Religion: The poison in your ear?
On May 1st 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens released the book "God is not great: How religion poisons everything". Judging by his writings, the title was not just a sensationalist attempt at increasing sales, but the genuine sentiment of its author. Having immersed myself in the subject of religion contra reality, the influence it has, I lean towards Hitchens' side- religion appears harmful to me, doing more ill than good to society at large.
Religion is, in the world at large, probably the greatest yoke any country, civilization or ethnicity faces when trying to progress, to move forwards. It creates division, isolation between groups, inspires hate where there would be none before. Religion narrows the mind. It creates division, clouds judgment and endorses intolerance. To quote Richard Dawkins: "I oppose religion... because it teaches people to be satisfied with an incomplete explanation of how the world works."
In March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced at his visit in Africa that condoms make worse the AIDS problem. This statement highlights the magnitude of harm religion can cause. Pope Benedict XVI's words represent perfectly the destructive power irrational belief, superstition has. Simply because the Catholic Church considers semen holy, the Africans must suffer.
Or, to further my point on religiously inspired xenophobia, let us view the gaping sore that is Palestine. For generations now Jew has fought Arab and Arab has fought Jew, because both are convinced god promised them this land. At this point, Yahweh seems to have given no favour to either side- imagine how much easier the process of integration would have been if not for the mullahs and rabbis preaching their alleged absolute right to this land, as mandated by an unseen god.
The number of religiously inspired zealots who would go so far as to harm or kill you for the sake of their beliefs thankfully represents a negligible portion of the religious populations of the world. The dangers of religion are far more subtle, far more sinister. I would refer here to what may be the most immediate threat in terms of religious follies: creationism, and more specifically the attempts its adherents make to teach their unsubstantiated beliefs as scientific. Originally a phenomenon best known from the southern states of the USA, the creationist movement is active and alive, and insidiously snaking its way through Europe as well. Though they thankfully represent a vocal- if obnoxious- minority, the fact that they have any impact at all is worrying. Hiding behind the pretext of religious freedom, they wish to impose on the susceptible minds of the youth superstition as science. They reject the scientific theory of evolution, which is based on mountains of evidence, in favour of "Intelligent Design", based explicitly on the unfalsifiable idea of a creator. "Teach the controversy" is a common slogan. In my opinion, this is absurd- there is no controversy in the scientific community regarding evolution. The overwhelming majority of the scientific community adheres to the theory of evolution. The science classroom deals with science- the creationists can bring in only matters of faith. Whether god is real or not is irrelevant in such a context as that of a science classroom- only the tangible, the falsifiable is dealt with there. We did not advance to the point where we can send satellites into space by looking at the unexplained, going "god did it".
Religious people is by many said to bring comfort, that churches raise money for the poor. What of the many charities the churches boast, the money it raises for the poor? What of the sense of security it brings to those miserable and unsatisfied with their lives? Why would anybody wish them robbed of this? Commonly, the theists argue that without god, there is no greater purpose, no point to living or being alive. Further, the theistic apologists like to endorse the idea that somehow belief makes man more moral, more inclined to charity and kindness. Some even postulate that a lack of religious guidance leads to disaster- a common argument is that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the heads of atheistic regimes that their lack of belief led to the atrocities committed.
These are interesting questions, and some of them may have some merit- but at a closer glance, I would say that this amounts to an appeal to emotion rather than a question of fact.
If we first address comfort: yes, the belief in a god can cause a very real feeling of well-being, happiness, even euphoria. Believing can make you happy. So can a security blanket. The reality of the joy you might experience does not make the ideas endorsed any more or less true. In the words of Bertrand Russel, "The fact that a believer is happier than an unbeliever is no more to the point than a drunken man being happier than a sober one".
The happiness, though real, ceases to be harmless once it causes people to judge others for not adhering to ones own personal beliefs. This is where religion creates division- by claiming it has all the answer, the perfect answers, that all other answers are inferior; that all who disagree are therefore morally inferior or simply corrupt.
What about charity, then? The various churches are responsible for much good- but this is not unique to the churches at all, nor do I need to be guilted into donating money by some god. I could just as easily donate to a secular charity. The church, with the tithes it gathers from its many believers worldwide, certainly has the resources. The humanitarian effort is just that- humanitarian. All religions, all people have an urge to help; it is an instinct. No church is required.
What about the idea of life being meaningful only with the idea of a god in it? This argument falls on its own arrogance- evidently, the atheist can live an equally fulfilled, satisfied life without even a hint of belief in the juju at the mountain. This can be, and has been tested. Perhaps the religious need a god to make their lives meaningful; to claim this is universal fails on logical grounds.
What about morality? This is possibly the most self-important argument the theistic side has to offer. If morality is derived only out of fear of being denied eternal bliss, then it is not really morality to begin with. We, as human beings, do right because it is right, not because we are afraid of what will happen if we do not.
In conclusion, I would like to assert that religion, though having some fine points- it is deeply linked to all of our cultures, responsible for much charity- does more harm than it does good. It provides comfort, but it also creates division, retards scientific progress, incites xenophobia and gets privileges for superstitions it cannot prove. I do not deny people the right to believe- indeed, religion will last as long as there are humans left to believe. However, religion must be kept private. It must never be given special treatment or allowances where other interests would not, and it should never be allowed a say in politics or education.