Friday, November 11, 2011

What's wrong with religion

Recently, at a local high school, I attended an evening program on religion which featured three local journalists – Chicago Tribune Religion Reporter, WBEZ’s Northside reporter, and an NBC anchor/reporter. The Editor in Chief of the Religion News Service, based in Washington D.C., participated by way of Skype.  The topic was “How to Balance Facts and Faith in the Search for the Truth.”  There was, as you would hope, quite a lot of talk about moderation, tolerance, and understanding.  We heard that while most newspersons focus on "who what when where," religious reporters delve into matters of "why."

A number of students asked good questions, but two comments during the evening stood out for me. In response to a questioner who had asked for situations where faith makes things particularly awkward, the Editor in D.C. offered that a religious community near him does not believe in western medicine, and as a result their graveyard is "full of children."  Everyone shifted uncomfortably, and then the topic soon turned to something lighter.

But wait, I thought.  Parents are purposefully letting their children die because of their religious beliefs. This should be more than an awkward moment, isn't this where the question "why" becomes a question “whatt!!"  This started me thinking about other things about religion which are widely tolerated – but which make me more than a little uncomfortable.

One of them is bad bits in the Bible. Deut 13: 6-10 and 7:2 requires believers in other Gods to be killed, as in 2 Chronicles 15:12-13.  Jesus says the same of unfaithful in Luke 19:26.  Numbers 1:51, 3:38; 18:7 proscribes death for going too close to the tabernacle.  Slavery is proscribed in Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, and 21:7-11, with beatings (Exodus 21:20-21, Luke 12:47-48).  Non-believers’  babies are smashed on the ground, their pregnant women are cut open (Hosea 13:16).  Unruly sons are stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21), women are captured and raped (Deut 21:10), homosexuals killed (Leviticus 20:13), incest is sanctioned (Genesis 19:30), whole towns massacred (Judges 18:27-29; 1:1-8; Jeremiah 50:21-22; Joshua 19:47), children or partners of mixed marriages are beaten (Nehemiah 13:23-27).  That’s just a taste of the bad parts.  The Koran says (of apostates) “slay them wherever you find them” in Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:57.  Similarly in Sura 48:13, 16, 17.  Today, in seven Islamic countries women are buried to their waist and publicly killed with small stones, for the charge of adultery, a common euphemism for having been raped.  There is female genital mutilation and subservience. The Hadith and Quran celebrate martyrdom in battle with non- believers, with the promise of sex and food in heaven. Christian Scientists don’t use modern medicine; the Amish take their children out of school after 8th grade.  The list goes on and on.  Isn’t this all just wrong?

Fortunately most people don’t follow these directives; they reinterpret or ignore or the bad passages altogether. But it does make me raise my eyebrow when I hear people say religion is the source of morality.  Of the good and bad parts, why are the good parts of scripture more often repeated?  The answer, it seems, is that the people are good to begin with. Bad people select the bad parts, good people select the good parts -- it's that simple.  Therefore, perhaps morality predates scripture and requires a different explanation.  And perhaps religion cannot claim morality as it's unique domain.

Another problem I have, larger but more subtle, is the celebration of faith as a reason for belief, when there is a much better alternative (though it’s considerably more demanding): evidence.  Faith can give a feeling of certainty, a sense of confidence – and that’s valuable. It can certainly be comforting.  But evidence-based beliefs can give you real knowledge. Science is much less sure of itself than faith is; it’s always questioning, testing, open to change.  The hypothesis of an interventionist God, for example, can be tested with triple blind studies and large samples.  And it has been studied.  Can prayer -- petitioning God -- speed someone else’s recovery?  No. No effect. Nothing.  When I first learned this it was a surprise to me, and something of a disappointment too.

I do understand the value of introspection, and exploration of the interior realm; I was raised practicing a Quaker form of meditation and studied Therevadan Buddhism for many years.  I still find meditation enormously rewarding.  But this is an internal effect, more in the realm of psychology and brain neurology.  Entertaining supernatural explanations is another thing entirely.

I would not dismiss all of religion as a waste of time, as good things do come from religious practice.  One of the best of these is community.  They can be something like a book club (for the dogma and mythology and scripture), something like a country club (for the social gathering) and something like a sports fanclub (for the rivalry).  The best of these, I think, is community.  But unfortunately, by creating the "us" we also create "other."  And this is an artificial barrier, in my view, which often does more harm than good.

I worry for many religious people who seem to me to be struggling with a delusion they were stamped with in their earliest, most vulnerable years (religion becomes more a matter of choice as they mature).  By the religious perspective, often, one or more overlords monitor and judge individual thoughts and actions, and they are able and ready to mete out punishments.  Something like Big Brother, really; but there is no need to imagine these things.  Religion also often comes with a presumption of human supremacy on a scale that does not fit well with the natural world.  Oddly, at the same time it often presents a debasing view of human nature.  I believe many people are distracted by visions of eternal life that this real life fades in significance.  And in their blindness, I am afraid of some of the things that they may do.  At the same time there is a radically different, and far more substantive way of thinking, very simple, really.  It's just evidence-based reasoning. 

When it comes to the various degrees of religious belief, there is also the problem of complicity and accountability.  Why, I often wonder, are fanatics tolerated?  Whenever a religious fanatic is pointed out, it seems, we're quickly reminded that most people are more moderate, peaceful, loving, and reasonable, and this is probably true.  And these reasonable people could speak up against the madness, quite a lot more clearly.   Where is the billion-Muslim outcry against suicide bombers and genital mutilation?  Where are the educated Christian Scientists, pushing for reform?  When Orthodox Jews in Israel tell reformed Jews in America that they’re not really Jewish ...  why does no one say, “no, maybe you’re not Jewish, haven't you noticed that Judaism has matured?”

Its been pointed out to me by a faithful friend that there are gaps in the evidence for the "theory" of evolution, and she'll wait until those gaps are filled before she subscribes, thank you very much.  But in the case of evolution, the evidence is more than overwhelming, and we know all the gaps won't ever be filled; they'll just get fewer and smaller -- that's the nature of science.  But this illustrates another problem I have with religious people -- they leave the hard work of science to others.  In the meantime, help yourself to western medicine when you need it, and the technology, food, transportation, practical knowledge and all else that science provides.  It's freeloading, I think.  For all the criticism they take for using prayer instead of medicine, you have to hand it to the Christian Scientists for at least not being hypocritical in letting their children die.

So religion provides the “why” of being, ok.  I have an interesting “why” question: Why does nearly everyone belong to the same faith as their parents?  The answer is, of course, that one's religion is purely incidental.  We’re imprinted with it at our most impressionable age, like baby ducklings.  Perhaps children should be protected from religion like they are from alcohol and for some of the same reasons.  It’s an intoxicant; it can be addictive, crippling, and can easily become a crutch they carry for their entire lives and one they would be better off without.  Let them choose a religion, if the want one, as adults -- after they can think for themselves.

This brings me to the second comment of the evening which I found interesting, and from a societal perspective, I found it a little encouraging.  The Editor in D.C. pointed out that 18 percent of Americans don’t believe in God, up from 16 percent recently.  The new atheists aren’t like the old ones who were “angry with God,” he said – they are introspective and thoughtful.  That was a generous comment I thought, from an editor of a religious journal.   In many countries of Europe the non-believing portion is more than half, but I’d argue that disbelief is already near 100%, even in the United States.  That is -- a total, sheer incredulity regarding the veracity of every single one of the other Gods.  The 18 percent have just gone one God further. 


  1. I've been making your observation for years about what a coincidence it is that most people's belief depends on what country they were born in, and more amazing, *their* country's religion is also the *right* one, and the others are wrong! And this applies to each country!

    On a related note, I do not understand this tolerance thing. Jesus is quite clear on who's going to hell. For a priest to sit down at the same table as a Rabbi, while believing the Rabbi is going to Hell, is disgusting. And if he doesn't believe that, then he's not a Christian. It's not really that hard.

  2. People aren't "angry at god," they're angry at religious practices.


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