(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
The most basic problem with almost any religion is the fact that they raise ‘faith’, which is the irrational acceptance of things in the absence of, or even counter to, credible evidence and reason, to the level of a virtue. This is simply asking for trouble. Once you have said that you believe something just because some book says so or some inner voice tells you to do so, you have lost all standing to condemn others whose own inner voices (or the voices of their priests, rabbis, or imams) tell them to do unspeakable acts in the name of obeying god’s will.
As Daniel Dennett says:
If religion isn’t the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress, what is? Perhaps alcohol, or television, or addictive video games. But although each of these scourges – mixed blessings, in fact – has the power to overwhelm our best judgment and cloud our critical faculties, religion has a feature of that none of them can boast: it doesn’t just disable, it honours the disability. People are revered for their capacity to live in a dream world, to shield their minds from factual knowledge and make the major decisions of their lives by consulting voices in their heads that they call forth by rituals designed to intoxicate them.
. . .
Not just rationality and scientific progress, but just about everything else we hold dear could be laid waste by a single massively deluded “sacramental” act. True, you don’t have to be religious to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are religious, you don’t have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things. And – this is the worst of it – religious faith can give people a sort of hyperbolic confidence, an utter unconcern about whether they might be making a mistake, that enables acts of inhumanity that would otherwise be unthinkable.
This imperviousness to reason is, I think, the property that we should most fear in religion. Other institutions or traditions may encourage a certain amount of irrationality – think of the wild abandon that is often appreciated in sports or art – but only religion demands it as a sacred duty.
In his Letter to A Christian Nation (p. 66-68) Sam Harris says:
The conflict between science and religion is reducible to simple fact of human cognition and discourse; either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.
While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still has immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.
As a footnote, Poseidon-worshippers (yes, they exist!) were incensed at Harris’s apparent slight towards them. Harris adds that “Truth be told, I now receive e-mails of protest from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods from Greek mythology are real.” Poseidon worshippers have a point. Why should their belief be accorded any less respect than belief in Jesus or Yahweh or Allah, just because their numbers are smaller? Once you have opened the gates of such irrationality, all bets are off.
The idea that religions are fundamentally good and that those who do evil in its name are misguided and have misinterpreted their respective religious texts simply cannot be sustained. The new atheists might concede that while certain versions of religion might inspire people to do good things, the overall influence of religion is so bad that it is not worth salvaging.
Even ‘good’ religion is bad in that it allows the enabling of bad religion. Once you have allowed irrationality to go unchallenged, you have lost the main argument against fanatics who think that murdering and otherwise acting against commonly accepted human values is doing the work of their god. In many ways, those whom we label as ‘religious fanatics’ are those who have taken their religious texts and doctrines seriously, at their face value, and have obediently sought to follow them.
For example, people whose children die because they prayed for them instead of taking them to the doctor are those who took seriously their religion’s claim that if they had faith, god would heal them. After all, it was Jesus who gave this promise (Mark 16:17-18):
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Most mainstream religious people cynically hedge their bets by seeking medical treatment when they fall ill, in addition to praying. But according to Jesus, it is those whom we would consider to be religious fanatics, the exorcists, the hallucinators, the snake handlers, the poison drinkers, and the faith healers who should be considered truly religious.
It is precisely because religious people bring up children to believe unquestioningly in absurd religious dogmas that some of those children grow up taking such things more seriously than their parents might like. It is then disingenuous to argue that they have gone too far. The people who do evil things in the name of religion are presumably convinced that they are doing god’s work. Bin Laden holds himself up as a true Muslim, upholding his religion’s highest traditions. John Hagee and Pat Robertson are similarly convinced that they are the true Christians. And one can find similar examples in other religions.
The best way to counter them is to argue that there is no god and that their holy books are merely the work of human minds that carry no more intrinsic authority than today’s newspaper. At least that is a position that can be backed up overwhelmingly by evidence, science, and reason.
To argue instead, as ‘good’ religionists try to do, that your idea of god is better than their idea of god is a proposition that is purely religious-text based and can be easily countered by pointing to different sections of the same religious texts. As such, it can never be conclusive and can be easily dismissed by those whom we usually label as ‘fanatics’ but are better described as ‘true believers’.
Next: How ‘good religion’ corrupts people.
POST SCRIPT: Those weird Arabs
As Matthew Yglesias points out:
It’s really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it’s not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don’t like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.
It takes the Onion to really parody this way of thinking.