Every time an atrocity is committed in the name of religion, it spawns a host of tirades by atheists online, proclaiming that the world would be better off without religion. It has become an argument popularised by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and it can sound quite persuasive. After all, the history of religion on this planet is quite a damning one. People who profess to love grace and peace and mercy have all too often demonstrated no understanding of those virtues.
It cannot be denied that people have, under the assumed sanction of the Almighty, acted in ways that would make any rational and moral being balk. Certainly if God had sanctioned those actions, we would need to question the nature of God. But the argument that the world would be better off without religion is not logical. Once you remove the emotion from it, the argument is clearly rationally flawed. Unfortunately, many atheists are incapable of removing emotion from the argument. Many – like Hitchens – claim to be objective, but make use of the very same logical fallacies they accuse religious adherents of resorting to.
First, let me say to all my religious readers that you need to be aware of the impact that your actions have on those who believe differently from you. If your beliefs are to be seen as even vaguely credible, you need to act with moral integrity. That is to say that you need to keep the gap between what you preach and how you live as small as possible. How else can you be taken seriously? And you will never be able to do so unless you have internalised the values of your religion so deeply that its principles are ones that you have chosen and that you value enough to want to live them. If they are inherited values, passed on to you by your parents, or if they are merely a cultural identity rather than a deliberately chosen personal life script, they are – I dare say – meaningless.
That said, the atheist argument that we are better off without religion is nonsensical. Now I do not wish to compare numbers. This is not a ‘who is more guilty?’ game. Even one person killed in the name of any ideology – religious or not – is one too many, and should be vehemently condemned. I do wish to point out, though, that the openly atheistic regimes in world history have probably been responsible for as many deaths as the religious ones. Stalin’s atheist Soviet Union was responsible for as many as 20 million deaths. Mao Zedong was responsible for anything between 10 and 50 million deaths, and Pol Pot, the Cambodian revolutionary, caused about 2 million deaths. These numbers dwarf many of the religious massacres.
But that is not the point. The point is that it is not religion or the lack of it that is to blame for the sorry state of the world. It is human nature. Whether it is done in the name of religion or not, people will always find ways to legitimise preserving or attaining power, ways that absolve them of the moral responsibility for the atrocities committed in doing so.
The root of the problem is human nature, not religion. Religion is merely a vehicle through which human nature expresses itself. One would not say that the world is better off without fire or knives, simply on the basis that they have been responsible for taking countless human lives.
If one is to evaluate whether the tool is beneficial or not, one has to look at how it is used under the conditions for which it was designed. Those who propose that the world would be better off without religion, however, are judging religion by its misuse. It is like claiming that Bach is a terrible composer, on the basis of hearing a five-year-old scratching out a Prelude on a violin.
If you want to judge the efficacy of a belief system, you have to judge it by how effective it is when practiced in the way it was designed, not by actions that are obviously contrary to those that it promotes. The likes of Christopher Hitchens have to cherry-pick evidence to support their argument.
The truth is that in the majority of instances, religion tempers human nature. Now you are welcome to be cynical, and say that this is only because the followers of that religion are scared of eternal damnation. Maybe so. But the fact remains that the religious constraints prevent them from more freely behaving in ways that would satisfy their sinful (if you are religious)/ animalistic (if you believe in evolution) instincts. It cannot be argued that the world is better off without this.
Consider the following Biblical passages:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12: 28-34)
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6: 37-38)
Would atheists really have us believe that if these commandments were followed to the letter, that the world would be a worse place? It is inconceivable. When you look at it the question that way, you can see that it is emotion – not logic – that drives the argument that the world would be better off without religion. And it is legitimate anger. We should be angered by the brutality of humanunkind, especially when it is so frequently done in the name of goodness. And certainly a solution is demanded. But that solution is not to rid the world of the only thing that stands between humanity and anarchy.
Hey Pete. I think it is tough to extract emotion for both those who are religious and those who are not. I don’t think any non-religious people would argue against the wonderful biblical passages you have selected. As you say, cherry picking any verses from many different religions scriptures can support almost any argument and so it is the morality of the underlying individuals that drives behaviour. The challenge comes in when passages that ignore morality or endorse immoral behaviour (falsely or otherwise depending on your belief) are used.
Hitchens and others are responding to extremists and some pretty immoral teachings – but believe that if the world thought the way they do, these teachings wouldn’t exist. That may be true if Hitchens behaviour happened to be moral. I don’t know enough about his life to comment. What would perhaps be a better way to frame it is that the world would be better off if it was ethical and moral.
That discussion can be held separately from religion. Then it is a truism. If Stalin or the Crusaders were moral, the world would have been better. Would be great if we could shift conversations to ethical and moral discussions independent of the chosen cultural framework/religion. Then no one would have to get upset about someone saying the world would be better off if we didn’t think like them. How they think and what they believe doesn’t really matter. What they do does.
Yes, what they do matters. I am arguing that the atrocities committed in the name of religion are invariably based on interpretations of religious texts that are contrary to the spirit of those texts. The Biblical passages I quoted are at the heart of what Christianity endorses. I do not know my Qur’an well enough to be able to quote it, but I am fairly certain that the actions of those we call “extremists” are not founded on teachings consistent with the spirit of Muhammad’s. Atrocities committed in the name of religion are almost never consistent with the core tenets of those religions. It is therefore not fair to judge the worth of those religions by the actions of those individuals. If we are to judge religions, it should be by the actions of individuals whose lifestyles conform as closely as possible to those outlined by their sacred texts. If we did that, we could not, I contest, fairly argue that the world would be better off without religion.
I agree that the discussion should be held separately from religion, because the issue is human nature, not religion. However, Hitchens does not separate the two. I wish to point out that the discussion is more fruitful when we address rationally. However difficult it is to remove emotion from the discussion, it is necessary if we wish to talk about these things productively. As legitimate as the emotion is (I am not questioning its legitimacy), emotion clouds sound reasoning. We need to find ways to be able to talk where emotion is not the driving force. I am not saying we need to remove it entirely, only that when we are slaves to it, prejudice often results.