I was recently confronted, online, with the following attack, not only on my faith, but on faith — on religion — in general: “…even a cursory, critical look shows religions, unfortunately, have never been able to [live and let live]. Everything from home schooling to genital mutilation to nearly every violent conflict around us in the world today is the result of imposing religious beliefs on others.”
This is a prime example of a favorite tactic among atheists (especially the so-called “New Atheists”), and it is a charge which I am prepared to answer. I did not do so in the public forum in which this accusation was leveled (my personal Facebook page), and had initially intended to open up a dialogue with my accuser in private. However, given the frequency with which this issue crops up, I thought it would be useful to address it in a blog post, which has the advantage of being available for future reference the next time I’m expected to defend my irrational faith.
To begin with, it should be clear that the charge laid out above is really a criticism of organized religion, not of belief in God, per se. This is not an uncommon starting point, since the question of God’s existence is purely metaphysical, whereas the existence of any given religion is beyond debate. It does bear noting, however, that it represents a deliberate choice in terms of how the debate is couched. If we accede that God does — or even might — exist, this gives religion a foothold. By sidestepping the question altogether, this potential difficulty is conveniently dispensed with.
What the tactic above really boils down to, however, is a process of cherry-picking among the evils of the world (“nearly every violent conflict”) and acknowledging only those the source of which can be clearly traced back directly to organized religion. No one in their right mind would question, for example, that the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, or the 9/11 attacks all represent monstrous evil enacted in the name of religion. Indeed, as my critic noted, genital mutilation is typically ascribed to religious beliefs, although it could be argued that in this, as in many other instances, religious convictions are employed merely as an expedient which covers deeper, less clear-cut motivations. Is it not, for example, possible that the true motivator of genital mutilation is the maintenance of a patriarchy which has been established since prehistoric times and, therefore, is simply reflected by religion, not a true reflection of religion?
More to the point, however, we need to examine evil itself with a critical eye. Take the charge, above, that religion is responsible for home schooling which, it is implied, is evil. This statement carries with it a great many implicit suppositions: that all home schooling is motivated by religious convictions; that home schooling is necessarily a bad thing; by extension, that more traditional forms of education are unimpeachable (where’s the defense of “teaching to the test” here?); and, presumably, that those who are home schooled do not place any value on science, logic, or critical, rational thought in general. Those are a lot of enormous assumptions. Would the same criticisms hold against home schooling if, instead of a child from an evangelical Christian home, it applied to a child star in Hollywood from an atheistic family?
The Bible, in fact, makes the following interesting statement about evil: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” — 1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV). As with many passages in the Bible, this is intended as hyperbole, and it is refreshing that a contemporary translation renders this “a root of all kinds of evil” as opposed to, for example, the King James version which simply states “the root of all evil.” The point I’m trying to make here is that the love of money is not the only root of evil. Indeed, the love of money (or, more broadly, of material wealth) is at the root of much evil, including a great deal of nationalism. But we cannot discount the love of power — the triumph of one will over another — as an equal source of great evil. And it could be argued that, since money is equated with power and since material possession is a tool used to coerce the compliance of one will to another, that, really, it is the love of power alone which is at the root of a great deal of evil.
Clearly, then, any human institution in which power is consolidated is a potential source of evil. Does this include religion? Certainly. But it also includes nations, political parties, corporations, industries, non-profit organizations, cultures, families, trades, age groups, and ideologies and demographics of every description. Any time power is consolidated within a structure (overt or otherwise), the abuse of that power is a real and present danger. And where power can be abused, it generally is abused.
It is easy to point only to those abuses of power which result from faith-based power structures, and, by extension, indict belief in God as a “logical” consequence. Let’s examine the other side of this coin, however. What have rationalism and secular humanism brought us? A utopia? Would that they had! No, indeed, it is, for example, a direct consequence of the Age of Enlightenment that we are now experiencing such widespread global warming that the very survival of life on our planet is called into question. Without the much-lauded, rarely questioned scientific method, we would have had no internal combustion engines, no reliance on fossil fuels, and no wars over the resources required to maintain the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. If religion has been cited as a cause of such conflicts, it has only been an incidental cause, an expedient.
Consider the rise of fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups. Are they truly motivated by religious considerations? Anyone who has taken the time to read the Koran will see that theirs is a rather warped and pragmatic interpretation, no less so than the interpretation of the Bible by Christian fundamentalists. Any text, after all, can be interpreted in almost any way the reader wishes in order to support almost any position. Is it not more likely that the real source of the conflict between “Islam” and “the West” has to do with a hegemonic power structure in which one group has, by force, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, laid claim to the material resources of another? If this is the case, then this reflects a clash of cultures which, although involving religion, is not fundamentally based upon religion, despite any claims to the contrary.
Let’s take another, unrelated example. Consider the pharmaceutical industry. Few people are willing to accuse medical science of increasing the misery of the human race, yet this smacks of taboo. How many times have we been assaulted by ads for the latest, greatest, miracle drug, only to see the concomitant ads for the class action lawsuits six months later: “Have you or a loved one been injured or died after taking Falsehopeinol to cure moderate to severe hangnail disorder?” How many children are now chronically medicated because medical science has defined their behavioral traits as a pathologies? What has this evil to do with religion?
In short, while it may make us feel good — smug, sanctimonious, superior — to point at religion and identify it as the singular root of human evil throughout history, this is exactly the same sort of scapegoating which has, itself, caused such a huge amount of misery in our world. Consider the great conflicts in our history: the World Wars; the U.S. Civil War; Korea and Vietnam. Were these motivated by religion? Was the bombing of Hiroshima a Christian act or an American act? Was the firebombing of Dresden at the behest of Jesus, or a general? What about human trafficking; modern-day slavery; drug and alcohol abuse; the extinction of species; the defiling of the environment; poverty; starvation; widespread disease resulting from malnutrition, lack of potable water, inadequate medical care, and unsanitary living conditions? And, by the same token, was it not within churches that both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were born? Like it or lump it, a great many faith-based organizations are actively involved in issues related to social justice such as substance abuse programs, ESOL programs, assistance to the homeless and hungry, shelters for battered women, and the growth of infrastructure and economies in less developed areas of the world.
Before we ascribe all human evil to religion, and deride it as incapable of producing any good in our world, perhaps we should take a long, hard look in the mirror. Perhaps we should dig down to examine the roots of all evil, not just those evils which conveniently support our prejudiced narratives.