Is everything about religion bad?

Someone wrote recently to ask “Is everything about religion bad?” My reply was that religion can be used to channel the good or the bad in some people. But it has the additional downside of channeling some good people toward bad. So, I would rather advocate promoting good using reason than using religion which comes at a heavy cost.

His reply was not an uncommon one, basically that when good comes out of religious work we should credit religion, but when bad comes out of religious work, we should not credit religion. This boils down to “When people do what I would do in the name of religion, they’re interpreting it correctly; when they don’t do what I would do in the name of religion, they are clearly interpreting something wrong.” Bear in mind the people “incorrectly interpreting” it say the person making this accusation is the person incorrectly interpreting it.

In this particular case, the writer noted that religion is subject to interpretation, is produced by flawed ancient men, and that it should both (1) be given to uneducated people to give them hope, but (2) not be expected to be understood accurately by uneducated people who sometimes are inspired by it to do what it actually says (that is kill gays, instruct people not to wear condoms, thwart education, be misogynistic, and so on).

I pointed out that I had no way to determine who, if anyone, was able to correctly “interpret” a Bible. We can’t all be right—but we can all be wrong. He replied: “I don’t care if it’s wrong” (only whether or not it inspires good).

Think of that: I take a religious book that says that it’s good to love others and also that it’s good to kill others. I don’t know if anything in the book is true, and more to the point, I don’t care if it’s true. But I advocate giving that religion to people for the good it does. When some people say they love others because of the religion, I praise the religion, for the love it inspires. But when people say they’re killing others because of the religion, I say it’s not the religion’s fault, because clearly this group doesn’t know how to interpret the holy book that says to both love and kill one another. Further, by filtering reality this way, I can keep handing this religion to everyone, and claiming it only does good.

In other words: I don’t care if we submit a lie to people. I don’t care if that lie goes to many people who I already know will have trouble understanding it’s a lie—and who will most likely believe it—in all its authoritative and brutal entirety. And when these people hear religion’s instructions to hate and kill, and actually do hate and kill, I don’t have to think for a moment it’s due to this lie, or to me advocating and spreading it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose?

On the heels of this letter was another from a young atheist who described his religious parents as doing what they think is right, and then interpreting their religion in such a way as to make sure god agrees with what they’re doing. In fact, we have all seen this quite often. And my original correspondent actually is a prime example of this. He indicated that where the Bible says it’s OK to hate and pillage, people ought to understand it was ignorant people producing these texts and not believe these things are “good” ideas. In other words, do what you reason is right—and then make the Bible agree with whatever you’d like it to say.

This is surely one common style of Christian. But I can’t simply ignore that there are others.

Surely we have examples throughout history and even today of people who use religion to justify their hate and aggression. I agree it’s possible these sorts would be horrible people even without religion. They’d certainly have opportunities to find political ideologies or social hate groups to glom onto. No doubt all the bad in the world cannot be attributed to religion, I will agree.

But there is a third category of Christian that this defender is not considering, and won’t consider, in fact. This Christian is the main problem, the collateral damage. This is the sincere person, wanting to do good, who believes these texts in full. This would be the Christian who says that, “I wouldn’t normally call my gay son an abomination, or shun my mother for divorcing my dad, or vote down someone else’s civil rights, but god says to do it, and as a mere mortal the Bible says I cannot question the all-knowing, all-mighty god who is the author of morality and this book (and must have a greater good in mind when he tells me to do these things that are counter to my personal moral sense).”

These are not extremists. In fact, this represents a great many indoctrinated people. People who have been raised to disregard and doubt their own judgment and simply obey—because that is “good.”

On our show, we have demonstrated that there are “good Christians” who will agree to torture their own children without requiring an explanation, if god asks them to do so. They’re not always comfortable admitting this, but they will confess it once you get past the “god would never ask this,” defense. Not surprisingly, the AETV e-list has been able in correspondence to get people, who write to inform us that religion is actually a net good, to say this exact thing as well. Consider what it would take for a parent to willingly torture their own child. And yet, with no explanation, and on god’s word alone, those who would harm their own children for god are writing to explain we’re missing the “good” part of religion’s impact on people. These two ideas exist, somehow at peace, within the same mind.

My point to this writer was that if “good” comes out of religion only when good people filter out the horror it suggests they do, why promote the full lie? Why keep using the Bible if you’re going to only adhere to the parts that suggest what you already were going to do anyway? How is that not simply doing whatever you, personally, think is right? Why not admit you’re using your own human morality, that you, clearly by your actions, demonstrate you deem superior to the morality espoused in this “holy” religion?

And if we agree that a literal reading is a major headache for humanity, and we agree that the many parts that instruct evil are inherently flawed and should be rejected, and if the only parts we’re going to use are the parts we can justify by using our own reasoning capacity—why not just stick to the reasoning capacity we’re relying upon, and stop imposing this textual source of confusion (you demonstrate people don’t need) upon human beings who are all but bound to read it as literal and holy truth in a great many areas of the globe, and who are, in their minds, commanded by god to act upon it in every regard?

If we can inspire good without the superstitious and demonstrably dangerous ambiguity, what is the reason for maintaining that mode?

I guess the irony to me is that I was asked if everything about religion was bad. I answered “no,” that it’s good mixed with bad. That clearly wasn’t good enough. The right answer could only be that religion is all good and there is nothing bad about it. And this person accused me of simplifying this issue.