As an atheist I’m surrounded by people with religious beliefs. What should be my attitude to them? Should I simply shrug my shoulders and allow them to continue in their beliefs, however illogical these may seem to me? Should I try to ‘convert’ them? Should I actively campaign for the end of religion?
To answer this question I decided to apply a test. Does religion do harm? (I don’t mean harm to those who profess it, because that is really none of my concern; I mean harm to society at large and, of course, to me.) If religion does no harm then I will ignore it. But if I decide that it does harm I must actively oppose it, or at least must campaign to change it so that it no longer does harm.
So does religion do harm?
My first question was: in what ways might religion do harm? I came up with four areas:
My thoughts on each are set out below.
Religions usually require places of worship and some kind of infrastructure to make them work. Christians have churches and then, depending on the flavour of Christianity, some kind of central body to tell the faithful what to believe. Muslims have mosques. Jews have
Even primitive tribes put aside resources for worship. And all of this needs to be paid for, not
just by the believers who make ‘donations’ but also by the tax-paying
population at large – religions usually get preferential tax treatment, so if
they pay less it means the rest of us have to pay more? Temples
If the religion didn’t exist, surely that means there would be more money available for good causes, like medical research for example?
Well, actually, I doubt it. People find myriad ways to spend their money. If it wasn’t given to the church, who is to say what else it would be spent on? Would these destinations be more useful? And who’s to say what is a useful destination anyway? If someone wills their estate to the local cat’s home, who am I to say that is right or wrong?
When I hear that some religious Americans spent $27 million on setting up a museum of creationism, where the earth was created by a deity in about 8,000 BC and all the scientific evidence to the contrary is either ignored or trashed, I may think that was an atrocious waste of money that could have been better spent; but then I ask myself: on what? It probably costs more than that each year to stage the Superbowl contest, which to my mind is an equally scandalous waste, but millions of Americans would not agree.
I think, on balance, this line of thinking cannot conclude that religion causes harm.
All religions I know about have the concept of prayer. This is where you plead with your chosen deity to take some action that you think is important; anything from ending world hunger to stopping next door’s cat from peeing in your petunias. There is, of course, no scientific evidence that prayer actually changes anything (if there were I wouldn’t be an atheist) but it is considered an important part of all the religions I know about. And how can that be harmful? Useless, maybe, but harmful?
In general I don’t think prayer is harmful. It may not even be a total waste of time - for most of us our lives are so busy that maybe setting aside some time every day for quiet contemplation isn’t such a bad thing.
What worries me is when people pray about something; and then use that as an excuse to do nothing practical about it. We can pray to end world hunger but wouldn’t it also be helpful to give some money to a hunger relief charity? Or write to a politician and ask them to diverts some of the billions spent on armaments and perhaps send a million or two to famine aid? Or start a charity?
I’m told there is a photograph taken after the Asian Tsunami in 2004 of a group of people digging frantically in the hope of recovering survivors, and one chap standing there, bible in hand, praying. Wouldn’t he have been more use helping with the digging?
But in reality, as far as I can tell this is rare. Most religious people I know have a very strong social conscience and take practical actions as well as offering prayers. There may be a few for whom praying salves their conscience about doing nothing, but I think they are a small minority.
I think, on balance, this line of thinking too cannot conclude that religion causes harm.
It is often alleged that religion promotes bigotry and hatred. TV clips of Muslims screaming “Death to
the 9/11 attacks, Christians saying that homosexuals should be slaughtered,
they all support this view. It is, I
think by definition, the case that if my religion tells me X and you say Y then
you are automatically in the wrong (because my religion was defined by my God
and my God is always right.) America
But then these things are, in the global scheme of things, rare. We call the people who advocate these violent solutions “fanatics”, which the Wikipedia defines as people with “a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal or with an obsessive enthusiasm for a pastime or hobby.” The vast majority of Muslims are not suicide bombers and Islam does not say they should be (unless you wilfully misinterpret the Quran). Most Christians do not want to burn homosexuals and many openly support gay rights and same-sex marriage. Most Jews would be quite happy to live peacefully alongside their Palestinian neighbours (and vice versa). The Catholic Church no longer burns heretics. And yet, within every religion there seem to be a few who take things to extremes.
But then, outside religion the same is true. The majority of politics, for example, is relatively centred between left and right. Some emphasis on personal freedom and financial stringency (right) but also social welfare and inclusiveness (left). And yet we do get extremists. Margaret Thatcher pushed monetarism probably further than the
people were willing to go. Harold Wilson’s preceding government did the
same with socialism. Most people won’t
support the far-right British National Party., but they still exist and do get
votes. Does this mean the whole of
politics is bad? UK
There are fanatics in everything. Most people who choose to do so collect stamps as a rewarding and fulfilling hobby; just a few allow it to take over their lives. The worst you can say for fanatics is that they are on the edge of the spectrum of what we can call human.
So does the presence of a few fanatics mean that we should ban all religions? I’m sure you can guess my answer. We need to keep pressure on the world’s religious leaders to keep their fanatics under control, but I think, on balance, this line of thinking really cannot conclude that religion causes harm.
What happens when the majority in a particular country or jurisdiction are of the same religion? Democracy says the majority should get its way, so does that mean the laws of that jurisdiction can be aligned with the rules of the religion?
This is interesting. If the majority are Baptists, and Baptists are anti-alcohol, then should alcohol be illegal in that state? What about the rights of the non-Baptists, who want to quietly enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner? If the majority are Jews must everything close on Saturday? If the majority are Muslims and everyone who is not a Muslim is automatically an unbeliever then what should the state do with these unbelievers?
The issue here strikes at the heart of Democracy. In the
, the Murder
(Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty and in 1969 it
was formally abolished. The UK parliament
held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death
penalty and this motion was always defeated.
And yet polling consistently showed that a majority of British people
were, and probably still are, in favour of the restoration of the death
penalty. Even in a democracy, the
majority does not always get its way. UK
Most enlightened democracies these days separate church and state. They do not have an official religion. All the religions in the state, together with all of those who follow no religion, have an equal voice in proposing laws. So if Christians oppose same-sex marriage and want to ban it in their churches that’s up to them, but secular same-sex marriages should go ahead. If Jews want to abstain from eating pork then that’s for them to decide but that doesn’t mean that pork and pig products will be unavailable to those for whom life would not be complete without the occasional bacon sandwich.
States where there is an established religion and where the demands of that religion are allowed to dominate politics are a problem. But they are becoming fewer and more marginalised. And UN Treaties are increasingly making inroads into them.
So does the presence in the world of a few states that still think with their prayer books instead of their heads mean we should say religion does harm? I think on balance this line of thinking really cannot conclude that religion causes harm.
So the conclusion is …
Having considered it carefully, I have concluded that religion, in general, does no harm, and that therefore my attitude to it should be ‘live and let live’.
I am irked by the fact that
St. Helena’s Constitution
describes it as a “Christian Country”, but I have no immediate plans to
campaign for change. It annoys me that denies its
population basic human rights, but I’m sure that is more to do with the people
who hold power than their professed religion (if they followed the Quran they
would give their people human rights). I
wish Iran Israel would stop
trying to exterminate the Palestinians but I blame that on a stupid decision by
the United Nations in 1947 (to create ) rather than on the Jewish religion. And I’d like to see an end to people blowing
themselves (and, of course, others) to pieces in order to get to sleep with 75
but I blame the fanatics who have perverted the religion rather than the
religion itself. I object to subsidising
the Anglican Church here through its many tax breaks (it pays less so the rest
of us must pay more) but there is an awful lot of tax policy I don’t agree with
and this is a drop in the ocean. Israel
So don’t expect me to start campaigning for the end of religion. I think people can lead better lives by abandoning religion; but then I also prefer cats to dogs but I have no plans to ban dogs or dissuade dog lovers from keeping them. If anyone asks me what I believe (don’t believe) and why I will happily tell them, but not otherwise.
Live and let live.
 Andrew found the photo on the Internet for a school research project but can’t now remember where – if you know the photo and can direct me to it, or send me a copy, I’d be very grateful.
 I don’t see the point. 75 virgins would, at best, last you 75 nights – about 2.5 months. What happens then? Do you end up with 75 wives? And this is heaven?