Introduction

 One caricature of the current debate between theists and atheists is as follows:

Atheist: “Religion is bad: look at the inquisition, the crusades, 9/11.”

Theist: “But religion also does a lot of good; don’t forget that. And most religious people don’t go off on crusades. Also atheism causes a lot more harm; look at Stalin, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Pol Pot. The harm caused by religious people isn’t caused by religion itself but by base human nature.”

I want to address these arguments and their validity. I do so because I think the majority of religious people accept the above theist stance as valid, and that it is a major factor keeping some people in their current religion; as a religious friend of mine once said “If I’m right then I’ve lived a good happy life, and if I’m wrong, no harm done.” I want to examine if this is true.

The atheist argument is too simplistic

The atheist argument is of course overly simplistic, as caricatured above. Extreme religious acts are evidence merely that some religious people cause harm. It isn’t strong evidence of causation between religion and harm, nor of the extent of that causation. It does however serve to show the extreme harm that can ensue from fundamentalist religious belief, which is important once the argument about causation is won. Causation is what atheists need to concentrate on. I think the reason that religion causes harm is through faith, and dogmatism.  What faith does is to encourage belief without evidence. What dogmatism does is to discourage critical questioning. I think the real battleground should be about these two issues: first, is faith a good thing, which we wish to encourage in people, or is it too risky, and hence to be discouraged? Second, is dogmatism good?

Is Dogmatism good?

Why do people favour dogmatism and reject questioning? The simple answer is fear. Many have been told not to question by some authority or holy book. Many religions openly discourage it by saying that doubt is the work of the devil, or that it will lead you astray, or that it will lead to hell. Some have come to believe that it is impossible to lead a moral life except through faith in their particular religion, and they fear where doubt will lead them. Many fear the potential upheaval of changing their belief system, which may follow from questioning. Many people, of course, simply fail to actively question things they are told if they seem superficially correct; they are dogmatic by default.

But questioning has such great virtues. Any scientist or academic will tell you that questioning is the only method that leads to a convincing understanding of the universe. How do we know that an idea is right? Because it survives continuous, rigorous scrutiny. Furthermore, in a world without questioning there are no checks and balances on what can happen or be believed. Freedom to question, to criticise, to subject something to scrutiny are essential parts of free open societies. If religion cannot survive rigorous scrutiny, it should be rejected. So the first thing that people should realize about belief is that it places on people the demand that they think for themselves and inquire deeply and continuously. This is hard work, but if you want to find truth and virtue in life, you can’t afford to be lazy. “Take nobody’s word for it”, the motto of the Royal Society, taken within reason, is a good framework for finding truth.

Is faith good?

From this we come to faith. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, evidence. This is obviously not the way to find truth. If you believe something without evidence, then you have no rational basis for defending the truth of that something. Ask yourself “How do I know?” If you can’t present a logical statement beginning with supported basic premises that then lead you logically to the truth of your belief, then logically you have to give it up. Without evidence, faith by definition cannot do this. Faith in short cannot be part of rational dialogue. Not only will faith not give you the truth, except by chance, it will probably lead to harm on the same grounds as dogmatism; it is not open to change based on rational argument. Let me use an innocent example of harm caused by faith that is not extreme. Roman Catholics believe that humans have souls that begin at conception and persist after death. There is no evidence for this, but souls are a necessary precondition for the Christian belief in salvation and the afterlife. The belief in souls that begin at conception seems totally innocent; it seems to have no moral consequences. Except that it does. Today we have the problem of a massive growing and ageing human population and many prevalent diseases of adulthood. These problems may be alleviated in part by contraception and embryonic stem cell research. Now the previously innocent belief in souls causes major problems. Catholics are obliged ethically by their beliefs to look after the souls of unborn children, despite the fact that there is no evidence for their existence, and that the small balls of cells involved do not even have a nervous system and cannot suffer. They persist in blocking stem cell research, and discouraging contraception, causing immense unnecessary suffering to millions, whilst saving only hypothetical unborn souls. And you cannot argue a Catholic out of this belief because it is not based on rationality. The Catholic church will carry on causing such suffering until it gives up faith. Faith, and nothing else causes this; this is not harm caused by base human nature, because the people involved are actually trying to do good. They simply get their beliefs using the wrong technique.

Can faith ever, in of itself, be a good thing? I think many otherwise rational people accept the notion of faith far too readily. They are used to it because it’s everywhere, it’s accepted as the done thing, and they’ve lived with it for so long. When they grow up, children are too often simply not exposed to the possibility of non-faith-based life stances such as Humanism. They instead think they have to choose between, say Christianity or Buddhism or Islam. Nobody tells them how to live any other way. Most religions actively encourage faith as the only way to salvation. But many people will also tacitly accept faith as long as it is faith in something good. Here we have the crux of the matter for me. Once you know it’s doing good, your decision is no longer blind; you are being influenced by the knowledge of what goodness is like. And if it’s goodness you want, you don’t have to accept theistic claims in order to have that.

Is the atheist argument correct?

So, what I’ve tried to show here is why I think religion is bad; faith is bad because there are other reliable ways to truth and truth matters; dogma is bad because questioning is essential for free open societies, and to establish truth, and truth matters. Faith and dogma are parts of most religions (I’d only make an exception for Unitarianism, and then only for some non-theistic Unitarians). Unwavering, literal faith and dogma are what characterize religious fundamentalism, hence the inquisition, the crusades, 9/11, which is where we started.

Does religion do a lot of good?

So now onto why I think the theistic response is incorrect. Let’s start with “Religion also does a lot of good”. I’m not willing to accept this statement yet. I am willing to accept that religious institutes explicitly encourage many clearly moral activities. So why am I unwilling to accept that religion does a lot of good? Simply because of an inadequate control. We do not know what those religious people would be doing if they were not religious. The people concerned themselves do not know, because most of them are unable to conceive of what Humanist life is like; most of them don’t know anything about it. Perhaps they would be contributing to charitable work, or other good causes, anyway. Secular charities also encourage moral ethical behaviour. So do Humanist books and parents. In the UK, voluntary contributions to community work and charitable giving are just as high amongst the non-religious as amongst the religious. Evidence from very young children, brain studies, and studies of other primate species suggest that virtue, and moral activity is an evolved condition in humans; the golden rule is ingrained in the head of almost every human. You don’t need Jesus, or Mohammed, to live a moral ethical life. If you compare the level of religiosity with measures of moral societal health across countries, you come to the conclusion that low levels of religiosity are nothing to be afraid of; the least religious countries for example have the lowest crime rates.  Over people, more young people in the UK are non-religious but there has been no decline in their ethical behaviour.

I’m all in favour of encouraging moral action, and if the theistic religions were to fade away, as they are doing in Europe, then I would welcome a non-theistic replacement of church communities, with a Q & A after every sermon; in fact I think that this is something Humanists need to work harder at, perhaps when they find adequate funds and a sufficiently large base of support. What I find problematic about the “good” that is encouraged by the mainstream religions, is that it seems to be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. For most religious people, good and bad are what their God, or holy book, says is good or bad. Christians are encouraged to do good for their own future salvation under divine instruction. If you are a Humanist, however, you do good for its own sake. There may be Christians who feel they do good for its own sake. Fine; you should feel that because you are human too, and I think that’s basic human nature. Give up the Christian dogma, because if you can do good for its own sake, you don’t need it. Welcome to Humanism.

Most religious people are not bad

Are most religious people bad? Not intentionally, no. Most people are keen about their religion because of their enthusiasm to do good, and that enthusiasm should be a good thing. But all religious people are keen on faith. That means that they fail to acknowledge, and warn against, the risks attached to it. I am quite serious when I say that faith should come with some serious health warnings attached to it, but not one health warning is ever made about faith by the religious. Instead they warn against “religious extremism” or “fundamentalism”, but fail to warn against the necessary preconditions; faith and dogmatism, which they themselves encourage. As I illustrated above, the most innocent leaps of faith can cause extreme human suffering, and you simply cannot predict what will do this in advance. If you are to avoid any future harmful consequences of faith, you need a faith that is critical of itself and open to change through rational argument. And I don’t just mean the little niggly bits like whether women can become bishops. I mean the central tenets; when did you last hear a vicar publically ask the question of whether Jesus actually existed, and not come to the firm conclusion that he did? Of course vicars can’t express doubt about this; they would be branded as atheists.

I think that faith is especially dangerous because of the diverse market place of beliefs that people can now choose from, and which they are encouraged on every side to choose from. It’s like going shopping; shall I choose this religion, or that religion, add a bit of superstition here, supernaturalism there? People could be forgiven for thinking that this is a licence to believe whatever you like about the way the universe is, irrespective of the evidence.  These kinds of notion are extremely dangerous in modern society; you really don’t have to look far to find an influential figure who consults an astrologer, or an evangelist, or a holy book written in the bronze or iron age, before making a decision that has consequences for millions. What is more, such people will have millions of willing followers, and to be frank, this frightens me. It frightens me that my own former prime minister, Tony Blair, was secretly a faith-head who prayed before decisive events; and it frightens me that my present prime minister, David Cameron, wants to “do God”.  And if you are religious, then you contribute to this situation.

Furthermore, most religious people are very keen to convert other people. The Anglican church, one of the mildest forms of Christianity, is perfectly happy to proselytize as widely as it can; including amongst very young children. It is happy to convert adults using the Alpha course, a course that is parsimonious with the truth to say the least, whilst masquerading as education. It treads a very thin line indeed with these approaches, and one does wonder what it would do if unconstrained by the law and public opinion. Religious people do not show an adequate responsibility to the truth. This upsets me because the truth is such a beautiful thing; what a privilege it is to know what science has revealed, and to be aware of what mysteries still remain. Theists are by definition irresponsible about what we do not know.

Atheism causes a lot of harm too.

Atheists are not arguing that an atheist world would be free of immorality. They are arguing that a world free from faith and dogma would be free from the harm caused by faith and dogma, hence better in that way. Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Stalin, strong candidates for the most wicked men of the 20th century, support this notion. Although Hitler was a Catholic, the others were indeed atheists, but they were certainly also dogmatic, and their dogmatic political ideologies, imitating to perfection theocracies, were what caused the harm they inflicted. In rejecting dogma, the new atheist movement also defends itself against the scaremongering accusation by the religious that an atheist world will be full of evil. Indeed all the evidence is to the contrary, as mentioned above. You could even argue that the twentieth century would have had one less terrible dictator without religion.

The harm done by religious people isn’t caused by religion but by human nature.

 I would of course agree that people are inherently capable of both moral and immoral actions. To that extent any immoral act is caused by base human nature, and that statement is at best just a tautology. But, as explained above, there are plenty of religious people who, because of a faith position, end up doing harm when they only want to do good. This is clearly not harm caused by base human nature. It is harm caused by good human nature accompanied by faith.

If religions are so keen to show that immorality is not their fault, then why are their holy books so full of immoral instructions? You do not have to go far in the Bible, or the Koran, before you find incitement to genocide, death by stoning, beating, slavery, rape, homophobia….. Most Christians manage to cast aside these instructions, true, or are entirely ignorant of them. But if they are not correct or desirable, why are they still there? Whilst they remain there, and are given holy status, the door is open to evil committed as a direct consequence of that religion. When you give a Bible to a child, you are giving them a set of these horrendous instructions. Why does this not come with a health warning? Can you imagine any other book with such terrible instructions being an acceptable gift for a child?

Is the theistic argument correct?

No. Religion may do good, but it may not do any more good than non-theistic alternatives. Most religious people inadvertently do harm, because faith and dogma will be harmful, sooner or later. The atheist-dictator argument is a straw man. Religion does cause harm by legitimizing base human nature, and by encouraging good people to act in irrational ways.

Conclusion

If you are religious, you must seriously consider the potential harm caused by your faith and your dogma. If you think your faith is a cause for good, then think again. If you think “no harm done”, then think again. If we can keep all the good things about religion (encouraging morality, creating strong communities, celebrating the best of life) without the harmful things, then everyone can agree that we should.  I think that the only way this can be done is by abandoning faith and dogma altogether. That’s why I’m a Humanist.

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