You told me that you read my previous letter, in which I challenged the logic of your beliefs. Allow me now to anticipate the only other way to defend religion that I have ever encountered; that we need religion to be moral.
Before I deconstruct the arguments for this line of defence, it is necessary to make some broader observations with regards to this approach. Firstly, as with the provision of consolation, arguing that religion makes us moral says nothing with regards to its truth. Every religious person who is genuinely good may simply have been duped. Indeed I would say that they certainly have been. Further to this, I will argue in this letter that they are good in spite of religion, not because of it. Secondly, it always pains me to have to point out what a dreadful world it would be if people were only good because they feared God’s wrath or hoped for his generous rewards. Albert Einstein summed it up;
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
So does a belief in God make us behave better? Are we less likely to be violent if we have faith? Do religious people treat their fellow human beings with greater tolerance and compassion? Who is more charitable – believers or atheists?
All we have to answer these questions are the facts. Facts are everything because they tell us what is really happening, as opposed to what some people may wish to be true or what members of in-groups simply tell each other.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first of all. Almost every war that has been fought in the past 1,000 years has been a religious war, from The Crusades (1095-1291) to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), through to the Catholic on Muslim genocide in The Balkans (1992-1995). The Second World War, whilst not explicitly religious, certainly had its worst crimes inspired by religion. Germany was overwhelmingly Catholic or Lutheran, and both of these are steeped in anti-Semitic traditions. It is without question that this eased the path to implementing the Final Solution. Hitler himself was a catholic, and invoked his faith in many of his speeches.
Today, the greatest risk to the destruction of large areas of our living space (and of course the instant death of millions of people) comes from three main threats; a dirty bomb (essentially a small, crude, nuclear device, perhaps as small as a briefcase) delivered by Jihadists, a full scale thermo-nuclear exchange over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or similar between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, both of whom are armed to the teeth with primed nukes, that are pointing almost exclusively at each other. We should have no doubts in our minds that these are overtly religious conflicts, contrary to the insistence of many misguided liberals and much of the religious lobby. How can we be sure of this? Well, because this is what those involved in these disputes tell us. To provide just one of many available examples, here is an excerpt from the Hamas charter:
“It is necessary to in steal in the minds of the Muslim generations that the Palestinian problem is a religious problem, and should be dealt with on this basis. Palestine contains Islamic holy sites. In it there is al-Aqsa Mosque which is bound to the great Mosque in Mecca in an inseparable bond…I swear by the holder of Mohammed’s soul that I would like to invade and be killed for the sake of Allah…”
If we can be sure of anything it’s that if we manage to destroy ourselves, it will be for the sake of an imaginary God.
When moving away from the theatre of war and its causes, it can likewise be shown that violence occurs most commonly (though of course not exclusively) among the religious on our streets and in our homes. In America, where various polls inform us that four out of five people believe in God, only 0.2% of prison inmates profess to be atheist. When ranking the US States by murder rate, almost all of the traditionally Christian bible belt States appear in the top half of the list. In France, over 70% of prison inmates identify as Muslim. Trends such as these are reflected unwaveringly across the entire world, by country and within their own demographic spread.
Surely though, the religious are more charitable? Unfortunately, every non-bias study that has ever been conducted shows there is a perfect negative correlation between religiosity and the money donated per capita on an annual basis. As Daniel Dennett noted:
“Needless to say, these results strike so hard at the standard claims of greater moral virtue among the religious that there has been a considerable surge of research initiated by religious organisations attempting to refute them. One thing we can be sure of is that if there is a positive relationship between moral behaviour and religious affiliation it will soon be discovered, since so many are eager to confirm their traditional beliefs about this scientifically. Every month that passes without such a demonstration underlines that it just isn’t so.”
And what of compassion and tolerance? What does religious scripture demand relating to these noble traits, and is it reflected in how religious people act toward their fellow humans?
Let’s start with slavery. Religious people are often credited with being at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in America. Whilst on the surface this may appear to be the case, we should pause to question what really motivated them – was it an adherence to scripture? What does the Bible have to say about slavery?
“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have, you may buy slaves from the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from strangers and their families who have been born in your land, and they may be your property.” (Leviticus 25:44)
Was the New Testament, often (mis)credited with righting the wrongs of the brutal Old Testament, any better on the subject of slavery?
“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)
“The slave who knew his master’s will and did not act will receive many lashes” (Luke 12:47)
Jesus clearly expected us to keep slaves and to beat them. Oh merciful Lord!
Abolitionists did not have scripture on their side. As with other social reforms, it was in fact the pressure of modern secular values and ethics that drove change, in spite of religion, not because of it. The doors have only ever opened from the outside.
Two of the greatest struggles of the twentieth century with regards to social reform – those of equality for women and homosexuals have been, and are still being fought, almost entirely against religious groups. When we examine religious doctrines, it’s easy to see why.
Things start pretty badly for women in the Bible. They are at first an afterthought, born from the spare parts of man, and not even given a name. Eve, as we know her, is then the instigator of the original sin, and so responsible for the burdens of mankind until the end of days. The subordination of women to men in the eyes of God is clear and their only purpose and chance of saviour comes as a wife and a mother. There is nothing else in this life for a woman in the good book except to serve men.
The Koran makes great play of the impurity of women, especially during menstruation, so much so that men must not come into contact with them. The Koran also informs us that the word of two women is required to equal that of one man.
“To the male goes the equivalent of the portion of two females (of inheritance).” Koran 4:11
“Men are in charge of women because Allah hath made one of them to excel over the other…so good women are obedient. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart and scourge them.” (Koran 4:34)
The first prayer a Jewish man must recite every day includes the giving of thanks to God for not making him a woman. These attitudes, combined with the dogma of the virgin birth (an event we now know was not even in the original transcripts that eventually made up the Gospels, but rather was added later via what appears to be a deliberate mistranslation to enhance the case of Jesus’s messiah status), its illusions of purity and incitement of fear of female genitalia, have had terrible consequences for women through the ages, up to and including our own.
In Western societies, whilst it is bad enough that some countries did not give women the vote until after the Second World War (France, 1945, Belgium, 1946, Switzerland, 1971), there has been the constant need for women to fight for control over their own bodies, and to remain vigilant in the face of the ever present threat from the Godly. In Ireland, where the Catholic church still calls the shots, abortion is illegal, and a tide of archaic reforms are creeping their way across the Bible belt in America, cynically obstructing women from access to sexual health information, birth control, even preventing rape crisis centres from advising on abortions. In Ohio for example, laws have just passed that effectively cut off state funding to planned parenthood clinics and women are now obliged to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds before they can have an abortion – ultrasounds they must pay for themselves.
In societies that have been, or still are influenced by the teachings of Mohammed in particular, female genital mutilation (FGM), honour killings, dowry payments, gang rapes, acid attacks, niqabs, forced arranged marriages, lashings or even stonings due to a suspected lack of virginity (even after being raped) are things that we have become all too familiar with. The honour of man before Allah is more important than the life or freedom of the lowly, lesser, impure woman as depicted in the Koran.
Homosexuals have fared little better under the gaze of the religious. Once more, scripture is the source of their on-going misery:
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13)
Study after study (see: http://www.pewforum.org/Muslim/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society.aspx) shows us that well over 90% of Muslims the world over believe homosexuality to be morally wrong on the basis of doctrinal instruction. The Talmud informs us that a man without a wife is only half a man.
As a result, religious lobbies in Western societies have continually campaigned against the legal rights of homosexuals, against their equal treatment in the public sphere and against their admittance into armed forces. Unconscionably, it took until 2011 for America to allow openly gay people to join their military. Only this year (2013) have France and England legalised gay marriage, much to the dismay of almost every key religious figure, including the new, supposedly liberal, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Elsewhere, homosexuals are actually in danger of arrest or worse. Russia has just made public displays of homosexuality illegal after a despicable campaign by their Orthodox Church and there are currently nine countries, all deeply religious societies, where the ‘crime’ of homosexuality is punishable by death (Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Somaliland, Mauritania, & The Maldives). Uganda is on the brink of becoming the tenth, due in no small part to the efforts and the funding of evangelical Christians in America. (see: http://www.godlovesuganda.com/film/story/)
There are many other areas of public life where religion also imposes its dubious morals at the expense of the suffering of others. The great Catholic cover-up of crimes of sexual abuse against children within their midst I have written of previously, and the religious obstruction of embryonic stem cell research, currently one of the most promising areas of medical research because it has the potential to produce cures for so many chronic conditions, is breath-taking for its arrogance and callousness. It is essentially saying that a small cluster of cells in a petri dish should be of greater concern to us than a living person who is in pain or dying.
Approximately 100,000 children die each year from cancer, and many of them without access to painkillers. A belief in God means believing that this is his will and that it is the best thing that could happen. Furthermore, you must also believe it is righteous for many of these children to go on to suffer for all eternity in the fires of hell for being born to parents who worshipped the wrong God (or no God at all). If it is not obvious to people that such interpretations of these tragedies are repugnant, then there may be no helping them.
It is time we came to our senses and ceased trying to make this awful outlook on life compatible with our innate desires to minimise suffering and maximise happiness. It is time we are all honest enough to accept that some belief systems are simply ill-equipped to promote the sort of universal kindness we must surely aspire to.