Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Does Religion Make People Bad?

The latest wave of atheism – New Atheism – has come together as a functional unit within the last few years to actively promote reason and science (but mostly science because there must be evidence for scientific beliefs) over superstition. New Atheists seek to eradicate religion based on the assertion that people who hold religious beliefs are essentially harmful to society, if not themselves. Ask any militant atheist why they would like to see religion abolished and you’re likely to get an answer to the effect, “Just look at all the wars that religion has started!” or “Religion is just a means by which people control one another.” To these charges I say first of all, the evidence is not there that most wars are religious in nature. That is a positively false assertion. Second, religion is no more a means to control people than most forms of government. There is also the unwritten social contract; is that not a mean by which to control people? Just because one doesn’t like the form of control in their given culture (Christianity in the U.S. for example) doesn’t lend any weight to assertions about religion being used to control people. Take away religion and people will surely think of other ways to control each other. That much is obvious.

You may also hear words such as these from Portland State University’s Dr. Peter Boghossian on why religion is bad, “Faith is pretending to know something you don’t know,” meaning, there is no evidence for religious beliefs and we shouldn’t hold any belief without evidence. I’d surely agree with Dr. Boghossian except that people – including Dr. Boghossian – hold beliefs without evidence all the time; this is another assertion that isn’t exclusive to religious beliefs. At any rate, Dr. Boghossian believes being religious means you cannot reason correctly and if one cannot reason correctly, one is likely to visit their irrationality on the rest of society. Essential, he is saying that religious beliefs make for bad people. 

Is that true, does holding religious beliefs make people behave in a way that is harmful to society? It may be true that countries that are less religious appear to score higher on surveys about happiness, but is this actually due to the fact that such countries are less religious or are there other factors at work? The U.S., for example, is often cited as the most religious industrialized country and scores somewhere in the middle of countries surveyed on happiness levels. However, there is great economic disparity in the U.S. as well as political divisions and racial tensions, to name several factors that may be contributing to the country’s mediocre happiness level. Thus, one cannot simply state that the U.S. is an unhappy country because most of its citizens are religious; that’s absurd. Of course, New Atheists will be quick to say religious beliefs are the primary contributor to political divisions and racial tension in the U.S. (even though religion would once again not be the sole contributing factor and cannot be shown to be the primary cause). Even if such a defense were true, religion doesn’t explain the U.S.’s incredible economic disparity.

Moreover, it would be reasonable to assume that if everyone in any given culture or country believed and followed the tenets of one single religion where that religion dominated the culture or country both socially and economically, the culture or country would score reasonably high when their happiness level was surveyed. (Granted, it is possible some people may answer they are happy when they are not out of fear, but we cannot possibly know they are lying without brain scanning/imaging.) The people insisting that religion is harmful to society are the people who do not want to be subjected to or live by the tenets of religions because said religious beliefs conflict with the way they want to behave. The struggle for New Atheists is to gain individual freedom by abolishing the beliefs that stand in their way. (Theists do have a point when charging atheists with wanting to behave in whatever manner pleases them, but we must note that such a charge is not a defense since theists likewise want to behave in a way that suits themselves.) I do believe New Atheists are correct to raise such an issue when states like Texas are explicit in their charters that atheists are not allowed to hold office. However, is religion really to blame for Texas’ law or do Texans simply fear people too much unlike themselves? Fearing people outside our circle, group, clan, etc. is again something that is not particular to religious belief. Non-U.S. citizens cannot hold the U.S. presidency; that’s not a matter of religious belief. 

I can see how people with religious beliefs can come off as bad people based upon observing them bluntly insist that their religion is the one true religion and if you don’t believe it you’re going to Hell. (That or they insist you must believe because they believe it.) Once again, again, shouting at people that the belief you hold is the one true belief is not particular to religion; conspiracy theorists come to mind. Religious people can also seem particularly horrible if you grew up with them and your individual freedoms were infringed for a good part of your life. We get it; you’re bitter. Fair enough. But I must insist that religion is not what made such parents or siblings control another family member. If I may cite my own childhood experience, my father certainly tried to control me but he never used religion to do it. It’s not religion at work. Religion is not what makes people want to control each other or what makes them irrational. The desire for control, whether over the world or over other people, and the ability to be irrational is as old as the human race. Our species pre-dates religion. There is no “chicken or the egg” riddle here. People have to already be irrational on some level prior to accepting religion.

If New Atheists want to be respected on the basis of having evidence for their beliefs, they should try actually analyzing their evidence, asking questions that do not simply confirm their bias, and give up their beliefs where the evidence is lacking. Religion is obviously not what makes people bad; if you took away religion people would still treat each other with contempt, if not something worse. A recent article in Time magazine (Dec 2013) highlights something of a gender war in the happy, non-religious country of Sweden, where gender pronouns are being done away with while male-bashing is becoming a cultural norm. Is it too early to tell if this is good or bad for society? The point is, in this instance, religion isn’t responsible for the suppression of a group of people. 
I don’t like being the bearer of bad news for New Atheists, not since their primal instincts will drive them to insist I am wrong and drive me out of town for not believing what they believe. They can believe it all they want, but being free of religious beliefs doesn’t make someone any better for society than anyone else.  All evidence suggests that multiple factors are responsible for whether a person behaves beneficially for society or not. Leave it to so-called “smart people” to oversimplify the issue.

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