the problem with avoiding religion’s dark side

June 16, 2010

Today’s narrative for religious apologists and fundamentalists seeking to force their will into law usually goes something like this: atheists are arrogant and were responsible for all the genocides of the last century, while religious people are humble and peaceful folk who answer to a higher authority. For a good example of all the mistakes and fallacies of this position, as well as how it’s being advanced, just take a look back at the WoWT teardown of an interview with the governor of Indiana and consider something that’s frequently missed by a vast majority of religious apologists coming from accommodationist stances, or organizations trying to buy their way into scientific institutions. As they argue about all the positives of religion, they avoid discussing a disturbing continuation of torture and barbaric honor killings in the name of religious traditions as anything but random acts of violence by deluded people. And that view ignores just how frighteningly common these cases are, and how the practice of religion by some of its strictest devotees can easily fall into the realm of theodicy.

But wait a second, how could I say that? No truly religious person would ever do something like this! Religion is all about peace, love and understanding, teaching us how to be good to our fellow humans and inspiring a whole lot of art, literature and scientific research into existential problems, right? Actually, the notion of faith as an exploratory tool rather than a rigid set of principles by which all of us must live or face dire consequences, is an idea cultures developed during their periods of learning and scientific advancements when a number of aspiring polymaths asked questions about the natural world and justified their pursuits as a God-given ability which shouldn’t be suppressed by dogmatism. But historically speaking, today’s big religions were created at a time when people who spoke the same language, worshipped the same deities, and lived in one particular area usually kept their distance from those who spoke other languages and worshipped other gods. And as a result, many religious texts talk about loving thy neighbor while at the same time preaching death to heretics, those who disobey the religious tenets, and distrust of those from foreign lands.

In today’s world, where every major city is within just a day or two of travel from each other and we have quite a few ways of communicating instantly across the globe, these ancient rules lead to a lot of tension. In Christian nations, many a pundit warn about Muslim immigrants being the first wave of anti-Western crusaders who will impose Sharia law on the world, when in reality, the vast majority of them is just looking for a better life. On the flip side, we have incendiary Muslim clerics demanding the death of anyone who looks at them the wrong way, or dares to make light of their actions, backwards laws that punish victims of rape and assault in the UAE, and a culture of brutal honor killings and violent assaults and kidnappings in the name of following an arcane rule in ancient holy books. Just consider the barbaric murder of a young couple in India whose only offense was dating across religiously dictated sub-castes, or the honor killing of a young girl for disobeying her father, or death threats to barbers for daring to cut a man’s beard in Pakistan. There are dozens of cases like this on a weekly basis all across the world, and each of them can be linked to religious ideas.

While high minded theologians complain about atheists’ lack of metaphysical sophistication, demanding that those who decided they want nothing to do with theism shed a solemn tear for God, the sad fact is that as the more tolerant and peaceful members of religious movements try to help the less fortunate, somewhere, there is a father beheading his daughter for not following a holy book closely enough, or a group of people beating a young man to death for daring to wear the wrong clothes, or read the wrong book. Even in the U.S., where this kind of behavior will easily land you in one of the most severe penitentiaries in the nation, and very possibly on death row, parents will deny medical treatment to their children because they see the child’s disease as a test of their faith, running for faith healers instead of doctors. Maybe those theologians who lament any form of secularism or non-theism as dangerously blind nihilism could at least try to explain the darker side of faith rather than sweep it under the rug? Or if they’re so interested in a tit-for-tat, can they tell us about the last time they saw a news story about a father killing one of his kids for not reading Dawkins or not visiting Pharyngula on a daily, or at least weekly basis?

Sure, we could just blame it all on the people. After all, it’s true that there are authoritarian, anti-social humans out there just looking to justify their inhumanly cruel actions. For an “evolutionist” like me, all humans are part of the same species and we all need each other to survive and keep evolving. For most faithful, all people are God’s children and we should all treat each other with respect. But for disturbingly many, religion is used as a tool for instituting draconian order over societies, a justification for xenophobia, war, and discrimination. How long did it take most Christian nations to acknowledge that darker skin or internal reproductive organs did not make someone a lesser human being? How long will it take Muslim clerics to stop treating women as males’ personal property? There’s something very wrong when societies will obsess over Grand Theft Auto, trying to ban games like it after every crime involving a teenager, but when honor killings take the lives of young adults because their parents think it’s their divinely ordained duty to slaughter their children if they don’t obey ancient laws in the holy texts they follow, nobody seems to want to point to the holy book as a potential problem.

As people lose their lives over arcane dogmas, how can we honestly pretend that religion is, and always was, such an inspiration for everything good in life that without it we would all become savages who’ll go on killing sprees in between bloody orgies? Seems to me that following religious texts and customs literally results in a whole lot of misery, bloodshed and grief, a good deal of of which could be avoided if more people took tomes of ancient customs, traditions, and metaphysically infused punditry, far less seriously than we do…

[ photo illustration by Fredherico Silva ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Bronowski’s series, The Ascent of Man, covered this issue. The vast majority of terrible things done in the past (and present) are because of dogma: the absolute certainty that your creed (whatever it may be) is right, and that there is no possibility of error.

    Dr. Bronowski quoted Oliver Cromwell (of all people!); “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

    It’s the failure to question the ‘rightness’ of actions that leads to assault, murder, and genocide.

    And sadly, although religion has inspired people to acts of selflessness and devotion to the welfare of others (cf. the ending of slavery) it has also inspired the most atrocious acts in history.

    It seems the power of belief, like so many other things in life, can be used to both nurture and destroy. Organized religion’s great failure has been its inability to harness and control that power for solely good acts. Far too often, it has been used to gain power over others…at any cost.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Possibly the biggest failing in the US today is the widespread lack of critical thinking skills: people buy into massive absurdities concerning the real world as well as ancient superstitions. We have no chance of getting our house in order without a clear understanding of how we got into the present messes and realistic strategies for improvement or at least amelioration.

    But… any effort to teach rational approaches to analyzing and solving problems means that at least a few students will apply what they learn to what they’re being told… so the wrath of ideologically insecure parents/clergy will fall on teachers, administrators, and school boards. Knowing this, none of the latter dare to set up programs about evaluating the factuality of claims or testing competing hypotheses (except perhaps in the narrowest of lab contexts), and the nation suffers yet another generation who believe whatever they’re most often told.

    Advertisers, politicians, and every other variety of con artist all thrive in the shadow of religion (not to mention the wide spectrum of problems that churches cause directly…).