to explain the unexplainable. Why do some people get sick while others do not? In ages past, this question would have puzzled the entire human race. So, as is our fashion, we invented stories to explain it. Our concept of “curses” and “plagues” were born out of this lack of knowledge; sickness was thought of as punishments from god or some other mystical creature. This would have appeared perfectly reasonable at the time, but only because people didn’t know about micro-organisms. It would be thousands of years before the microscopic world would become visible to us – before we would see the truth. 

It is interesting to me that people accept some truths, but not others. Today everyone accepts that micro-organisms cause sickness and disease, just as everyone accepts that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Science has been confounding the claims of mystical and religious teachers ever since the Age of Reason, and people seem to recognize that. One of the most elegant and brilliant scientific proposition of all time, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, even explained how complex life, which seems designed, can come about by processes inherent to the physical world.

And yet, there are a few people in the world who have been convinced by religious authorities that it is a lie – a colossal scientific conspiracy against god. I think it is sad that so many people alive today do not accept the theory of evolution. Those who deny evolution do so only because they do not understand evolution, for that is the only way one can deny it. Contrary to the claims of some dubious religious authorities, evolution is an observable reality, not a hypothesis. Here it is explained in full detail by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (if you actually do want to know how it works):

Despite the overwhelming proof that mankind evolved by natural selection, many people maintain their belief in the Bronze Age myth that humanity was conceived by one pair of individuals in a magic garden. This is an important point, because it is only by the inculcation of religious faith that a sane person could suspend their faculties of reason enough to believe in magic. 

If you think I’m being unfair and picking on a particular religion, I implore you to consider a religion called “Scientology”. It is considered to be a legitimate religion by several countries, including Australia and New Zealand. According to this faith, human beings are actually the trapped spirits of alien lifeforms from the other side of a super-galactic empire ruled by the evil Lord Xenu. Here is an artists depiction:

Most free-thinking people consider the Church of Scientology to be a ridiculous and downright dangerous cult. Of course most people would consider this a ridiculous proposition. However, it is no more ridiculous than the proposition that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that the Earth was created by a rainbow serpent in the sky, or that people can come back to life by magic, right? All reasonably thinking people know that these things are false. Thus we are ALL atheists. The thing that distinguishes a religious person from a non-religious person is their belief in just one of these myths, and their insistence that theirs is the only “true” myth. It is not fair to say that the metaphysical claims of one religion are crazy, and the others are “normal.” They all make equally absurd claims.

And it is important to keep in mind that there ARE many religions, ranging the full history and geography of this planet, and not one of them makes claims compatible with any other. Consider the wise words of Britain’s most honoured man, the great naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough:

This brings me to the most important point about religion. Whenever debating religious people, their argument inevitably ends up postulating that “People get their morals from religion.” I would like to take on that statement. Using simple logic, let us examine the claim that people derive morality from religion. In my own words:

If morality comes from the Bible, that means that I, as an atheist person, CANNOT have those morals. Therefore, religious people have certain morals that I cannot have, and can perform moral acts that I cannot.

Ask yourself: is this the case? Of course the answer is “no.” I can do any moral act that a religious person can. Morality therefore MUST be more to do with human nature. Just as some atheists do bad things, so do religious people. So can both do good things. The connection between faith and morality is contrived and superficial – a last ditch attempt to associate religion with something positive. Furthermore, it does nothing to support the metaphysical claims of religion, does it?

As a matter of fact, I would turn the argument on its head; I believe that religious faith is inherently IMMORAL. The reason for that is very simple: religious faith, by definition, is a suspension of reason. Religious faith is therefore perfectly suited to justifying acts of evil. Throughout all of human history – all the torture, genocide, misogyny, human sacrifice, witch hunting, oppression, and war – the ‘rationale’ behind evil acts is invariably religious. And to say that this constitutes an “abuse” of religion is wrong; one need look no further than scripture for the justification of profound evils. Its right there in the text:

From Deuteronomy 20:

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.
Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusite – as the LORD your God has commanded you.

If you think that I am being choosy about my biblical passages, I beg of you to answer the obvious question: why is there a passage clearly condoning murder, warfare and genocide in the Bible…. AT ALL!?!?

And there is no shortage of examples on this point. According to the Qur’an it is “morally wrong” to execute a virgin. So, fundamentalists do their Islamic duty before they kill her, by raping her first. There is only one way that a human being can be convinced that this kind of evil is actually moral – it must be condoned by the supernatural – there must be license from god. Period.

It’s interesting here to note what the word “fundamentalist” actually means. Technically, fundamentalists are those who follow scripture. Fundamentalists are those who actually believe what their texts say. Fundamentalists are those who carry out the commandments of their lord, and take holy writ as fact.

I can hear the counterargument already: “But these people are crazy. I’m a moderate religious person.” One wonders what point there is in being only “moderately” obliging to an immoral philosophy! One wonders what point there is in “picking and choosing” the warm and fuzzy bits from a text that openly condones murder, rape and genocide in other parts. One wonders where the fundamentalists would be without those of moderate faith – without the great ocean of credulity that lies in eager anticipation of the Apocalypse and the return of their Messiah. Did you know that there is an entire branch of theology called “eschatology” that is concerned only with the coming of the rapture, and the glorious end of days? For all the claims of “moderate” religion, faith ITSELF is what validates irrationality. It is unstable, and has incredible potential to explode. As usual, Christopher Hitchens says it best:

In summation: modern religion is a socially and culturally inhereted tradition of deceit. It systematically exploits the worst human attributes – our gullibility, fear, and hatred – under the false guises of forgivness, tolerance, and love. It organizes the credulous masses into divisive institutions and into the service of morally backwards agendas. It denies children the opportunity to know the beauty and intricacy of the natural world, and reduces all of the life on Earth into a cheap and tawdry magic trick. It succeeds in convincing innocent people that they are dirt, that they are slime, that they are filth, and that without their church and without their god they would be unforgivable sinners deserving eternal torture. It convinces young children that they are born imperfect, that they must seek salvation and redemption from crooked and perverted clergymen. Religion makes young children think that I am not one of them because I don’t believe in their particular supernatural being, and that I am already lost. THAT is profoundly dangerous, and if you can’t see why, then it’s probably because you are religious.

So if you must pray, then pray that Iran doesn’t get the bomb.