Sunday, April 8, 2012

The evils of religion?

Of all the things that one might have expected me to be contemplating on Easter Sunday, somehow I doubt that atheism would be among them.

Not that I'm thinking of becoming an atheist, mind you.  Regardless of whether the Gods exist, my mind doesn't seem to have the wiring for atheism.  As I am now, the closest thing I could probably get to total non-belief is a sort of curious agnosticism.  And despite normally being a logic-oriented person, I do not consider this to be a problem in any respect.  My belief-and-skepticism system works for me; it inspires me to be a better person.  It reminds me that it's possible to be a thoroughly flawed human being and still manage to do a bit of good in the world.  It reminds me that prayer is all very well, but you've got to help people in practical ways as well.  (I can say this no better than it's already said in my favourite passage from the first letter of John: "Little children, let us love, not in word and speech, but in truth and action.")  It even keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

The thing is, I've been noticing, and hearing about, a lot more highly vocal atheists lately.  And usually they've been the obnoxious ones.  The ones who, being so angry at the idea that anybody else dares to think something that they don't think, might fit in well with certain groups of rigid fundamentalist Christians if it weren't for the fact that atheists believe that the whole God thing is bullshit.  The ones who believe that there has never been anything good whatsoever that came from religion of any type.  The ones who believe that all the world's evils come from religion in general and Christianity in particular, and that we'd live in a perfect world if no human being had ever come up with the concept of one or more Gods.  The ones who look down their noses at people of any religious persuasion, calling us stupid and superstitious.  The ones who speak of us all as if we were somehow simultaneously childlike in our naïveté and hyper-dangerous psychopaths who are just a few social conventions away from reinstating the Spanish Inquisition and shamelessly persecuting and brutally murdering anyone who doesn't agree with us.

Believe it or not, atheism itself doesn't actually bother me.  We've all got to make up our own minds about what we will and will not believe, and I understand that there are people whose lives, and whose treatment of other people, become better once they discard any concept of religion.  We all need to have our own freedom of conscience.  And to a certain extent, I must concede that they have a point or two, even though I doubt I'll ever entirely subscribe to their point of view.  But the common assertion that religion, and especially Christianity, is the root of all evil bothers me on a level that I can't quite articulate.

The thing is, I deeply suspect that even if religion hadn't ever existed, most of the evil things that religion has been used as the excuse for would still have happened.  Religious or not, that seems to be an aspect of certain people's human nature; given great power, and the desire for something that's already possessed by someone else, some people will only need the right excuse to become genocidal.  If it wasn't religion, it might be some other custom.  It might be language or skin colour or some theme in the other group's art or music that the aggressors consider to be unwholesome.  It might be patriotism or some form of insult, imagined or otherwise.  I can't think of a single religious war, even the Crusades, that couldn't also have been fought for other reasons.  Religion made a damn convincing excuse, but as long as there was something else to be gained—valuable territory, access to certain commodities, greater political power, and similar—then religion was nonetheless still little but an excuse.  In its absence, another one would surely have been used.

I will never accept the idea that religion is itself evil; I will certainly never again accept the idea that Christianity is inherently evil.  It's been used as an excuse for evil things, and there are people who use it as a weapon even today.  That, I believe, is evil.  But not religion itself.

If there's evil in the equation at all, it's in the people who use their beliefs to harm other people.

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