In my last article I mentioned, among other things, why atheists care about a god that they think does not exist. One of these reasons was the needless harm that arises out of religious belief; and in support of this I gave a number of examples. Many (religious) readers, however, were unsatisfied with this explanation. To many it seems that there is ‘religion’ and, whatever it is about, it is good and benign; and then there is ‘evil’ and, whatever its cause or motivation, it is not ‘religion’. To label, therefore, religion as the problem is, to their understanding, a mistake; the problem is not religion, but evil. Any evil that purports to be religion is simply mistaken, so my detractors know with certainty; and it is a sign of atheistic arrogance and self-deception that we should find fault with ‘religion’. It will be the focus of this article to first detail and then critique this common objection; hoping to progress the debate further.
Anyone who attempts to discover what suffering in the world is caused by faith-based thinking, and the certainty derived from it, will find the task trivially easy. I have, for my critics’ convenience, provided some links at the end of my article to prove the point (see endnotes).
The objection is that these phenomena are not really a reflection of the true teachings of Jesus, or Allah (or whichever fictional character you favor). If but people would follow the true word and meaning of these true prophets, then such needless misery would not exist. God, or his teachings, is not to blame for these atrocities; the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of men, who are (as they will point out) weak and fallible.
Of course, my critics will point out that they know the true meanings and intentions of their religion – which are entirely distinct from the madness found in my examples. My critics know what the truth is, and if only the rest of the world believed as they did, these horrors would not take place. And because my critics know the truth, and are themselves paragons of the true religion/church/faith, whatever anyone else does or believes it isn’t actually because of the true religion.
Religion does not cause problems; a person’s inaccurate or otherwise false interpretation of religion causes problems. My critics’ should know this, for they do not have an inaccurate or false interpretation of religion. It is only from their knowledgeable perspective, tempered by sage-like reflection, that they have attained truth, and therefore have the ability to proclaim which interpretations are more or less accurate in relation to the truth. Whatever my critiques are about, therefore, they are not about the true religion; and I and other atheists would be the wiser to realize this.
Thus concludes my description of the objection. I have used, I admit, intentional hyperbole in its formulation. The function of this exaggeration is to give readers an idea, apart from the substance of the objection, how the objection sounds to me – arrogant. Summed up, the objection is simple. Premise 1: I know and practice the true religion. Premise 2: The true religion does not sanction such acts or attitudes as the atheist critic mentions in his critique. Premise 3: Therefore the atheist is wrong to bash religion, for religion cannot be the problem.
In response, I think it is better to speak, instead of ‘religion’, about ‘beliefs’, and their modes and consequences. By ‘mode’ I mean a description of their nature and genealogy (i.e. what are they like and about and how were they formed). By ‘consequences’ I mean their manifestation in the world of observation, i.e. in the interactions between individuals and groups.
No one, I think, literally believes that the existence of a book, or a collection of books, is the cause of some problems in the world. But what I imagine people do believe, and particularly critical atheists, is that ‘what people believe about this book, and how that affects their other beliefs about the world, may cause problems in the world’. In other words, the criticism (and the response) should not be with regards to books and pages, but with regards to people and their beliefs.
In response to premise one (as formulated above): it is better to state that ‘you believe you know and practice the true religion’, rather than to say that you, in fact, do. I want to linger further on this point though.
It is important to realize that when people assert that they believe something, they think they are correct about it. Nobody, I think, believes something because they know it to be false. I take it then that my critics are sincere: my critics really do think they are correct, and I understand that. But it is important to understand, as well, that when bad things are done, and the perpetrators assert that they believe their holy book commanded them to do that thing, they are also being sincere.
For a theist to respond that they believe that their understanding of the text is the correct understanding is truly no different from what other believers (perhaps less friendly ones) would assert. There may be some religious people on this forum who believe that their religion commands of them that they love god and their fellow human beings. These believers are sincere, we may imagine, and also believe that they are practicing their religion as it ought to be practiced. The Westboro Baptist Church (as an example), that believes that evolution is a lie, that god hates ‘fags’ and that natural disasters are punishments from god for the sin of homosexuality and abortion, also believes that they are practicing their religion as it ought to be practiced. Both the members of this forum and the members of Westboro Baptist Church will call themselves Christians; both will sincerely mean it; both will believe that they have the ‘true’ faith. I’ll repeat what I said above: to assert that you know and practice the true form of religion is exactly what other believers would also say.
This invites us to ponder ‘who is the true Christian?’ I cannot, however, give an answer to this – and I am inclined to think that an answer is not possible. The reason why the answer is not possible is precisely because such beliefs are based on faith.
I take ‘faith’ to mean the belief in something without, or against, evidence. I wish not to deal with other, obscurantist, definitions of the word. ‘That feeling when god touches your heart’, say, simply is not definite enough to be considered an adequate definition, to my mind at least.
When someone asserts that they have the true understanding of religion, and religion requires X of us; it is entirely possible to respond that, ‘Well, I have faith that religion requires Y of us’. Anyone partial to X has no way of responding further, or of establishing the truth of their own claims, for their claims are also faith-based. To ask, then, ‘who is the true Christian?’ is really asking which version of faith is correct. But to this there can be no definite answer, merely because of the nature of faith itself, which is impervious to reason, and therefore (if held firmly enough) impervious to change – a feature often considered a virtue by the faithful.
This therefore nullifies the common response I sought to consider to a childish misunderstanding of the nature of the atheistic critique. When I point to violence done by agents who purport to be Muslim, who assert that their actions are sanctioned by the Koran, I am making a critique of belief, its mode and consequences. The consequences that I abhor are (what I understand to be) the needless suffering of people at the hands of deluded lunatics. And I consider it needless because of the mode of the beliefs that motivated these individuals, namely, faith-based certainty in their understanding of ancient and ugly literature (because I consider faith, epistemologically, to be insufficient to attain knowledge, and therefore unwise to base decisions off of).
To respond that ‘I believe, by faith, that their understanding of the Koran is wrong, and that my understanding (which would not result in such atrocities) is right’ is truly missing the point. The point is not about what ‘you’ believe your religion to be; the point is that others consider – with equal validity as your own considerations – that their religion mandates them to do awful things. The objection, therefore, is very nearly pointless.
With reference to the first 5 links in the Endnotes one might ask: Does god (whoever you take that to be) sanction or command discrimination against homosexuals; subjugation of women; retributive murder for witchcraft; morality police or the destruction of heterodox films? In some sense, there is an answer to these questions – or we may assume that there is a definite answer. In another sense, whatever the answer may be, it is beside the point.
Theologians, Religious Philosophers, Historians, Archeologists, Religious Scholars may all be considered ‘experts’ on what the holy texts mean, and how we should understand them. And emanating from the ivory towers of these experts may well be some coherent answer to the above question. If the religious folk of this forum wish to practice their expertise in these regards, or wish to report on the findings of such experts, then there is indeed an interesting conversation to be had. It is in this sense that we may seek to answer the above questions.
But it should not be thought that such findings from religious experts, if, say, they answer in the negative to the above question, affect the validity of the atheistic critique. The atheistic critique is not about orthodoxy – and I doubt whether divine orthodoxy could ever be established, since it is faith-based – it is about beliefs: particularly the beliefs of groups or individuals, who hold their beliefs for invariably poor reasons, which manifest in social disaster.
This is why digging up scriptural quotes is a wasted effort. Your quotations from the bible (or whichever fairy-tale you fancy), and your exposition about what those quotes mean, is of no consequence with regards to the atheistic critique. The point is that there are many others in the world, who have read the same book as you, and regard it similarly as a book written by, or inspired by, god, who believe that the book wants them to do things that most thoughtful and well-meaning people would find abhorrent.
These people are prepared to do these things, not because they know that they have the wrong interpretation of their books, but actually because they believe (perhaps more than most on this forum) that they have the right interpretation of their books. They believe these things, and derive utter certainty about these beliefs, because of their faith; and faith cannot be displaced by reason, and therefore one faith position is as (in)valid as any other faith position. And so the problem reduces, once more, to a problem about the mode of people’s beliefs. To hope that a report of your particular faith position is a knock-down response to the atheistic critique is simply to be ill-informed or mistaken about what the problems actually are.
When criticisms are raised with regards to the suffering that religion causes, it is a useless, senseless, and naïve response if one asserts that they have faith in other things. I hope I have shown why this is the case, and I hope we may now move on to consider the more important aspects of the problem.