ReligionWe shall not make the mistake to say “religion” and mean only “Christianity” (as, unfortunately, many of my comrades-in-arms have). Rather, we want to study the effects of religions in general. This is a difficult endeavor, because there are so many different religions. Yet, there are a few things that all major religions share by definition:
- They make supernatural statements. Otherwise they’re not a religion.
- They are sufficiently old to be considered a religion. Otherwise, they would be a new religious movement. Since religions are by definition old, their moral framework typically predates our current moral values. In the same way, their view of the world predates ours.
- They have survived until today, which makes them a religion and not a mythology. Since the religion has survived until today, it has most likely used some of the religious survival memes that we have discussed before.
We will look at these traits from a Humanist point of view, i.e., from the perspective of someone who defends equal rights for men and women, supports the freedom of religion, subscribes to a liberal moral framework, believes in science and logic, and is generally interested in the well-being of people and society.
If there is a god, atheism must seem to him as less of an insult than religion.
ReferencesIn cases where the present chapter does not give the references for its claims, the reader will find them in the Chapter on Memes. The reader is also reminded that the details of all major religions are discussed in the Chapter on Religions: Hinduism, Spiritualism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, Sikhism, and Shintoism. The denominations of Christianity (Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism) are discussed in the Chapter on Christianity. The claims about Islam are referenced in the Chapter on Islam (not available here for security reasons). The terminology for talking about religion in general is defined in the Chapter on Religion.
In a nutshellFrom an atheist point of view, religions are stories that people tell each other. There is no evidence for the truth of religious claims. This has the following consequences:
- Religions do not make any predictions about the physical world. This means that, by adhering to a religion, one does not learn anything about the real world that could not be known otherwise as well. Religion is thus, from the viewpoint of understanding the real world, a useless construction.
- Since a religion does not make any predictions, we can never find out if it is wrong. Thus, religion is an ideological trapdoor: once we start believing in it, we can never find out if we are mistaken. This means that a believer has left the sphere of rational argument. In religious matters, anyone can claim anything.
- Tied to that ideological trapdoor are a set of moral values that are benign at best, besides the point in many cases, and sometimes in outright contradiction to the Human Rights: All major religions (except Taoism and some variants of Protestantism) give less rights to women; all major religions (except the Bahai Faith, Buddhism, and Taoism) oppose interfaith marriage; all major religions (except liberal Christianity and variations of Hinduism) shun homosexuality; and all major religions trivialize or even glorify violence by presenting hell as a solution to human wrong doing.
- Since no religion can be proven wrong, and since they all differ, religious boundaries coincide with conflict boundaries all over the world. Examples are the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, Nigeria, Darfur, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Sudan, the Philippines, Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The Humanist answer to religious ideologies is a society based on reason and empathy, in which knowledge about the physical world comes from science, ethical rules are derived from the desire to care for each other, political decisions are taken by democratic means, and people are free to do or believe anything that does not harm someone else.
Medieval Notion of TruthBy definition, religions make supernatural statements. These typically concern gods, spirits, supra-systems, or the afterlife. Such statements are presented to be as true as observed facts. Religions do not distinguish between “This is a fact” and “This is a supernatural belief”. We may argue that Liberal Christians are an exception to this rule, because they take a very light view on religious dogmata. Yet, even liberal Christians will say “There is a god” with the same seriousness as “The Earth is spherical”. They consider both statements equally true. Adherents of all major religions will explain the facts of life (such as the genesis of the universe, or the good and bad events of life) by reference to supernatural will — with the same seriousness as they will explain other things by scientific theories.
In reality, there is a fundamental difference between supernatural statements and scientific statements: Scientific statements are based on evidence in the form of validated theories, and supernatural and magical statements are not. They are just claims.
Religion blurs the difference between these two types of statements. It teaches people to trust in tales that have been collected thousands of years ago as if they had the same status as scientific discoveries. It makes no distinction between empirical study and oral tradition. Thereby, religions convey a medieval, mystical, pre-scientific concept of truth. Religion says that it’s OK to believe in unverified things, in unverifiable things, in unfalsifiable things, or in stories whose only voucher for truth is tradition — as long as it’s their own. We may argue that we all believe in things that are not verified. However, religion goes a step further by saying: It is OK to change your life entirely for reasons that cannot be verified, and that cannot even be falsified. That is an order of magnitude bolder. For this to work, religions have to downplay the need for evidence. They have to say that evidence is not always required. The problem is that, by removing evidence from the equation, religion has robbed us of something way more fundamental: The means to distinguish true from false.
This has very palatable consequences. If evidence is no longer needed to believe, then there is no argument that can be brought forward against superstitions, lucky charms, homeopathy, quacksters, conspiracy theorists, cult leaders, faith healers, and all other types of charlatans who play with the gullibility of people. By steering people away from evidence-based thinking, religion postpones the day when Indian villagers cease to trust quacks and fakirs [Christopher Hitchens: God is not great, p. 176]. The same is true for fraudulent religions: Scientology makes millions from gullible adherents. Televangelists, likewise, prey on the good-naturedness of the believers. No religion can argue against the nonsense of these religions, because this would expose their own nonsense. Consider, e.g., the practice of table-turning: all the Catholic Church can do is warning the faithful against the “magical practices” 1. The Church cannot say that the practices are nonsense, because this would put into question its own practices. These teachings find their ways into the education of children.
Worse, once evidence is removed as a criterion, we have no argument against religious fanatics, hate preachers, and terrorist demagogues. By abandoning evidence as a way to distinguish true from false, we give these people free reign to live and teach their fanaticism. We teach people that faith needs no proof, evidence or justification, and then watch them believe the wrong thing [Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, p. 426].
Suffering is suffering, no matter who endures it.
Scholarship is scholarship, no matter who procures it.
False claimsReligions blur the difference between truth and falsehood. But they do not just blur the difference, they also make outright false statements. The most prominent example is maybe the young Earth theory upheld in some interpretations of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It holds that the Earth is just a few thousand years old (see picture on the right). Other examples are claims of magic, such as a god creating life (in the abrahamic religions and Hinduism), a person walking on the water (in Christianity), a virgin birth (in Christianity and Islam), a man walking faster than another man running (Buddhism, ), or some gods giving birth to a human. Even liberal Christians will recite the Nativity story as if it were true — while it is historically false. In addition, some religions claim contemporary miracles: a weeping statue of Mary (Christianity), a prophet miraculously surviving an execution (Bahai Faith), people being healed miraculously, or people levitating (Hinduism). These claims serve the purpose of knitting the religious society together.
From a scientific point of view, of course, all of these claims are nonsense. God did not create life. Evolution did. Miracles do not happen. They are just stories. Faith Healing does not work, it’s all just fraud and hear-say. Moses did not part the waters. That’s just a mythical story. People cannot levitate, and they don’t survive when they are killed.
In all of these cases, the religions claim something that is outright wrong. They assuage us by saying that these claims are exceptional isolated cases; by saying that we should not criticize them because they are an element of faith; or by claiming that we cannot know the truth, and should hence give the benefit of doubt. That is wrong. We do know. These miraculous things go against the laws of nature. This is by definition, because a miracle is what goes against the laws of nature. However, things do not go against the laws of nature. Therefore, the miracles did not happen. The laws of nature have a much better track record of speaking the truth than any religion.
Thus, anybody who claims these things, and in particular who teaches them to children, speaks a falsehood.
You are completely entitled to opinions that are not supported by evidence.
But the moment you spread that opinion as fact, you are a liar.
And if you spread it as a fact knowing that it is not supported by evidence, you are both a liar and a fraud.
Opposition to criticismReligions claim divine authority. This means also that they cannot change in response to criticism. In fact, some major religions actively prohibit criticism, with some variants even demanding the death penalty for critics. This is surprising: If religions were really interested in the truth, then they should invite proposals for improvement. If the religions were true, then they could withstand all criticism just by the force of their truth. Yet, they cannot. They have to shun criticism and excommunicate or execute the doubters in order to survive. This is, in itself, an admittance of failure in atheist eyes.
This resilience to criticism has a very practical consequence. It gives these religions free reign in their most harmful thrusts: their quest to produce as many children as possible, their subordination of women, or their discrimination against other faiths. By silencing the critics, these religions can pursue their harmful ways without opposition.
We can argue that such reasoning applies only to the most harmful flavors of today’s religions. Yet, even the moderate interpretations of a religion contribute. This is because even the moderate flavors posit that faith shall not be criticized. They have created an aura of untouchability around religious issues. “Faith has to be respected”, the saying goes. If the faith is not respected, adherents react with anger or offense. This aura of untouchability then extends directly to the other more harmful flavors of religion. For example, Christianity cannot criticize that Judaism circumcises infants, because Christianity has to defend the idea that faith has to be respected. In Germany, Christian leaders have come to the support of their Jewish brethren in this matter 2. Likewise, Christianity cannot criticize that Islam gives less rights to women, because if it did, it would have to accept criticism of its own treatment of women.
Thus, by positing that faith cannot be criticized, the moderate flavors of religion de facto protect the more harmful variants. Islam in particular has created a mixture of fear, calls for respect, threat, and euphemisms to stifle any criticism of it — both in Muslim lands and in the West.
Take truth as the authority
not the authority as truth.
Unfalsifiable statementsBy definition, religion uses unfalsifiable statements. These are statements that cannot be proven false — even hypothetically. Take for example the existence of a god, of spirits, of Heaven, or of the Tao. There is no way to prove that these supernatural entities do not exist. God does not answer when we pray to him? That’s because he decided to not grant your wish! We have never heard anybody showing us evidence about life after death? That’s because Heaven is outside our perception! None of the gods or spirits has ever shown up? That’s because they are invisible! Other examples are abstract statements such as “Life has a meaning” or “There is something greater than us”. These statements can never be proven wrong either.
This unfalsifiability has three consequences. First, these statements are devoid of meaning. They do not make any prediction about the real world. From knowing that there is a god, we know nothing more about what will happen tomorrow than the unbeliever. This is because, if the statement told us anything concrete about tomorrow, we could see tomorrow whether the statement is false — and thus the statement would become falsifiable. This lack of meaning explains why religious people are in the dark about the future just like unbelievers are in the dark about the future.
The second consequence of the unfalsifiability is more disturbing: Since the belief cannot be falsified, it is not possible to show that it is wrong — even hypothetically. This means that the believer has chosen a belief that prevents him from changing his mind. A believer cannot change his opinion by logical argument, and hence one cannot discuss his faith with him. He has given up searching. He is locked in on his viewpoint. This leads to a conviction that is beyond reason. The first consequence of such conviction is usually that the believer is unable to conceive the thought that he may be wrong. He is also unable to understand that his interpretation of the faith is not the only possible one. Beyond that, the believer’s convictions can range from the benign to the most abstruse and dangerous viewpoints.
The third consequence of unfalsifiability is that anybody can come up with any other unfalsifiable belief. For example, if you claim that there is a god, I can claim that there are two gods. You cannot prove me wrong. For whatever argument that you bring forward for your god, I can always say that my gods are intentionally misleading you into your false belief, and that you just cannot notice it. You will say the same about me. We are each convinced to death that our respective own view is the only right one — but none of us can prove the other wrong. In such a setting, legitimacy cannot come from arguments or reasoning. Hence, legitimacy has to come from somewhere else. It comes from amassing large numbers of adherents, from silencing critics, and occasionally from violence. And indeed, religions lend their force to over half of today’s military conflicts, as we shall see later.
The solution, of course, is to disqualify unfalsifiable statements from discourse. It does not make sense to argue about unfalsifiable statements, just like it makes no sense to argue about statements such as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Such statements just carry no meaning. Religions, however, cannot identify unfalsifiability as the culprit. If they did, they would immediately catapult themselves into senselessness. Hence, religions are bound to argue by non-logical means.
In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it.
Knowing what God wantsMost major religions fall into several denominations or interpretations. Usually, adherents of one interpretation claim that their interpretation of the religion is “What God really wants”, while all others are derivatives thereof. This happens not just across the heavily antagonized denominations of Islam, but also in the other religions. Moderates will say that the more conservative interpretations of their religion take the holy scriptures too literally, and are therefore not what their god(s) really want. Vice versa, conservatives argue that the more liberal interpretations of their religion are modernized deviations from what the god(s) said originally. Some people even believe that God personally told them what is the right thing to do — in a dream or in prayer. They then take a decision because “God told them so”.
In all of these cases, people claim to know what the supernatural really wants. From an atheist point of view, of course, the adherent’s interpretation of his religion is purely his own opinion. It is the result of whatever he was told as a child plus his own predilections. But the adherent believes that this mixture is what God wants. Thus, the believer in effect raises his own conviction to the level of the divine. Believers may complain that atheists know no higher authority than man. But believers go a step further: They claim that their own interpretation of their faith is even above that of man.
The believer, of course, is unable to see this. For him or her, their belief is the will of God, and not their own. He or she is unable to conceive the thought that other people may have the same strong conviction about an entirely different interpretation of the faith.
Such a position is a problem because it gives these people a conviction that cannot be overturned by rational arguments. No moral obligation, no scientific proof, and no logical argument can override what God himself told the believer. The unfalsifiablility of the belief protects it from counter-arguments. This is dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness [Richard Dawkins]. Some believers hold that God wants them to circumcise their daughters, others that God wants women to be obedient to men, or and again others that unbelievers deserve death. Indeed, large populations of Muslims circumcise young girls because they believe that this is desired by their God. Islamists fly a plane into a skyscraper in the cocksure conviction that this is the will of their God. Westerners are always surprised when some Muslims uphold that the Charlie Hebdo journalists deserved their death, that apostates have to be killed, or that wives have to submit sexually to their husbands. But yes, this is God’s will in their eyes. But this type of reasoning is not restricted to Islam: In 2004, a Christian woman killed her sons because “God told her so”.
Now we may say that in the Western world, claims of “what God really wants” are harmless. The Western God says things such as “buy the red shoes instead of the blue ones”, or “all people shall live in peace”. But even this is not just well-meaning harmlessness. It is a dangerous way of thinking because it approves of the principle to argue with God’s will in the first place. Thereby, it approves of the way that religious extremists and terrorists argue. It tells the terrorist: “It is OK that you want to follow God’s will, but you are actually getting him wrong. I know what he really wants.” This is, co-incidentally, the same argument that the terrorists use. They also believe that they know what God really wants. Thus, by claiming that religious extremists do not practice “God’s will”, we actually lend support to their argument.
As a concrete example, a friend of mine told me that he is against the death penalty, because taking life is something that only God should do. That sounds alright. But if you accept this, how do argue against some conservative fellow who argues that wives should obey their husbands, because this is what God wants? Once you accept the one, you have to accept the other. In this way, religion makes us vulnerable to all kinds of fanatics that free-ride on the vehicle that religion created in the first place: the idea of arguing with God’s will.
So many idiots speak in God’s name. If God were real, he would speak for himself. The fact that God does not speak, and that he allows any lunatic who comes along to speak “in his name”, shows us that God is imaginary.
False claims of powerSome religions offer a method to ask the gods or spirits for a wish. These methods can be prayers, blessings, rituals, or intercessions. If believers practice such a method, they believe that the method will somehow change the future. Many people argue that prayer is merely a request, not a commandment to the gods, and hence they do not expect the prayer to have a direct impact on reality. However, the very fact of asking the gods for something implies the expectation that something will happen in return — or at least increase the probability of it happening. It does not make sense to ask for something while knowing that this will definitively not have an effect. Why would people pray “Please God, help the victims of the hurricane disaster”, if they were convinced that this does not change anything? They do believe that their prayer changes something.
The problem is that it doesn’t. Prayer has absolutely no effect on the real world, apart from psychological effects. Thus, claiming that prayer has any effect on the world is a lie. It is used to keep people in a religion, and to lure them into a belief system, a moral framework, and a world view. Yet, it promises people a power that it does not have.
The situation is worse when this claim is made by an official of the religion: a priest who claims to protect a house by blessing it; a faith healer who asks the gods to heal an illness; or a shaman who claims he can increase fertility. In all of these cases, the official wrongly assumes a power that he does not have. This wrong power gives him an authoritative position in society. Thus, he uses a lie to secure his social status. Furthermore, this act is part of his job. For this job, he gets paid — either by the religious organization or by donations, but in all cases ultimately from the believers. This means that he uses a lie to make a living.
The situation is even worse when the gullibility of the adherents is abused at large scale for profit. Televangelists, for example, suggest that God will help those who send money to the televangelist as a “sacrifice”. Such preachings are not just factually wrong, they may actually lead people into bankruptcy.
Those who offer false consolidation are false friends.
PretentiousnessReligions typically provide answers to the most fundamental questions of humanity: where do I come from, where do I go, and what is morally right? While thousands of people have dedicated their lives to finding the answers to these conundrums, religions claim they already have the ultimate answers to all of them — but without providing any evidence. That is pretentious. Examples are:
- Over millennia, humankind has developed thousands of legal and moral systems, written hundreds of philosophical treaties, developed millions of laws, permitted and then abolished slavery, shunned and then endorsed women’s rights, invented and then prohibited smoking — and it is still changing its laws every few months. And yet, the believer thinks that his current interpretation of his religion is the eternal and unchanged answer to all these struggles. Some believers use this imaginary authority to tell others what they have to do. At the same time, believers of all eras and all cultures were always convinced that their respective interpretation would be the eternal truth, and yet these truths were all different.
- For around 200 years, scientists have been seeking for the beginning of the universe. They have discovered atoms, quarks, and the theory of relativity, and they have given us X-rays, the GPS, radio, and aluminium on the way. They have not, however, discovered what happened before the big bang. Here, the believer steps in: She thinks that she can answer what thousands of experts cannot answer. Her theory of the origin of the world was developed by people from the Bronze-age, who thought that the Sun orbits around the Earth. Her theory has no verifiable evidence to support it, and it has given mankind no X-rays, no airplanes, no medical cures, and in fact no scientific result at all. However, the believer still thinks her theory can answer what science cannot answer. This is absurd, for several reasons. First, science has proven religious theories wrong over and over again in history. Second, a person who has never studied astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, or geology and who has never read any of the tens of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers describing the evidence for (1) the Big Bang Theory (2) the theory of abiogenesis and (3) the theory of evolution, and who doesn’t even know that these are three entirely separate theories, and that none of them has anything to do with atheism, is simply not qualified to describe and evaluate these three fields of science 3.
- We all struggle to lead our daily lives. Religion comes and tells us things like “Love your neighbor”, “Forgive sins”, “Cherish the good things you have”, or “Work to achieve goals”. Adherents praise these tenets as grandiose insights of great spiritual depth. They are not. They are just common sense instructions, which all societies have developed over time. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “deepity”: they have the patina of profundity, but are finally either trivial or nonsense. Religions rarely have anything ground-breaking to say about real life. You cannot solve a problem by going to the church. The aura of spiritual depth that religions claim for themselves is just a variant of the Emperor’s New Cloths: it works because everyone claims it works, and is afraid to admit that for him it doesn’t.
- Science has not yet fully understood the workings of the human mind. And yet, the believer considers it obvious that there is some spiritual substance in us, known as the soul. What is more, the believer knows with complete certainty that this soul will live on after the death of the body. Some believers are so sure of their belief that they tell other people that they have high chances to go to hell, or that their loved ones are safe in paradise, or that they will be reborn in a different world. And yet, despite being so sure about the life after death, these believers thank their god whenever the chance to this transition is avoided.
- Some believers hold that their religion is the only way to give sense to life. They maintain that “the sense of life” can only be given by belief in their god(s), and that, hence, atheists cannot have a purposeful life. This is not just false, but also an arrogant hijacking of the term “Sense of life” 4.
- Some believers think that they can be in personal contact with the being(s) who created and maintain the universe. They believe that they can communicate with the creator of the world, and that he takes the time to help them find their car keys. And yet, in the very same minute the believer finds her car keys, the supernatural being lets hundreds of children starve to death, despite their prayers. Thus, the believer assumes that she is important enough to be helped in person by the highest being, while millions of others are not. As WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com opinions: For a believer to talk about his or her blessings in a huge natural disaster like the Katrina Hurricane is to implicitly ignore the damage and suffering that are plainly visible for all to see. For anyone to believe that God personally helped her while at the same time wreaking havoc on millions of others is a supreme arrogance. Armin Navibi argues in the same direction: To assume that God is not only personally invested in the minutiae of your life, but that your problems are ultimately more important than other problems he may be asked to solve is both selfish and absurd, considering the incredible amount of individual problems and concerns of every human on this planet5. On the contrary, given the size and the scope of the universe, it is absurd to think that we might have any cosmically vital role in it 5.
All of these attitudes are pretentious, in sense that they claim to know something with absolute certainty without any verifiable evidence. Thereby, they belittle the efforts of all those people who really try to find the answers.
You don’t know what you don’t know,
but you already claim to have the answer.
WeirdnessDifferent religions have different beliefs. Usually, the beliefs of one religion appear strange or funny to believers of another religion. To illustrate this, we list here some curious beliefs. The reader is invited to guess whether I made up the beliefs, or whether they are really part of a religion.
- Adherents of this particular religion marry only within their faith. Since their faith comprises only 4 families, each marriage has to be approved by a geneticist in order to avoid genetic disorders. True or false?
Adherents believe that they have to kill voyagers and steal their possessions in order to worship their god.
True. The Thugs were a religious minority in India that worshipped their goddess Kali in this way . The English word “thug” derives from this movement 6. The Thugs were eradicated by the British, with little respect for their religious freedom.
Adherents believe that certain “dirty tasks” can be carried out only by certain “dirty people”. One of these “dirty tasks” is cutting the umbilical cord of a newborn. If no “dirty person” is around when a baby is born, adherents prefer to see mother and child die rather than to cut the cord themselves. True or false?
True. In Hinduism, cutting the umbilical cord can only be performed by a member of the “Untouchable Caste”. Other people will not cut the cord, even if the life of the mother and the baby is in danger.
- Adherents believe that a man has to suck the penis of a baby boy.
- Adherents believe that a certain specific ritual can protect them against throat illnesses.
Adherents believe that their underwear is the most sacred of all things in the world. This is because the underwear provides protection against temptation and evil. True or false?
True. The Latter Day Saint movement (also known as the Mormons) requires wearing a certain type of underwear. This underwear has spiritual purposes, and protects against temptation and evil. Hence, Church President Joseph F. Smith taught that the garment was to be held as “the most sacred of all things in the world, next to their own virtue, next to their own purity of life” .
- Adherents believe that their savior will return during the lifetime of those who have met him. Since the savior has disappeared some hundred years ago, and has not reappeared since, adherents conclude that there must be a person who met the savior, and who is still alive — wandering around incessantly until the savior finally comes back.
Adherents believe that the savior will come by airplane. To welcome the savior, they have created a special landing place, they dress up as airport assistants, they talk into wooden walky-talky imitations, and keep waiting for the savior to land. True or false?
True. In so-called cargo cults, indiginous populations believe that a savior, called John Frum, will come by plane and bring them goods. To facilitate his arrival, they imitate Western air traffic procedures with wooden tools . When asked why they have been doing this for 20 years when John Frum has never come, leaders replied: Christians have been waiting for Jesus to return for 2000 years, and he has never come. 20 years are short in comparison 7.
- Adherents believe that men are a temptation to women. Therefore, men have to hide their body, and veil their hair. This way, women are not tempted by them. True or false?
Adherents believe that the Earth will be destroyed soon. Therefore, they actively prepare for the end of the world. True or false?
True. The mainstream interpretation of Christianity has been teaching for the last 2000 years that the end of the world is near . Jesus himself hinted that the end of the world will come in the next few years after his death. Christians have been predicting precise dates for the end of the world ever since Jesus’ death . 15% of the world population believe that the world will end during their lifetime, and 10% believed it would happen in 2012 8. 41% of Americans believe Jesus will return before 2050 9.
- Adherents believe that the world will end in 1914. True or false?
- Adherents believe that their genitals are retracting and will disappear. Women believe that their nipples will disappear, while men believe that their penis will disappear. True or false?
This particular church believes that gluten is essential to transform bread into their savior. True or false?
True. The Catholic Church holds that the altar bread physically transforms into the body of Jesus during Eucharisty. This does not work with gluten-free bread 10.
- Adherents believe that an extraterrestial dictator brought billions of his people to Earth, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs. The essences of these people form around people in modern times, causing them spiritual harm. True or false?
- Adherents believe that they can be relieved from their sins if they listen to a certain radio emission. Since 1985, it is also possible to achieve relief from sins by watching a certain television program. Since 1995, relief can also be achieved over the Internet. True or false?
- Adherents believe that God wants them to cut off a certain part of their body. Therefore, they perform rituals where they amputate body-parts of children. The ritual is performed without anesthetics. True or false?
- Adherents believe that, at certain times during the year, they are not allowed to eat or drink while the sun shines. Therefore, they get up at night before the sun rises in order to eat. Then they go to sleep again. True or false?
- Adherents believe that copying of information (in particular the sharing of computer files) is a sacred activity. They also believe that in the beginning of the universe, there was a single bit, which was then copied over and over again to give rise to the universe. True or false?
Adherents believe that they are not allowed to heat food during certain days. Therefore, there are special microwaves, which are switched on the night before, and which keep the food warm the entire night, so that adherents can eat warm food the next day without heating it. True or false?
True. In Judaism, adherents are not allowed to operate any devices on Saturday. To cater to these people, there all kinds of appliances that simulate normal functionality, but can be operated without pressing a button . For the same reason, orthodox Jews make stacks of toilet paper the day before Shabbat, because they are not allowed to rip off the paper on Shabat (Y. N. Harari: 21 lessons for the 21st century).
- Adherents hold weekly ceremonies. During these ceremonies, adherents believe that they eat a human. True or false?
- Adherents believe that God is a single being. At the same time, God consists of 4 separate entities. True or false?
- Adherents believe that they are not allowed to eat dairy products and meat together. Therefore, they cannot eat pizza that has meat on it. Restaurants have to separate meat and milk completely. For example, a restaurant cannot offer meat dishes and ice cream, because ice cream contains milk. You have to go to another restaurant to eat ice cream for desert. True or false?
Adherents believe that men can marry people of other faiths, while women cannot; that women have to be obedient to their husbands; and that husbands can chastise their wives if they are not. At the same time, adherents believe that their religion respects the rights of women. True or false?
True. In Islam, women are not allowed to marry Christians, while men are; women are expected to be obedient to their husbands; and women can be beaten (lightly) as a last resort if they are not obedient. Still, many liberal-minded Muslims believe that men and women have equal rights in Islam, and that Islam is the precursor to modern Human Rights 11.
- Adherents believe that they have to throw their babies from a 10 meter balcony. This procedure is believed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity. True or false?
Adherents believe that they receive mercy from a certain deity, if they crawl on their knees in the street. For this purpose, a “crawl lane” (similar to a bike lane) has been put in place, and people crawl on this lane in their thousands. True or false?
True. This is the pilgrimage of Orthodox Christians on the Greek Island of Tinos . See pictures on Google.
- Adherents believe that an illiterate man who married a 6-year old girl would be the ideal role model to follow. True or false?
- Adherents follow the philosophy of the Jedis, the extraterrestial beings from the television series “Star Wars”. True or false?
Adherents believe that evil demons are afraid of white chickens. Therefore, they kill a white chicken and use it to chase away demons from a possessed person. True or false?
True. Hinduism knows several forms of exorcism, and this is one of them 13. See Wikipedia / Exorcism for more examples.
Adherents believe bread cannot be owned on one day of the year. Since the state owns the bread factories, the state sells the bread in these factories symbolically to a hotel manager for 5000 USD, and then buys it back the next day. True or false?
True. In Judaism, some types of bread may not be owned on the Passover holiday. Since the State of Israel owns state bread companies, the prison service, and the country’s stock of emergency supplies, the bread is sold every year to Mr. Jaaber Hussein, a hotel manager residing in Abu Ghosh. The next day, the state buys it back. .
Adherents believe that people who died need physical items such as money or cars in their afterlife. To transfer these items to the dead after the funeral, paper replicas of these items are burned. The items include paper televisions, computers, and mobile phones for technological comfort, and Viagra, call-girls, and condoms for physical comfort. True or false?
True. Asian religious traditions incorporate this belief. The paper replicas are called “Joss papers” . The items are detailed in news articles (Metro: Paper viagra burned for afterlife sex, 2007-03-22; NY Sun: Viagra For the Dead, 2007-03-22).
Adherents believe that they should not come in contact with images of women. Therefore, they have specially configured smart phones that censor such content. To enforce its usage in the community, the devices have their own group of phone numbers and a distinctive ringtone. Members who circumvent this restriction and use the service WhatsApp will have their children expelled from school. True or false?
True. Haredi Jews have such a special “kosher connection” smartphones. This became necessary because while the Rabbis banned television sets and Internet connections, they could not ban computers and mobile phones 14.
To an atheist, all of these beliefs are weird. Religion makes people believe things that would otherwise be considered completely absurd.
The easy confidence with which I can tell another man’s faith is a folly
tells me that my own is, too.
Verbal AcrobaticsBy definition, religions are old. Thus, their value system and world view often do not correspond to the modern view any more. At the same time, a religion can hardly afford to change its mind, because this would discredit it in the public eye. Hence, religions have come up with all kinds of verbal acrobatics to re-interpret their dogmata:
- This religion adapts to the current mainstream by artfully cherry-picking Bible verses. Slavery was first allowed in Christianity, based on Bible verses. Now it is shunned — also based on Bible verses. Abortion was first allowed, based on Bible verses, and now it is shunned, based on other Bible verses. More examples are discussed in the Chapter on Christianity. There is an entire Wikipedia article on different allusions to homosexuality in the Bible and what they could potentially have meant, arriving either at the conclusion that homosexuality is allowed or that it is not . An equally impressive example is the interpretation of the Bible in matters of death penalty, which can also go either way.
- This religion has developed an amazing tradition of interpretation and re-interpretation, in which theological justification has been found for nearly every possible viewpoint. We take here only one example, slavery. The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for taking slaves. The Reliance of the Traveller (the most well-known Sharia, which has been approved by the Al Azhar University in Cairo) makes children captured in war slaves, and annuls slave women’s marriages 15. Until the 19th century, the Muslim world was actively involved in slave trade, and held millions of them . It was considered the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the unbelievers . However, in 1833, Britain abolished slavery, followed my most Western countries, and, later, the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia in 1962). Since then, Islam started concentrating more on the Quranic verses that laud manumission of slaves. The argument goes that, since God rewards the freeing of a slave, God implicitly wanted to abolish slavery altogether (and was just to shy to say it). Suddenly “No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery” 16. Also, unbeknownst to generations of late Muslims, “the Shariah has worked tirelessly to undo [slavery]” [ibid].
- In India, the caste system has a long history, reaching back to 1500 BCE in different variations . The Laws of Manu, an early Hindu text of disputed authenticity, presents the caste system as the natural order of things (Laws of Manu / 1 / 87-91, Laws of Manu / 3 / 13). And yet, today, scholars have found “through deep study of ancient religious literature, [that] all such practices were contrary to true religion”.
The problem is not that the values change. Most values change. The problem is that believers and religious teachers defend their belief as absolute and eternal truth. They claim that it is obvious and crystal clear that what they believe today is the true will of their deity. And yet, the eternal truth that they believe in today is completely different from the eternal truth that their predecessors believed in a hundred years ago. Thus, their claim that their truth is eternal or clear is just wrong.
As a corollary, what is taught today as eternal truth may be wrong some decades down the road.
Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.
Pumpkin wordsA pumpkin word is a word that is used in its usual meaning, but then emptied of that meaning when it comes to nailing it down. Pumpkin words are a particular type of the verbal acrobatics that religions employ to square ancient concepts with modern values and science.
- Christianity holds that “God loves us”. However, this god does not do anything when we suffer, even though he could. Thus, the “love” has no consequence whatsoever. It is an empty word, disemboweled of its usual meaning.
- In the mainstream interpretations of Hinduism, people are reborn in a state that reflects their previous good or bad deeds. In this view, people who are born into suffering deserve their suffering. This idea is highly revolting to modern people. Hence, a common contemporary interpretation is that these people still “deserve” the suffering, but that we should still help them. This is contradictory: If someone deserves a penalty, then we should actually not help them. For example, we should not go and liberate prisoners from their cell, because they are in prison for a reason. Hinduism breaks this understanding of the word: By declaring that we should help those who suffer even though they “deserve” their suffering, we have in effect robbed the word “to deserve” of its meaning. There is no difference between those who deserve a suffering and those who don’t. We have created an empty word.
- Since 1999, the eternal fire of hell is no longer really a fire. It does not actually hurt the condemned. It just burns away the sins.
- Orthodox Christianity
- As in Catholicism, the fire of hell is no longer a physical fire in Orthodox Christianity. It has been re-interpreted to be a side-effect of God’s love: It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light 17.
- The Bible explains that the Jews are God’s “treasured people from all the nations” [Bible / Deuteronomy 14:2, Exodus 19:5], and that God chose the Jews “because the Lord loved [them]” [Bible / Deuteronomy 7:7-8]. Now this assumed focus of God’s love did not go down well with other adherents of that god. Hence, the term “chosen people” has been watered down to mean “people with a specific mission”. Some go on to state that “every people — and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual — is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence.” . If everyone in the entire world population is “chosen”, then the word does not mean anything.
- Islam says it “respects women”. At the same time, a women’s word counts half of that of a man in court (Quran / 2:282), women have to be obedient to their husbands (Quran / 4:34, 2:228), and women can be beaten if they are not (Quran / 4:34). How is that “respect”? It is just an empty word, used to cover up the blatant misogyny of the Quran.
- Most religions
- Most religions (although not all) propose methods to influence one’s fate. These methods can be prayers, blessings, rituals, or intercessions. We have already discussed that these methods amount to false claims of power, because they do not work. Now the fact that they do not work is often artfully hidden under pumpkin words: “God answers your prayers” would literally mean that the god performs some action in return to your prayer. However, since no action whatsoever happens in return to a prayer, it has come to mean “whatever happens anyway after the prayer will be considered the answer of God”. The word “to answer” has thus been voided of its meaning. In a similar way, sentences such as “Heaven protects you” or “This god protects you” would literally mean that you are safe from harm. But you are not. The words have been hollowed out.
Christians find themselves in extremely awkward and, quite frankly, embarrassing positions. They must believe that God answers their prayers even though it is quite obvious that he does not.
Dogmatic ValuesThe Humanist moral system focuses on the notion of suffering: If something does not cause suffering to other humans or animals, it is allowed. If something does cause suffering, the perpetrator has to pay a compensation. Furthermore, a punishment is applied to prevent the perpetrator from repeating the deed. The goal of this process is simple: It is aimed at compensating past suffering and at avoiding future suffering.
Some religions share this philosophy. The Five Precepts of Buddhism, e.g., concern only worldly issues, and prohibit killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxication . The 18 Titles of Hindu Law, likewise, regulate only earthly concerns. These are debts, ownership, field boundaries, contracts, verbal and physical assault, inheritance, and sexual violence . The Wicca religion even mirrors the Humanist understanding of moral values one-to-one, by stating “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil: An it harm none do what ye will”.
The abrahamic religions, in contrast, are not principally aimed at reducing suffering. As Roy Sablosky has argued, “Neither the Bible nor the Qu'ran displays much concern for human happiness or the lack thereof; both spend much more time chronicling the shifting moods of the Creator of the Universe”. In this spirit, the abrahamic religions devise rules that are not centered on human well-being:
- Judaism derives 613 Commandments from the Torah. And yet, the vast majority of them is concerned with food constraints, idolatry, and rites rather than with fellow humans . Furthermore, Judaism traditionally punishes apostasy, which causes no suffering.
- Of the 5 pillars of Islam, only one is concerned with other people. The others are concerned with fastening, prayer, pilgrimage, and faith . Furthermore, most interpretations of Islam prohibit the criticism of the Prophet Mohammed, apostasy, and/or blasphemy — all of which do not cause suffering to other (living) humans.
- Christianity may seem an exception to this rule, with its overarching call to “love your neighbor”. Still, of the Christian 10 Commandments, only 4-10 are concerned with people, and the others with God. Catholicism, in particular, has developed an elaborate system of rules, most of which are not concerned with harm against other people.
Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what you are told.
Religion is doing what you are told, regardless of what is right.
Morality in Islam and ChristianityIslam has developed this thought further: In the common view of this religion, we should do something not because of our sense of morality, but because God wants us to. This makes people follow rules not out of empathy, but out of fear from God’s punishment.
Christianity, too, has built up an entire philosophy in this direction. In Christianity, morality has become a self-runner, independent of human suffering, and advocated purely for its own sake. This makes the idea of compensation pointless. Hence the importance of the compensation decreases. In return, the importance of punishment increases. The focus has shifted so much towards punishment that Christianity holds that the punishment itself could make up for a bad deed. The most visible example is Jesus: Jesus’ death pays for the sins of mankind. From a Humanist point of view, it is absurd that a death shall repair other people’s bad deeds. In the same vein, some people think that sacrifices or self-castigation could repair a bad deed. From a Humanist point of view, of course, sacrifices and self-punishment are nothing else than additional, needless suffering. Rather than adding new pains, one should fight the existing ones.
The ConsequencesThese religious value systems detach morality from the effect on mankind. This has several consequences. First, certain behaviors may be immoral in the system, even though they do not hurt people. The majority of religious ritual obligations falls into this category. From a Humanist point if view, such rituals are needless restrictions of liberty. Second, and worse, certain behaviors may be moral in the system, even though they do hurt people. Examples are circumcision, female genital mutilation, or child marriage. Since the abrahamic morality does not depend on whether someone is hurt or not, people can perform these harmful rituals unconcerned. Here, the religious system is in direct contradiction with Humanist ethics. Third, a moral system that does not depend on its effect on people teaches people that morality is something that they have to obey no matter whether they understand the reasons for it or not. This makes it impossible to adapt the values to the progress of society. It also makes it impossible to find compromises with other people who have a different religion. Compromises can only be found if people are ready to adapt their stance. A dogmatic religion cannot do that.
Dogmatic values can even fuel extremism and fanatism. This works as follows: A religion that accepts dogmatic values accepts that people believe something just out of conviction — no matter whether there is an understandable reason for it or not, and no matter whether someone is hurt or not. The problem appears as soon as someone believes in a dogmatic value that is harmful. This may be the belief that he has to fight against infidels, that he has to marry his daughter at the age of 12, or that he has to have his religion taught to everyone at school. If we accept that dogmata are a valid reason for belief, then we have no argument against such a person. Whatever argument we bring, the person can always reply that he upholds his dogmata just like other people uphold their dogmata. He can always say that god told him to obey a dogma. Thus, the very concept of dogmata withdraws believes from the control of reason and argument.
It is thus surprising that moderate religious leaders teach their own dogmata on one hand, but complain about extremist dogmata on the other hand. If you teach people to follow dogmata, you should not be surprised that some people follow other dogmata.
Obedience is not morality.
An Atheist and Humanist ViewFor atheists, there are no dogmata. In atheist eyes, moral rules are made by men. This applies also to religious rules, which were, according to atheists, also created by men and then later ascribed to gods. In a Humanist world view, rules should be the product of a consensus of people. This requirement for consensus subdues the rules to argument, reason, and checks and balances. Thereby, it makes the rules less volatile to extremism. Much like open source software is more robust to bugs thanks to the collaboration of many people, secular values are more robust to fanatism or discrimination. The overarching goal of rules is to avoid worldy harm to other beings.
This does not mean that secular values are always perfect. On the contrary, secular values have been brutal at times, they are far from being canonical or universally accepted, and they still offer plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, secular rules can be changed if they are found to be imperfect. Secular rules are continuously discussed, changed, and improved. They are continuously adapted to technological progress, and modified to mirror the consensus of society. Dogmatic rules, in contrast, cannot do that.
ExculpationReligions typically provide moral rules as well as mainly ideational rules. The latter include the instructions to pray, to wear certain clothes or to follow certain rites. This allows religious people to fall prey to the following fallacy: If they follow the rites, they can claim (and believe) that they are good religious people — even if they vault over some of the moral principles of their religion. Following the rites, ideational rules, and clothing requirements can calm your conscience, even if you behave immorally.
This does not mean that religious people would behave immorally in general. It just means that religion has created the vehicle for certain people to behave immorally and feel good with it.
The same goes for the reaction to other people's plight: While prayer is often a person's first response to a disaster, it often the least helpful. Instead of praying for disaster victims, it would be more helpful to donate blood, send donations, or volunteer. These are the actions that can actually have a positive effect on someone 5. A prayer serves more to the person who prays than the person who is prayed for.
Atheists have less possibilities to calm their conscience. They cannot pray in order to feel better in the face of the human plight caused by a disaster. They do not have the choice to confess in church or to bath in a holy river in order to free themselves from guilt. Atheists have to find comfort in making up for the harm they caused.
Setting up factitious exercises — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of humankind — and causing these be to accepted as substitutes for genuine virtue.
Women’s rightsThe vast majority of people in this world adhere to a religion that does not give equal rights to women. These are:
- According to the Quran, a man can have 4 spouses while a woman cannot; a woman has to be obedient to her husband; a son inherits twice the share of a daughter; a man can marry a non-Muslim, while a woman cannot; in court, the word of a man counts twice that of a woman; a man can have sex-slaves, while a woman cannot; a man can beat his wife; and a man is allowed force his wife to sex. The Sharia goes further, requiring women to cover their entire body, prohibiting them from speaking to men, and instructing them to stay at home. These points of view are shared by a large plurality of Muslims in the world. All of this is sold as “respect to women”.
- Christianity is traditionally dominated by male entities. All its prophets are male. Its god is male (“Father in heaven”). Its main addressee of worship is male (Jesus). Hence, most major Christian denominations give leadership roles exclusively to males (priests, popes, bishops, etc.). This general preference for males in leading roles is just the tip of the iceberg. It goes hand in hand with a less measurable, but more ubiquitous discrimination against women, in which men are generally considered the leaders in the family and society. This discrimination is then sold as a difference of roles — just that women are denied some roles while men are not. Pentecostalism and Lutheranism are an exception: they support full equality of the genders.
- The Laws of Manu require that “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent” 19. On the contrary, “she shall obey [her husband]” [ibid / 151], and “a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife” [ibid / 154]. The authenticity of these texts is disputed. This does not change the fact that Hindu societies are de facto generally dominated by males. This shows in practices such as the bride being given away by her guardian to the groom ; asymmetric wedding vows, where the wife says she will “manage the home according to [her] ability and reason”, but always “to seek [his] consent” (ibid); the prohibition for widows to remarry ; the wife becoming subject to her mother in law 20; and her primary duty as to give birth and care for the offspring 21.
- According to the Buddha, “It is impossible that a woman should be the perfect rightfully Enlightened One” 22. According to him “women are prone to anger; women are envious; women are miserly; women are unwise. This is why women do not sit in council, engage in business, or go to Kamboja.” 23 Women are like black snakes, in that they are “wrathful, hostile, of deadly venom, double-tongued, and betray friends” [ibid / 5:229—230]. “Women die unsatisfied and discontent in two things. What two? Sexual intercourse and giving birth” [ibid / 4:61]. Maybe this is why, “for the most part women are adulterous” [ibid / 5:229—230]. The Buddha classified women into 7 types of wives — which are either evil or submissive (Wikipedia / 7 types of wives, Pali Canon / Sutta Pitaka / Anguttara Nikaya / 7:59). To be fair, the ordination of women in Buddhism is and has always been practiced in some Buddhist regions , and the Dalai Lama is in favor 24.
- This religion has traditionally given less rights to women. A husband could divorce a wife if he chose to, but a wife could not divorce a husband without his consent . Women generally did not own property [ibid]. Laws concerning the loss of female virginity (Bible / Deuteronomy 22:13-21) have no male equivalent. The 10 Commandments refer to the wife as the husband’s property — along with oxen and donkeys (Bible / Exodus 20:17). A traditional Jewish prayer goes “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman” 25. The Web page My Jewish Learning tries to re-attach the prayer to originally Greek, not Jewish, sources, and takes comfort in the fact that Islam treats women even worse. Today, there are different views on women’s rights in Judaism. Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, but other movements do .
- Bahai Faith
- According to this religion, “The Emancipation of Women and The Achievement of Full Equality is one of the Most Important Prerequisites For Peace” 26. Unfortunately, this religion does not fully contribute to it. The faith excludes women from its House of Justice, because its founder said so. The reason for this is unknown: The “wisdom of this will be known in the future, we can only accept, believing it is right, but not able to give an explanation calculated to silence an ardent feminist” 27. The religion also says “The Hearts of Women are More Tender and Susceptible Than the Hearts of Men” [ibid / § 2091], “Woman by Nature is Opposed to War” [ibid / § 2092], “The Woman has Greater Moral Courage Than Man ” [ibid / § 2093]. These are instances of benevolent sexism . If the faith really saw men and women as equal, it would make no such generalizations.
- The Master said that “Girls and inferior men are hard to get along with” (Confucius: Analects / 17:23). Confucians in general began to gradually teach that a virtuous woman was supposed to follow the lead of the males in her family . The “Lessons for women”, a Confucian text from 100 CE, says that women should be silent, hard-working, and compliant (ibid).
- Does not apply to Spiritism
- This religion postdates the Enlightenment, and hence it explicitly supports equal rights for women 28.
- Does not apply to Taoism
- The religion strives for a balance between male and female, which are “understood to simply be two sides of the same coin” 29. The idea of balancing male and female energies is fundamental to Taoism, and applies to women as well as to men 30. Consequently, the word “woman” is used in the The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts exclusively in the conjunction “men and women”. The word “woman” never appears on its own. This is because there is no regulation that would apply exclusively to them. A legend relates: When Liezi realized how little he knew he went home and took the feminine role in his own household, cooking and doing other chores usually done by his wife. Taoist priests emulate Liezi and take the advice of the Taode jing, avoiding typically male activities and emulating attitudes expected of women, such as keeping a cheerful attitude or speaking in quiet tones. They may even urinate while seated as women do. 30
The discrimination of women generally goes hand in hand with less education, earlier marriage, higher fertility rates, more male dominance, and more religiousness: the earlier women are married, the less educated they are, the more submitted they are to their husbands, the more children they have, and the less educated these children will be, and the more religious the society will be as a whole. The more educated women are, the less likely they are to marry early, the less likely they are to be dominated by their husbands, the less children they have, the more educated these children are, and the less religious the society will be as a whole.
If the woman can’t choose her husband freely, he can never be sure of her fidelity. And thus was born the oppression of women from the evil of arranged marriages.
Interfaith MarriageMost major world religions prohibit or constrain marriage with people of another faith. While this is understandable from a darwinian point of view, it is not from a Humanist point of view.
First, the free choice of a partner is a Human Right 31. Thus, any prohibition of mariage based on faith runs counter to the Human Rights. We may say that it is not good if people marry someone of a different religion, because the partners will likely not share the same values. This, however, does not entitle us to outright forbid interfaith marriage. The partners know much better whether they share the same values or not. We could also argue that everyone is free to just exit their religion and then marry whom they wish. This, however, does not change the fact that any moral framework that does not grant this freedom is incompatible with the Human Rights. If you have to exit the framework to get your rights, then the framework is incompatible with these rights.
Second, it is discriminating to put down people of other faiths as not marriageable. Imagine that a father decides “I do not want my daughter to marry a vegetarian”. That would be perceived as stupid, over-generalizing, patronizing, and offensive. And yet, this is exactly what religion does.
Finally, the prohibition of interfaith marriage partitions mankind. Consider the definition of a species: A species is a group of animals that do not interbreed. This is exactly what religion creates: Religion partitions humanity into different species. This leads to an unawareness of the other “species”, segregation, discrimination, and sometimes violence. Half of the world’s most deadly conflicts run along religious lines. If people were allowed to intermarry, the scars that separate them would heal within a generation.
FertilityNearly half of people on this planet adhere to a religion that encourages large families: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholicism. Such an encouragement is understandable from a darwinist point of view, but it contributes to severe humanitarian problems, in particular in Africa.
The average African woman has 4-8 children . The population of the continent has doubled since 1982, and quadrupled since 1950, to 1.1 billion people . To understand what that means, consider a country such as France. In 1950, France had 42m inhabitants. Today it has 60m. If France had had the same population growth as Africa, France would stand today at 160m inhabitants — that’s more than Russia. The country would just have collapsed under this growth.
This is roughly the situation many African countries are in: Statistically speaking, their population has quadrupled. This has an effect on the well-being of the children: If a family cannot feed 2 children, it cannot feed 5. If a family cannot send one child to school, it cannot send 5 to school. If it is hard to find university scholarships for thousands of students, it is harder to find scholarships for tens of thousands of students. In other words, the exorbitant growth of population seems to have outpaced the resources and infrastructure that the countries provide. Indeed, the countries with the highest fertility rates are often those with the highest malnutrition rates. I discuss these problems in detail in my essay Why are poor countries poor? / Fertility.
Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam contribute to this spiral, because they encourage people to have large families. Nowhere in these religions can we find the commandment to restrain the number of children. Catholicism even prohibits contraception.
This is not just an abstract reproach. Friends of mine have been at a Catholic wedding counseling in a developing country. They were encouraged to make as many children as possible, even if they do not know how to care for them. This is an irresponsible teaching.
Leaders who forbid their followers to use effective contraceptive methods express a preference for “natural” methods of population limitation. A natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.
HomophobiaAll major religions shun homosexuality to varying degrees. This is particularly visible in Islam: Many flavors of this religion punish homosexuality by death. Consequently, five Muslim countries have capital punishment for homosexual acts . But even the milder forms of Islam, as well as the other religions, do their part: They regard gays as unnatural, condemn homosexual acts, or encourage gay people to not engage in them.
Any singling out of people based on their sexual orientation runs counter to Humanist ideals of personal freedom. It is no one’s business whom someone loves, as long as it is consensual.
Any religious denomination that singles out gay people contributes to a culture in which these people are discriminated against. In most of the world, gay people cannot openly live their sexual orientation. They are harassed, stigmatized, and sometimes attacked. Even in more liberal countries, society makes it hard for gays to “come out” (Why do they even have to “come out” in the first place?). In some countries, LGBT teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts . By stigmatizing gays or gay behavior, religion makes life needlessly harder for those 2%-10% of us who are gay.
If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, [...] then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. [...] We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
Shunning ApostasyChristianity, Islam, and Hinduism have a history of condemning, shunning, insulting, threatening, or ridiculing apostates.
- This religion stopped persecuting heretics in the 19th century. Still, deep-rooted Christian beliefs contribute to the discrimination of atheists in the US: Atheists cannot hold a public office in some states, they are associated to criminality, and they are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups. If someone identifies as atheist, family members can turn against her, she can lose friends, people can denounce her in prayer groups, and she can be excluded from clubs and associations.
- All main authorities, the majority of citizens in some countries, and the laws in at least 5 countries condemn the apostate to death. Even in places without the death penalty, apostates face social exclusion in the best case, and repression and aggression in the worst case. We discuss details in the Chapter on Islam.
- This religion has a more pluralistic history than the abrahamic religions. Still, Hindu sources condemn atheists quite clearly. As we have seen, atheists lack legal recognition in India, and an Indian member of parliament can openly call for the execution of apostates.
The freedom of religion is a central Human Right 31, as is the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religious belief (ibid / 2). Thus, any system that proposes that atheists or adherents of other religions should not have the same rights as believers runs counter to the Human Rights. Any system that nurtures a disdain for atheists contributes to the discrimination and social pressure that atheists and agnostics witness in most countries in the world.
The basic premise is simple and rational: unless society encourages people to think freely, out of the box, originally and question present conditions, how can there be improvements, progress and innovations? That is why we see that the societies where apostasy is punished are among the most uncivilized terror-prone hells on earth.
Child MarriageThree of the world’s largest religions permit child marriage in their regulations:
- The minimum age of marriage for a woman is 14 according to Canon Law.
- In Islam
- The Quran encourages adherents to follow the example of the Prophet Mohamed in everything. Mohamed married Aisha when she was 6, and had sex with her when she was 9. The Quran also explains how to divorce a pre-pubescent girl.
- In Hinduism
- The Laws of Manu set 8 years as a minimum age for a girl to marry.
It is to say, however, that these three religions do not have anything against child marriage in their books. As a consequence, their institutions have historically not opposed child marriage. They have made people attend churches and temples, they have made women veil themselves, and they have prohibited people from marrying spouses from other faiths — but they have not prohibited people from marrying children. The three religions have thus been a bystander to the practice. They would have had the social power to prevent it, but they did not. Technically speaking, the reproach is that these religions contain a moral framework that does not condemn child marriage.
A particularly delicate case is the rape of a minor. Many religious interpretations hold not just that the girl can marry the rapist (even if she is minor), but that she has to. Press reports detail this procedure for Morocco, India, Afganistan, Jordan, and, until at least 1997, 12 Latin American countries (see my essay on Why are poor countries poor? / Women’s Rights). Even in the United States, some conservative religious families force their daughters to marry their rapist 32.
Child marriage is incompatible with the Human Rights, because these require “free and full consent of the intending spouses” for marriage 33. Child marriage is prohibited because it causes harm to both the under-age spouses and their offspring (see again Why are poor countries Poor / Women’s rights). A UNICEF report explains that “medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Compared with women ages 20 to 24, girls ages 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die from childbirth, and girls 15 to 19 are up to twice as likely, worldwide.” 34 Early marriage also has consequences for the children. A UNICEF report explains that early marriage “is also associated with adverse health effects for her children, such as low birthweight. Furthermore, it has an adverse effect on the education and employment opportunities of girls.” 35 Finally, sex between an aged man and a premature girl can be traumatic for the girl.
CrueltyReligions are, by definition, old. Therefore, their value system predates ours, and is often incompatible with it. One example of such divergence is the cruelty of punishments. Most major religions have punishments in their scripture that are considered cruel by today’s standards. These are beating (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism), amputation (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism), and execution (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism). The latter can take very brutal forms, such as crucification in Islam, stoning in Judaism, burning in Hinduism, or the slow slicing of the body into several pieces over an extended period of time until death arrives — as part of the Five Punishments in Confucianism. Islam, in particular, knows the concept of kin punishment, where an innocent person can be killed in revenge (Quran 2:178).
These punishments are horrible by today’s standards. Still, they are on the books of these religions. The scriptures have never been changed to remove them. A religion that has abandoned brutal punishments is inconsistent. A religion that has not abandoned them (such as variants of Islam), is incompatible with the Human Rights. These say that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” 31.
The Lord says: Whoever does any work on Sabbath must be put to death. Thus, the word of the Lord basically tells us to kill half of the U.S. population. But if God is an all-powerful being, he would kill them himself. There would be no need for people to do the murdering. These people would already be dead, and Wal-Mart would be closed on the Sabbath through lack of employees.
SlaveryTraditionally, several major religions have supported the segregation of humanity in lower and higher classes. This segregation took the form of slavery in the West, and of the caste system in India. In both cases, the characteristic principle is that rights are denied to a class of people based on their birth. This applies to the following religions:
- This religion has historically supported slavery. The major branches renounced slavery only in the 20th century.
- This religion, likewise, has historically supported slavery. Like Christianity, it renounced slavery only in the 20th century.
- This religion has historically known the notion of slavery. The movement against slavery began only in the 19th century .
- This religion has known the caste system since the Vedic times . Nowadays, Hinduism is interpreted so as to forbid the caste system. Still, a hundred years after the British introduced positive discrimination for lower castes, the Indian society is still stratified , and inter-marriage between castes remains a rarity at 6% The Economist, Even as India urbanises, caste discrimination remains rife, 2020-07-23.
- This religion, likewise, knows the concept of castes, even though it has been officially opposing it for the past few hundred years .
- In this religion, the caste system “has existed for centuries” [ibid].
Slavery and servitude is against the Human Rights 31. Thus, the value systems of these religions have, at least historically, been at odds with today’s values.
I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. [...] And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God and pray that is will be done on Earth. It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.
Human rightsWith the above, we find that all major religions are at odds with one or more articles of the Human Rights. The Human Rights go as follows 31:
- Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
- The Abrahamic Religions have traditionally allowed slavery. The Indian religions have known the caste system. Islam, in particular, does not grant unbelievers the same rights (marriage with Muslim women, e.g., is prohibited, while Muslims can marry non-Muslim women).
- Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as [...] sex [or] religion
- Nearly all major religions give women less rights.
- Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
- Congratulations, this article is not contested.
- Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude
- The Abrahamic Religions and the Indian Religions have traditionally allowed slavery and/or servitude.
- Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Most major religions have traditionally supported cruel punishment. Variants of Islam still do.
- Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
- As discussed, slaves were not, and women still are not.
- Article 8: Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunal
- While most religions go hand in hand with the government, some religions challenge the role of national governments in jurisdiction. Extremist variants of Islam aim for a theocracy.
- Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
- Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal
- Article 11: Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
- In Islam, the word of a woman counts half of that of a man in court (Quran 2:282). Thus, in any litigation of a man against a woman, the woman automatically loses out. For rape, for example, the woman has to bring 4 witnesses (Quran / 4:15) — an impossible thing to do. DNA evidence is not admitted.
- Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.
- On the contrary, all major religions have a totalitarian system that interferes heavily with the private life.
- Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
- Yes, apart from slaves, historically speaking.
- Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
- On the contrary for Islam: In many Muslim countries, apostates have to seek asylum in other countries from persecution in their own.
- Article 15: Everyone has the right to a nationality.
- Most religions do not specifically regulate citizenship.
- Article 16: Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.
- All major religions forbid interfaith marriage.
- Article 17: Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
- Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.
- All major religions shun or punish apostasy. In some Muslim countries, apostasy remains punishable by death.
- Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
- All major religions shun criticism.
- Articles 20-30
- These articles deal with social and cultural rights.
Thus, nearly all major religions have a value system that is incompatible with the Human Rights in at least one aspect. Much verbal acrobatics has been attempted to hide this, but the fact remains. The Islamic world has come up with several alternative “Islamic Human Rights”, most notably to fight against equal rights for men and women, and against religious freedom . Catholicism, too, continues to be at odds with the Human Rights. All of this is not surprising: these religions are centuries old. They are based on an ancient world view in which accidents and diseases were a punishment of the gods, physical laws were unknown, mankind was the center of the universe, and humans were considered incapable of giving themselves rules. No wonder that this outdated physical world view goes along with an outdated moral world view (Stephen Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 394).
Dealing with incompatibilityThis book argues that moral values have evolved over time, and have then lead to the Human Rights. Religions, in contrast, have remained static. This has led to a divergence between the religious value systems and modern values. There are several solutions to this problem.
- The religion can just impose its values, and prevent any update. This way, current values and religious values remain identical. This is indeed what we observe in some religious countries: In Egypt, e.g., 80% of the population back the death penalty for apostates from Islam. Such a penalty has long been out of date: Egyptians (and the rest of the world) would revolt if Western countries prescribed the death penalty for people who convert from Christianity to Islam. However, the Egyptian variant if Islam just continues to impose its values, and thus keeps the society in the past.
- Emphasize previous progress
- Islam did not abolish slavery, but it gave slaves some rights. At a time when slaves were mere objects, that was revolutionary. Similarly, Christianity allowed women to lead (female) monasteries and receive education. At a time when women had less rights than men, this was an unusual responsibility. The Old Testament, valid for Jews and Christians, codified with the principle “an eye for an eye”. This principle was revolutionary, because it limited the punishment of a deed to the damage done by the deed. Other religions can be credited with establishing other moral standards, or with prohibiting cruel pagan rituals. When criticised for other shortcomings, these religions can point to their early achievements. They will argue that they have historically been very progressive. However, past achievements cannot belittle the fact that what was progressive a thousand years ago is utterly backward now.
- Another way to deal with the evolution of human values is to interpret the religious scriptures as indications for the right direction. For example, the fact that Jesus appreciated Mary Magdalene can be seen as an indication that, on the long run, Jesus desired equal rights for women (which is what feminist Christians hold). The fact that Islam appreciates the freeing of a slave can be understood as the instruction to abolish slavery on the long run. This, however are speculations. If it had been the divine will to give women equal rights, or to abolish slavery, then the respective prophet could have easily stated that explicitly. If we start speculating about extrapolations, then what is the extrapolation of the fact that Jesus did not marry, or that he asks us to stone to death children who curse their parents? What is the extrapolation of the fact that Mohammed allowed men to have four women (and himself an arbitrary number of women), that women should cover themselves, or that men can have sex with slaves? There is the danger that we extrapolate the holy sources in whatever direction we like.
- Religious leaders can find that the religious sources have been mis-interpreted. For Hinduism, one has recently found that the religious scriptures have been misinterpreted during the last 2000 years, and that Hinduism does not actually prescribe the caste system, the oppression of women and child marriage. If religious scriptures can be misinterpreted so easily, this raises the question who guarantees that the current interpretation is the good one (or whether it would not be better to abandon the scriptures altogether).
- Religions typically offer some leeway in their interpretation. Nowadays, the leaders of the world religions emphasize equal rights of women, condemn slavery, and proclaim religious tolerance. However, between 1000 CE and 1500 CE, when the world religions controlled Europe, the Arab World, and India unchallenged, the world saw no progress on these matters: Women’s rights remained the same, slavery was ubiquitous, and heresy or apostasy were punished severely. Only when the religions lost their grip these issues moved. This indicates that it is religion that follows the values of society rather than vice versa.
- Another way to deal with an incompatibility is to selectively drop tenets from the scripture or previous interpretations of the religion. For example, the Bible states that it is forbidden to wear cloths made of two different materials (Bible / Leviticus 19:19). For unknown reasons, this rule no longer finds adherents. Similarly, the Quran states that a woman’s word counts half of a man’s word in court (Quran / 2:282). This has the effect that when a man and a woman have a dispute in court, the man automatically wins. And yet, few Muslims in the Western world insist on this tenet today.
- Some believers hold the view that the religious sources automatically adapt themselves. While the literal text stays the same, their interpretation changes, so that the current reading of the texts is always congruent with current values. The problem is that we never know when to change the interpretation and in which direction. Furthermore, whoever wishes to propose new values has not just to justify these new values, but also to come up with a new interpretation of the texts. Therefore, the texts always act as a support for the status quo, and never as a proponent for change. In the end, it is always the doubter who develop values, and sacred texts that trail behind.
- Another option is to deny the divergence between religion and society. Examples for such denials are: “Tunisia is a secular country” (while the constitution states that it is Muslim), “Hinduism is tolerant towards other religions” (while current Hindu culture prohibits marriage with non-Hindus), “Muslims had slaves just to protect them” (while Arabs traded slaves during centuries and sold them to Europeans), “Islam gives equal rights to women” (while Islam prohibits women from marrying non-Muslims, gives women less heritage, and husbands the right to beat their wives), “Hinduism does not support the caste system” (while the caste system has existed for millennia in this religion and Hinduism did and does nothing to abolish it), or “Jesus wanted peace for all people” (while he said he did not come to bring peace, but the sword (Bible / Matthew 10:34)). Denial does not change the fact that a traditional interpretation of the world religions conflicts with modern values.
- Not the real religion
- When confronted with a problematic stance of a religion, a believer can point out that this stance is not the real stance of the religion, but rather a wrong interpretation of the true religion. The problem is that every interpretation claims to be the real one. In any case, even if one interpretation is the “true one”, this does not change the fact that millions adhere to the “wrong one”.
- New Religion
- If society and religion lose touch, people can develop a new religion. This has happened several times in history. The foundation of a new religion often leads to violence, if there is an established religion around. This is because most religions, once established, forget that they have been young before, and oppose new religions.
Truth never triumphs. Its opponents just die out.
Justification of EvilOne of the attractive points of a religion is that it offers explanations for the evil in this world. Common explanations are that the evil is either wanted by the gods, deserved for previous wrong-doing, or minuscule in comparison to the joys of the afterlife. Such explanations are known as the Just World Hypothesis, and they reduce the emotional discomfort that we feel when we see the suffering around us. The problem is that, more often than not, the religious explanation also justifies the suffering. This applies to the following religions:
- The Abrahamic Religions
Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Spiritualism, and the Bahai Faith believe in an all-powerful god. Therefore, the evil in this world must come in one way or another from this god, or at least happen with his permission. Furthermore, this god is benevolent. Therefore, all evil in this world has to be somehow justified. Various theories have been developed. The evil could be a punishment, a prerequisite for a greater good, an entertaining distraction, a catalyst for spiritual growth, or a test for the afterlife. All of these explanations mean that the evil in this world is actually alright. It is, paradoxically, good that it happens. Such a viewpoint is abominable from a Humanist point of view. For a Humanist, suffering is never good.
Another line of reasoning goes that the suffering is actually either subjective, or minuscule in comparison to the joys of the afterlife. Such a viewpoint diminishes the plight of those who suffer. It is, therefore, inadmissible in any system that is based on empathy, such as Humanism.
- This religion teaches that bad behavior accumulates bad karma, and leads to suffering in the next life . Good behavior, in contrast, produces good karma. It then follows that whoever suffers has accumulated bad karma in the past. This is because if he had done good deeds, he would have accumulated good karma, and would not suffer. But since he suffers, he cannot have done good deeds. Thus, every person who suffers deserves the suffering. The Laws of Manu agree, and say that disease is a punishment for former bad deeds 37. However, there is no proof that these people did anything wrong. And even if they did, that would not justify their illness or hunger. Any notion that someone would actually deserve such suffering is incompatible with Humanist ethics.
- Like Hinduism, Buddhism teaches the theory of Karma. The Buddha is recorded to tell a man who suffered violence by villagers “Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-and-now!” 38. Again, any system that justifies suffering based on putative bad deeds in a previous life is incompatible with Humanism.
- This religion does not see suffering as a punishment for previous bad deeds 39. However, Taoism seems to advocate a passive approach to the evil in this world. The Dao De Jing tell us that “one who suffers disgrace will succeed” 40, and that “the Person who suffers hardships for the nation, Is the King of all under heaven” 40. This way of thinking is part of a larger concept in Taoism, Wu Wei, which literally means “non-action” . Any approach to life that does not actively aim to fight against injustice is incompatible with a Humanist ethical system.
- Does not apply to: Confucianism
- Confucius does not see a supernatural component or justification for evil (Confucius: Analects / 14:19). Common interpretations of Confucianism hold that evil is inevitable, and that it should be countered with empathy 41.
If God has a plan, then everyone who died in the Holocaust died for a reason.
TotalitarianismA totalitarian regime is one that attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, and morals of citizens. Such a regime state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society.
All major religions are totalitarian in this respect. They definitively have an “elaborate ideology that gives meaning and direction to the whole society”. They also “attempt to control all aspects of life”. They regulate
- Most major religions infiltrate the school system in one way or the other.
- The Arts
- All major religions influence the arts — sometimes merely by inspiration, sometimes by pressure.
- Most major religions sanction people who criticise them.
- Most major religions regulate sexual behavior, even between consenting adults or when alone.
- Most major religions regulate how we should think, and punishes wrongful thinking in the afterlife — even if these thoughts were neither spoken nor implemented.
- All religions claim to define what is truth — at least in metaphysical issues. They admit no scientific evidence to challenge these beliefs.
The major religions are thus totalitarian according to the definition of the word. Totalitarianism runs counter to liberal ethics. It also runs counter to the Human Rights, which do not tolerate intrusion in the private sphere 31. The only reason why these religions can remain legal in spite of their totalitarian affectation is that their threat to privacy is, well, imaginary.
Any system is fine, as long as you can change it.
OrwellianismAs a corollary to the above, religions also fulfil the criteria of an Orwellian regime :
- They “control by [...] misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past”
- They invade “personal privacy, either directly physically or indirectly by surveillance”
- They request the “adoration of [the] leaders”
- They encourage “doublethink, whereby the population must learn to embrace inconsistent concepts without dissent”
- They proclaim a “generally dystopian future”
- They use “euphemism to describe [a] concept, especially when the name denotes the opposite of what is actually occurring”.
- They punish thoughtcrime, i.e., the “act of holding beliefs or doubts that oppose or question” the system — even if these beliefs are never spoken and exist purely in the mind. Thoughtcrimes are controlled by something called the “Ministry of love” — just like in the religions.
Thus, technically, religions fulfil all criteria of an Orwellian regime. They are thus Orwellian. Religious leaders will of course contest this interpretation — much like Orwellian regimes always contest that they are Orwellian.
Spiritual AbuseIn some cases, religious totalitarianism is taken so far that it becomes spiritual abuse. This is abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, which may result in psychological trauma . It may include the creation of phobias, the induction of fear, the subjugation of children, the suppression of alternative opinions, emotional abuse, physical abuse, intimidation, false accusations, and isolationism [ibid].
The most visible cases of such abuse have happened in Catholicism and Protestantism . However, also Islam’s relationship to God is reminiscent of an emotionally abusive relationship.
What is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion if the activities or teaching of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be intensely disliked?
PruderyBy definition, a religion is old. In older times, there were no efficient means for birth control, or paternity tests. Hence, all major religions restricted sex to married couples. Since then, technical means and societal norms have changed, but the religions were unable to update their scriptures. Hence, still today, all major religions restrict sex to married couples.
Inside the married couple, Hinduism and Taoism acknowledge the importance of sexual pleasure. Taoism sees sex as a spiritual practice . Hinduism sees sexual pleasure as one of the four goals in life . The other major religions, however, have created a system of straight-laced sexual mores, in which erotic pleasure has no place:
- ...disapproves of pre-marital sex and homosexual relationships in its mainstream interpretations. Beyond that, Catholicism explicitly prohibits masturbation, prostitution, and pornography. Protestantism is proverbial for its strict sexual mores. Jesus reportedly said that even looking at another woman “in lust” already constitutes adultery.
- The Torah requires the death penalty for a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night. Traditionally, a man was not allowed to be in the same room with a woman to whom he was not married. Ejaculation in general was considered unclean. Still today, conservative variants of Judaism shun adultery, masturbation, adultery, and pre-marital sex.
- ...prohibits pre-marital sex and homosexual relationships. Going further, the Buddha identifies sexual craving as one of the hindrances to attain insight.
- The mainstream interpretations prohibit pre-marital sex, homosexual relationships, masturbation, prostitution, and pornography. Islam prides itself of allowing all sexual pleasures in the couple, but its most popular interpretations take a suffocating stance on female beauty in public. Far from appreciating women as equal participants in public life, they are obsessed with guarding the “honor” of women.
Trivialisation of ViolenceIn older times, punishments used to be more brutal. Hence, most major religions still have cruel punishments on their books. Even if these punishments are no longer enacted, they are still part of the scriptures of these religions. The scriptures also rave about the tortures in hell. In all of these cases, the cruelty is presented as something normal, acceptable, and sometimes even noble. This is particularly disturbing when it is taught to children — which is what all major religions do.
- In Christianity, God orders mock executions, desires human sacrifices, and commits genocide. All of these stories are read to children as if they concerned normal, justifiable behavior. The children learn to glorify a God who wiped out the entire humanity by drowning. They learn to spend their day looking at the half-naked body of a man who has been tortured to death (Jesus). This atrocity is presented as a necessary step to make God forgive the sins of humanity.
- Every 10th verse of the Quran is concerned with describing hell in the most vivid colors. People learn that burning men to death, and then replacing their skin so that they can be burnt to death again, is a valid way of punishment by the all-loving God. The Quran also presents the amputation of hands and crucification as the correct ways of punishment for crimes — along with an array of other tortures and ways of execution. In some countries, all of these brutalities are taught to children in schoolbooks. Hence, considerable proportions of Muslims wish to see these punishments applied.
- The Torah is full of descriptions of cruelty. God orders mock executions, desires human sacrifices, and commits genocide. Children learn to pray to this god as the most loving entity. The Torah also upholds the “eye for an eye” principle, which is essentially retaliation by amputation. The traditional techniques of execution were stoning, burning, slaying, and strangulation. Nowadays, amputation, retaliation, and execution are less popular. However, they have never been removed from the holy books. Children still come in touch with them whenever they read the scripture.
- Chinese Religions
- Taoism and Confucianism blend into the general background of Chinese folk religion. These know Diyu, a purgatory in which sinners are fried in oil cauldrons, are put into a grinding machine and ground into a bloody pulp, have their tongues being ripped out, and are frozen into ice cubes that then break apart. This is not criticised as something outrageous, but is presented as the normal course of things.
- Indian Religions
- Hinduism and Buddhism, likewise, know a brutal hell between two lifes on Earth. In Buddhism, people are “roasted in an immense blazing oven with terrible suffering”. In Hinduism, sinners are devoured by ravens, boiled in jars, and subjected to diseases. Again, this is not criticised as something outrageous, but is presented as the normal course of things.
Any glorification, justification, or trivialisation of violence runs counter to Humanist values.
How would you feel about a man who punished a disobedient child by holding his hands in a fire? Would you respect such a man? In fact, would you even want to get to know him? Definitely not!
Potential ConsequencesMuch effort hads been devoted into explaining, justifying, softening, or re-interpreting violence in religious books. However, violent words have an impact that goes beyond the conscious: Hostile words might subconsciously make us more hostile. This is a theory known as priming, and it has been studied extensively .
Furthermore, people learn from observing others . If people read stories that glorify violence, then they might become more accepting of violence themselves — they become desensitized. Let us consider the case of children, which religions target abundantly. Religions teach children that cruelty is OK as punishment in some cases. In this way, the children learn to suppress their usual emotional response to cruelty when it comes to religious matters. When the children grow up, they will learn to distinguish the violence of the imaginary stories from the violence in the real world. Some children, however, never learn the difference.
ScaremongeringAll major religions know the concept of hell. In Europe, hell has become an abstract concept that very few people actually take literally. In the rest of the world, however (and even in Europe until a few years ago), hell is a concept that scares people.
My grand-mother, for example, was terribly afraid that her husband would go to hell, because he did not believe in God. This was a thought that tormented her: she in Heaven, and her husband in the fire of hell. And no matter how much the priest tried to assuage her, the fear of hell was instilled into her long before her particular denomination of Christianity decided to abolish it. Other people I know (of different religions) are likewise afraid of the torments of hell. This may be completely incomprehensible for a modern European Christian, who has learned to live his religion by lip service only. However, the fear of hell can be a significant detriment to the life quality of people who really believe.
We may say that it should be, because this very fear of hell keeps people moral. However, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Furthermore, it also torments people who have done nothing wrong (such as my grand-mother).
Any threat of violence goes against Humanist values.
Fear not hell, because if it exists, you shall find yourself in good company.
Moral progressReligions typically have a moral framework. This moral framework cannot easily evolve. There is usually no mechanism by which the gods could update the framework when it no longer fits the mainstream society. This entails that the religious framework often trails behind the society’s moral framework. Eventually, the framework will be updated — accompanied by claims that the religion has pushed for change all along. But a change for more Humanist morals never originates inside a religion after it became a religion. More precisely: When a religion has passed its first 150 years of existence, it will retire ethically, and stop pushing for Humanist values.
- Slavery was abolished by the British parliament, and much later only removed from the mainstream interpretations of Christianity and Islam.
- Cruel punishments were not abolished by religious preachers.
- Equal rights for women are not spearheaded by religious figures.
- Gay rights are not being pushed forward by religions.
- Freedom of (and from) religion was not invented by the religious authorities.
An ideology can advocate change only if this very advocation of change is part of it. Humanism, for example, advocates questioning current convictions.
Scientific progressReligions typically provide gap-fillers for the open questions about the universe. These used to be questions like “How does the sun rise” — which were quickly answered by means of a specific god. Today, the questions are more like “How did the universe originate?”. Here as well, religions provide their answers. The problem is that by providing an answer, they discourage us from finding other (scientific) answers. Worse, any other answer may be perceived as a challenge to the religious teaching, and hence as blasphemy. For example, the Bible tells us that God ordered the sun to stand still so that Joshua could fight longer (Bible / Joshua 10). This was seen as a divine confirmation that the Sun orbits around the Earth. Hence, until 1822, the Catholic Church prohibited the publication of books that support heliocentrism — as blasphemy. But even if blasphemy is not invoked, the very conviction of already having an answer discourages the exploration, the understanding, and the dissemination of scientific ideas.
Humanism, in contrast, explicitly encourages scientific research, and the learning about the world.
Economic progressY. N. Harari has argued in his book “Sapiens” that the major world religions tended (and tend) to glorify the past: The ideal world is the one of the respective prophet (Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, the ancient Hindu sages). Since then, the world has continuously degraded. Hence, human well-being comes from going back to that old world. People could not imagine that the new world could actually be better.
This has an important economic consequence: The entire business of giving loans to someone is based on the idea that the future will be somehow better: The creditor believes that the debtor will be able to pay back the loan in the future. That is, the creditor believes that the debtor will create a value in the future that currently does not exist — a thing of impossibility in traditional religious thinking, where humanity constantly degrades. This impossibility is illustrated in the traditional Christian and Muslim prohibitions to charge interest (later watered down or abolished, Wikipedia/Interest).
Now the practice of loans has led to a great number of problems in Western economies: The first is obviously the great financial crises that were kicked off by bad credits. The banks lent more money than they had, in the vain hope that they would eventually get it back. When they did not, the system nearly collapsed. Debt is also a major burden on households — financially, morally, and psychologically. The same is true for entire countries. At the same time, a loan is the one institution that allows individuals and organizations to create large businesses. Imagine that there is some village that does not have a bakery. Now, some entrepreneur wants to build a bakery there. She cannot build the bakery with her own money. She needs a loan. If she does not get a loan, she cannot build the bakery. That means that she cannot make money with selling bread, she cannot employ assistants, and the villagers have to travel elsewhere to get their bread. The same is true, on a larger level, for companies, expeditions, and entire countries. Without the Marshall plan, Europe would not have recovered so fast after the second world war. And the Marshall plan was, at least in part, a loan. For all its problems, financial credit has helped the economic growth and the material comfort that we enjoy in today’s rich countries.
This institution of loans, in turn, is based on the trust that the future will be better. And it paid off: Humanity has now a higher a higher health standard and a better material life than 3000, 1000, or even 500 years ago. For all the faults of the current world, few people want to go back to the middle ages — thus defeating religious pessimism about the future.
Do not expect grapes from a burning bush.
Exemptions to lawsThere have been several cases where religions have won exemptions from the law.
- Judaism and Islam
- These religions require the circumcision of young boys. This is, technically speaking, bodily injury: a body part is cut off without the consent of the concerned (see my Thoughts on Ethics / Injury). Therefore, a German court ruled that circumcision without medical indication is a criminal act . This revelation caused a lot of embarrassment in Germany. Since the religious rule could not be changed, the law was changed instead: Article 1631d of the German Civil code was added to permit circumcision of male infants. To appease followers of Judaism, the article specifically permits the circumcision by non-medical personnel during the first 6 months after birth for religious reasons 42.
- Muslim religious leaders have set up “Sharia courts” in the UK, which arbitrate in religious and family matters . These courts have been criticised for disadvantaging women in divorce cases and for “meddl[ing] in legal issues that should be matters for the UK court” 43. Thus, the Sharia courts are close to a socially accepted exemption from the law.
- Charismatic Christianity
- Usually, parents are expected to care for their children. In particular, they are required to get medical help if the child suffers from an illness or accident. This follows from variants of the laws on child neglect or non-assistance of a person in danger. However, the US has a law that exempts parents from this duty, if (1) the parents do not wish to provide medical assistance to their child due to religious beliefs or (2) choose to rely on spiritual means rather than medical care 44. This concerns in particular charismatic Christian faith healing practices — which do not work. Thus, the law effectively allows parents to let their children die for religious reasons 45. This has indeed happened in some cases , and it was systematic in the case of the Followers of Christ . Furthermore, most US states allow children not to be vaccinated on religious grounds . This leads to several preventable deaths per year.
Anti-discrimination laws say that companies or organizations may not refuse a job candidate because of their religion. However, in the US and Germany, religious groups are exempted from anti-discrimination rules in hiring and firing 46. They can decide to hire only Christians. For example, I went to a Catholic school in Germany. The school was run by nuns, but financed by the state. This school required that all teachers who work there follow a Christian lifestyle. They were, e.g., not allowed to divorce and marry again. At any secular institute, any such requirement would be illegal. But for a Christian school, the law does not apply.
In a slight variant of the scheme, the Pope has approved of excommunicating politicians who support abortion . In this way, the Catholic Church is taking a direct influence on the democratic institutions of a country. Furthermore, churches are exempt from taxes in the some countries (among which the US). The estimated annual government subsidy of religion runs in the tens of billions of dollars 47.
- In India, slaughtering cows is prohibited in roughly half of the states . While supply chain reasons are cited, the real reason is most likely religious, given that it applies only to cows, and given that cows are considered sacred in Hinduism.
- New Religions
- In the US, adherents of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Unioao do Vegetal believe they can understand God only if they drink Hoasca tea . Even though this tea contains Dimethyltryptamin (a controlled substance), the adherents were allowed to continue importing that tea by the Supreme Court . A British court has let a Wicca adherent out of jail for 4 nights to worship the moon 48. Another Wicca was narrowly prevented from obtaining a knife in prison as a “ritual object” . The court ruled that his beliefs were indeed “religious”, but not “usual” enough to grant him a knife.
However, these cases prove a more general point: Religious belief can be granted an exemption from the law. This contradicts Humanist values, which demand equal treatment for all before the law. From a Humanist perspective, religions are organizations like all other organizations. They claim to be divine, but they are man-made systems. Therefore, it is unacceptable that they would stand above the law.
As soon as you admit God on the political scene, he’s a tyrant. This is because, sooner or later, every dictator dies. God, however, does not.
Rites and RestrictionsAll major religions come with some rites and restrictions. These may include
- Rites may include regular praying (in Islam, e.g., 5 times a day), regular attendance of a religious service (in a church, temple, or mosque), pilgrimage (Islam), or slaughtering rites (as required e.g. for halal food for Muslims or for Kosher food for Jews).
- Constraints may include fasting (Christianity, Bahai Faith, Jainism, and Islam), special clothing (e.g. veils for women in some interpretations of Islam; sables for Sikhs; kippas for Jews; not wearing mixtures of garments, as in the Old Testament), or inactivity on one day a week.
- Dietary laws
- Some religions have dietary laws, such as the prohibition of alcool (Bahai Faith), pork (Islam), beef (Hinduism), meat (as in some variants of Hinduism and Buddhism), or the combination of milk and meet (Judaism) 49.
In some cases, religious rituals are outright harmful. This concerns foremost female genital mutilation — a practice that is condemned by many Muslims, but upheld by many others for religious reasons. But also male circumcision is technically bodily injury: The amputation of a body part without medical indication (and more often than not: medical supervision). Such rituals fiercely contradict Humanist values.
IntoleranceReligions have successfully bridged many differences across humanity: Nowadays, most religions welcome members of all races and origins. This bridging effect, however, leaves out one of the largest fissures in humanity. This is the fissure that religion itself has created: the gap between different faiths.
In most cases, believers know exclusively about their own religion. A poll in the US found that atheists (together with Jews and Mormons) know more about the religions of this world than the average citizen. Atheists also showed firm knowledge in the aspects of Christianity, firmer knowledge than some Christian groups 50. This holds even if the results are controlled for education (Atheists in the US tend to have a higher level of education). One reason may be that “religious education” at school or at home is always limited to a single religion. No religion encourages believers to read the holy books of the other religions.
On the contrary, religious believes by other people are usually ridiculed. A Christian will laugh about the Jew who is not allowed to operate a microwave on Saturdays. A Jew will laugh about the Hindu who marries according to a constellation of the stars. A Hindu will laugh about a Muslim who gets up in the morning to have breakfast before sunrise during Ramandan. A Muslim will laugh about a Christian who believes that God is both one and three. In a variation of this theme, the other religions are portrayed as mere deviations of one’s own (true) religion. This strategy is pursued in Christianity, Islam, the Bahai Faith, and Hinduism. All differences between the faiths are just swiped under the rock. This attitude does not do justice to the diversity of faiths that exist.
All of this discourages the serious examination of the other religions as an option of equal value. The reason for such disdain is clear in atheist eyes: If a religion encouraged its adherents to learn about other faiths, then the adherent would (1) be tempted to try out the other religion or (2) find out that all religions are equally delusional. Both are detrimental to the original religion.
Yet, if you want to be tolerant, you have to know about other cultures and belief systems, you have to understand and appreciate them. And indeed, the unbiased search for truth is one of the tenets of Humanism. A religion, however, focuses people exclusively on its own culture and belief system. And indeed, religious people tend to be less tolerant overall 51. While, admittedly, Buddhists tend to be more tolerant (as compared to non-religious people), Hindus and Muslims are the least tolerant towards immigrants and other races, followed by Christians [ibid]. This leaves us to think that the continuous focus on one’s own religion may make people less tolerant towards the other faiths.
HellA supreme form of intolerance can be found in some variants of Islam. These condemn all non-believers to eternal hell-fire. Such a belief may seem harmless, given that the hell-fire is purely imaginary from an atheist point of view.
And yet, such a belief is not harmless. It says that the non-believers are worthy of being burnt alive. It says that non-believers deserve eternal suffering. Such teaching is a direct insult to any non-Muslim. It de-humanises them.
This is more than an abstract danger. It makes terrorists believe that it is OK to kill non-believers. By killing the non-believer, you just shorten the path to his well-deserved burning. Such teaching also makes children believe that people of other religions are less good. What other consequence could a child possibly draw from the belief that all unbelievers deserve torture?
Adherents will either argue that this belief is not “the true Islam”, or otherwise hold that the belief has no consequences on friendly relations with unbelievers. However, the teaching of hatred against unbelievers can even be found in schoolbooks in some countries of the Muslim world.
Any such teaching of hatred against other people is incompatible with Humanist ideals.
If you plan to enjoy Heaven, while multitudes are being tortured forever,
you are as much a sociopath as the god you worship.
CommunitarianismIf we want world peace, mutual tolerance and respect, we have to understand what other people believe and why they do so. However, religions teach people exclusively about their own religion. Furthermore, the religions typically prohibit marriage across religious boundaries. Thereby, the religions partition humanity into cells that are poised to persist over the generations to come. By prohibiting a conversion to another faith, the religions fortify the boundaries between these cells. By granting every adherent divine confidence in their faith, and by building up a community based on religious conviction, the religions further shield their adherents socially and intellectually from the other faiths.
All of this leads to an estrangement between the peoples. It encourages a thinking of “us versus them”, in which adherents of one faith consider themselves culturally different from people of other faiths. In French, this phenomenon is called “communautarisme”.
We give here some examples to illustrate how this phenomenon can look in practice:
- A friend of mine tells that she overheard a conversation between schoolchildren (in France), where one presumably Muslim child says to the other: “Do not play with Pierre! He’s Christian!”. This shows that children can learn early on to draw the boundary between the religions.
- In Germany, until the 1960’s, there was a white line on the schoolground that separated the Protestant children from the Catholic children.
- Richard Dawkins remarks in his book “The God Delusion” that Children in Northern Ireland are separated into Catholic and Protestant schools. Thus, children make friends in different communities. Only 9% of children go to school with children of the other faith 52. Even these learn that it is a “false ideology that everyone is the same” [ibid]. It is no wonder then that these children grow up in an environment of ignorance or hostility towards the other faith. Let children go to school with children of the other faith, let them make friends with them, allow them to marry them, and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics will defuse within a generation.
- In France, certain urban quarters have become so dominated by conservative Muslims, that women have been bullied out of public life. The pressure is so strong that women avoid walking around in a dress, or having a coffee in a bar 53.
Is religion not just like any other ideology?
No, it’s not. Religion is different because you are not allowed to criticize it.
ProselytismChristianity and Islam actively seek to convert the rest of mankind to their religion. Both religions emphasize that the conversion has to be voluntary, and may not be achieved by force. However, even peaceful proselytism is a profound sign of disrespect. It means that a religious community cannot accept that a person has a different faith. By extrapolation, it means that two communities of believers cannot live together without one community constantly bothering the other one to convert. It is a human right to follow whatever religion you choose, without being invited or pushed continuously to convert to some other religion [Human Rights / Article 18]. Therefore, obligatory proselytism runs counter to Humanist values.
As it happens, both Christianity and Islam also shun people who convert away from their own religion. Historically, both religions have put apostates to death. Variants of Islam still do. If we put together two religions, which each want to convert the adherents of the other religion, but which each punish the conversion of their own adherents, the result is violence. And even though both religions have recently inched away from mandatory proselytism and punishment of apostasy in their mainstream interpretations, the tensions between the two religions remain.
Religious boundaries and ConflictIn the past, religion has been used to justify witch burning, the Inquisition, terrorism, or attacks on people of other faiths. Yet, still today, religious boundaries often correlate with violence. Let us look at the list of the most violent armed conflicts:
|War in Afghanistan||Taliban (Islamist) - Government (Muslim)||Yes|
|Iraqi Civil War||Islamic State (Islamist) - Government (Muslim)||Yes|
|Mexican Drug War||Government - Drug Militias|
|Syrian Civil War||Syrian Armed Forces (led by Alawites) - National Defense Force (Shia-leaning) - Shabiha (Alawite) - Christian militias (Christian) - Hezbollah (Shia) - Iran (Shia) - Russia (Orthodox) - Foreign Shia militias (Shia) - Free Syrian Army (Sunni) - Islamic Front (Sunni) - Al-Nusra Front (Salafist) - Syrian Democratic Forces (multi-faith and/or secular) - Islamic State (Islamist) - Western coalition (Secular)||Yes|
|Kurdish-Turkish conflict||Government - Kurdish insurgents|
|Somali Civil War||Government - Militant groups (Islamist)||Yes|
|Communal conflicts in Nigeria||Government - Boko Haram (Islamist), as well as other conflicts, not all of them religious or cultural||Yes|
|War in Dafur||Government - Insurgents|
|Boko Haram Insurgency||Government - Boko Haram (Islamist)||Yes|
|Libyan Civil War||Islamist forces (Islamist) - Anti-Islamist forces||Yes|
|Yemeni Civil War||Shia - Sunni||Yes|
|Sinai insurgency||Islamists - Government||Yes|
|Kordofan Conflict||Army of Sudan - Sudan People’s Liberation Movement|
|South Sudanese Civil war||Government - Opposition forces|
In two-thirds of the ongoing military conflicts with more than 1000 deaths per year, the factions coincide with religious boundaries. This does not necessarily mean that religion is the cause of conflict. Many factors play a role in wars, including cultural differences, claims to power, claims to oil, claims to land, war lords, the military, and outside interests and intervention. However, it is striking in how many cases these other factors coincide exactly with religious frontiers.
This coincidence appears elsewhere, too. Take the conflict in the Middle East: Israel is Jewish, the Palestinians are Muslim. Jewish scripture explicitly contains the call to capture the city of Jericho (Torah / Joshua 6) — which is exactly what the Jewish settlement movement aims to do. Vice versa, the Muslim Quran explicitly calls upon Muslims not to take Jews as friends (Quran / 5.51), and curses them (Quran / 5.64). Is it any wonder then that the conflict never comes to rest? Or take the Shebaa farms, a tiny uninhabited piece of land between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. What could be the reason why Israel occupies this small place, thereby providing the military organization Hezbollah with its raison-d'être? This tiny strip of land is believed to be the location of the convenant of pieces, where God revealed himself to Abraham.
Religious boundaries coincide with conflict boundaries elsewhere, too. Remember the civil war in Sri Lanka: The Tamils are Hindu in majority, the Sinhalese are Buddhist. Or take the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia: Did you ever wonder why the Serbs, Bosniacs, and Croats got into conflict, although they speak the same language? Part of the reason is that Serbs are Orthodox, Bosniacs are Muslim, and Croats are Catholic. As a consequence, the eternal conflict on the Balkans is proverbial. The same holds for the conflict in Northern Ireland: Unionists, who want the union with the UK, are Protestant, while nationalists, who want the union with Ireland, are Catholic. The same is true for the conflict in Sudan: While the North is Muslim, the South is Christian and Animist . The same is true for the conflict in the Phillippines: While the majority of the country is Christian, the break-away region is Muslim. The same is true for the animosity between Armenia and Turkey: Armenia is Christian while Turkey is Muslim. The Second World War opposed the Christian United States to the Buddhist and Shintoist Japan . The same goes for the everlasting conflict between India and Pakistan for the region of Kashmir: India is Hindu and Pakistan is Muslim. Many other conflicts in South-East Asia run along religious lines, too: The Muslim Rohingya are persecuted by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar; Bangladesh chased non-Muslim tribes into India; Christians, Hindus, Shia Muslims, and Ahmadis are hounded in Pakistan 54. While this is rarely made explicit, war boundaries coincide with religious boundaries again and again.
Nothing unites a community as well as an attack on one of its members.
Preaching Peace...Most mainstream theologicians and religious leaders condemn violence. They point out that violence is not allowed by the value system of the religion, and that it goes against the will of the gods. Thereby, they show that the current mainstream interpretation of the religion is not violent. This leaves us to ask why religion and conflict correlate so frequently. One hypothesis is that religion is not violent, but that it creates the ideal breeding ground for violence. According to this hypothesis, religions would preach peace, but seed conflict.
...but Seeding ConflictLet us first look at the proselytizing religions. These are religions that aim to convert the adherents of other religions. Christianity and Islam are examples. At the same time, these religions historically shun or prohibit apostasy, i.e., changing one’s own faith. As soon as we put two religions together, which each wants to convert adherents of the other religions, but punishes apostasy of its own adherents, it is clear that the result is conflict. This has historically been the case, and this old antagonism quite possibly still fuels today’s conflicts. Islam is still a case to the point: The majority of Muslims longs for peace between the religions, but at the same time, the majority of Muslims considers it a duty to convert others to their faith 55. These goals cannot co-exist.
Another problem is the claim to be the “true” interpretation of the religion. Again, this claim is particularly visible in Islam: The religion exhibits a wide diversity of beliefs. At the same time, the majority of Muslims is of the opinion that there is only one correct interpretation of the faith. Such a claim offends people of other denominations and religions, who also believe that they own the only true faith. The inability to accept that there exist several interpretations of Islam is quite possibly a key factor in the conflicts in the Muslim world. It also extends to other religions: The problem is that religion divides humanity into those who are “right” and those who are “wrong” 56. This division of the world also means that other powers are more ready to step in when a conflict happens between religions, as Samuel P. Huntington has argued.
Other sources of conflict are more subtle: Usually, religions teach adherents exclusively about their own faith. They prohibit marriage across religious boundaries, and shun a conversion to another faith. In this way, the religions shield their adherents socially and intellectually from other faiths. They build up a strong identification of people with their faith, in which adherents of one faith consider themselves culturally different from people of other faiths. Furthermore, they grant every adherent divine confidence in their own faith. This is helped by the fact that religious convictions are usually unfalsifiable, so that they cannot be proven wrong.
Now add to this setting anything that can be understood as a threat to the group: A dispute with people who happen to have another religion, a careless remark by the leader of another religion, scarcity of resources, social tensions, or poverty — and the easiest way to discharge these tensions is to seek safety in one’s own religious community and scapegoat the other religious community. Therefore, the theory goes, armed conflict often co-incides with religious boundaries.
While this is nothing more than a theory, it can explain well the correlation of violence and religious boundaries. While this theory does not say that religion itself is violent, it gives us reason to think that religion at least forms the breeding ground for conflict.
Human history is filled with tragic stories of war and inhumanity. The concept of “Us” versus “Them” is at the core of many of these atrocities. Today we are faced with global challenges such as climate change, poverty and terrorism. It is time to finally realize there is only “Us”.
UnderperformanceWe have seen before that religious countries belong to the poorest, least well-governed, least free, and least healthy ones on Earth. This book has argued that religion is not necessarily the cause for this misery, but that rather, vice versa, misery is the cause for religiousness. And still, we can reproach religion with being an accomplice to this misery. Not just because it has benefited from the misery, but also because it has not used its power to counter it.
Let us develop this argument step by step.
The Power of ReligionWe first observe that religion has an enormous power on people. In Islam, for example, it is suggested that Muslims pray by reciting parts of the Quran. Pious Muslims pray 5 times a day. The Quran is read out in its entirety every Ramadan every year. Something similar goes for the other major religions: For centuries, the messages of the Bible, the Vedas, the Buddha, or Confucius have been re-iterated in in churches, in schools, by preachers, and by parents. In addition, these religions are (or were) deeply rooted in the educational system, making sure every child gets in touch with the religion from the youngest age on. Religion is or was taught in every school, hammered into every child’s brain, re-iterated every week in religious gatherings, shouted every few hours from the minarets, and written in scripture that every single person in the country is exposed to. Thus, religion has an extraordinary outreach on society. In addition, its teachings are regarded by its adherents as absolute truth.
Such a religion has the power to change people’s lives. And it does:
- It can prescribe rituals and customs (all major religions).
- It can tell people what to eat (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism).
- It can tell people what to wear (mainly Islam).
- It can tell people whom to marry (all major religions).
- It shapes a society’s value system, for example in the treatment of women (all major religions).
The Results of ReligionDespite its enormous power, religion has not used its force to lift people out of their misery. If one had the power to write a book that every person in the country would have to study and read, probably many times in life, and that every person would believe to be true, then one could change life in that country drastically. One could, for example,
- establish the equal treatment of men and women
- re-iterate the importance of education, literacy, and scientific research
- establish the freedom of religion
- teach the respect for all other religions, including the right to marry the adherents of the other religions
- condemn corruption
- shout English vocabulary rather than prayers from the pulpits or minarets
- praise democratic elections, and ask adherents to respect the result of a vote even if it does not coincide with one’s own interests
- propagate family planning
These tenets could really change life in poor countries for the better (see my essay on Why are poor countries poor?). But no religion maintains these tenets as part of their value system. On the contrary, many religions have the opposites of some of these tenets on their books (see the respective articles). We thus conclude that on the one hand, religion has an enormous power, and has shaped entire societies, but that on the other hand, religion has not used that power to establish tenets that could change today’s societies for the better. Religion thus abuses its power.
Religion has successfully made half of its adherents wear a veil,
but it forgot to tell them to go to school.
Justification of Suicide AttacksReligions typically promise a life after death. In particular, some religions promise heaven to people who died while fighting for the religion. Historically, this has applied to Catholicism (think of the Crusades) and the Old Norse religions (think of the Vikings). Nowadays, it applies mostly to extremist interpretations of Islam.
In such cases, the religion encourages people to fight for its values, even if this entails the death of the adherent. The religion can do that because it has the power to promise a life after that death. Thus, a principal obstacle to warfare is eliminated: people are no longer afraid to die. This procures the religion with fighters that are more ferocious and more useful to its mission than secular people could ever be.
In the past 40 years, suicide attacks have led to more than 55,000 deaths 57. Nearly all of those with a known mastermind came from Islamist groups. The practice continues to be supported by Islamist militant organisations (Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.), Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, Pakistan’s acting Minister of Religious Affairs Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq , and more than 20% of the population in Egypt, Malaysia, Lebanon, and Palestine 58.
Humanism does not prevent people from taking their own lives. However, any ideology that permits the killing of others for the purpose of establishing a religion, or of eliminating another one, runs counter to Humanist values. A religion clashes with Humanism whenever it values souls over lives [Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 30].
There is a fatalism that creeps into one’s worldview when this life is seen as transitory, and the next is the only one that matters.
Disconnection from RealityMarshall Brain tells the following story [WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com/Heal, adapted]:
- She believes that she can talk to the Leprechauns by speaking silently to them in her head, or by speaking to them outloud with her hands folded.
- She also believes that the Leprechauns will help her heal diseases.
- If she loses something, she calls to the Leprechauns who live in her house to help her find it.
- She says she has a personal relationship with the Leprechauns, and they guide her in many parts of her life.
- She wears a shamrock necklace.
- She believes that the Leprechauns created the universe. She says, “No one can deny that the Leprechauns created the universe, and no one can prove that they did not.”
- When she dies, she believes that he will join the Leprechauns in a magical castle in the sky and live forever.
- She believes that by talking to the Leprechauns, they will grant her wishes. Even if this has never happened in the past, she insists that it works.
And yet... there is something creepy about it, isn’t there? Yes there is. It is creepy because you know that my friend is completely and totally delusional. She has lost her ability to distinguish the imaginary from the real.
The other religious people are actually accomplices to this situation. They insist that it is perfectly normal that these presidents believe that they can talk with the supernatural, and that they will be saved by that supernatural when they die. Thereby, the other religious people make it impossible to criticise the absurdity of the situation.
Legitimizing Idiotic DisputesIn his book “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins tells the following story:
At the time, there was no legal age requirement or formal procedure to baptize someone. Everybody could baptize everybody. Therefore, the Jewish girl was now Christian in the eyes of the law. Since Jews were not allowed to take care of Christian children, the girl was forcibly withdrawn from her family, and put in an orphanage.
The problem is not just historical, as the following contemporary story shows:
Depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are, likewise, generally prohibited in Islam . Pictures of the prophet (even illustrative ones) in the Western world have entailed protests in the Muslim communities. Cartoons (such as the Jyllands-Posten or Charlie Hebdo cartoons) have led to killings, mass protests, burned churches, and hundreds of dead all over the world (ibid).
From a Humanist perspective, it is absurd that acts against the supernatural should be punished in the real world.
Let the gods avenge themselves.
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