How, if at all, should we criticize religion and religious convictions? For large swathes of the population, especially in the more liberal hubs of North America and Europe, religious conviction has been treated with a mix of apathy and polite tolerance. For most of these people, religion forms no part of their daily routine – they do not pray, or regularly attend a place of worship – and yet they will rarely actively criticize or even comment on religion, despite the shockingly dominant influence it has over our nation’s politics, touching everything from foreign policy to domestic social issues. According to a recent poll, 15% of Americans claim no religion, yet only 0.7% were prepared to say that they were atheist. The discrepancy here I think can be put down to the belief that an outright rejection of religion might attract accusations of intolerance, and this seems too high a price to pay in a debate about something which to them is of so little consequence.
Perhaps the worst fallout from this general apathy towards religious criticism, is that the criticism does not go away, but is instead taken up and perverted for all the wrong reasons. The standard critique of religion today is to attack it on consequentialist grounds. The so called ‘New Atheists’, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, argue that religion has a definitively negative impact on society. Such writers aim their sights especially at the religion of Islam, charging it with being at the root of all Islamic extremism. Domestic terrorist attacks, they claim, can be traced to the fanaticization of muslim youth by radical clerics; Wahhabism, the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam, accounts for the systematic oppression of women in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Clearly such a view quite unapologetically paints a complicated issue with a broad brush, and in many instances has been employed or invoked in order to justify or advocate for some of the more reprehensible acts of neo-conservative foreign policy. By identifying Islam as the underlying and sole cause of terrorism, we can conveniently ignore the many other reasons – the occupation of their land, bombing of their children, and theft of their natural resources – that might prompt people who happen to be muslim to seek violent reprisals against the west. The fact that it is often these political reasons, and not religious ones, that the perpetrators of terrorist acts themselves invoke as a justification seems to be oddly irrelevant to those who want nothing more than to find common cause in all manifestations of extremist violence.
These consequentialist attacks on religion do not limit themselves to Islam (though Islam does seem to bear the brunt of the assault, despite Muslim countries being far more likely to be on the receiving end of Western violence than vice versa). According to the so-called “New Atheists”, one need only look to the sexual abuses by priests to see why Catholicism is wrong, and to the unwillingness of orthodox Jews to compromise on the Palestinian question to see why Judaism has its own pernicious effects. No religion, it is claimed, is free of its dirty secrets, and it is precisely because of these that we must reject religion in its entirety from our civilization.
New Atheists also go to great lengths, of course, to explain why religious beliefs are wrong, and take enormous pleasure in pointing out how many fundamental tenets of the major religions (virgin birth, omnipotent Gods) can be shown to be nonsensical by science and logic. However, the false beliefs of these religions are rarely viewed as harmful in themselves – it is instead the terrible implementations of those religions on Earth that are seen as having such negative effects on society.
This type of attack on religion is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear that, on net, the institution of religion has had a negative effect on society; secondly, it attacks religion only on what is incidental to it, rather than what is necessary to it. I will explain each of these points below.
Why religion might not have, on net, a negative effect
Every ideology is susceptible to human perversion, and man-made religion is certainly no exception. There is no doubt that countless people have lost their lives in the name of religion, and that there is not a major religion in the world that has not been complicit in crimes against humanity. But if we are to lay the crimes of individual zealots at the Church’s steps, then we must also lay there the countless acts of kindness and generosity done by equally fervent adherents to those faiths. It would be a extraordinarily biased assessment of religion indeed if we did not also acknowledge the incredible amount of good that religion has done for the world. Before the advent of the modern welfare state in the post war period, it was the Church, and religious institutions in general, which took on the task of caring for the poor and tending to the sick. Religion has provided solace to many in times of despair and desperation. The strong social bonds that religion has fostered in local communities has also often helped fuel political change. The Civil Rights movement in the United States was born and nurtured in southern, black baptist churches. Sunday sermons provided a venue where blacks could organize, vent grievances, and agitate for changing the political system. Similarly, in South America, it was priests of the Catholic Church who often stood bravely on the side of oppressed masses against right-wing dictators. People like Oscar Romero helped develop liberation theology, which sought to bring Christianity back to its true roots, namely as a champion and defender of the poor and of the oppressed.
Of course, an objector can dismiss these cases as simply examples of good people, who happen to be religious, doing good deeds. To credit Hinduism for Ghandi’s bravery, or Catholicism for Mother Teresa’s compassion, one might object, is to do a detract from the praise that is due to these individuals in their own right. I would, of course, be in agreement with such a view, but I would have then to insist that we take the same view with regard to those who commit immoral acts, also in the name of religion. Either one’s religion does bear some responsibility or credit for one’s actions, or it does not – we cannot have it both ways, and we certainly cannot just ignore the credit and focus exclusively on the guilt that organized religion has accrued over the centuries.
All of this is not to whitewash the very real crimes that have been committed by, for, and in the name of religion. It is simply to question how one could be so sure, given the masses of evidence on both sides, that religion is somehow bad in its effects, or that it has as a whole brought about more suffering than relief thereof in the course of human history. Critics like Hitchens and Dawkins love to point to specific verses in the Bible or the Koran, those which seem to (if read literally) condone barbaric violence, rape, and the cruelest forms of misogyny, as evidence that religion is inherently bad and could only ever be employed for evil. But there is also much in there that gives great comfort to many people in need, and indeed, parts of the New Testament contain some of the more beautiful expressions of social justice and human altruism that Western civilization has composed. To judge a religion solely based on those isolated sections is like those who want to dismiss all of Kant’s philosophy because he has written what we today consider outrageously racist remarks, or to condemn all of Aristotle’s work because of the offensive things he has to say about women. In all these cases, it’s just not clear what point the critic is trying to make, and how it bears any relation to how we judge the philosophy as a whole.
On what is necessary, and what is incidental, to religion
The much deeper reason why it is misguided to inveigh against religion based on its practice, is that this attacks only what is incidental to religion, and not what is necessary to it. For suppose religion rid itself of all violence, purged itself of all prejudice, of all hate, discrimination and medieval cruelty, would then, we as atheists have no more problem with it? Such an outcome is fathomable, since there is nothing analytically particular about religion which forces it to exhibit the extremism that it does today. Would we then perhaps treat religion as we now treat astrology: a foolish and unscientific practice, yes, but nothing harmful to society, and therefore, nothing that is in need of changing. If your answer is yes, then I would submit to you that perhaps you are not against religion at all, but are merely against the current implementation of religion, in the same way that those who are against American foreign policy are not at all against America, but merely opposed to some aspects of it’s current behaviour. I believe people have a right to their own views, and would not force anyone to give up this one, but don’t lump yourself in with those of us who would say no to this question, and who have a much more fundamental problem with religion in regards to what is necessary to it, namely the advocation of belief without sufficient evidence.
Religion is morally wrong because it violates a principle articulated by William Clifford in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, namely that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Sufficient evidence showing that God(s) exists has never been presented in a manner that would come close to meeting our standards of scientific rigor. God has often been called upon by believers as an explanation to natural phenomena that scientific inquiry has yet to explain properly. The result of this absurd tactic is that God’s influence on the world seems to diminish in proportion to the advance of science, to the point that now God’s powers are basically defined to consist in those things to which science does not currently have complete answers, such as the origin of the universe or human consciousness. Some theists will accept (and indeed take delight in the fact) that belief in God does not rest on evidence, but instead is held purely on ‘faith’. While such a position does mean that they have at least maintained a semblance of a grip on reality and have not resorted to chasing millennia old fairy tales, it does mean that they now are in violation of Clifford’s principle, which we ought explore further.
Understood correctly, Clifford’s principle is not without controversy, and should not be adopted lightly by someone simply looking for a good reason to have another go at religion. There are many common-sense reasons why someone might think it is sometimes desirable to encourage people to hold an unsubstantiated belief. Oftentimes believing something despite a lack of evidence, or indeed in the face of contrary evidence, is reassuring and comforting to the believer. Thinking that you will get a better job despite knowing full well that such prospects are bleak, or believing that someone who has wronged you will get their just desert even when your legal courts have let them off can perhaps make you feel better about an otherwise unhappy situation. It does not seem clear, one might object, why these people should have an ethical duty to confront the cold reality, when that reality makes them feel miserable. If holding an incorrect belief makes them feel better about their situation, why ought they not cling to it – after all, it is only affecting themselves. This is an objection that many so-called liberals like to raise; it is in keeping with their position that society (and especially government) should be neutral on conceptions of the good, and should not intervene in affairs that do not bring harm to ‘other people’. I would first say that I find such a position to be strangely cold-hearted – a wrong act does not stop being wrong simply because the only victim is also the perpetrator. And secondly, there are indeed very real harms, many affecting others, that come about when people fail to proportion their belief to the evidence. In fact any belief which is to have a meaningful effect on one’s life is likely also to affect with whom one shares that life. This is especially true of religious beliefs, since adopting them implies making significant changes in how you treat others.
Clifford’s own famous example was that of a shipowner, who sent out to sea a ship which he knew to be old and in need of repair. Despite the compelling evidence that the ship was not in a safe condition for travel, the shipowner chose to instead “put his trust in Provedence” and send the ship out with a number of families on board. The ship then sinks, sending to a watery grave all those onboard. Clifford insists that the shipowner is guilty of those deaths since, although he sincerely believed that the ship would complete its journey in one piece, he had “no right to believe on such evidence as was before him”. Moreover, Clifford adds, the owner’s guilt would be reduced “not one jot” if in fact the ship had completed its voyage successfully. What actually happens to the ship once it set sails is not up to him, and so clearly it cannot have an influence on his moral culpability. What was wrong was that he chose to adopt a belief despite the evidence against it – in other words, what was wrong was his decision to have ‘faith’.
Beliefs based on faith are simply forms of wishful thinking, and should be treated as an affront to your own dignity. We accept that people have ethical duties not to lie to others, and lying to yourself should not be treated any differently. Sometimes lying to others brings you some personal gain, just as lying to yourself can make you feel reassured, but we should accept neither as a justification for the wrongdoing. And what could be a more shameful lie than one told about your own mortality, and about the existence of an omnipotent deity? I agree that such a false belief brings great relief, since it is frightening and depressing to come to terms with your own mortality, or to accept that horrendously evil acts committed in this world will never be righted or punished. But to try to escape from the absurd and wretched condition we call human existence by giving in to superstition and deceit is to show no regard for your own dignity as a rational being. Nothing other than self-contempt could be responsible for a person deceiving themselves in this way.
The violence and intolerance we see exhibited by religious persons is certainly wrong, but it cannot (indeed should not) be attributed to the religion itself. What certainly can be attributed to the religion itself is the total willingness on behalf of its devotees to believe without (indeed in spite of) evidence before them. In doing that they have violated an ethical duty – a violation which is in no way mitigated if the unsubstantiated belief they held did not lead them to commit bad deeds. One can imagine a world in which religion was free of all violence, but one cannot imagine a world in which religion was free of ‘faith’ (if you think you can then should reconsider what your definition of religion is) – that is what it means for violence to be incidental to religion, but faith to be necessary to it. We atheists should make sure that we are opposing what is necessary to religion, rather than what is merely incidental to it.