My posture toward religion is slowly becoming more antagonistic, and I’d like to explain why. If you knew enough details about my life, you might assume it was because religious beliefs have inspired some pretty unloving (and unprofessional) actions toward me. I won’t be detailing those here because most of those issues are matters between me and those individuals (or institutions) and are not appropriate for discussion on a public blog. I will say here as I often do that I never felt mistreated as long as I was a faithful adherent to the Christian faith; it was only after I left that I saw the darker side of that religion: the exclusivism, the subtle (or not so subtle) condescension, and the hurtful behavior masquerading as “tough love.” I mainly point that out because people looking for a quick and easy way to dismiss my thoughts will undoubtedly try to blame my departure from the faith on “bad experiences” (which many have had, and should not be disregarded since they are relevant). But all of my bad experiences came only after I left. Still, these are not why my posture is changing.
I should also add that I continue to see great value in seeking constructive dialogue with those who are open to it within the Christian faith. There isn’t just one monolithic Christianity, there are multiple christianities (just as there isn’t one monolithic Islam, as Marwa Berro recently pointed out). Truthfully, I think that was always true, even from the beginning, but today it’s even more obvious. There is a great deal of variety within Christendom, and where I live the watershed issue is a belief in the unimpeachability of the Bible. Those differing on that single issue will end up with dramatically different stances on so many things that they scarcely can be called the same religion. In fact, the inerrantists typically regard the non-inerrantists as illegitimate outsiders to their faith. I have found that with a tradition this exclusionary, true dialogue cannot happen—only dueling monologues. When speaking with such people, the best I can hope for is to appeal to their commitment (at least in theory) to compassion and to remind them of Jesus’ exhortation to “judge not lest ye be judged.” The other group—the non-inerrantists—shows considerably more promise for constructive dialogue. I consider them my allies, and I usually feel little need to pick a fight with such people.
Having said that, I’ve found lately that my general stance about religion has shifted and I’m starting to sound a bit more anti-theistic than I used to sound. Technically, I still don’t identify with that label since I don’t feel that all forms of theism equally deserve to be opposed. But lately I’ve found myself taking a longer view—a more long-term perspective—and it’s affecting how I decide what needs to be kept to myself and what needs to be said out loud. The best way I know to illustrate my reasoning is with a thought experiment.
Taking the Long View
Did you ever wonder how differently an immortal would see the world? Imagine how differently a 10,000 year-old man would view the passing of time and world events. Things which seem to us as world-changing would likely seem to him as yet another iteration of something he’s seen hundreds of times before. I imagine the latest escapades of Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian wouldn’t even register, and cries of desperation over national politics or the global economy would seem like a tiny hiccup, not worth much hand-wringing. It’s a storyline that’s all happened before, and will eventually happen again, only with different props and actors each time. It would be difficult for us mere mortals to predict how such a man would respond to most things, but I think I can extrapolate about one tendency based on what’s happened to me as I’ve advanced further into being “a grown-up”: You begin to take more responsibility for your own actions because you see the inextricable connections between actions and their consequences over the long haul.
Small children don’t think like this. They don’t see how their choices and actions build up over time and cause things to happen in their own lives, whether good or bad, so they will make the same unhelpful decisions again and again. As they mature, they will begin to grasp how their choices affect their own lives, and eventually they will learn to take responsibility for the things they do (some require a bit more help learning this than others!). In many ways, this parallels the maturing of human civilization. While we began as more brutish, warring, inequitable tribes, we’ve now become, well…brutish, warring, inequitable advanced civilizations But we have picked up a few lessons along the way, smoothing out the rough edges at least a little. Hopefully we will learn a few more before we exhaust our planet’s natural resources and kill off our own species in the process.
How would our 10,000 year-old man view our attachment to religion? It’s hard to say, of course, but I know that his responses would reflect a bigger-picture view than you or I would normally adopt. I may fear the rejection of my friends and family, and normally I avoid saying or doing anything around them which would upset them (I’m a feeler and this is a pattern for me). But is this really taking sufficient responsibility for the presence and effects of religious belief on my surroundings? Am I doing what’s in the world’s best interests by remaining silent when I see irrational beliefs causing harm around me? On many occasions they have spoken up about my unbelief for the same reasons—they believe my unbelief will cause me harm. Why should I not reciprocate with my own concerns about what they believe? Wouldn’t a more grown-up response be to speak up and elucidate how those beliefs are causing harm and holding us back?
I suppose I must first establish that much of religion is in fact harmful. I’ve already enumerated nine ways in which religion can be harmful, and Hemant Mehta turned the list into a short video. If your particular religion escapes all nine of those deleterious outcomes then more power to you. On my better days I will concede that some beliefs bring a measure of comfort and happiness to people in need. When you are lonely or scared, it can make you feel much better to believe that an all-powerful yet invisible person is with you wherever you go, caring about your personal welfare. When you or a loved one encounters death, it can make the passage more bearable if you believe that a second life awaits in which all your loved ones will be happily reunited. Surely it would be mean of me to do or say anything which would minimize the comfort or peace which these beliefs bring, right?
I’m not so sure that’s how our multi-millennial man would see it. If we take the largest view, we see the overall effects of religious belief on humankind and we must take the net effect of it on the whole of society. I am beginning to suspect that the net effect is negative. Colton Burpo’s fanciful telling (via Sarah Palin’s ghost writer) of his trip to heaven (even though he never actually flatlined) brings hope and comfort to millions; but is this really doing us more good than harm? Is it of no consequence that these tales sprang from the interactive imaginations of the boy and his fundamentalist parents over several years?
An argument can be made that belief in Santa Claus doesn’t really harm kids but rather brings joy and magic to the Christmas season. But at some point they should grow out of that belief. In fact, I think most would agree that it’s not optional for them to do so. Most would agree that if you’re forty years old and still looking for St. Nick to come down your chimney on Christmas Eve, you’re going to have much bigger problems than an empty stocking. The bigger problem is that you’ve fostered a blurring of fantasy and reality which will most definitely impact everything you do in life. Your problems are bigger than Christmas, and the benefits of your belief are far outweighed by the problems which your delusional thinking will create. It was cute and fun when you were four, but when you’re forty? Not so much.
The Net Effect is Negative
Even after you filter out the more egregious atrocities perpetrated by religion (e.g. genital mutilation, sexual abuse in the priesthood, flying planes into buildings, and preventing women from voting, driving, or being educated), you’re still left with a number of ways religion either actively harms people or else holds us back. Old bigotries like misogyny and homophobia survive in developed democracies today primarily because sources of religious authority have preserved these cultural relics as if they are meant for all time. Millions of Americans leave their homes to vote against their neighbor’s right to marry the person he or she loves because their preachers and their holy books have taught them to do so. School boards and legislators aggressively combat scientific education and development because it sometimes contradicts their own religious dogma, and this holds us back and keeps us from becoming what we could become as a species. Many disparage the preservation of our ecosystem because they’ve been taught that God will destroy it all anyway, so why worry? Lately I’ve also begun to see how so many unhealthy religious approaches to sexuality cause harm to people by teaching them to feel guilty about their own natural sexuality, even discouraging them from acquiring access to effective birth control and sex education. Current Christian approaches to dating and sex make my skin crawl because they teach some of the most unhelpful thought patterns about sex ever conceived (yuk yuk).
But perhaps none of these harm us more than the subtle ways in which religion dulls our ability to think critically, the very capability which would enable us to see through the irrationality of everything else mentioned thus far. I call this a “silent killer” because it’s difficult to detect the ways this harms us, which makes it all the more insidious. When people run up against the logical inconsistencies of their own religion, they are told that “God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” I find this unforgivably hypocritical, since whenever I suggest that faith and science operate on opposite principles, I am told “Oh no! God created us rational beings and he is glorified when we use the minds he has given us to figure things out. They’re not contradictory at all!” But then when I suggest that two of the claims of their religion contradict each other and cannot both be true, they tell me it’s wrong to try and make “spiritual things” make sense because they somehow operate on another level. That may satisfy some, but it does so by encouraging you to give up trying to make sense of things, teaching you to accept irrationalities as “normal” and acceptable. In fact, some will assert that the more irrational a belief is, the more reliable it is. I’ve heard theologians argue that since the notion of the trinity is so illogical, we should be all the readier to accept it since we’d never intentionally invent something so irrational. Do not think this habit does not spill over into every other area of life, because it certainly does. Like the forty-year-old who still believes in Santa, these irrationalities infect the rest of our minds like a virus, dulling our critical thinking skills and making us susceptible to scams and spurious claims of a thousand varieties. It helps no one to shrug these off simply because the delusions make people temporarily happier.
What Should We Do?
In light of the harm caused by all but the most liberal religions of the world, I’m beginning to feel it is our responsibility to speak up and call a spade a spade. If a belief is irrational, unsupported by the facts or by reason, we should call it out and show it for what it is. I think my reluctance to do so thus far has been because I accepted the mantra that says it’s unkind to openly question people’s religious beliefs. But as Greta Christina pointed out, we don’t overlook other kinds of faulty ideas just because people might be offended, so why should religious ideas get a free pass? As I’m arguing in this post, I believe there are bigger issues at stake than avoiding uncomfortability or personal offense. Bad ideas lead to bad decisions and people get hurt. Failing to speak up about the flaws in our thinking makes all of us complicit by our own silence. We become a part of the problem when we do nothing to ameliorate what ails us. It’s time we grew up and started taking responsibility for what’s going on around us. I believe that is the most mature view of how we should respond to the many excesses and irrationalities of harmful religious beliefs.
It’s a bit of a tightrope walk because not all religions are equally harmful, and humanists and rationalists alike will find allies among the more liberal strains of each major religion. I want to continue fostering constructive conversation among these folks because they are open to it and because sometimes they can get a hearing from the more conservative representatives of their own religion. This can be tricky though, because even a liberal Christian will often find himself defending the Bible (or a character in the Bible), in effect standing with his more fundamentalist brethren—so they are not always consistent. Instead of seeing their book as a product of the minds of men, they sometimes slip into the magical mindset, ascribing special powers to this book and shying away from questioning it at key moments. When that happens, they should not expect support from skeptics about those matters, although they should expect us to refrain from personal insults or ad hominem attacks. The level of dialogue seriously needs raising. We should be able to talk like grown-ups, since that’s what we are trying to become. We need not resort to name-calling and mockery of people’s intelligence in order to get our point across.
We should mind our manners, but speak our minds, too. Can’t we do both? Let that be our collective goal. Deal?