Should we tolerate religion?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having an internal debate on whether or not I think we should continue to tolerate religion on our society. After all this time and deliberation, here’s where I’ve landed:

I have no fucking clue.

And I’m going to support this statement with ever-so-reliable anecdotal evidence. Maybe some day I’ll find time to research the real, meaningful statistics that might change my mind, but for now, I’m just happy I’ve found a bit of time where my brain is willing to function and no one else is demanding it to, so that I can just get these thoughts out of my head and into the pensieve.

On the one hand, there’s the position that I’m most inclined to take, and that’s the one that says with a slightly pompous British accent that sounds remarkably like the great Christopher Hitchens, that religion poisons everything. That religion gets its grubby little hands all over every little bit of our society and not only derides anyone who sees the world/universe differently, but it convinces everyone that it possibly can they should do the same.

Oh, and when derision hour is done, anyone who doesn’t convert should be stoned (or crushed or burned or stabbed or crucified or raped or maimed or tortured/murdered in whatever creative way can be thought of).

Religion tells people that knowledge is dangerous, and that it has all the answers they’ll ever need. That you’ll be just fine if you shut your eyes, wave your hands in the air and live your life for its god/gods/goddesses.

It doesn’t encourage people to think for themselves, it teaches them to think for it. And in democratic societies, when it deludes the majority of the population, the people who are most malleable make decisions for the society that do not benefit anyone but religion. Sometimes these are relatively small, unobtrusive things like turning a secular nation’s motto into “In God we trust,” but sometimes it can be a truly profound violation of human rights like insisting that homosexuality is an abomination of God’s creation and gay men and women should not be allowed to marry.

Religion suggests that we should base the laws of our technologically and scientifically advanced society on the [inconsistent] teachings of a 2,000 year old collection of poetry and short stories, written by people who were trying to explain the world in the best way they could. In other words, religion tells us that we have gained nothing over the past 2,000 years of our existence, and we should be ecstatic about it.

So, it sounds like I’m pretty convinced of my position, right? Down with religion!

Well… no. I hate these facets of theism, I really do. But I’ve seen another side of religion.

There are people in this world who, for whatever reason, live hard lives that are turned around by “Jesus’s love.” You and I know that is a strength they found within themselves, but they are unable to attribute walking away from drugs or beginning to treat others well to their own learning/growth, and must attribute it to a higher power. They clean their lives up, they begin contributing positively to society. Of course, we still run into the problem that they become one of the herd in all the negative impacts listed above.

But I can’t ignore my own story. There was a time in my life – a span of many years – that was exceptionally difficult. When I look back on this time and the pain I felt, I also have to remember the relief I felt at my home church. It was a safe haven; it was family I could trust. But beyond the building and the people, I found a lot of comfort in believing a god had a plan, and all my hurt was a mean to a glorious end. I know now that finding comfort in an idea does not make it any more real, as evidenced by the fact that I find great comfort in the idea that there will be a million dollars in my mailbox the next time I check it. But religion got me through those years, and probably kept me from turning to other mechanisms for comfort, like dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity in my teen years.

The thing is, too, it’s really easy for me to despise religion. But I know, and genuinely love, very religious people. They are not horrible people. They don’t stone or torture non-believers (although they’re not altogether above coercive conversion tactics). Most of them are loving, caring, charitable people who won’t accept that they don’t need a god to be so. I am just as loving and charitable as I ever was when I was a churchgoer.

Hmmm… going over these thoughts in my head, during my commute or while making dinner, these thoughts seemed like much better arguments for the case of religion. I really don’t think they’re valid. I think that, while religion plays an important role in each of these relatively positive scenarios, I feel like, as a society, we can find naturalistic replacements. I suppose the most compelling argument I can come up with is this:

People have the right to believe as they choose.

But the whole crux of this argument is that everyone is people. Everyone gets to believe as they choose, and religion refuses to accept that. Religion will not afford the same rights it demands. And until it can do that, until it can say, “Here is your god. Believe in it to your heart’s fullest. But it is your god. It does not demand you recruit others to it, or live in a society perfectly tuned to it. Run your household as you please, tell others if you like, but remember everyone has the right to believe as they choose,” then I do not think it has earned its place in a free society.

So it turns out, I do know where I stand. I could, in theory, rewrite this entry to make it sound like I knew all along, but why would I lie to you? This entry was all about trying to sort out my thoughts, and here they are. I’m open to any ideas about the value of religion to society (although I strongly disagree with the ideas posited in a recent USA Today article).

So where do I think we go from here?

I have no fucking clue.

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8 Comments

  1. iquake said,

    October 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I REALLY appreciate your honest observations and your willingness to be so open about your struggle in coming to terms with or against the validity of religion. I think it is a struggle we all share, religious and non-religious alike. I, too, feel that religion can be an enormous force for good and postive change, but I also know that it can be the very source of evil, hatred and iggnorance. I guess it is not religion that is good or bad any more than science can be good or bad. Perhaps it depends on the person carrying such an awesome responsibility, religious and scientific alike… and I just fyi… I have no clue where to go from here.

    Quaker Boy

  2. 1minionsopinion said,

    October 24, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    That tends to be my side of things, too. It’s not the individuals that are the trouble – it’s the institution and all it stands for. I’ve known many faithful people who’d never let their church attendance get in the way of learning new things and I think I’d be a lesser person if I couldn’t count them as friends. I don’t have to agree with their faith to appreciate their humanity.

    Karl Marx is recorded as calling religion an opiate. I disagree with him there. If they were all blissed out on poppy product, they wouldn’t be as problematic. Think Soma in Brave New World. Dumb as kites and happy to never question anything.

    I’ve been under the long-held assumption that religion developed as a means of controlling populations. When slavery ran rampant, it must have been a relief to die thinking there really was a better place waiting. Religions work best where people are poor, uneducated, and feel lost in a sea of the inexplicable. Religious leaders come by and offer solace, a little food, a little education (of the “Have you met Jesus? You don’t want to go to hell do you? Come meet Jesus” variety) and soon they’re mowed under by a group that claims to know what’s best and takes away all they thought they knew and replaces it with inane rules and gibberish that must be followed or else more despair will be heaped upon them in an afterlife they never knew existed.

    I’m not even going to get into the rich and powerful reasons religions gain support.

  3. Brendan said,

    January 24, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    If there is consciouness after death, monotheists need to realise that they may still meet there enemies after they die. If we are just matter and sences, why do atheists need respect?

  4. I.P Knightly said,

    June 28, 2011 at 11:02 am

    If I were to declare I believe in Hypno-gnomes, and live my life, attributing every action I do to the Hypno-gnomes, trying to talk sense into non believers, attacked my neighbour for his asured rebuke of said Hypno-gnomes.

    I would be commited…….

    So why does belief in fairy tails gain credability simply by the amount of people that go along with it?

    You are right, people are free to believe what they like, however, unchecked acting upon flights of fantasy ends us up where we (as a global society) are now.

    Oh, & @ 1minionsopinion

    Huxley has written some amazing commentary on todays modern belief systems, amazing how he managed it 80 years before it happened….

  5. June 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

    […] Should we tolerate religion? « Outside the AsylumOct 24, 2009 … For the last few weeks, I’ve been having an internal debate on whether or not I think we should continue to tolerate religion on our society. […]

  6. r campbell said,

    August 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Where do we go from here?

    Why not simply ignore religion? It sounds to me like you have discovered for yourself the error and folly that is religion. As you might say to someone religious… “that’s good for you, but hey! there’s no need to preach your gospel to me”.

    How many ex-smokers preach against the evils of the devils weed? How many that find religion preach against the death that is atheism? How many that find their own true path, without need for religion, preach likewise?

    It’s all the same stuff. All is folly and foolishness.

    Ignore religions, ignore the folly of those who would preach and proselytize, and forgive yourself for your own foolishness. To think that it matters what others believe, to think how you sound and appear to others, to place import on what the shouters of society broadcast- it’s all foolishness.

    And, the next time some well-meaning (or otherwise) person comes on the radio or TV and starts blubbering on about this or the next thing religious, smile, change the channel if you must, and eat a donut.

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