When we last left our heroine, she was agonizing over the question of religion’s affect on people’s behavior. She had discussed the inconsistency of many atheists who believe that people’s good behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their bad behavior is — and the parallel inconsistency of many religious defenders, who believe that people’s bad behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their good behavior is.
But she had realized that she hadn’t actually tried to answer the core issue herself. When we left her, she was wrestling with the question: Which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?
Honestly, I have no idea. I have opinions about it, of course — I have opinions about almost everything that crosses my consciousness — but I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone knows. Religion is so widespread, and so integrated into most people’s lives — something like 90% of people in the world have some sort of religious belief — that trying to imagine a world without it is a pure thought-experiment, with very little data to support any hypothesis.
We have some data, of course. We have the data of the largely secular society in much of Europe, for instance, which seems to be far more peaceful than the largely and passionately religious Middle East. But even in Europe, where religion isn’t much a part of public life, personal and private religious belief is still very common — and even public life hasn’t been secular for that long. Therefore, the data doesn’t really answer the question. And while I think the question is interesting to ponder and worth debating, I don’t think we have enough data to do much more than ponder and debate.
But I do think this: There is a feature of religion that I find very troubling, and I think it does contribute to serious problems in the world. It may not be inherent to religion, but it is awfully damn common in it. It’s a tenet of most major religions, and from the studies I’ve read, most religious believers hold it to at least some extent.
It’s the idea that faith itself — believing things about the world for which you have no evidence, and in many cases things that the evidence flat-out contradicts — is not just acceptable, but a positive virtue. It’s the idea that refusing to question your beliefs, and placing your beliefs above reality, is an admirable quality. A trait to be cherished and protected. Something that in and of itself makes you a good person, regardless of the actual beliefs you have faith in.
And that, folks, I do think is destructive.
It teaches people to deny, not just scientific realities like evolution, but human realities — like sexuality, and the humanity of women, and the fact that those evil heathens who scorn your God are really just folks like you trying to get along in the world.
It teaches people that how their actions adhere to religious dogma is ethically more important than how their actions actually affect other people.
It teaches people that reality — the reality that their God supposedly created — is less interesting, and even less true, than their opinions and hunches about reality.
And when it’s taught to children, it teaches them to devalue their intellect, their ability to reason, even the evidence of their own senses and experience. It teaches them that to believe what they’re taught, simply because it is what they’re taught, makes them good people — and that curiosity and independent thought makes them bad people.
So back to the question: Do I think people would act differently if there were no such thing as religion? Better? Worse? Equal amounts of both?
And the real question behind it: Is religion, on the whole, a force for good or ill in the world?
I think the actual beliefs themselves can go either way. They can inspire people to fight social injustice or to blow up buildings; to feed the poor or to beat up queers. And I think people can certainly be inspired by things other than religion to do both great good and great evil.
And I really and truly donât have a problem with personal religious faith. We all have our hunches, about ourselves and the world, and the fact that many people base their lives on hunches they can’t prove really isn’t a problem for me. I’ve based my own life on hunches, more than once, in important and central ways.
The problem comes when people treat their faith as if it were fact. When people try to pass laws and public policy on their faith as if it were fact; when people try to force their faith on other people as if it were fact; when people teach their faith to their children as if it were fact… that, I think, is a serious and powerful force for ill in the world. (To paraphrase Bernard Mannes Baruch, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no-one has a right to their own facts.”)
Religion itself isn’t a problem. Dogmatic religion — religion that teaches that its hunches and opinions are unquestionable truth, and that the refusal to question is an admirable virtue — that is a serious problem indeed.
And unfortunately, that seems to be most of the religion in the world.