What’s the Harm in Religion?

Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments

Image: a controlled burn via Wikipedia.

People often ask atheists, “Why does it matter what other people believe? Isn’t it their own choice? Isn’t it okay as long as it doesn’t harm anyone?” The answer to this is “Of course it doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.” And herein lies the problem with religions; they, by their nature, encroach upon the non-religious areas of life and influence decisions on a social and political level. People can believe what they like in private; this is a very important part of living in a free and equitable society, the freedom of and from religion.

Because religion is seen by religious folks as the one true way, and in the case of the two major religions it is written in their holy books, they see it as their business to push their beliefs onto others. Both major religions have as part of their basic tenets the idea of proselytising as a core practice. Of course this means that they see it as their right and duty to see their religious doctrines being represented in every aspect of not only their own lives, but also the lives of all those around them. These people, who in thinking that their “god-given” sense of morality is superior to those who don’t follow it, also see themselves as stalwarts against anything that doesn’t agree with this morality. Because of this, the more vocal of religious people want to see their religious doctrines foisted upon all of us, as if it truly is “god’s word”, then it must be the only way we should conduct ourselves.

We live in an age where the words of the religious texts, and more importantly their interpretations, are used as tools to gain political clout. In Christianity, we see this in the American presidential campaigns, where god and his apparent words are used for all kinds of prejudice, bias and misinformation. We constantly see Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and even Barack Obama insisting that their god is behind them, as if to give them political credence. Of course, if this were true, then they would all win the presidential race, or their failure to win would mean that god is not with them.

The Cornwall Alliance, a relatively small group of well funded business-men and women, preachers and priests, are seeking to push their religious agenda into schools and politics, with their campaign to denounce all environmental movements as “from the devil” simply because their holy book tells them that only god can destroy the world. they are self described as “the world’s leading evangelical voice promoting environmental stewardship and economic development built on Biblical principles.” All the while they are sponsored by Exxon, and are pushing for more coal use in the USA citing that it’s better for the poor to burn more. They look to the future, not with a sense of stewardship, but with an apocalyptic “end-game” strategy.

In Australia, it’s the voice of the Australian Christian Lobby, who are the self appointed voice of all Australian Christians, and who, according to their biblical interpretations, constantly push their religion into the social sphere as though it were their duty to tell others how to live. The indignant nature of their commentaries against gays, against same-sex marriage, and all manner of other “abominations” in the political sphere has its effects upon the decisions our female “atheist” prime minister and her cabinet make (not that being atheist assures that social issues are a topic of interest for individuals). The ACL recently claimed a victory when the Australian parliament voted against allowing for same-sex marriages.

On the other side of the world, in nations where Islam is the main religion, we see uproars, riots and killings, all to defend the image of their prophet Muhammad. Many of the primarily Islamic nations are theocracies, where the government is the representative of the religion for the people. If someone makes a joke, or worse writes a book, that may question some of the tenets of their religion, the clerics and priests are all too quick to declare a fatwa against the offenders. In countries where civil unrest is high, where education is low, where war and protest is increasingly becoming the norm, these kinds of divisive actions can spiral out of control quickly, and can spread worldwide.

But Islam has more problems, on a much smaller, but equally destructive scale. The tendency for men who, using their religion as a guide, kill members of their own families in the name of “honour”, is a disgrace upon the human race, and is almost always perpetrated against women. It is the interpretations of the Koran and Hadith that allow for such practices, so it is to the religion that we must look when laying blame. The culture that fosters this kind of behaviour would not find these actions so easily excusable if it were not written down, or interpreted to say so in the holy books.

Less insidious than the killing of people in the name of “honour” or the defense of their god, the religion of Islam can and does inflict its bias upon its societies in a very destructive way. An example of this is the recent banning of women from partaking in 77 university courses across 30 universities in Iran. From the article:

“The Iranian government is using various, different initiatives to restrict women’s access to education and to return them to the home to weaken the feminist movement in the country.”

Such actions can be directly linked to the religious beliefs of the governmental officials.

So we see just some examples of places where religion does move into the realm of “other people’s lives”, in politics and culture. These areas of religion are where the most harm is done.

What sort of a practice can call itself “right” when so many actions perpetrated in its name are harmful to people? Religion is the opposite of humanism; it raises the few up above the masses, it harms in the name of a non-human entity, it interferes with social rights and hijacks progress over and over and over again.

If religion were, as many state, strictly a personal worship of the deity of choice by people, practiced in private, and without the grand visions of converting the world to conform with social and cultural biases which stem from the religion, then I would have nothing to say about it. I would still agree that it is an odd way to look at the universe, but who am I to say that someone can’t believe what they want as long as they don’t use this belief to sway politics and society? Unfortunately, and increasingly, as religion loses sway in so many areas of life, we see it acting like a cornered dog, lashing out loudly and viciously against the world and those it disagrees with. This is directly at odds with a humanist focus, and in many cases, against an environmentalist attitude.

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  1. Fantastic post, Marty. I feel much the same. If someone feels they need to put their hope in an unseen deity, that would be fine if these same people didn’t use that deity (across time and space throughout human history) to oppress and control vulnerable people. Same story, different chapter. When will intelligent people take their religious blinders off and see they are complicit and aiding in the same historical injustices these religions have promoted and funded throughout history. 

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    •  @mariaRB You got it.
      Believers are merely mistaken.
      Leaders of groups whose rhetoric systematically teaches us we needn’t extend our love to neighbours who’re mistaken –to the point of inciting violence, inequality and harm– are no longer ethically permissible.
      Liberals insist such institutions move on from their divisive past.

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  2. “Why does it matter what other people believe?” is an annoying—and I think ignorant—question. Hello, what do you think dictates people’s actions, good or bad? Thank you for posting this!

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  3. I liked the article, and I have a question; Should people be forced to join a union in order to work or be forced to buy healthcare insurance before they can receive healthcare?

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