March 22, 2006

Religion or the Believers: Which is the Problem? (An Answer to the Flamingo)

A recent comment by The Flamingo asked a question which I'd like to take the time to answer. Although the original comment contained other content worth a response, I'll focus on the core question: "You mentioned in an earlier post that you felt religion was harmful, but I was wondering if it is religion that you dislike, the people who practice it, or both."

The simple, fast answer would be to say both. However, I think this would be misleading, so I'll try to give a more complete answer. One of a number of core problems with religion is that it requires believers to suspend rational judgment by believing a series of statements about the natural world that are clearly false (e.g., creation myths, Jesus came back from the dead, performed miracles, etc.). The second religion makes claims about the natural world, it comes into opposition with science. Because science can muster empirical evidence to support its claims and religion cannot, the choice is clear when religion forces such a choice.

Moreover, religion generally seeks faith and unquestioning devotion, opposing freethought. Even though some religions such as Judaism appear to encourage freethought, it is only of a constrained sort. That is, it is good to question as long as one doesn't stray too far from doctrine. Other religions, such as Christianity, are outright hostile to freethought. The most extreme example of this is the sort of Christian fundamentalism on which this blog tends to focus.

What I truly dislike is the influence of religious belief on human attitudes (e.g., intolerance of persons with different belief systems) and human behavior (e.g., violence, unwelcome proselytizing, etc.). This brings me to an important part of my response because there would be no problem with religion if there were no believers. Even a toxic doctrine that insisted that nonbelievers were less than human (i.e., Christianity) would have no power without the presence of believers. Thus, it is problematic to separate the belief system from those who are influenced by it and carry it out in their daily lives.

Now let me respond to some other important elements of your comment. You indicate that you "certainly do not agree with the people who preach intolerance in the name of religion." While this is clearly commendable, you must be aware that the Christian bible preaches exactly this sort of intolerance (see here for just a few examples). Is the wrathful, angry, punitive, and downright bloodthirsty god described in both testaments of the Christian bible deserving of worship? I think not.

As for Jesus having a message of tolerance, I was taught this view in church too. I believed it for years. The problem is that a close read of the Christian bible and many of the historical materials surrounding how, when, and by whom these documents were written cast serious doubt on this claim (see The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus). For some specific examples of what Jesus taught in the New Testament, see here. I will agree with you that some of what Jesus supposedly taught appears to be positive, however, the cruelty, violence, and intolerance cannot be dismissed when one sees so many examples throughout the bible.

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