A particular attitude has always annoyed me. It is a common prejudice amongst otherwise open minded people. It concerns religion and existence of evil in the world.
It goes like this. Religion is the cause of most or all evil in the world. It links in with the epicurean dilemma - that God cannot be both all loving and all powerful, due to the suffering present in the world.
Religion represents systems of teachings and belief that have come down through the ages and put forward ideas of morality and teachings of the difference between right and wrong. Although there are several major religions and vast numbers of sects, critics of religion are chiefly opposed to the Abramic religions, and I will focus on Christianity and Islam, within the sphere of influence of which reside half of the worlds population.
The primary claims made against these religions are well laid out in Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books. On the surface is the old Marxist case of religion being a means of control, the opiate of the masses, so to speak. But deeper within, and more passionately put forward is another, possibly new, claim that these religions are unnatural, anti-pleasure or anti-experience, cults of death.
There are a number of features in the world today that are put forward to demonstrate the alleged savagery of them. There are the suicide bombings of Islamic fundamentalist groups, the apocalyptic fantasies of Christian fundamentalists, the war mongering of Christian world leaders. There are the strict sexual ethics of religious establishments – the celibacy of Catholic priesthood, the genital mutilation of young girls in some impoverished Muslim regions, the harsh punishments decreed by both Christian and Muslim scriptures to be dealt upon those found guilty of adultery and homosexuality. On top of this pre-marital sexual relations are forbidden by religious tradition, masturbation is viewed as a sin by traditional societies and viewed by the Catholic dogma as worse than rape, and according to Muslim teaching, members of the opposite sex who are neither related nor married are not even allowed to talk to one another without desperate need.
It is a formidable list of condemnations. All in all, Christianity and Islam demand sacrifices in this life in the name of rewards in the life to come. This is the first misunderstanding. When religion asks people to pray, to fast, and to abstain from immoral behaviour, this should not be seen as the price tag at the gates of heaven. The misunderstanding comes from the attitude of the more bloody headed of fundamentalists obsessed with the most materialistic aspects of religion. The truth is that prayer is only valid if spoken out of a feeling of love for the creator, that fasting is performed either for material rewards in this world or to make yourself a better person, and good behaviour is a reward in itself, and in the believers own enlightened self interest.
The problems associated with religion in this world are dire indeed. Suicide bombing, war, the inquisition, superstition, exploitation and oppression. In answer to them, I will cite the examples of the Tamil Tigers, nationalism, the Apology, the flat earth myth, capitalist materialism and secular extremism.
Firstly are the suicide bombings. There is no act of more visual barbarity that strapping explosives to your body and detonating yourself amongst other human beings, especially when your victims include civilians and children. This, it would seem, is definitive proof of the evil nature of Islam, how it hates life and worships death. To show the mistaken thinking involved here we have to ask, who is carrying out these attacks?
Most of the attacks these days are by fanatical Muslims and are associated with the wars in Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya. However, the terrorist group that had carried out the largest number of suicide bombings is not Muslim at all – it is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aka the Tamil Tigers. A secular organisation fighting a long term conflict in Sri Lanka. It uses suicide bombings as a means of assassinating opposition figures of the Sri Lankan government, and its suicide recruits are secular, middle class Hindus. Suicide bombings require no religious motivation. What they do require is anger and hatred, and a conflict over land between passionate opponents, who have reached such a stage of anger and desperation that they have ceased to view the other side as human beings. At such as stage the most effective means of killing and terrifying your opponents become the most noble, and one who makes the greatest sacrifice to undertake them is elevated to the status of hero. Having such a high status in your community is like a drug upon the mind. For a young man, with no other achievements of which to be proud, the status gained from agreeing to undertake a suicide bombing can be almost impossible to do without. They go from being nobody to being a god, and to back out of the mission would be to return to being nobody again, or even worse. Death seems preferable to becoming a coward and a deserter.
The second example is war. To me this seems an odd accusation against religion. The famous religious wars were fought eight hundred years ago, in the form of the crusades, and even then were only superficially about religion. What the warring monks were after in the Levant was not divine grace, but opportunities for rape and plunder. That educated people should believe otherwise is truly beyond belief.
Since the crusades, the vast majority of wars have had little or nothing to do with religion – the source of conflict, if not the opportunity to gain material wealth, has been the stirring of nationalism. States fought wars to forge their identity, if the enemy was of a different religion, be they Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus, this was not the cause of the conflict, but a consequence of the fact that they were of a different cultural or ethnic grouping. Religion often provided an excuse for one country to invade another, but if it hadn’t been because they were catholic, there would have been some other reason, because their skin was darker, because their language and culture made them inferior. This is most clear when we realise that when the governments became secular, with the French and American Revolutions, the wars did not stop – if anything, they became more severe. Napoleon saw it as his secular duty to wage brutal wars to spread French civilisation across the rest of backward Europe. Hitler and Stalin couldn’t have been less godless in their ideologies, but the clash of their armies was the most brutal the world had known. Most of the wars in the past two hundred years have been associated with the rise of nationalism and the associated demands for democracy. Yet democracy is not accused of being a bringer of terrible wars, if anything the opposite view is the most widely entertained. Nationalism, and the demand of different peoples to govern themselves in their own homelands, is commonly recognised as being a cause of conflicts, but more often than not such wars are seen as a worthy sacrifice for the panacea of democracy.
The third condemnation is of the intolerance of religion. Religions are accused of forcing people to take up their beliefs. And indeed, this has often been the case, that religious institutions used violence to enforce their will. The mainstream of Islamic thought today contradicts the Koranic teaching that “There is no compulsion in religion” by not challenging the view that apostasy can be punishable by death. But to blame religion for creating intolerance, one must establish a causal relationship – does religion cause social intolerance, or is it the intolerance of society that is manifesting itself in religion? Was the Spanish Inquisition a unique evil, or were European societies already that intolerant of descent before they turned Christian?
The answer, I would venture, is clearly displayed in Plato’s Apology, an account of the trial and execution of Socrates. Socrates was accused by the fledgling Athenian democracy of corrupting the cities youth, and condemned to death by drinking poison. The charge was one of impiety – critics of modern religions often imaging the polytheist religions of the ancient Mediterranean to have been some kind of enlightened utopia of liberal values. This wasn’t the case. Socrates was effectively lynched by a quasi-secular pagan inquisition who saw it as their duty to cleanse their society of potential ideological opponents.
This I find similar to the functioning of 20th Century dictatorships. Secularism is not inherently liberal. Societies, particularly unstable ones, have an inherent capacity for intolerance and when a society is religion this will manifest itself in the form of religious intolerance. When it isn’t religion, it may take the form of fascist oppression, Stalinist purges or McCarthyite witch-hunts.
I am trying to avoid the habit of refutation by exception, but rather to establish the nature of the beast – religion, or rather the central nature that the teachings of the founders of Christianity and Islam have upon the peoples who profess to follow them – does not make people bad. It does not inherently affect the ability to reason. It is not the illogical meme Professor Dawkins claims it to be. What makes people think otherwise is ignorance, bitterness and propaganda.
Let us take the popular myth of the flat earth. The popular imagination, or the conventional wisdom, holds that no one from the civilised parts of Europe prior to Columbus had crossed the Atlantic because they thought the Earth was flat and if you sailed too far, you would fall of the edge.
Whilst some people may believe this today, in reality educated Europeans in the middle ages knew the earth was round. The correct circumference of our planet had been calculated by the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC. During the middle ages, this was known and not disputed by the Catholic Church, and more importantly, by Portuguese sailors who traded as far away as East Asia. However, they did not know that the Americas existed, but believed the Atlantic and Pacific to be contiguous, and therefore too great to traverse.
Yet fate had it that Eratosthenes' calculations were disputed. Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482) thought that earth was only about half as large as in reality, and Columbus, gambling on his miscalculations, sailed West. He believed he had found the East Indies when he had only reached the West Indies. The early explorers were indeed very fortunate they had reached the Americas rather than East Asia - at the time Chinese military technology was at least as advanced as their own, and gold was even more scarce in Asia than it was in Europe.
There is an important point to this – the view that religious people are inherently prone to flawed thinking. Not all atheists hold this view. It is similar to thinking that people from other races or from the opposite sex are in some way intellectually deficient, an incapable of reason. Of course fundamentalists are prone to hateful arrogance, and when they aren’t willing to discuss something they are prone to shout down their opponents. But this is just part of the human condition. It isn’t something confined to religious beliefs – if these people weren’t religious fanatics, they would find some other cause to be obnoxious about.
There is a similarity between the Marxist claim that religion is the opium of the masses, and the Pullman view of a religious conspiracy to deny people the opportunity to pursue pleasure. Both are using religion as a straw man to prove the importance of their preconceived ideas. Marx described religion as “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” – on the surface this sounds almost complementary, as if religion was a thing of beauty in an otherwise cruel, empty world. But more closely examined, it is a seething condemnation, it is saying the comfort of religion is illusionary, a diversion, and a component of the system of exploitation.
Pullman is much less forgiving than Marx. One gets the impression, if Marx did not see religion as curtailing the proletariats revolutionary fervour, he might even have approved of it. Pullman in contrast views it as an unmitigated source of evil. I think the two thinkers exposure to different varieties of religion may have something to do with their different reactions. Marx, who was born a Jew, married a Christian and moved all around a religiously diverse Europe, perhaps appreciated that varieties of religion were too diverse to make theological generalisations about. Pullman, on the other had, seems confident enough having read Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, to assume it is an authoritative text not only on Christianity, but on all religions.
Marx himself seems aware that rather than his theories being in opposition to religion, they were only critical of the entanglement of religion and politics in 19th Century Politics. The situation was similar to that of the United States today, where fear of gay married terrorists unfortunately somehow translates into a justification for throwing money at the super-rich and invading oil rich states in the Middle East. This isn’t the fault of Jesus. Jesus advocated neither wars or tax cuts – rather, he told his disciples to sheath their swords, and was best friends with a tax collector. It is the political cunning of the politicians in question who are able to manipulate the fears of different sections of society keep themselves in power.
Pullmans books are full of different mystical ideas which he seems to have amalgamated, as if to form a great axis to fight God. I was struck by the manner in which at the characters in “His Dark Materials” trilogy have “deamons” in the form of little animals following them around, which represent their personalities. What this of course means, in mystical terms, is that everyone in his imaginary world, has an animal soul. Religion is a set of teachings which instructs human beings to act themselves. If a person, like Pullman, thinks people should behave like animals, then of course he will disagree with religion.
To avoid over stating my points, and to complement Pullman, some of his criticisms are valid. It is bad that religion often acts as a means of social control. It is unfortunate that the Catholic Church won’t let its priests marry because they don’t want to pay them a salary sufficient to support a family. But to generalise this to say all religions are anti-sexual is wrong. Religions are very sexual in their focus upon understanding the true purpose of sex and constructing the proper frame work within which human sexuality should be expressed.
The set of teachings which constitutes religion has the true purpose of allowing the lives on human beings to run more smoothly, and in the right direction. When rightly understood, they teach the need for peace, love, harmony, and for the whole human race to view one another as a family. And they teach that human beings should remember God.