(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
One major problem with religion is that it tends to dull the moral sensibilities of otherwise decent people, causing them to justify acts by ‘their’ people that they would unhesitatingly condemn if done by anyone else. The process starts in childhood. Take for example the study of Israeli children done by George Tamarin. When told the Biblical story of how Joshua and the Israelites ruthlessly massacred every living thing (men, women, young, old, animals) in a battle against their enemies, the children justified this atrocity using appallingly racist reasoning. When the same story was modified to make the perpetrator of the outrages be an obscure ancient Chinese warlord, the children responded the way that one would hope they would do, saying that the massacre was wrong.
As Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p. 255) says:
[W]hen their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.
Another example can be seen in the PBS Frontline documentary on the Mormons, available online. Episode #9 deals with the 1857 massacre by Mormons of 120 men, women and children from Arkansas who were passing through Mormon territory in southern Utah, at a place called Mountain Meadows, on their way to California.
Judith Freeman (who is a descendent of the Mormons) says that she is sympathetic to the 75 Mormon men who committed the massacre. “I think I became more sympathetic to their plight because of this idea, this Mormon principle of perfect obedience. These men were ordered to appear at Mountain Meadows, so in a way they were victims of their own devotion and obedience.”
This highlights perfectly the danger of religion. It causes people to sympathize with and even excuse appalling actions simply because the people who committ them sincerely believe they are doing god’s work. The idea that one should view the perpetrators of atrocities as somehow victims of their own upbringing and conditioning is not, in principle, an unreasonable proposition. The problem is that people tend to extend this charitable view only to people who share their own faith, and refuse to consider this for actions done by others against them, thus leading to an endless downward spiral of self-righteous justifications of actions done by one’s own tribe and condemnations of the actions of the perceived enemy, even though both actions are objectively the same.
As Richard Dawkins says:
Religion changes, for people, the definition of good. Atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad deeds in terms of the welfare and suffering of others. Murder, torture, and cruelty are bad because they cause people to suffer. Most religious people think them bad, too, but some religions (for example the religion of the Taliban) sanction all of them under some circumstances. For non-religious people, the behavior of consenting adults in a private bedroom is the business of nobody else, and is not bad unless it causes suffering – for example by breaking up a happy family. But many religions arrogate to themselves the right to decide that certain kinds of sexual behavior, even if they do no harm to anyone, are wrong.
The actions of the Taliban, their vile bullying of women, their sanctimonious hatred of all that might lead to enjoyment, their violence, their ignorant bigotry, their hatred of education, their cruelty, seem to me to be as close to pure evil as anything I can imagine. Yet, by the lights of their own religion they are supremely righteous – really good people.
. . .
It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds. There is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds.
While Dawkins gives the example of Islam and the Taliban, the same kinds of examples can be multiplied many times over for any of the other religions. The problem is not any particular religion, or version of religion, it is belief in god that is the problem. The danger is, as Freeman says, “If you can get people to believe they are doing god’s will, you can get them to do anything.”
The sad truth that emerges from the rise of religious extremism is that once you have got people to accept the existence of god, it seems all too easy to convince them that they should do evil actions as part of god’s mandate. Or as Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
I think it is time for the so-called ‘moderate’ religious people to abandon their belief in god and join the atheists. That would be the best way to combat the negative effects of religion.
POST SCRIPT: Pat Condell on the curse of faith
He talks about the evil of indoctrinating children in religious faith when they are too young to realize what is going on.