I got a good and common question in email today. It appears after a short exchange in which I was asked about what caused me to stop believing in God (answer: I studied the question carefully), in which I mentioned that I really broke from being able to accept any of the religions on September 11, 2001. I still believed in God for probably another 9-10 years after that, though, even if I rejected religions like Christianity. I shall not cover it in detail here, though, since I cover it in detail in the second chapter of God Doesn't; We Do.
The email I received reads:
I put the fault of 9/11 more on extremism rather than on the Muslim religion though. I know there are plenty of peaceful Muslims. But if you want to blame it all on religion, then shouldn't you also acknowledge all the good that religion does? All the charity? All the hope and peace and comfort it brings to so many people?My response follows.
Let's be careful here. Religious extremism did 9/11. Without the religion, it's pretty unlikely it would have happened. Religions, I realized that day, are what Sam Harris articulated far better a few years later in End of Faith: the religions (and their scriptures) are virtual engines of extremism. You see it in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and even some sects of Buddhism as well. Extremists who take their ancient and rather barbaric scriptures altogether too seriously and do very bad things. The core of all of these ancient religions is that the scriptures that they are based upon are holy (and often the perfect word of a frightening god). That means that however much we want to blame specific people for the attacks on 9/11 (or others), the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc., we must lay some of the blame in the institutions that maintain the adherence to these "engines of extremism," the religious texts, dogmas, and doctrines that form the religions themselves.
This is something also to be very careful about. Laying the blame at the feet of Islam is not the same as laying the blame on any Muslim who wasn't involved in the attack, nor is it the same as laying the blame on Muslims in general. This is a point I feel that is often missed. Islam, the religion, can be at ultimate fault for atrocities like 9/11 without having to blame a single person other than the ones that carried out the attack. My attack, then, is on ideas (here: religions, generally: ideologies), not on people. In my book, I make a rather impassioned call to the people in those religions to change the destructive adherence to the ancient, barbarous texts and to revise their doctrines to stay current with philosophy and, more importantly, science. The only blame that extends beyond the specific individuals involved in extremism, then, lies with those who know the texts, doctrines, and dogmas are dangerous and yet do nothing (unless trying to cover it up).
I do acknowledge the good that religion does, and that religious people do. I don't think I, or anyone, needs religion to motivate them to charity, though, so when you add in the baggage that comes with religious belief, I don't think the argument from charity adds any weight to the religious cause. As for the hope, peace, and comfort it brings to so many people, I can't get behind that argument either. Again, it's a matter of understanding what is really being delivered. God doesn't exist. Therefore God doesn't provide hope, peace, or comfort to people. When you talk about hope, peace, and comfort that religion delivers to people, then, what you're really talking about (most of the time) is the wallpaper that religion puts over the reality that people will die. Maybe it makes some people feel better, and I wouldn't want to deny anyone hope or comfort, but of what noble use is this lie? I side with Bertrand Russell on this matter: "there can be no good reason for believing something that isn't true."
My essential claim, then, is that whatever [good] religion is doing in those regards, it can be done far better with far less damaging baggage without religion. Much of the comfort that religion brings, when not papering over reality, is in a sense of community support, but no one needs believe in any set of doctrines, dogmas, or imaginary beings in order to form a supportive community and be involved in it. Much of the hope it brings, when not papering over reality, is in preaching positive ideas, but "positive philosophical societies" could form to do just that (rather like the Universal Unitarians, only without the appeals to all the gods). Much of the personal peace it brings stem from those same things and from the peer counselling that many people get through their priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams. How could that not be done better by actual trained counsellors instead of religious people who have no formal training in the field?! What damage does it do instead that we allow these untrained people to act as professionals in a regard that they're not licensed to act in, simply because they've devoted their lives to the "study" and worship of an imaginary being and some Bronze-Age books? Mental health wasn't exactly a concept in the Bronze Age.
When you talk of peace that religion brings, you're talking of personal peace, right? Otherwise, surely you're joking!
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