Religion: Is it bad for us?
For those who don’t feel like taking a thriller or romance to the beach this summer, a couple of interesting books have just hit the shelves: ‘Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprive Us of Happiness’ by Vitaly Malkin, and a new edition of ‘Is Religion Dangerous?’ by Keith Ward. In different ways, both essentially ask the perennial question of whether religion is a blessing or a curse to the human species. Of course, exploring this conundrum inevitably spills over into asking ‘Should people be religious?’ at which point this becomes very personal.
There is no denying that extremist beliefs are often associated with faith in the popular imagination, and ‘most wars are caused by religion’ is a line frequently trotted out in the course of internet and pub debates. However, in actual fact, academic research shows that wars almost always have multiple causes, and only a fairly small minority involve religion as one of the dominant ones.
This isn’t to deny that some religious communities and ideologies foster beliefs which are deeply damaging and destructive, and some religious groups are accused of treating women, LGBTQ people, children, animals and the environment unfairly, not to mention being resistant to beneficial scientific and social progress. It has to be acknowledged that these claims are not without foundation, because people of faith are sometimes guilty as charged there. But, and it is a big BUT, many religious people defend the equal rights, dignity and beauty of all human beings (regardless of gender, sexuality or race), promote a compassionate stance towards animals and the environment, are passionate about advancing scientific knowledge and social justice, and feel that their faith is a motivating factor behind this.
It’s also undeniable that some citizens who regard themselves as Atheist, Agnostic or Undecided cling to behaviours and beliefs which are oppressive, bigoted, selfish or dangerously irrational. Fortunately, they are a minority and they meet with the strong rejection of mainstream society, but this week regrettably we have again seen headlines about individuals prosecuted for sending letters promoting ‘Punish a Muslim Day’, as well white supremacists in the UK on trial for plotting to murder an MP with a machete. Furthermore, a celebrity make-up ‘expert’ has very publically joined the ranks of the ‘anti-vax’ campaign, opting to reject the conclusion of evidence based medicine that failure to vaccinate children puts them, and others, at increased risk of death, brain-damage, blindness, deafness and other tragic outcomes of preventable diseases.
The truth is that whether an individual identifies as Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Pagan or Spiritual does not tell you whether or not they happen to be racist or homophobic, nor whether they base their decisions on health-care or empirical data and peer reviewed studies. The questions are, in fact, unrelated, and adopting an antagonistic or stereotypical view towards another person or group on the basis of flawed assumptions is not the most appropriate way to build a positive and cohesive society.
Human beings have a deep-rooted desire to divide the world into mental categories of them and us, insiders and outsiders. If any further proof were needed, recent media coverage of debates around the Brexit process illustrate this all too clearly: with accusations, counter-accusations and ad hominem attacks now apparently endemic. That kind of binary thought might have been a useful strategy in prior stages of our historical development, but in the twenty-first century relying on such a polarised formula is in no way beneficial. Given that for all of our technological sophistication, human rights abuses are rife around the globe, and we are rapidly rendering our planet uninhabitable, we desperately need to adopt a more sophisticated approach. Rather than labeling religion as a problem (or alternatively, as a blessing), we need to examine carefully what stance is being taken on a concrete question and why.
Kat Von D: The make-up mogul who has reignited the ‘anti-vax’ row BBC News (14/6/18)
Punish a Muslim Day letter suspect charged BBC News (14/6/18)
Tory rebel Dominic Grieve insists he is not out to destroy Brexit: So what is he doing addressing a secret meeting in the EU’s London HQ of those plotting to reverse it? Daily Mail (13/6/18)
National Action Trial: Neo-Nazi admits terror plot to murder Labour MP Rosie Cooper with a machete The Independent (12/6/18)
Do Orthodox Jews Believe in Vaccines Jew in the City (3/2/15)
Does Religion Cause War? Huffington Post (18/11/14)
Sex and death lie at the poisoned heart of religion The Guardian (14/9/10)
Humanists UK: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Humanists UK
This is a rather shallow article.
First: It is a category error to compare Christians, Muslims etc with atheists, agnostics and undecideds. The latter group are defined and united only by absence of religious beliefs – they may have no beliefs at all or hold beliefs ranging from fascism to flat-earthism. The proper comparison is between religious people and people who have articulated but non-religious beliefs – in the UK, predominantly Humanists, but elsewhere followers of other (sometimes political) comprehensive belief systems.
Second: the interesting factor is how far the source of the behaviour of any group is founded in their beliefs. Most beliefs, religious or non-religious, offer some grounds for good behaviour (and obviously – as the writer says – many religious people set excellent practical examples to others), but some beliefs offer grounds for controversial or straightforwardly appalling behaviour. These tend strongly to be dogmatic beliefs (mainly religious or political) that lack rational justification, although they can be non-dogmatic beliefs with an apparently rational but mistaken basis (early c20th eugenics for example). On the other hand, much behaviour cannot be sourced to or justified by people’s beliefs at all, although those beliefs may act as a restraint on behaviour.
There is scope for a much more sophisticated analysis, based perhaps on research that has not yet been done.
Thank you for an interesting perspective from a well known humanist campaigner. Obviously, we would disagree with some of the points raised. In terms of the depth of analysis, it is partly an issue of trying to work within the confines of a blog post. Anyone interested can read a more detailed discussion in Chapters 2 and 3 of our book Here explain the categories which we adopt and the reasoning behind them. Certainly, human beings have distorted many different beliefs and worldviews in order to oppress others, for example some interpretations of the writings of Karl Marx. We would suggest that religion is not the common denominator in the negative behaviour, although this is straying into discourse beyond law.