Religion inspires billions of people around the world today to live honest, decent, law-abiding lives. Faith-based charities of every religious tradition have brought comfort, hope, and healing to millions of people who would otherwise starve, lay homeless, and be left to fend for themselves. Religion gives comfort and consolation to so many who have faced adversity in their lives, whether it be suffering from illness, natural disaster, or the loss of someone whom they loved.
The good that’s done by religion, the peace and comfort it gives to millions of faithful, is often cited as a reason to be a believer despite the manifest harm that it does in the world. Often, paired with this argument, the charge is made that atheists don’t understand the solace people find in religion – that we seek to tear down and destroy without truly knowing what we’re attacking. I have a few words to say to both of these claims.
I understand why people are Roman Catholic. I understand the comfort of tradition and ritual, the deep sense of grounding that comes from being part of the world’s largest and most ancient Christian faith. I understand the attraction of participating in the sacraments as they’ve been practiced for millennia, the sense of treading in the footsteps where the first Christians walked. I understand the intellectual depth and heft that comes of having nearly two thousand years of theological reflection and elaboration to draw on.
The former No. 2 official of the Catholic church in Chicago admitted that he knew 25 priests broke the law by sexually abusing children but did not report them, according to depositions made public Tuesday.
…”I knew the civil law considered it a crime,” Goedert said in the deposition.
—”Bishop remained silent about 25 abusive priests.” The Chicago Sun-Times, 22 July 2009.
I understand why people are Jewish. I understand the comfort of heritage, of identity, of continuity with the past that’s been faithfully preserved in written text and living tradition. I understand the pull of cultural memory, of remembering the thread that runs unbroken through the generations and reenacting the sacred rituals as they’ve always been practiced. I understand the bittersweet joy and stubborn pride that comes with the knowledge that enemies have sought to eradicate your people for millennia, whether by law, by steel or by flame, and every time, your ancestors emerged from the ashes, battered but unbowed. I understand the appeal of having a true homeland, a place in the world that is finally yours and where you can dwell in peace and security.
Plastered across Israeli TV screens for the past week have been pictures of settler youths, some as young as 13, stoning and then trying to lynch a teenage Palestinian in a Gaza village.
…That thump is the sound of a rock thrown by a teenage Jewish settler hitting an unconscious Hilal Majaida in the head. The 16-year-old Palestinian was set upon by a mob of Jewish settler youth, who’d taken over a house in Hilal Majaida’s village of Mouasi in Gaza.
—”Israeli settlers attempt to lynch Palestinian teenager.” The World Today (Australia), 8 July 2005.
I understand why people are Muslim. I understand the comfort that comes from belonging to a worldwide community of fellow believers, one united by faith and creed without regard to race or nation. I understand the vigor and pride of the world’s youngest monotheism, the heritage rich with scientific and artistic accomplishment. I understand the bracing certainty of possessing God’s actual words exactly as he intended them to be read and following the last and truest prophet he sent to the world. And I understand the appeal of simplicity, the attractiveness of stripping away all corruptions and confusions and everything unnecessary, producing a faith as clean and pure and directed in purpose as the desert lands where it was born.
Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan have executed a school teacher in front of his pupils for refusing to comply with warnings to stop educating girls.…”They dragged the teacher from the classroom and shot him at the school gate,” said Abdul Rahman Sabir, Helmand’s police chief.
“He had received many warning letters from the Taliban to stop teaching, but he continued to do so happily and honestly – he liked to teach boys and girls.”
—”Taliban execute teacher in front of his pupils for educating girls.” The Telegraph, 17 December 2005.
And I understand why people are evangelical Christians. I understand the ecstasy of being born again, the sense of being unconditionally forgiven and cleansed. I understand the excitement of being on a grand spiritual mission, the sense of being a foot soldier in a quest to save the world. I understand the appeal of answered prayer, the promise of miracles all around. I understand the belief that the material world is like a thin curtain over a far more important and unseen world, and the appeal of a book which claims to be the inerrant and infallible word of God to believers, a book which pulls back that curtain and unlocks all the secrets of the future and the world to come. I understand the appeal of a personal relationship with a loving savior who promises he will never abandon nor forsake those who love him, even to the end of the world.
But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.
Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery…. Parents don’t come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say “what is that there? Not your child.”‘
—”Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt.” The Observer, 9 December 2007.
I understand, but I do not believe. No matter how comforting these faiths may be to their followers, they are still based on supernatural claims for which I see no good evidence. Worse, most of them make assertions that are plainly based on the superstitious ideas of primitive people, and are flatly contradicted by everything we’ve learned about human history and the laws by which the cosmos works. I understand the appeal of culture and tradition, but these are not good enough reasons for belief when these religions make factual claims that are so plainly untrue.
If these factual falsehoods were all that was wrong with religion, one might still argue that it’s worth believing for the sake of the comfort that belief brings. But religion has also wrought terrible evil in the world. And the unnecessary pain, suffering, and destruction that faith has caused is too high a price to pay for comfort. A total catalogue of these harms would be impossibly long, but I can list a few of the major ones: the terror of children who are taught they’ll be tortured eternally if they stray; the monstrous crimes of predatory clergy that were long concealed and abetted by their superiors; the suffering and degradation of women whose faith teaches them that they are inferior; the bloody holy wars waged in the name of God; the violent censorship of free speech and free minds; morality based on fear and obedience rather than reason and conscience; the opposition to the advance of human rights; the opposition to science and knowledge; the propping up of kings and theocracies; and most grievous, the stifling of curiosity, teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance.
Whatever comfort religion brings, whatever solace it brings, it isn’t worth it if this is the price we must pay. There are other, better ways to find comfort, ways that have just as much potential for good without so much potential for evil. There are countless philosophies that, like religion, accentuate the positive traits of humanity, but that, unlike religion, don’t intensify the negative ones.