Some Background to the Essay
All my life, I have been an atheist. I also have to confess that when I was (much) younger, I used to think that this was an indication of the fact that I was brighter and more capable of critical thought than those who accepted stories that were so patently childish and absurd as to be beggar belief. As far as I thought about the effects of organized religion, it was clear that believing in preposterous, false, and outdated things could not have much positive influence on day-to-day society. This was made abundantly clear by historical examples and further illustrated by the political influence of religions when I grew up. But, as I was born in a democracy with a “separation between church and state,” rational thinking would soon overcome these things of the past, I believed.
How have these convictions fared? As I mentioned, I never wavered in my atheism, though I did not always call it that. However, I lost my belief in the inverse correlation between intelligence and being a believer (and, I should say, I am not so convinced of my own critical faculties anymore either). But my ideas about the continuing influence of organized religion have undergone a more fundamental and radical change. Far from it being on the “natural” way out, it poses an imminent danger to the future of humanity. Big words, indeed. But only this sense of urgency induced me to write up an appeal about a subject, for which such appeals seem doomed to absolute futility, as hardly anybody ever changes their mind concerning religion. And that is, of course, precisely the problem.
Before I start explaining why we should be acutely aware of the current dangers of religion, I should make a few things clear. This essay does not try to convince the religiously inclined to give up their beliefs. I find the arguments Richard Dawkins brings up in “The God Delusion” or the reasoning of Christopher Hitchens in “God is Not Great” absolutely convincing, and if these treatises do not change minds, I am sure I will not be able to come up with a better, more effective, one. Rationally speaking, the case against articles of faith is overwhelming, and I will leave it at that. In this essay, I will concentrate on some salient aspects of religion that I find especially interesting and which could make life very difficult in the near future. I do not take special issue with any of the religions in particular and do not consider Islam a greater evil than any of the other (monotheistic) belief systems.
Much of the current violence associated can be understood more easily in light of political rather than religious considerations. Also, based on its track record, Christianity has done the most harm so far. A further proviso: there are many who subscribe to religions and do not display any of the behaviors and more fundamental beliefs I criticize below. I am not arguing that all of these things are inescapably bound up with being religious. But I use the term “inescapably” intentionally. One really has to escape from these intrinsically negative traits, and that is a hard thing to do. Completely discarding a religious upbringing might be even harder. As will become blindingly obvious, none of the following ideas are in any way original.
The Tragedy of Religious Indoctrination in Early Life
I shall start out by briefly describing how our biological makeup makes us highly vulnerable to all kinds of indelible influences from the day we are born. In a sense, “learning” and “indoctrination” can only be distinguished from each other by the specific content of what is being poured into the highly receptive brain of a new-born individual. We arrive as highly fragile, helpless organisms with outsized brains. It goes without saying that we are not able to take care of ourselves and need an astonishing amount of time to grow up (unparalleled in the animal kingdom). Such a highly vulnerable being must be protected. Within that context,
certain characteristics coevolved: infants will soak up as much information about the world they inhabit as possible in the first period of life. That information is to a large extent filtered by older individuals (especially those in parenting roles). To state things rather harshly: if we want to survive, we have to blindly follow our elders, with the first decade probably being the most influential. Our formative experiences are thus deeply influenced by the beliefs prevalent in the environment we grow up in. This simple truth explains why the best predictor of your faith is the faith of your parents. As there is a surfeit of religious beliefs, that basic fact is more telling than one might at first glance think. Such a plethora of beliefs also allows us atheists to tell adherents of the great monotheistic sects: “Hey, we just believe in one god less than you do.”
Let me stress again; none of this is very original or exceptionally well formulated. That the single most important determinant of one’s religion is found in the religion of one’s youth was already implicitly pointed out by Darwin. This gives me an excuse to quote from one of his great contributions to human understanding, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” which appeared in 1871 (!). He explains it thus: “How so many absurd rules of conduct, as well as so many absurd religious beliefs, have originated, we do not know…but it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, while the brain is impressionable, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.”How did all of this play out in my personal upbringing? As one might have guessed, my parents were non-believers (though not extremely vocal about it). I had some family members who were practicing Roman Catholics, and these I sometimes stayed with for small visits. They, it goes without saying, talked about god.
I now realize that when my mother quoted me as coming up with spontaneous (?) questions regarding enigmatic behavior of the supreme being, such as “why does God not show himself?” I will never be able to disentangle the influences and subtle reinforcements that were at work in such instances. It is, of course, completely clear that I was strongly influenced by the prevalent beliefs in my own background as well (as I mentioned earlier, in some sense, learning and indoctrination can hardly be distinguished). However, I am still convinced that letting a child discover and think for itself is more an integral part of normal upbringing in families of nonbelievers. In that sense, we are lucky. I am reminded of that fact whenever I am confronted with much-trumpeted instances of “atheists” finding god (especially when this concerns scientists). At first sight, this might seem to counter what I just posited. However, it turns out that in practically all instances, we are talking about people that had a religious upbringing, rebelled (e.g., during puberty), and became atheists. Later on, they return to the beliefs of their childhood, or something akin.
In conclusion, though Richard Dawkins often has been criticized for seemingly singling out Islam as “worse” than the other monotheistic religions (a tendency, if true, he shares with some of the other “new atheists”), his constant outspoken focus on the detrimental effects of a religious upbringing should be applauded. The term might be considered too strong, but I think that describing it as “child abuse” conveys certain of the detrimental aspects. Personally, I would not infringe upon parental rights with regard to religious upbringing, but I am in favor of a general obligatory education for children in schools without a religious background, in
order for them to encounter many people with differing points of view.
The Loss of Critical Thinking and Moral Faculties
What are the great losses one can suffer due to an upbringing in the shadow of religious certainty? I would say that one of the most pernicious effects could be a loss of deep critical thinking regarding the nature of reality and morality. Our natural sense of wonder regarding the makeup of the world is brought up short against the “answers” of religion, whether in the guise of “we already know” (compare, for instance, creationism versus evolution by way of natural selection) or “stop asking” (about the fundamentally enigmatic, unknowable, nature of God). That does not seem easily conducive to a scientific career or nourishing one’s critical faculties. The political and moral effects are probably worse. First of all, the belief in an absolute supreme being meshes well with authoritarianism in politics. Secondly, and I realize I am getting into hot water with this, religion blunts moral faculties. “How can you say that,” the true believer asks, “I who agonize over, and vehemently oppose, abortion (the taking of human life) and euthanasia or suicide (again, the taking of human life), while you atheists often seem to be fine with that?”
I’ll try to elucidate by stating my position regarding capital punishment (another instance of taking a human life). This is something I vehemently oppose, while believers in most cases are in favor. What reasons can I give for my position? Quite a few are rational: it seems to require absolute guilt (but there are always mitigating circumstances; when can we truly say someone is completely responsible for anything?), even very low percentages of innocent people punished in this quite irreversible fashion are already unacceptable (and such cases turn out to be far from exceptional!), sentencing is often severely racially-biased, etc., etc. Some are more emotional: putting oneself in the position of the convicted individual as the months become weeks, the weeks become days, the days become hours, the hours become minutes, the minutes… But does this mean that in very specific instances, nobody could ever make a sound moral case for capital punishment? Considering my deep emotional abhorrence, I would still oppose it, but I would acknowledge that decent, moral human beings could come to a different conclusion.
Why did I go into so much detail? Because I wanted to demonstrate that coming to moral choices (between opposing claims) is difficult and that our morality evolves over time as we gain new insights. When, at about age fourteen, I started to think about such things, I was sure I had to have absolute principles from which I could unequivocally derive the correct moral position because these were really matters of life and death. I struggled with the fact there are no such rules and no such absolute principles. Denying this characterizes the, thus completely understandable mindset that many believers never seem to lose because, for them, it implies moral relativism regarding good and evil. But realizing that good and evil are human constructs does not make them any less important or basic.
Another way of saying this? I never understood how anybody could say: without final justice after death; nobody would act morally. Does that not just show that you seem to be devoid of morality yourself? Ironically, it is the belief in the absolute moral prescriptions of their holy texts that can make believers so deeply immoral. This was much better described by the great physicist Steven Weinberg when he stated in 1999: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” I want to end a bit facetiously by asking the question: is it a coincidence that Josh Hawley and Mike Pence, who, both in their own way, have contributed so much to endangering the US democratic system (flawed as it may be), are such bible enthusiasts?
The Yawning, and Ever-increasing, Chasm Between Articles of Faith and Societal Reality
I have come to the crux of the argument regarding the danger religion embodies at present. Why is it more dangerous now? First of all: there are more believers than ever. Overall, they are also more fundamentalist in their outlook. These more fundamentalist representatives are more often in positions of power as well. This means that texts written millennia ago, reflecting misogyny, racism, paternalism, homophobia, and fundamental misunderstandings regarding the nature of reality, can form the basis for decisions in the rapidly changing, challenging environments that pose threats humanity has never faced before. The religious mindset is incapable of adapting to the rapid, large-scale changes of the moment (“How can it even be considered possible for one of god’s creatures to change the climate HE* created? It is just unthinkable.”). Especially at this moment in time, the bad mental habits of religion, such as the “us versus the non-believers” automatism and the rigid ideological and societal frameworks which have been imprinted for life, are a recipe for disaster.
* Let me point out (though it should be superfluous by now): of course, the supreme being is male.
Just think about the way religions treat women, some minorities, non-believers, and people who believe in the wrong god(s). This is not only a source of incredible suffering but a waste of vast resources of talent and possible collaborations, which we will desperately need. The enormous disparity between what the faithful believe and reality is further reflected in their attitudes towards abortion, and other rights of normal self-determination (think about euthanasia), which they so easily want to take away from other adults. The total prohibition of abortion they hanker after nicely fits in with doing nothing about birth control on a dangerously overpopulated planet and the misogynistic control of women. Need I go on?
Aesthetics, the Mixing of Wonder and Insight, and Positive Aspects of Atheism
I want to end with a more positive message than “religion is terrible.” Many people state that they need religion because of the moral certainty, the promise of life everlasting, and, especially, because of the deep emotional connection during communal services. They see atheism as negative, cold, and empty. In that sense, their response reminds me of how they think analyzing, and possible subsequent understanding, subtract from a direct emotional response to beauty. But for instance, beauty in nature only becomes more multi-layered and deeper in the light of evolutionary theory. I so often encountered this negative response to the “agnostic” moniker that I started to describe my own position as “agnostic” (though still completely convinced of the non-existence of a god) because of the idea of coldhearted certainty regarding something one can never be absolutely sure about, according to real agnostics. That those who are in direct personal contact with the supreme being also regard atheism as a form of arrogant certainty is one of the more delightful ironies in this context. There are three reasons why I am never describing myself as agnostic anymore: I) looking at the universe, the existence of a benevolent god has always been absolutely untenable; II) “agnosticism” resembles a logical cop-out (for those interested, a nice explanation was given by the philosopher Bertrand Russell with his famous teapot analogy); III) I do not consider “atheism” a negative term but a liberating concept telling us to make the most of the temporary gift of life.
Let us come back to the moral certainty, the promise of life everlasting, and the deep emotional connection promised by religion. The moral certainty of religion, I pointed out, reflects a dangerous misconception. The promise of life everlasting is hollow, as any decent biologist will tell you. I am listening to the duet “O death, where is thy sting?” from Handel’s Messiah as I am writing this, followed by the majestic choir joining in. In a sense, it is completely true: death can never sting, as we are absent when death has arrived. But what is more, at this moment, I am experiencing exactly that deep emotional connection we all crave due to the wonder of music, one of the greatest gifts to humanity. Just do not mistake that wonderful depth of feeling for knowledge or insight, as great music might give you the illusion of deeply understanding everything. And, alas, religion illustrates perfectly where that will get you.
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