Sam Harris is famous for the argument that religion, even moderate religion, does harm by teaching that faith is a virtue that should not be questioned, which encourages militant and violent strains of fundamentalism. Today, I want to talk about another way, subtle but unmistakable, that religion causes harm to human beings.
Because of its tendency to treat all the statements of its founders and sacred texts as holy truth, religion has the effect of “freezing” the prejudices in vogue at the time of that religion’s founding – encouraging followers to view them not as contingent or arbitrary cultural biases, but as the received will of God. And when a community of the faithful sincerely believes this, they’ll perpetuate those prejudices for decades or centuries, long after the rest of the world has made enough progress to leave them behind. These preserved opinions are like fossils, surviving remnants of a more ancient era. But unlike fossils, they’re still alive and malignant and able to do harm.
Consider the belief, still all too common, that rape victims are partially to blame for being raped if they drink or dress provocatively. This is a pernicious myth that’s long been used, and is still being used, by rapists to excuse their actions and discourage rape victims from reporting the crime. It springs from the ancient prejudice that men can’t be expected to exercise self-control in such situations, while women who are raped must have done something to tempt or incite the man into raping her. This is the sort of vile misogyny that our society should long since have discarded – but not only is it alive and well, it’s still being propped up by patriarchal, male-dominated religions. Consider this story about a religious leaflet given to a woman in Virginia:
“You may have been given this leaflet because of the way you are dressed,” it begins. “Have you thought about standing before the true and living God to be judged?”
…”Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts a men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin,” the leaflet states. “By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?”
This loathsome argument, though presumably from a Christian source, has much in common with the Muslim cleric who proclaimed that women who refuse to veil their faces are like “uncovered meat” that gets eaten by stray animals. Both of them justify their woman-hating, blame-the-victim attitude by passing it off as the word of God.
The same attitude is behind a new and worrying trend in American schools: religious-right legislators who’ve supported teaching creationism in science class are now broadening their sights to demand the teaching of “alternative views” about global warming, as well as other favorite right-wing targets. As the article notes, white evangelicals are among the least likely to accept the science behind climate change (and I’ve written before about similar views from both sides of the theological aisle).
The harm done by fossilized opinions is most obvious in Islam, where the status of women has scarcely advanced in fourteen hundred years. Laws still in force throughout the Muslim world allow men to take multiple wives, forbid women from getting an education or traveling outside the home without a male relative, devalue their testimony in court, and more. Just a few weeks ago, Muslim tribal elders in Bangladesh ordered the flogging of a rape victim – and Bangladesh is relatively advanced when it comes to women’s rights, at least when compared to most other Islamic countries.
The next time you hear some mealy-mouthed accommodationist denouncing atheists for claiming “intellectual superiority” over believers, remind them of facts like these. If atheists’ opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it’s not because we’re intrinsically smarter – it’s because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself. Millions of religious believers’ minds are mired centuries in the past, clinging to beliefs that we now know to be false and moral tenets that we now know to be atrocities. We have every right to feel superior to people who still hold such fossilized opinions.