Why I’m an Atheist – Part Two: Is Religion Good or Bad?
One of the more contentious arguments put forward by atheists today, particularly those in Europe and the United States, is that religious belief is actively harmful. Richard Dawkins has rather infamously declared that indoctrinating children into a particular religious worldview is tantamount to child abuse, and atheists in general seem to readily accept that religion has an overall negative influence on society.
In general, I would agree. Even in cases where the content of religious belief itself isn’t to blame, I don’t think a modern society can ever benefit from promoting (in some cases enshrining) anything as irrational as fundamentalist religion. ‘Woo’ of all varieties goes almost unquestioned where I live, aided by the general feeling that nobody should be criticized for believing something as long as it has special significance for them. Whether that belief is in Jesus, the teachings of Buddha or bizarre ‘crystal’ healing therapies seems to be irrelevant – if you’re skeptical, you’re anti-social.
But New Age nonsense tends not to involve itself too heavily in politics, something that more traditional belief systems are all too ready to do. Religious belief has had an obvious (and obviously negative effect) on national and international debates surrounding topics as diverse as healthcare, abortion, euthenasis, same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general and science education. In all instances, people like myself can only watch in dumbfounded astonishment as priests, preachers and religious ‘experts’ are allowed to weigh in on important societal topics solely because they fervently believe in a particular religion.
This is particularly disturbing in debates centering around scientific advancement like stem cell research or gene therapies, where one would hope that the supposed ensoulment of a zygote would be irrelevant, but religion’s pernicious influence is no less insidious in the ongoing controversy over marriage equality for gay and lesbian individuals. What should be a clean-cut issue of redressing a grievous societal mistake has instead become muddled by the inclusion of a healthy dose of religious dogmatism, forcing gay marriage proponents to fight hard for every inch of ground they take. Almost every secular argument against gay marriage is merely an extremely weak red herring – religion is and always has been the core component of the anti-equality movement.
Religion and Science
There’s a popular and unfortunate tendency among atheists to characterize science and religion as being perennial enemies, usually because of what happened to Galileo. There’s also an unfortunate tendency among theists to claim that the Catholic Church’s history of supporting the sciences (for example) thus brings religion and science into perfect harmony. Both sides are missing the point: regardless of what might have happened in the past, certain kinds of religious belief are becoming increasingly hostile to scientific advancement right now, as we speak.
The most famous example of this is of course the battle between Creationism and evolutionary biology – or, to put it more bluntly, the battle between outdated religious nonsense and genuine science. Despite almost unanimous consensus among actual scientists about the strengths of the theory of evolution, Creationism continues to grow as a cultural and religious movement. I wouldn’t be too disturbed by the whole thing if it was confined solely to evolution – that battle is already over, at least as far as the evidence is concerned – but the movement is indicative of wider anti-intellectual, anti-scientific sentiment among some theists.
Throwing religious morality into the mix only confuses things further. In purely scientific terms, there should be little debate over whether or not to engage in stem cell research. The issue of a ‘soul’ is not a scientific one, and almost no scientist would call a bundle of undifferentiated cells a ‘person’ except where religious dogma has clouded their judgment. To an atheist, the entire debate seems utterly absurd, and yet these absurdities are dominating the discussion on an important medical advancement.
This is the main point of conflict between atheists and theists. If you’re a theist, I will probably find your beliefs ridiculous (assuming you align yourself with one of the major or minor world religions). Yet your ridiculous beliefs are deemed to important by society as a whole that some political leaders dare not sanction anything that might offend them. Religion does the most harm when it demands that everybody obey its tenets, whether or not those tenets make the slightest bit of sense.