Better Left Unsaid

Mahatma Gandhi said, “All religions are true.” If you think about it, they all serve the same purpose: comfort the afflicted, explain the unexplainable, provide moral guidelines for living a good life. The differences are primarily cultural — language, place of origin, traditional elements — not spiritual.

What does it matter if one person prays to Allah, another believes in multiple deities, and another doesn’t believe in any God, if all three are fundamentally good people who treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves?
The Honest Doubter, October 20, 2005

I am fully aware that there are many people who think religion is too private a subject to discuss in such a fashion as this blog does – that the decision of what to believe is an intensely personal one for each individual to make for themselves and should not be interfered with. Others have said that religion is a mere preference, a matter of taste, and that criticizing others’ religious beliefs is as pointless and mean-spirited a gesture as criticizing someone else for their preference in flavors of ice cream. I have heard sentiments like this even from some people who are atheists.

My response is this: Some beliefs need to be criticized. All throughout the world, at this very moment, people are killing and dying, fighting and oppressing others, all because of religion. It was religion that persuaded nineteen Muslim men to hijack four jetliners and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. It is religion that teaches desperately overcrowded Third World countries that it is evil for women to control their own reproductive systems through the use of contraception. It is religion that would deny people who are terminally ill and suffering, or incurably brain-dead, the right to die with dignity in a time and place of their choosing. It is religion that demands women remain silent in church, submit to their husbands, and cover themselves with suffocating black shrouds in public. It is religion that would put a stop to stem-cell research that holds out the promise of curing a hundred dreaded ailments. It is religion, coupled with a deep and irrational phobia of healthy sexuality, that is fighting to cut off people’s access to abortion, sex education, and birth control. It is religion, all over the planet, that is being invoked in support of war, militarism, oppression of the downtrodden, terrorism, hatred, intolerance, inequality, and countless other sins. These evils can only be ended with a forthright confrontation of the root causes that give rise to them. We will never put a stop to any of these things by proclaiming that religion is too private a matter to discuss in public, nor by saying it is just a matter of taste and that it is acceptable to believe whatever works for you.

However, most religious people are not terrorists or theocrats, a statement whose truth I gladly acknowledge. The question then becomes, why criticize the good believers along with the evil ones? Why not focus my criticism on the theists who are using their beliefs to justify causing harm to the innocent, and grant a pass to those who are not making any trouble?

My response to this modified position is that, if religion was purely a matter of preference or opinion, I would be happy to refrain from criticizing those who did not do wrong – in fact, I would have no grounds to do so. But religion is not just a matter of opinion. Religious beliefs are assertions about the world that are either true or false; they are not mere expressions of personal preference, like favorite flavors of ice cream.

For example, it is a true statement that either Jesus Christ was the son of God, or he was not. Those two options exhaust all possibilities. If it is not true that Jesus was the son of God, one of the most deep and fundamental tenets of Christianity is wrong; if is true that Jesus was the son of God, one of the most deep and fundamental tenets of both Judaism and Islam is wrong. Similar truth conflicts can be adduced between any pair of religions. They cannot all be right (although I note that they could all be wrong).

These truth conflicts are not minor differences, but go to the heart of what makes each religion unique. There is no sense in trying to mince words: Someone must be wrong here, and it does no one any favors for us to agree not to try to find out who. It is not kindness to allow someone to persist in error without offering correction, and it is not magnanimity to grant that others’ differing beliefs are just as valid as your own. In both cases, what is being described is nothing more than intellectual cowardice.

The correct course of action is to test, debate, and criticize all beliefs, exempting none. The ones that are true, and that are worth being held, will survive. And if we hold beliefs that are not true, it is better that we discover that sooner, rather than later, so that we can replace them with something better. I know that if I believed something that was not true, I would want people to inform me of that so that I could correct my mistake. I suspect, more than a little bit, that the real reason some people plead for their beliefs not to be criticized is because they fear those beliefs are false and cannot withstand criticism. But this is like trying to live in a sandcastle when the tide is coming in: any refuge it seems to offer is purely illusory.

We should first figure out what is true and then build our happiness around that, rather than deciding what would make us happy and adjusting our view of the truth to fit. If our happiness is firmly anchored in the truth, we have nothing to fear in what the future will bring. On the other hand, if we try to believe something that is comforting but false, we will inevitably have to suffer the consequences of it in the end. The religious warfare and oppression cited earlier, stemming from comforting but dangerous beliefs about religious exclusivism, is but one example of this.

And finally, why should we not want to know what is true? The happiness of knowledge is always greater and more profound than the happiness of delusion. As many former religious believers will testify, the realization that one’s illusions have fallen away, and that one is now viewing the world as it truly is, is a sublime and powerful joy, far surpassing the superficially comforting but fragile belief in fantasy. To those who would say that religion is a personal matter that should be left alone, I say thus: Believers of the world, rise up and investigate! You stand to gain the truth, and you have nothing to lose but your illusions.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Archi Medez

    I would like to expand on what you say in identifying religion as key factor in the various problems we all face. Just as one must distinguish between the moderates and the hard-liners, one must also distinguish between religions. When comparing religions against each other, according to an independent moral standard, they are not all equally bad. For example, I do not have a major problem with Buddhism as a doctrine or religious practice. I do not have a major problem with Jainism. Rather, it is primarily the Abrahamic religions that are most troublesome.

    In addition, the core doctrine (e.g., Quran, Bible, etc.) is a package of (often vaguely worded) propositions, some of them morally good, some of them bad. A religion can be said to contain elemental propositions A, B, C, D, E…(etc.). Religious people in free societies that have adequate educational systems tend to pick and choose the elements of the doctrines they like, and ignore/downplay/deny/tacitly reject the parts that would give them trouble. Almost all believers of all religions are such “cafeteria” believers. For example, how many Christians still hold to, and would be willing to act to enforce, the old blasphemy laws (i.e., executing the blasphemer)? In contrast, as we have seen through the Rushdie affair, the publication of the film _Submission_, the Mohammad cartoons, etc., millions of Muslims throughout the world, including in Western countries, still accept the blasphemy laws and are more than eager to implement them on the entire world. This element of Islamic ideology, combined with the harsh penalties against apostates, has probably served to perpetuate the various atrocities visited upon the world by Islam. (This is in addition to the core element of hatred against/demonization of non-Muslims and disbelief generally). Islam would be very different today if people were allowed to criticize it freely or to leave it, without penalty. (Honest progressive Muslim reformers have had practically no influence on mainstream Islam). But the atrocities will continue as long as Muslims and non-Muslims alike are not allowed to criticize Islam.

    A troubling element of certain religions is their insistence that what is stated must be true and final, must be believed (or else!), and must be practiced in the world. The function of these elements of the belief system appears to be to shut off moral thinking, i.e., to block the kind of questioning and scrutiny which you describe above. These elements are not unique to religions, but are elements of totalitarian ideologies. What’s unique about certain religions is their insistence upon an unassailable infallible divine power, but otherwise many elements are shared by secular dictatorships which forbid (and enact harsh punishements for) questioning of the party line or the leader.

    So it is not religion per se that is the problem. It is certain elements, such as the insistence on unassailable unquestionable authority, the incitement of hate against out-group members, the insistence upon (and enforcement of) blind obedience, that are the chief problems. These problems effectively kill the moral thinking that is neccessary to challenge various questionable elemental propositions of the belief system.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I question this. I do believe that religion is something that should be challenged, but I do not find that it is much of a cause. I do not at all believe that the heads of terrorist organizations or heads of theocracies are ruling because of religion. 911 was political. Tehran’s current actions are political. Even the bombing of abortion clinics are, at their heart, political. Religion is merely a tool, but it’s not the only one; can we really say that the Islamic terrorists are qualitatively different than the Marxist revolutionaries that conquered Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, I believe)? No. I think we need to question religion mainly to reduce it’s effectiveness and for the advancement of science.

    Maybe I came off as too anti-thetical; it’s not that I feel that religion has no negative role, it’s that I feel it’s important to recognize that even if we could rid all religious doctrine from the earth that the problems wouldn’t cease. Religion IS generally stand-alone in being the only abstract belief that stops science, I agree, but when we are discussing things like abortion or gay marriage or terrorism or hardcore regimes, I think it’s our responsibility to aknowledge that religion is not the cause of these, only the method. I think, as well, it helps the overall image of atheism in general; if those with beliefs feel that we are blaming their beliefs for all these ills, they will merely harden against us. I think it’s good that we point out that we believe religion is a tool being used, that their beliefs probably are incorrect but that we are not blaming them for all the problems we have today.

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    While it’s true that Abrahamic religions have been the cause of most of the religious strife in human history, the others don’t have clean hands either, not even Buddhism. For example, prior to the Chinese takeover, the Buddhist kingdom of Tibet was a shockingly brutal and repressive theocracy (which is not to say that I condone China’s actions). See this article for details.

    I’ve observed that the moral behavior of a given religion’s followers has almost nothing to do with what the religion actually teaches. Judaism, for example, which at least in the United States is a mainly progressive faith, has some of the most violent and bloody scriptures in the world. Christianity, on the other hand, which has a holy book that explicitly teaches pacifism and tolerance, has in many places become a militant, intolerant dominionist fundamentalism. Rather, I would argue, the social and political behavior of religion is a function of two things: how much secular power that religion’s leaders have (needless to say, absolute power corrupts absolutely), and whether that religion has gone through an Enlightenment-style liberalizing reformation. Christianity has, although it shows some signs of wearing off; Islam has not.

    Of course, even if we all became atheists tomorrow, that wouldn’t put an end to war and conflict in the world. As you both pointed out, and as Christian apologists never tire of reminding us, there have also been secular states that committed atrocities. The real culprit is not religion per se, but something deeper: the immovable dogmatism that sees all differing opinions as unworthy of consideration. It’s only a small step from burning books to burning people, as it’s been said. However, that said, I do think religion contributes by fostering an atmosphere in which this dogmatism is accepted and encouraged, and in which forming an opinion regardless of the facts is considered a positive character trait. What we really need is a human race made up of people who are willing to consider others’ arguments and critically analyze their own in a spirit of reason.

  • Quath

    I see religion at the least a waste of time and at the most, a tool for the corrupt. I get along very well with pagans. However, if they were the majority religion in the USA, I wonder if I still would. Religion is safest when it is powerless.

    I also see it as being one of the most harmful things in human history. At the simpliest, it is a tool for politics. Kamikaze pilots die for the emperor-god; Muslim blow themselves up, knowing they will go to heaven; and Nazis kill the Christ killing Jews. It is a great tool because people are ready to be led by it. However, it is also a way to justify doing horrific things. For example, the Spanish stole gold and slaves from American Indians. But first, they had a priest announce that it was God’s will. If they did not have that, they would know that they were pirates. Now, with this priest’s actions, they are not pirates, but God warriors. They can feel good about themselves as they fill their coffers.

    Without religious justification, most of the horrors of the past could have been averted.

  • Archi Medez

    “It was religion that persuaded nineteen Muslim men to hijack four jetliners and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.”
    –from Adam’s initial post.

    I would like to clarify that I agree with this 100%. I believe I may have overstated my case in my initial reply. Yes, religion is a package of elements and some of those elements are shared by non-religious ideologies. But religion does contain at least one key element not contained in any other type of ideology: A belief in an afterlife. The example of the suicide bomber who disposes of his own life along with those of numerous civilians does so with the belief that he will be rewarded in the afterlife. Atta packed a wedding suit in his luggage when he boarded the 747 on the morning of September 11, on the belief that he would wed his virgin brides in Paradise. Of course, atheists can commit suicide, but I suspect that flying a plane into a building and killing thousands of innocent people, in part motivated by the belief that a reward is awaiting, is almost entirely, if not entirely, the domain of religion. Members of cults have, in some notorious examples, shown a willingness to commit suicide for some reason or other in accordance with their religious beliefs. There is ample doctrinal support for suicidal attacks, in contexts deemed jihad, in Islam (see http://www.islam-watch.org/MAsghar/SuicideBombInIslam.htm , and my citation of supportive material here http://islamwatch.forumup.in/about106-0.html ). If we combine this religious belief in an afterlife with the demonization of non-Muslims (another religious belief), plus plenty of the anti-U.S., anti-Western hate propaganda which soaks the Middle Eastern countries, it becomes possible to understand and explain the actions of the 19 hijackers. This is not to say the hijackers did not also believe they had more basic grievances with the West. However, these grievances would also be interpreted in religious terms. Nevertheless, even those grievances are not sufficient to explain the nature of the acts. Only a religious belief in an afterlife, plus a demonization of the victims (such that empathy was removed and replaced by an all-consuming hate) could have produced the actions of 9/11.

    A few other points:

    1. Doctrinal support. To say a religion is implicated causally in some atrocity, it is necessary to show a linkage between the religious doctrine itself and the act claimed in the name of the religion. 9/11 was claimed in the name of the religion, and there is ample doctrinal basis for those attacks. But there is no such basis in Buddhism or Jainism. Therefore, what Buddhists or Jainists might do by way of atrocities cannot be meaningfully attributed to those doctrines. And a self-proclaimed Christian who claims a doctrinal basis for the extermination of the Jews is simply mistaken; there is no such basis, no statement in the Bible that tells believers to wipe out the Jews. But the Islamic texts do contain such bases, partly in the Koran (9:29-35; though this allows a dhimmitude option), and partly in the Sahih Bukhari (vol. 4, book 52, no. 177) and Sahih Muslim (book 41, 6985) aHadith (these do not mention a dhimmitude option). Indeed, the statement from the aHadith about killing off the Jews is enshrined as one of the statements in the Hamas Charter.

    2. Political versus religious causes. These are so intertwined, particularly in Islam, that it is difficult to talk about them as two separate factors. Mohammad’s 7th century group were essentially a bunch of militants in pursuit of political, personal, and other objectives. In Islam, politics, law, and religion are all combined in one system. This is different for many moderate Muslims living in secular societies, who recognize a separation of religion and state, but this is not the case in traditional Islamic countries. Even in moderate Jordan, the majority of the public wants sharia law.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If you all weren’t aware, Archi Medez is the author of two guest articles on Ebon Musings, Does the Koran’s Verse 5:32 Forbid the Killing of Non-Muslims? and Is There Compulsion in the Islamic Religion? You’d Better Believe It!. Needless to say, he’s my resident expert on Islam.

    I do have to disagree on one point, though: whether the New Testament contains any warrant for violent anti-Semitism. There’s nothing as explicit as the genocidal commands of the Old Testament, but there is one verse in particular that is blood-chilling, and that I think is difficult to interpret as anything but a tacit nod in this direction: namely, Matthew 27:22-25. It is part of Pilate’s confrontation with a hostile Jewish crowd just before Jesus’ crucifixion. From the NIV:

    “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
    They all answered, “Crucify him!”
    “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
    But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
    When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
    All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

    This exchange is a ghastly anti-Semitic fabrication, and has served as the basis for two millennia of Christian persecution of Jews. If it’s not exactly a command to exact revenge on the Jews, it’s not very difficult at all to see how many people could have interpreted it as such.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I not think it necessary to establish that an act carried out in the name of a religion is somehow derived FROM the religion if it’s not a singular, isolated act. Could we honestly sat that, even if the NT was perfectly clean, that Christianity is therefore a “clean” religion, having no share of blame for the ubelievable number of crimes it’s followers have committed? Of course not. A religion is an idea, and exists only in the minds of those who follow. Therefore, those followers DEFINE it. Not just their words, but as well their actions. To take a drastic example, if the Pontiff through the priests all shot someone tomorrow in the name of God, it woucl follow that Catholicism, at least, is tolerant of murder. Sure, there would be internal discord over it, but there is definately a place for it in the belief system. If this was a regular occurance, even if it’s only done by a small percentage of Catholics with the rest either supporting or shutting their eyes, it would certainly be reasonable to call Catholicism a bloody sect of Christianity.

    About the politcal or religious motivation; generally, the bombers themselves are operating under religion, true. But the leaders are not, almost without exception. The heads of these organizations are very often political minded, and THEIR supporters (historically, the US or USSR), regardless of which organization is getting the support, are acting with political means. I think opening religion to critcism would be like bombing an enemies airfield; very damaging to them, but not enough to stop the war dead.

  • Archi Medez

    Adam, re: Pontius Pilate and NT anti-Semitism. There’s no question that there are examples of anti-Semitism throughout the NT. I’ve always regarded the killing of Christ, in this story, as the Romans’ responsibility–despite Pilate’s words absolving himself of responsibility. Unless it was a custom to turn such decisions over to the mob, I still see it as primarily a Roman decision. Nevertheless, one cannot deny your point: That some Jews on hand at the scene are implicated in the killing of Christ has been a significant source of more generalized anti-Semistism. Here is one of the strongest anti-Jewish statements I’ve come across in the NT.

    All of this is still a far cry from calls for extermination, and is still quite mild compared to the Koran’s 9:29 (convert, subjugate, or kill).

    BlackWizard, I agree that once certain schools or sects get established, one can still identify religion (or the sect) as partly responsible (e.g., Catholicism’s role in the inquisitions, even if there are some departures from the original text. The OT, at least, was not clearly repudiated by Christ–he said he came to confirm the old laws, and those included death penalty for blasphemy–the execution of blasphemers against God, e.g., was approved). And it would be overstatement to say Christianity is clean–certainly not. It has the anti-Semitic statements which, though not as direct as calls for war, certainly pave the way inter-religious strife.

    Beyond the issue of doctrinal support, once any religious group takes some interpretation and acts on it, it is, indeed, a religiously-based action. I just think one has to be careful in regard to calling an action Islamic, or Christian, etc., if it is not reasonably clearly supported in the respective core texts.

    Ultimately, it is the believers that are responsible for their actions. They can be held accountable; their gods cannot. But given the different conditions of upbringing for different people in different parts of the world, in some cases we can attribute more responsibility to the religious doctrine. This is the case where religion is essentially decided at birth, for the lifetime.

  • Archi Medez

    Adam, my apologies, for some reason this NT quote didn’t come out in my post. Mere it is:
    1 Thessalonians, 2:14-2:16 “…the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always: for the wrath is come upon them the uttermost.”

  • Jeffrey Tidwell

    I think it may be important to consider that not all atheists are as magnanomous as many of you seem to be. Religion is a powerful tool, but do not make the mistake that those in charge of them are not as atheistic as the rest of us. Religion is indeed a negative influence, often based on lies, deceit and unfalsifiable promises which serve only to mislead the average person and serve the all too material and political needs of the ‘religious’ leaders. If I desired to overthrow a rival government and I used political arguments to accomplish this, then people would see the argument at face value. If I desired to overthrow a rival government and used religious arguments which appealed to a young military capable man with promises of erternal life with virgins without end… which tool would have more success? In either case, my own belief in god or lack thereof is the same, I just chose the more convenient tool.

  • bassmanpete

    I’m six months behind on this but I’ll add my comment anyway. I could never understand anti-Semitism by Christians for the following reasons:

    1. Jesus was a Jew
    2. The disciples and original followers were Jews
    3. Who was responsible for Jesus’ death is irrelevant – he was supposed to suffer & die, it was preordained.
    4. He came back to life anyway, so what’s the problem?