While religion as a whole is a negative influence on society, at any given time or location one religion may be worse than the others. There seems to be a general rule that enables one to predict when a religion becomes particularly bad: as soon as that religion becomes the majority in a community and achieves a semblance of state power, it becomes a menace.
For example, while Buddhism is, at least in principle, one of the more benign religions, in Sri Lanka where it is the majority religion, it is responsible for immense evil with some if its monks and religious leaders the instigators of discord and bigotry and violence against other ethnic and religious groups. While in the west Hindus are seen as harmless mantra-chanting, vegetarian, yoga practitioners, they have been responsible for extreme intolerance and violence against non-Hindus in India. We also see this happening in Israel as its Jewish extremists gain increasing influence and state power and the country heads towards becoming a theocracy, imposing Jewish rules on everyone else.
On a global scale, Islam has a excellent shot at claiming the title for the worst religion at the present time. The practice of Islam has degenerated considerably from the times in the middle ages when its tolerant attitudes and scientific achievements made Christianity seem so primitive. Its terrible oppression of women, its intolerance of nonbelievers and believers of other religions, its anti-science attitudes, its ghastly religion-based legal system known as Sharia, and its violent over-reaction to perceived slights against its god and prophet take it beyond the pale of modern sensibilities. The fact that it is the majority religion in so many countries multiplies its negative effects.
Most secularists appreciate the fact that the current strong antipathy towards Islam is conditional, caused by what some of its practitioners are doing right now. But while people like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens provided valuable service to the atheist cause, their intense dislike of Islam seems to have led them to take positions that go well beyond such a position and end up in places that are terrible, where they support abominable policies against entire countries and groups of people. Like many Americans, they seem to view the deaths of Americans as much more significant than the deaths of other people, and elevate the events of September 11, 2001 to one of the most monstrous in history, given far greater weightage than other global crimes.
This has taken them in directions that are undesirable. For example, Hitchens vigorously supported the war on Iraq and the bombing of Afghanistan. He often sounded like a crazed warmonger, going out of his way to disparage those who opposed it. While Harris was not so gung-ho about the war, he was not an outspoken opponent either. He was more ambivalent. But Harris also seems to support torture in limited circumstances. He uses the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario to justify his position and argues that those who oppose torture are inconsistent in their arguments.
He recently had a post advocating the profiling of Muslims at airports. This drew considerable criticism and in a response he even resorts to the tired accusation of ‘political correctness’ against those who object to such profiling.
But the outcry was so great that he allowed security expert Bruce Schneier to guest post on why profiling is a bad idea. I think Schneier does an excellent job and I strongly recommend reading his post, particularly the links he gives to his other essays on the topic. After giving his four reasons to oppose profiling, he concludes:
I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA manhandles four-year old girls, children with cerebral palsy, pretty women, the elderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.
The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Even more strongly, security isn’t our society’s only value. Do we really want the full power of government to act out our stereotypes and prejudices? Have we Americans ever done something like this and not been ashamed later? This is what we have a Constitution for: to help us live up to our values and not down to our fears.
There is nothing inconsistent about thinking that Islam is, at this moment in time, the most pernicious religious belief that requires vigorous efforts to combat it while opposing the singling out and harassment of people who are Muslims or who, according to some stereotype, look like they may be Muslims.