February 28, 2013

Religion is not the problem

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 8:26 pm by chavisory

So there’s more than one way in which I’m sick of being told that the way I think and experience the world is a blight on humanity that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Recently I had a heated Facebook discussion with a friend over this Times Room for Debate entry, which not only argues that religion is not a reliable source of morality, but also posits that atheism shouldn’t seek to replace religion, but to end it…unfortunately employing a host of unfounded generalizations and leaps of illogic.

In the interest of both critical thinking and compassion, can we look at what, practically and humanly, ending religion would mean?

Various cultures and government regimes, at various times, have tried, hard, to get rid of religion or specific religions.  I do not know of an instance in which it has gone well, in which the attempt didn’t involve egregious violence and human rights abuses, or in which the culture in question was left ultimately better off.  Or in which it even remotely worked.

Beyond whatever personal spiritual significance or comfort they hold to individual believers, religious thought and traditions are the cornerstones of more than a few minority cultures and communities.  Who is anyone to say that these cultures have no value, to put oneself in a position of choosing which other people’s communities, community rituals, values, and devotions, should be suppressed and eliminated?  If we’re talking about the distinction between religion and morality, what is the morality of depriving a minority population of its rights of self-definition and community traditions and values?

Has anyone really thought about how we would prevent people or communities from transmitting their belief systems to their children?  If you knock down every church building, how are you going to keep people from teaching their children to pray alone in bed at night?  How are you going to prevent me from hearing God in the wind in the trees or in the silences between raindrops?  How are you going to prevent people from infusing art and literature with religious thought?

And before somebody answers that the solution to ending religious belief is just to teach people better facts, understand this:  Religions are not arbitrary sets of false, irrational, or mistaken beliefs, or collections of simple superstitions of cause and effect or magical thinking or carrot/stick promises of punishment or reward for belief or behavior (though they can contain all of those things), which could simply be undone by giving people better information.  (That thunder is the result of colliding warm and cool air masses and not the gods having wrestling matches, for instance.  I know what causes thunder.  That knowledge has never yet prevented the experience of it from being spiritual to me.)  They are complex narrative frameworks of symbol, metaphor, and allegory.  They are stories and vocabularies for a class of experiences that you can’t simply forbid people from having.  You can’t keep someone from having an experience by denying them the language for representing or coping with it.

And so unless you’re going to all-out eliminate storytelling, you’re not going to keep people who are so inclined from finding personal significance and guidance in storytelling, or from using a certain type of story–myth, fable, fairytale, whatever you want to call it–to give shape and understandability to their experiences.

It’s not fair or intellectually honest to presuppose that those experiences are false or trivial just because you don’t share them.  And frankly narcissistic to declare that, because you don’t understand or share it, that mode of perception needs to be eliminated from the realm of human experience and meaning.

There is bad religion, just as there is bad music and bad writing, but we don’t talk about doing away with those forms of thought and expression just because a lot of it is of poor quality.  There is religion that advances truly terrible values; that doesn’t make religion inherently destructive or wrong any more than Twilight‘s existence makes all teen fantasy literature poorly written and abusive relationship-glorifying.  It is a medium, not an end, not an ultimate good or evil in itself.

In the same way that the overwhelming (and baffling) success of Twilight tells us nothing about teen fantasy literature’s inherent quality or worth (the genre also includes the Wrinkle in Time quartet, His Dark Materials, and the Earthsea cycle), the popularity of anti-intellectual or violent fundamentalism tells us nothing about what religion inherently is or has to be.  It is one manifestation.

Religion is not morality, we should do a better job of talking about what both of those things are and are not, and I fully agree that religion can’t be said to be the exclusive or superior source of morality.  But that doesn’t make it either worthless, or worthy of eradication.


  1. oarubio said,

    Actually, all morality does emanate from religion!

    And before you and I are accused of backing such a heinous thing as religion because of all the wars it has caused, we need to remember some stark data.

    Religion should not be the cause to start a war (remember the Crusades were an answer to the invasions of the Moors overtaking Christendom, not Catholicism run amuck). Fr. Pacwa of EWTN took a look at deaths caused by wars. He found that roughly 4-1/2 to 5 million people have been killed in religious wars since the time of Christ. Now, that’s not something to be proud about, of course. Yet, in the 20th century alone, approximately, 100 million lost their lives to wars started by political, not religious, ideology.

    Similar to what you said about teenage literature example, these numbers should not cause us to “outlaw” politics or ideology either.

    • chavisory said,

      Those numbers are fascinating…of course untold violence against individuals, and probably uncountable other abuses and discrimination, have been committed in the name of religion as well, so I’m not really comfortable saying that the tallies of war casualties fully accounts for the toll of religious violence.

      I do believe that religion is often only a handy excuse for leaders who would have abused power or committed heinous violence anyway.

      But sorry, I do not agree that all morality emanates from religion. I did at one time, but I don’t any longer. Again, religion is only a medium, and a good one for teaching some kinds of morality…but I know too many good and deeply ethical people who don’t find their moral grounding in religion, and I see no reason at all why a secular culture couldn’t have a perfectly fine moral code….I can hardly say I’m familiar with *every* culture or society the world over, so that’s not really something that I would dare to presume.

  2. CB said,

    Just because something is ineradicable (at least without causing harm to individuals) just means it is a meme that has built-in features to insure replication.

    • chavisory said,

      Well, sure, but I’m not disputing that. That something is ineradicable only tells us that it’s ineradicable; that doesn’t imply any intrinsic value or lack thereof to the thing itself. Just because a meme is self-replicating doesn’t mean that it’s either worthless or valuable, just that it’s persistent.

      All I’m saying is that I really don’t see how we’d go about ending religion without doing individual, human harm.

  3. CB said,

    Take out one of those justs.

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