I’ve been debating with myself for several days about whether I should write this post. Since some other bloggers have dealt with this question quite effectively recently, I haven’t felt that I would have anything useful to add to the conversation. I changed my mind when I read Brian’s recent heart wrenching post. For the religious folks who wonder why nonbelievers care at all about religion and why we can’t we just respect believers’ beliefs and leave them alone, I offer the following thoughts.
The first problem that I have with religious beliefs is that, as Greta Christina pointed out recently, acting on the basis of false beliefs can lead to ill-conceived, even harmful, behavior and decisions. Take, for example, cases of snake handlers who die from snakebites, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who die for want of blood transfusions – both of which have occurred in the USA within the past several months. One may argue that such beliefs are misunderstandings of scriptural injunctions, but to so argue merely cedes my point. Yes, I agree, such beliefs are misunderstandings, but those misunderstandings are founded upon what believers have read in scriptures and they are founded upon traditions that have been passed down to successive generations for millennia. Quite simply, the misunderstood scriptures would not be taken so seriously, and the errant teachings that have been transmitted through the ages would not exist, were it not for the religious contexts that gave birth to them and continue to nourish them.
Consider the subject of Brian’s post that I alluded to in the opening paragraph of this post. In this case, a man who was suffering from mental illness heard the voice of god telling him to slaughter his family. He responded by killing his teen aged daughter. Fortunately, his wife was not home at the time of the murder so she was spared. Prior to that event, the man had told members of his church that he was haunted by demons, was hearing voices and so on. The church people believed that the man was extraordinarily blessed to have such experiences! The tragedies of this man’s delusional beliefs and his resultant behaviors are highlighted by the inconceivable (to me) failure of the man’s religious community to distinguish between mental illness and the leading of god’s holy spirit! Remove the shroud of religious superstition from the community’s thought processes and the man’s derangement would have been clearly evident.
I can already hear several of the faithful protesting that I’m painting all believers with the same broad, tainted brush. Most believers are not deranged, most believers do not handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship rituals, and only a few believers eschew modern medicine…. All of that is true, but it doesn’t change the underlying fact that theistic belief in any form is mistaken. Even if those mistaken beliefs don’t cause believers to make such egregious errors in judgment as those noted above, they can lead to other errors, such as susceptibility to swindling televangelists, or refusal to believe that one’s pastor is molesting Sunday school children, or the notion that abstinence-only sex education is sufficient, or the conviction that gays are evil…. Even though the vast majority of believers apply rational thought processes in most areas of their lives, there is a corner of their minds, especially for religious conservatives, in which they refuse to shine the light of reason. Every scrap of information they process is run through religious filters. If it does not threaten to undermine the religious scaffold around which they’ve built their lives, then normal reasoning processes can be applied safely. If a bit of information contradicts the scaffold, then it must be rejected. Religious liberals, on the other hand, frequently bend the scaffold so that it will accommodate new information. Whatever process one applies, the fact remains that there are points at which reason and religion conflict. How one handles those conflicts determines the extent to which religious belief is harmful. Sometimes the harm is confined to believers. Other times, however, that harm spills over and affects others, believers and nonbelievers alike. This brings me to my second problem with religious belief.
The second problem I have with religious belief is that believers do not live in vacuums. Their religious beliefs are not always private and those beliefs do affect others, including me, in numerous ways. Billy wrote a great post about this recently. To cite one example, when creationists and Intelligent Design proponents advocate for the inclusion of their non-scientific theories in school science curricula, in addition to hurting their own children, they threaten to undermine my children’s education, they threaten to undermine American progress in scientific and medical research and they threaten to dilute the American education system and thereby weaken our nation’s economy. In short, when they bring their religious beliefs into the public square and seek to impose those beliefs on others, they threaten our livelihoods and our well-being. Another example: when a fundamentalist presidential candidate advocates amending the Constitution so that it conforms to an ancient book of fables, he threatens my liberty of conscience. Cases like these and countless others lead me to conclude that the only way I can adopt a philosophy of “live and let live” is if religious believers will pledge to do the same. The moment they open their church doors and let their ideas drip all over the pavement is the moment they invite me, regardless of whether they intend to do so, to examine those ideas. This leads to my third problem with religious belief.
The third problem I have with religious beliefs is the persistent entreaty that I respect religious beliefs simply because they are religious. My response to this demand is that I’ll extend to religious beliefs the same degree of respect that I extend to astrology or phrenology or alchemy and not a speck more or less than that. Nevertheless, I will always strive to respect believers, regardless of what I think about their beliefs. If believers want their beliefs to be considered as plausible foundations of social, economic, international, educational, or any other public policies, then I will critique those beliefs just as scrupulously as I would critique the beliefs of a Marxist, a Maoist, or a monarchist. Religious beliefs are simply one class of ideas among many that have the potential to do real damage to individuals, societies and nations (though it seems self-evident to me that false beliefs will seldom pass muster as suitable foundations for good policy decisions). All ideas, religious and otherwise, should be scrutinized ruthlessly before one renders judgments regarding their soundness. Religious ideas are no more special than any others, they are simply more widespread and more deeply ingrained than most.
Setting aside, momentarily, the fact that religious beliefs are detrimental to believers and nonbelievers alike, it is true that all of us hold many values, interests and aspirations in common. These are bases upon which we can all agree to work together for our common good. If we can agree to do so, then maybe one day I’ll be able to revise my view of religion and concede that, perhaps, it is good for some people, though certainly not for all. Until that happens, however, I will continue to maintain that, given current conditions, religion’s bad effects far outweigh its good ones.
– the chaplain