Atheism is spreading. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to force others. They have no problem with the growth of the state (or if they do they do not voice their concerns), as long as no one lets religious beliefs guide it. Is that the right way to prevent the damage caused by religion? More importantly, does it strike the root of the problem?
Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.
-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often better understood as colonial, racist and nationalist in nature. Different forms of division and oppression tend to feed off each other. Religion is one means people in power use to oppress, of course, but it is also used by those on the bottom fighting for their rights. As long as no one has a monopoly on interpretation, people can use religion for “good” as well as “evil”.
Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?
Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. Since we agree slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery in your own city?
The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.
-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5-or-so billion Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.
-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.
Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. (Indeed, Islam forbids suicide and the killing of innocents.) Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.
-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. It matters to an extent who make the laws, but most lawmakers, now and throughout history, do whatever they can to further their own interests. The more laws and police to enforce them, the more restrictions there are on you, the more easily you can go to prison, the more money it is going to cost you and the more powerful the lawmakers and the people they work for get if the masses do not rise up against them.
-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.
-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent on or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.
Anti-religious statists also display hypocrisy with relation to the esteem the religious hold for the written word. They lament and mock following religious texts while believing in constitutions and the rule of law. What is a constitution but a legal holy book? What is a holy book but an old constitution? Those who say holy books are invalid because they condone war and slavery but consider more recently made laws legitimate (perhaps because of democracy) need to consider what principle their beliefs are based on. As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?
We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.
I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, such worrying almost seems quaint. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.