The real danger of religion is that it is mass delusion. Consider for a moment that more than 6 billion people right now believe in a god that cannot be physically seen, touched, or heard. Please also consider the very simple fact that the inherent conflicts between the religious claims made on behalf of each faith means that not every religion can be true. If it is impossible for every religion to be true then we can reasonably conclude that many billions of people around the world are praying to...nothing. The moment you realize this, the concept of god for so many people goes from being merely invisible to downright imaginary. This is when it becomes readily apparent that literally billions of people are praying and carrying on conversations with themselves while believing that an invisible being is listening to them. Because beliefs directly influence actions, these same people are taking actions that they believe are consistent with the desires of an imaginary being. This is by its very definition delusional and it can make people who are normally rational, intelligent individuals believe in certain things that would appear very bizarre to those who don't share the same faith. For example, if you heard someone say "The worst that a nuclear war could do would be to bring millions of people into paradise earlier than expected", you might be forgiven for attributing it to a right-wing religious zealot. Sadly, that was uttered by the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. If you heard someone say "AIDS is the divine punishment of a just God for improper sexual behavior", you might be forgiven for attributing it to a religious fanatic like Pat Robertson. Unfortunately, that was uttered by the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Who else but the religious would look upon a newborn baby and consider it not only appropriate but profoundly imperative to ensure the act of genital mutilation known as circumcision takes place before the eighth day of this newborn's life? Who else but the religious would give serious consideration to murdering someone for imaginary crimes like witchcraft and feel completely justified in doing so based upon a belief that an invisible being has instructed us to do so? Faith allows rational people to rationalize some very irrational beliefs. History is littered with examples of mass delusion and they generally end badly.
Fortunately, most of the religious people that we come in contact with on a day to day basis lack the same level of devotion to their religion as their fundamentalist counterparts. They generally attend church services and participate in the occasional religious ceremony, but they are not consumed with a literal interpretation of their holy book. These people are religious moderates, which is a distinction gained when people take scripture less and less seriously. Whether we want to admit it or not, the hammer of modernity continues to make religious claims - claims believed, recited, and acted upon for centuries - less tenable. The literalness in which our holy scriptures are interpreted today is vastly different than a first-century Roman Empire or even a medieval Europe. So, if large swaths of contemporary people dismiss or marginalize equally large swaths of scripture as irrelevant, what's the harm in keeping the "good" parts of our scriptures? Isn't religion a good, moral guiding force in the world? The answer, if we're being intellectually honest with ourselves, is simply no (at least not by itself). If we're not being honest with ourselves, it's worth asking this question: what good things does religion bring us that cannot be achieved through nonreligious means? What is exclusive to religion that makes it "good"? Please try and keep this in mind as you progress through this chapter.
It would be disingenuous for me to paint religion as evil with a single broad stroke. I believe it is quite safe to say that the effects of religion are not all bad and I am not afraid to offer that up. Religion, as a social utility, can and does serve many positive purposes. Many of the world's most beautiful buildings, artwork, and stories are religiously inspired. As we'll discuss in more depth shortly, many people the world over are helped by charitable acts that are influenced in part by religion. Collectively, churches of all faiths contribute billions of dollars through charitable endeavors each year. Faith can also be a very personal thing. A person facing death, one of the most terrifying aspects of life, can find comfort in that faith. It's not uncommon for someone facing a hardship to find emotional strength in the belief that he/she isn't facing the hardship alone. The most often cited argument for the virtue of religion is that it gives us a moral compass that we would be lost without. Religion, it is argued, strongly influences our ability to determine the difference between right and wrong thus influencing our behaviors. As a force guiding our morality, surely religion can't be dangerous, can it?
A cursory glance around the world is all it takes to state with confidence that religion has had and will continue to have a positive influence in the lives of billions of people for the reasons just outlined. That same cursory glance however will also expose the fact that religion has had and will continue to have a negative influence in the lives of billions. To try and quantify the positives and the negatives for measurement purposes is an exercise in futility, yet it is important to put the declared contributions of religion into perspective. Too often, this discussion is marred by those who try to force behaviors that can exist secularly to become synonymous with faith. Since the dawn of man, the faithful in our society have tried to present their various religions in this type of mutually exclusive approach. Under that banner, they would have us believe that we are incapable of being good to one another without a divine mandate. For all intents and purposes, there are no positive contributions made to society in the name of religion that cannot also be made in spite of religion. I want to remove this false mask of humility by exposing the mutually exclusive facade.
It's also worth asking whether or not any of this ultimately lends itself to the legitimacy or authenticity of a religion? Do the positive contributions of the Church of Scientology translate into genuine evidence that Xenu was an intergalactic warlord? Do the positive contributions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints translate into genuine evidence that Joseph Smith really found and was able to translate those golden plates? Do the positive contributions of the Roman Catholic Church translate into genuine evidence that Jesus was the son of God? Clearly, positive (and negative) contributions to society have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the truthfulness of any faith, and yet the faithful use these contributions to present their religion in the most benign, most beneficial light possible.
Many believers inevitably point to their charities as a way to elevate the purity of their religion. When a religious group reaches out to the less fortunate in our society with food, blankets, money, or an open ear, the charitable act itself is deserving of praise. As I stated earlier, many people are helped by these charitable acts so I have no intention of degrading or belittling the charitable deeds themselves. With that being said, if charity is an example of the positive side of religion, it begs the question of whether or not it's exclusive to religion. Is it done because God has commanded it or are human beings capable of being compassionate without God? Can one exist without the other? The fact that there are literally thousands of charitable organizations around the world that are nonreligious in nature would lead me to believe that God isn't a required component for this argument. How is this any different than S.H.A.R.E., Goodwill Industries, Amnesty International, United Nations Children's Fund, Wheelchair Foundation, or Foundation Beyond Belief? As I discuss in the chapter of this book that deals with the Christian Reward System, billions (that's billions with a "B") of dollars have been donated through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and all of their work is being done without God playing a commanding role. The Foundation believes "that every life has equal value". Note that they don't say that a life is worth any more or less because someone doesn't believe in Jesus, Allah, or Krishna, and yet religions like Christianity very clearly say that those souls who do not accept Jesus Christ as savior are not only inferior to those who do but will spend an eternity in torment because of that disbelief.
Anytime someone tries to make religion mutually exclusive to charity, they infect and pollute the basic integrity of any charitable act. Frankly, we don't need a religious reason to do what we should be doing anyway for our fellow man. The religious reason becomes superfluous. This is to say that a Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, or Jew is incapable of acting charitably without a divine being telling us that we must. This concept is insulting to not only secular charities but to the concept of charity itself. Additionally this line of thinking does nothing to contribute to the defense of the moral claims made on behalf of religion. As much as the religious faithful might otherwise hope, there is absolutely no distinction between charity and "religious" charity other than the ulterior motive involved.
Charity work may not be the exclusive domain of the religious, but missionary work most certainly is. The trouble is that the two deeds are often used in a religiously synonymous way. To a Christian missionary, there is no distinction. Mother Teresa was one of the world's most famous missionaries and a fantastic example of highlighting the fruits and dangers of religion. As the founder of Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa ministered to the sick, poor, and dying for decades. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize which enhanced her already impressive list of honors. As revered as she may have been, none of her awards can eliminate the criticisms leveled against her. Christianity shaped her views on suffering leaving her with the conclusion that suffering actually brought people closer to Jesus. She was criticized for not administering painkillers to people in extreme pain because the suffering they felt was "the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ". The quality of care was consistently questioned - particularly when reports of hypodermic needles being reused surfaced or when medical decisions about patients were being made by people with no medical knowledge. Her theology of suffering actually embraced such misery which, to the non-indoctrinated, seems rather obscene, masochistic, and callous. This wasn't a position applied only to the already sick and dying however. For example, Mother Theresa equated contraception to abortion and abortion to murder. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she said that abortion was "the greatest destroyer of peace". Forbidding contraception has literally led to millions of unwanted births and additional hardships. While Mother Teresa was undoubtedly a caring and courageous person, the suffering caused or compounded by her faith should not go unnoticed nor should the criticism of the millions of dollars spent on her missionary work be untouchable. No amount of good deeds will ever dismiss her acceptance of $1.25 million dollars from Charles Keating, the man famously involved in the Keating Five scandal of fraud and corruption. She accepted donations from the corrupt Duvalier Family in Haiti as well. In both of these cases, she supported and praised each of them before and after the donations. Incredibly, the money was not always accounted for, and where it was, it was often used to open new convents instead of combating poverty (remember - she asserted that suffering was the mechanism by which man could know Jesus) or improving the safety and conditions of already existing hospices. This was a woman who truly believed that the aborting of an unwanted fetus was more morally damaging to the world than the suffering of millions as a result of unwanted pregnancies. These criticisms are as valid today as they were when they were first made decades ago. Her theology of suffering should cause additional pause when viewed against the backdrop of her grave doubts regarding the very existence of the God to which that suffering could bring us closer. Privately, Mother Teresa "felt no presence of God whatsoever ... neither in her heart or in the Eucharist" for many decades even though all her deeds were conducted under the banner of missionary work. It is this same God whose compassion is nowhere to be found even today among the millions who are literally suffering unimaginable afflictions at this very moment.
Missionary work does not validate any of the core beliefs of a chosen religion and we don't have to look to icons like Mother Teresa to demonstrate this. We can find examples much closer to home. I'd like to share a story about my high school sweetheart recounting her experience in church one day where the congregation prayed for her father. I've been told that the Holy Ghost came down upon her father and he literally fainted from the weight. Apparently it was a moving experience. I remember asking the question "...and you give these people money?" Perhaps it was the delivery, but she didn't find my question quite as humorous as I did at the time. These days, her parents are both reverends and missionaries. They have traveled to numerous places around the globe to preach the message of Jesus Christ. Are they and others like them reaching out to the less fortunate people of the world simply because they are compassionate human beings whose only desire is to help those less fortunate? Could it really be that noble? It's difficult for me to put the noble label on them when I see photos of them holding up the Bible and preaching. I believe it is both fair and appropriate to ask how many of these trips have been or would be undertaken without the spreading of their faith? The answer to that question is indicative of the true purpose behind the trip. Is it possible to help someone without giving them a Bible or trying to convert them? If it is, then I find it highly pretentious to say the word "charity" in the same breath as "missionary". I commend the helping, but doing it under the guise of charity is misleading and disingenuous. It is not "charity work" but rather a religious marketing campaign with some charitable side effects. The mission isn't as noble and selfless as organizations like Doctors Without Borders who donate their time and expertise without expecting anything in return like souls, beliefs, and eternal commitments.
So why is religion good? Perhaps it is the belief that it provides us with moral guidelines. I've heard this rationale many times and I cover it in greater depth in a later chapter. What actions deemed morally acceptable can be taken by a religious person that cannot be taken by a nonreligious person? Take some time and really think about that question. I think you'll find your own conclusion to be enlightening.
Perhaps religion is good because it purports to explain why we're here and how we got here. It's not uncommon for the religious to hold their faith up as an example of being able to answer a fundamental question that science cannot. Unfortunately, religious faith is the single worst excuse for objective discourse. For example, what verifiable, factual, and authentic evidence exists to conclusively support the Christian version of creation over the stories of Lord Brahma, Taiowa, or Izanagi and Izanami? Each of these stories and the many like them all begin the same: in the beginning there was nothing. They diverge quickly thereafter by proclaiming and attributing creation to their own personal deity or deities. I assure you that every basic argument that a Christian produces for his/her story will be met with an equally-passionate argument from someone of another faith. I know of no unbiased source that has conclusively and exhaustively weighed the merits of every religions' assertions. The only unbiased source we have to try and answer these types of questions is science. The scientific method has been the most consistently reliable way of understanding the world and universe that we inhabit. We have learned more about our place in the universe in the past 100 years than we have in the previous 1,000 years. When viewed in this light, there is no reason to believe that revelation is anything more than a red herring designed to placate the masses.
Perhaps faith is good because it purports to answer the crucial question about whether or not there is life after death. Let's be honest - the fear of death is a strong emotion and faith can be very comforting. What rational person hasn't at least given a few fleeting moments of thought to what happens to us after we die? We all want to believe that we'll continue to live in some fashion. Death becomes merely a speed bump and therefore a less scary prospect. In the past I have personally found comfort in the thought that a loved one is somehow still alive and happy in Heaven. I have for years kept the religiously-inspired memorial card from my great grandmother's funeral in the visor of my vehicle. I don't really believe that she is physically watching over me, but I find comfort in keeping her in my thoughts. That's not the case with everyone though as many of our neighbors truly do believe that our relatives are actively watching out for the living from the comfort of paradise. The problem is that religion is selling an invisible product, and the mere fact that it may provide comfort ultimately has no bearing whatsoever on the truthfulness of its claims. Wishful thinking does not lend itself to the truth and I don't feel remorseful for pointing this out. In fact, I am reminded of something that the author and screenwriter Rupert Hughes once said,
Depending on which invisible product we buy, we may be greeted by virgins in the afterlife willing to do our bidding, or perhaps we'll get to see our loved ones again in a magical place called Heaven. Maybe we'll be reincarnated as something (or someone) else entirely. Again, it all depends on which invisible product we buy. Billions and billions of people have already died, and yet despite all of these opportunities, we still have no proof of an afterlife. It seems that when I bring this inconvenient fact up, I'm almost always met with the "evidence" put forth by those who have had a near-death experience (NDE). With little variation, we are given accounts of experiences that include
"feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one's body and watching events going on around one's body and, occasionally, at some distant physical location; a cessation of pain; seeing a dark tunnel or void; seeing an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a 'Being of Light' that radiates love and may speak or otherwise communicate with the person; encountering other beings, often deceased persons whom the experiencer recognizes; experiencing a revival of memories or even a full life review, sometimes accompanied by feelings of judgment; seeing some 'other realm,' often of great beauty; sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the body, often reluctantly."
While it seems like a rather obvious distinction to me, it remains far from obvious to those who believe in NDEs that the subject was "near death" and not in fact dead. If the subject did not actually die, the experience is not one of death. Regardless, NDE enthusiasts embrace these stories as evidence that our consciousness can exist outside of the body without ever really considering what "outside of the body" truly means. Someone could suffer a heart attack and later recall these types of sensations. There have been reports of people who could vividly recall the events taking place around them while they lie on the operating room table. The problem with these reports is that the brain and body are still alive thus making the association of these events to death somewhat of a misnomer. In cases where brain activity has completely shut down, it again seems like a rather obvious observation that the brain must resume at some point or else the subject wouldn't be able to tell us about the sensations in the first place. The difficulty here is in assigning those sensations to the brief moments of an inactive brain state instead of to the near/after death moments. NDE received a boost in 2012 when Harvard-educated neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander wrote a book describing his religious experience while his cortex was "completely shut down" during a rare E. coli spinal meningitis infection. Finally, the NDE community had someone with solid scientific credentials explaining in medical terms what his body went through when he claims the experiences took place. Dr. Alexander's account is by far the most interesting account of NDE ever put forth, however I can't seem to get over the fact that in order for his brain to record these events to memory, the brain would have had to have been functioning. Anything else would mean that memories are somehow stored outside of the brain. A complete understanding of consciousness eludes scientists even today so that kind of assertion truly is audacious and demanding of evidence. I'm not ready to completely dismiss near-death experiences but I'm not likely to rush to supernatural explanations either. Regardless of our positions, it seems rather apparent that until human beings lose their fear of death, religion and religious experience will always have a place in our society.
The only real answer to the "BIG" question is: I don't know. It is the only answer that is both humble and honest. Just because someone believes that Heaven exists or that they'll be reincarnated doesn't automatically make their belief true. Belief on its own is neither a virtue nor a valid reason for substantiating any claim. Religion is dangerous because it lets people believe that they have all the answers when we clearly do not. It is perfectly acceptable in science to say that we don't yet know something. Religion, like the Divine Default says, begins with God, and because it does, the cause for everything is already known. God becomes a convenient excuse for things we don't understand and faith is the glue that binds that belief together.
The sad realization is that I am going to die and so are you. It is the most statistically probable event that one can think of. It tears me up inside to think that I will eventually be separated from everyone I love. My children will one day walk this planet without me. Depending on the timing of my own demise, I may never know my grandchildren or great-grandchildren. These are sobering thoughts. Christopher Hitchens once likened death to being tapped on the shoulder and told that you have to leave the party. The party will continue - just not with you. There is a profound sadness in this realization, but religion isn't the only anecdote. If my soul does not transcend this Earthly realm when I die, I can still find the majesty in my body being reduced to ash. My energy will not be lost but rather simply changed and I will remain an everlasting part of our universe. The sobering truth is that everything must come to an end, and what provides me a measure of comfort is recognizing the fact that I am a child of the stars. My body shares the same makeup as the stars in the night sky. There is a certain amount of poetry in knowing that stars had to die so that I could live. Eventually even our own sun will burn out. It will grow bigger and hotter eventually engulfing our planet in one last warm embrace in which our currently lush planet will lose all of its water and much of its energy to space. The energy that was my body and the energy of those that I have loved will once again be reunited as particles sent out across a vast and awe-inspiring cosmos. We are and will forever be children of the stars. There is a beauty in stepping back and seeing the big picture. I wish more people could look at death from this perspective.
Perhaps faith is good because of the social component. There is certainly an inherent social aspect to most religious gatherings and it provides a common bond for its members. Religion has and continues to have an inclusive value in that it is good for those who are in the group. Unfortunately, this social inclusion rarely has a positive quality to those who are outside the group. For example, Christianity is good if you're a Christian. It's not so good if you are a Muslim and vice versa. Most Christians like to believe that Jesus' teachings were meant for everyone, however a critical look at his actual words would suggest otherwise. For example, Jesus refers to non-Jews as dogs, an insult that is just as biting today. In Matthew 10:5-6, we see a clear distinction being made between Jew and Gentile. Many of the Biblical references to the Gentiles (non-Jews) are of a derogatory nature.
A common belief is not always sufficient for social inclusion however. Different sects of the same religion can be as far away from socially inclusive as a homeless man at a country club. Christians need only look at Protestants and Roman Catholics as evidence. Muslims need only look at Sunni and Shia sects. It's apparently not enough to just have faith - we must have the correct one. Each group may share some common core beliefs; however that common bond isn't enough for complete social inclusion. This reminds me of a story the comedian Emo Philips once told:
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
Even when the inclusive social nature of religion is positive, is this aspect unique to religion? Can people get together socially for any other reason? Can there be common bonds beyond supernatural beliefs to bring people together? While it might be an accurate characteristic, the social aspect isn't the exclusive domain of religion. Just like charities, the same effect can and is frequently achieved without the presence of God.
So what is it about religion that makes it good? What is absolutely unique and quantifiable about religion that would be considered "good" and yet is not available to the nonreligious? In addition to the reasons outlined above, I've heard other reasons offered up like it is good for your health, it's a connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it's unifying. Even though the Bible doesn't say it, a healthy diet is a quantifiable practice that is good for your health, yet I don't see people praying and claiming obedience to a grapefruit. Realizing that our bodies are made up of the same ingredients found in stars and that these stars gave us these initial building blocks of life most certainly gives us a connection to something bigger than ourselves, but we don't pray to Alpha Centauri. To say that religion is unifying is like saying that the Klu Klux Klan was good because it brought white people together. The typical believer may not realize it when they're sitting in the pew with other like-minded people, but from a historical macro level, religion has been one of the most dividing forces on the planet. How many people have died fighting over which invisible God was more real? As Walter P. Stacy, a former Chief Justice from the North Carolina Supreme Court, once said, "It would be almost unbelievable, if history did not record the tragic fact that men have gone to war and cut each other's throats because they could not agree as to what was to become of them after their throats were cut." When drawing a caricature of a religious figure can incite violence, religion unifies those who share the same belief against people who don't. This doesn't unify everyone. It divides us. For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to view black men as property and a holy book was used for justification. This unified white people as slave holders and black people as slaves, but it didn't unify everyone together. It divided us. So what socially inclusive characteristics of religion can be both deemed exclusive and good?
From counseling those on drugs and alcohol to tending to the sick and elderly, I'm confident that every religious person could provide hundreds, if not thousands, of positive reasons to support religion. For every positive reason given to support a chosen religion, I hope you'll take a moment to ask yourself whether or not each reason 1) makes the religion true, 2) can be conducted without religion, and 3) are we comfortable with the cost? When you're finished with this chapter, ask yourself what positive aspects of religion are enjoyed solely because of faith versus the cost that it and others have on our world. I submit to you that none of the claimed or perceived tangible benefits are exclusive to religion. Each benefit can still be achieved without religion. God is not a prerequisite. Conversely, there are clear detriments to religion and more often than not these detriments can be exclusively claimed by the faithful. The cost of religion is far greater than someone devoting an hour of their time to sit in church on Sunday. The true cost of religion escapes anyone who has never taken the time to consider it. A believer is like a mafia wife - someone who chooses to focus on just the good things that her husband does while ignoring the bad. Just because she chooses to ignore the murders and crime doesn't mean that those things aren't happening. Sweeping it under the rug doesn't make it go away. It's the same thing with religion. Just because someone only attends Sunday services doesn't mean that they get a free pass to be blind to the negative effects. Because religious moderates provide legitimacy and support for the core religious beliefs, they are complicit in the evils that are conducted under that banner of faith. Religious moderates demand respect for their faith and make any criticism of it taboo. The suicide bombing community is religiously-based. The genital-mutilation community (both male and female circumcision) is religiously-based. Both of these groups find support from extreme and moderate faith blocks. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris correctly notes that "religious moderates are, in a large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed." When a religious moderate gives legitimacy to Jesus or Muhammad, it makes it more difficult for the rest of us to point out the rather obvious deficiencies that are inherent with these figures. Even dignifying the Bible or the Qur'an as informative makes it difficult to adequately oppose actions undertaken by those who are either inspired by or take direct instruction from these sacred texts.
Religion is a fine thing until a pious man flies an airplane into the 93rd floor of a skyscraper. That's when it gets your attention.
My biggest fear is a religiously-inspired nuclear attack. Even as I write this, there are Islamic elements around the globe trying to make this a reality. President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, two politically polar opposites, both agreed that the most dangerous scenario facing the United States is that of Islamic terrorists obtaining a nuclear bomb. In his first address to the United Nations Security Council, President Barack Obama discussed the destabilizing of everyday life should a single nuclear weapon explode in New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, London, or Paris. There is absolutely no denying the dedication and belief that certain Muslim fundamentalists have to their religion, and most importantly, their interpretation of it. The devil here is in the details. Religious texts are ambiguous and can be interpreted in any way that suits someone. A suicide bomber interprets the Qur'an very differently than a Muslim who would be best described as "moderate". A Muslim fundamentalist believes as strongly in their religious convictions as a Christian fundamentalist, which is to say that they believe in the complete and literal interpretation of their holy book. To say that these "extremists" are "hi-jacking" their various religions is incorrect when we really give it some thought. They are not changing the essence of their religion by ignoring large swaths of it. In fact, they are doing the exact opposite. They read their holy books exactly as they are written and interpret them exactly as the earliest followers did. The sad fact is that we don't have to be religious fundamentalists to allow religion to warp our views. If the world ended today, both fundamentalists as well as their moderate counterparts in each religion would be able to find a silver lining in the destruction. They would get to move on to a pasture that each believes is greener than the one they inhabit today. Imagine that. Religious people would be able to find the positive side to a nuclear doomsday scenario because they know they'll be with Jesus or Allah. This is a major fundamental difference between religious and nonreligious people, and dare I say it - delusional and rational people.
My nuclear fear is not relegated to Muslim fundamentalists however. When Little Boy was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, followed by Fat Man over Nagasaki three days later, it was Christian moderates responsible for their use. The ethical use of these weapons is a topic that is still debated to this day. A nuclear strike today on Tehran launched from Tel Aviv or vice versa would be incredibly destabilizing in a world that continues to be ever-more connected. Unlike 1945, we find ourselves today largely without economic borders. Countries have become more dependent upon each other than at any other time in history evidenced by the recent financial disruptions across the globe. A nuclear strike today has the capability to not only escalate the potential death toll but it could also destroy the delicate economic systems upon which modern society depends.
The scary part is that for the first time in human history, we actually have the capability to destroy mankind. The ability to create and use weapons of mass destruction is only going to get easier as time progresses. Even today, it is not out of the realm of possibility for a single person to be responsible for the deaths of thousands or even millions. A religious person might welcome that flash of light in the sky thinking that they're going to be taken away in the Rapture. I don't share the same enthusiasm. In the days of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, only God could wipe out everyone on the planet. Today, we don't need God to destroy our world. We are fully capable of accomplishing that task ourselves. Interpreting centuries old texts in a way to support that outcome has already been done by religious zealots which is precisely why this scenario (pardon the pun) scares the hell out of me and it should scare the hell out of you too.
As I stated earlier, Muslim fundamentalists are not the only ones who interpret their holy book in nefarious ways. I call your attention to centuries of Christian terrorism. Some of the most egregious acts in the history of our world have been conducted from a position of religious authority. The Catholic Church is responsible for the deaths and forced conversions of an untold number of people. Jerusalem has always held major historical significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Christian crusaders were given plenary indulgence by the Pope for their massacres during the attempts to reclaim it. Using religion, the Pope was able to religiously justify the shedding of blood in the Lord's name. Sound familiar? We can hear the exact same concept today in the rhetoric by Muslim clerics who are fighting the "infidels". The Crusades, the series of religious wars fought over the course of several centuries, is a bloody stain on human history. We don't have to go back to the Crusades for nefarious interpretation and justification though. The Orange Volunteers (a Protestant fundamentalist group) in Northern Ireland are no strangers to carrying out terrorist attacks on Catholic churches. The National Liberation Front of Tripura uses their Christian beliefs to justify their violence. The fighters in the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda often read Bible passages prior to battle.
Who can forget the Protestant-led Ku Klux Klan and the terror that they inflicted upon thousands here in the United States? The KKK's religious foundation was built upon their interpretation of Christianity.18 They didn't hide the fact that they wanted to "reestablish Protestant Christian values in America by any means possible," and they firmly believed that "Jesus was the first Klansman."19 These attitudes haven't diminished over time. In July 2012, the KKK had a presence during the 3-day conference held by Christian Identity Ministries in Lamar County, Alabama where the pastor welcomed only "white Christians". These men can and do find support for their beliefs and actions in the Bible. You and I may not like the outcomes of their interpretation of the Bible any more than they'd like the outcome of our interpretation, but we all have the same book. It should strike us as both odd and highly problematic that a divine being can't seem to dictate a book that isn't so open to interpretation. If God is all-knowing and perfect, we should be able to expect a perfect text explaining in clear, unambiguous terms exactly what He wants and expects. No holy book fits that description.
Simply stated, faith is gullibility personified. It is the excuse people give for believing in something without any credible reason for doing so. There's a reason we call it "faith". It can't be proven and is often unreasonable and illogical. If something can only be believed with faith, then the honest truth is that the belief itself is simply unable to stand on its own merit. As I will state several times in this book, faith is not science, and by its very definition, the two are incompatible. They differ both philosophically as well as practically. One works by assembling facts to form a conclusion. The other operates entirely in reverse. One is based greatly on the bedrock of logic and reason. The other is a complete surrender of logic and reason. Science is the unending desire to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Religion is the belief that we already have. Science and religion follow incompatible paths to knowing. We can see the differences when we apply the knowledge attained through each to explain or to make predictions about our physical world. Science for example can be used to predict when a particular comet will pass by our planet, when we may be in the path of severe weather, or when the next lunar eclipse will take place. Science allowed us to predict the very existence of the planet Neptune using mathematical modeling before we ever set eyes upon it. The former planet Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930 so we have never seen it actually complete a full orbit around the sun, but we know with mathematical certainty that it will take 248 years. We can use science to make predictions about so many things with incredible accuracy. Conversely, I have yet to see an equally-accurate prediction about something in our world that was a direct result of religious scripture. In fact, most of the assertions from our scriptures about our world and universe are flatly wrong. The rest have been mere postdictions. Our scriptures are littered with postdictions. If we as a species were given only one choice in helping us plan for the future, I wonder which of these options we would choose. Would science or faith give us a better platform to deal with not only the problems of today, but the problems of tomorrow?
Divine revelation, personal feelings, and indoctrination are appropriate in matters of faith but are profoundly useless in both matters of scientific discovery and dealing with the real problems of tomorrow. There is no beating around the burning bush here. Faith is a completely inadequate solution to the true dilemmas facing our species. With 7 billion people on the planet and growing, it seems rather obvious to me that faith in a supernatural being will be of absolutely no help to us in finding new sources of food, energy, technology, or medicine. Religious people cannot pray away our ills nor can they pray for human advancement and expect tangible results. Historically speaking, the vast majority of our advances have come by the hands of science and there is no reason to believe that this trend won't continue. Our future economies will depend heavily on science - not faith! When push inevitably comes to shove, faith is simply not the platform on which to hang our proverbial hats and therefore should never be elevated above genuine knowledge. From both macro and micro perspectives, science is far more useful and critical to the survival of our species than faith could ever hope to be. The material contributions of the two are completely different from each other.
We don't live in a world where we presently have to choose between faith and science exclusively, but if we stand to benefit more greatly from science, by what logical reasoning would we allow faith to supersede it? There isn't a logical case to be made for the substitution, yet many will gladly support such things as the teaching of creationism over evolution in our public school systems thereby openly promoting faith over science. This type of religious encroachment on secular society has, does, and will continue to have negative consequences for our species. Science builds knowledge through testable explanations, predictions, and critical assessments of evidence. Faith does not require evidence, and oddly enough, someone's faith is considered "stronger" when there's less evidence to support it. I fail to see how this is a virtue.
Elevating faith over science does more harm than simply encroaching on secular society. It devalues science and instills within us a complete disregard for the scientific method. For example, religious politicians in Louisiana tried to give thousands of students state voucher money so that they could have attended private religious schools using public school funding. The schools approved by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal's pushing of that bill introduced curriculum based on principles from the Bible. Portions of the curriculum involved the cohabitation of humans and dinosaurs, solar fusion portrayed as a myth, and evolution being "proven false" by suggesting that the Loch Ness Monster is actually a plesiosaur alive and well having been tracked by a small submarine20. This type of curriculum elevates faith over science at every turn without stringent burden of proof. The philosophy of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) is that science is incapable of contradicting the Bible. If there is a conflict, then the scientific theory is wrong and will be ignored. This curriculum is completely scientifically-hostile. Again, I fail to see how this is a virtue.
Breeding a scientifically ignorant generation seems to me to be detrimental to a future that is so heavily dependent on science. The fact that public dollars are being spent on something so intellectually deficient is like taking a paycheck and spending the entire thing on lottery tickets in hopes of being able to pay that month's rent. It's not helpful. The issue here is about progress. The Bible is not open to revision and therefore does not qualify as a science textbook. It has not led us to and is incapable of leading us to new discoveries about the universe. This whole debacle (and others like it) is entirely motivated by the religious in our society and the harmful effects will be felt for years to come. Despite laws forbidding it, an estimated 13 percent of public school biology teachers in the United States teach "young earth" creationism and an estimated 60 percent teach a watered-down version of evolution.
Whether the topic is education, morality, or human decency, religion presents itself as harmless but the reality is that it has the power to be both divisive and harmful. As Steven Weinberg correctly points out "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion." Religion provides convenient cover and justification for actions that range from merely irritating to sinfully wicked. Case in point: you may be surprised to learn that there are still witch burnings. This is a morbid practice that was thought to have vanished from our world prior to the 1800's. In villages in Kenya, mobs literally drag suspected witches out of their homes and burn them. Are these Christians interpreting the Bible wrong? Unless someone has read a different Bible than I have, the Bible is quite explicit in its condemnation of witches and witchcraft even though there is no credible evidence to suggest that witches can manipulate the elements any differently than what you or I are capable of. With today's technology and ease of access to it, it was only a matter of time before this type of story became more accessible to people outside Kenya. Believe it or not, you can go online and watch these videos. I kid you not. You can watch these Christians douse suspected witches in gasoline and light them on fire. As these "witches" are burning, crawling, and desperately trying to look for a way to escape, they are kicked and beaten back to the ground. Imagine the thoughts going through the minds of not only the poor souls who are literally being burned alive but also of the good Christians doing exactly what God has commanded. Please don't gloss over that last point. This is what it looks like when Christians do exactly as God has commanded. I have personally watched several of these videos and can attest to the fact that they are absolutely gruesome. If anyone believes that religion can't do any actual harm, I would encourage them to watch one of these videos and then reassess their opinion. These actions are purely religious-based. The Bible condemns witchcraft thus providing justification for the act. If God commanded us to not let a witch live as He clearly does in Exodus 22:18, who are we to say that burning those people alive is immoral? I assure you that the word moral is the last thing that comes to mind when watching this, but the clear fact remains that the Bible can be used to justify such actions.
For those with the stomach to do so, you can also go online and watch the Taliban of Afghanistan murder a 22-year-old woman on accusations of adultery. Just like Christianity and Judaism, Islam considers adultery to be an act punishable by death. More than 100 witnesses stood around this burqa-clad woman as she was shot nine times. As if the senseless killing wasn't terrible enough to watch, the crowd can be heard and seen enthusiastically cheering her death as an honor killing. Many can be heard chanting "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great". Where is the morality in gleefully cheering on this murder? This isn't a rare example as this type of punishment has been routinely carried out across the Middle East for centuries, and in each of these situations, it is always conducted under the banner of Islamic authority. While these events tend to be more culturally-influenced than religiously-influenced, the fact that women are often portrayed as chattel to be owned by men and Islam explicitly condemns adultery to be a capital offense cannot and must not be overlooked. For example, Islam under the Taliban is not the type of environment where a woman's happiness is going to find itself flourishing. Women in Afghanistan have an average lifespan of just 44 years. The overall literacy rate in Afghanistan is 26% and among women it's just 12%21. Girls are forbidden to attend school under the Islamic rule of the Taliban. Those who defy the Taliban are often attacked by having battery acid splashed in their face. These attacks often result in death or severe disfiguration. Not only would a sensible person find these actions immoral, a sensible person would find the ideology fueling the actions immoral as well. Even though we'll be hard-pressed to find honor killings sanctioned in the Qur'an, these actions are often being done in the name of Allah, and once the creator of the universe gets involved, the concept of right and wrong somehow becomes grey.
Closer to home, we can simply pick up a newspaper in any major city and find evidence of the dangers that religion harbors. In Decatur, Georgia, Benjamin Edetanlen was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being found guilty of killing his 5-month old child. The baby died from blunt force trauma and suffered brain injuries and a broken leg. According to his own testimony, Edetanlen told the court that he was trying to discipline his children according to scripture. He pointed to several passages in Proverbs to support and justify his actions. Even after the child's death, Edetanlen maintained his faith and justification in Proverbs 13! If, as the religious are so fond of suggesting, absolute morality can be found with God, who are we to say that we shouldn't be beating our children? Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is quite explicit when it says that we should take stubborn and rebellious children unwilling to learn from parental discipline and stone them to death at the edge of town. Clearly God expects us to raise children in a way that would incur the wrath of any modern-day social services counselor.
In March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI made his first papal visit to Africa, a country with a growing number of baptized Catholics and the country most ravaged by AIDS and HIV. It was here that he preached against the use of condoms. He said that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone - that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem". Because the Pope recommends that condoms not be used, a great deal of the faithful will follow that recommendation to the letter. AIDS is bad, but are we to believe that condoms are worse? How is this materially helpful in what is already a tragic situation? How is this physically or emotionally positive for those faithful believers? The Pope didn't say this because he was politically or economically motivated to do so. He was religiously motivated. In what world can someone honestly say that this belief system isn't harmful?
The Catholic Church's irrational stance on contraception has led to millions of unwanted pregnancies. The Church's fear of losing papal authority has caused pain, heartache, financial difficulties, and broken homes for so many people even though the vast majority of practicing Catholics have both used and continue to support the use of contraception. This senseless mandate against contraception is a relic that has very serious consequences in today's modern society. In 2012, the United Nations declared access to contraception a universal human right and that creating barriers, whether legal, financial, or cultural, would constitute an infringement upon that right. Unfortunately, the UN report was not binding, had no legal effect, and could not change the Catholic Church's mandate. Considering the source of the mandate, it would appear to be a bit hypocritical. As comedian Bill Maher once quipped, "Who would know better about women's reproductive parts than a bunch of 70 year old men who wear dresses to work every day?"
The Catholic Church will likely one day apologize for its irrational stance on contraception - particularly in poverty stricken areas of the world. While they are quick to boast of their missionary/charity work in these areas, they remain blind to the devastating consequences that their immoral position causes. Throughout history, there has been one overwhelmingly positive and effective tactic to combat poverty and it's a rather simple one in concept - the empowerment of women. Give women a say in their reproductive role and the heavy weight of poverty can begin to be lifted. The Catholic Church continues to this day to oppose the only known panacea for poverty and they remain strident in their position. It shouldn't surprise us that an organization where women are still denied ordination (Can. 1024: A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly) considers this type of misogynistic viewpoint a virtue. It seems rather obvious that an unwanted pregnancy is the single biggest reason for abortion. The effects of unwanted pregnancies can be felt on multiple levels. In a postindustrial society like the United States, unwanted pregnancies often lead to financial difficulties and single-parent homes. It's not uncommon for women facing unwanted pregnancy to neglect prenatal care thus putting their babies at risk for such things as premature births and neurological disorders. The cognitive and behavioral issues arising from these situations have been well documented. As of 2007, unwanted pregnancies led to 1.3 million abortions. Study after study confirms the difficulties and negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. In a third world country, these consequences are magnified many times over. When aid to these countries comes attached with strings of teaching abstinence and saying no to condoms, the pain and suffering that has been felt by millions of people over the span of generations is amazingly immoral. The Church is single-handedly responsible for much of this misery. It is my sincere hope that the Church one day recognizes the obscene nature of their position on contraception and apologizes for the unethical dogma that they've espoused to every corner of the world. They are responsible for the misery of millions.
There's no disputing that religion is the primary cause and justification for the persecution of gay people. God is very clear on this topic. Using the Bible as moral validation, an otherwise normally rational, intelligent individual will condemn a gay person. They'll condemn them not just for what they've done but more importantly for who they are. These same rational, intelligent people will proudly proclaim that man is made in the image of God, but fail to see gays and lesbians in the same light. It seems a rather simple question, but if Jesus never bothered to mention a topic, how can that topic be essential to his teachings? Jesus never says one direct word about gay people, but since Jesus and God are believed to be one entity (Holy Trinity), Christians have religious justification for their intolerance and hatred of homosexuals. For millions of people, the Bible is both the source and the justification for this hatred. A 2011 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that teenagers who are gay are four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Who says faith isn't dangerous when it is often the driver of justification for this persecution? It's not uncommon to see and hear about parents who will go so far as to disown their children upon learning of their sexual orientation. In fact, this has been a rather common theme among young gays and lesbians, and I continue to have difficulty reconciling these all too real scenarios to my own situation. If either of my children comes out as gay, abandoning them would be the last thought on my mind. Having a gay child doesn't mean that I've failed as a parent, however disowning them would be.
Dan Cathy, the CEO of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chains and a devout Christian, made headlines in 2012 when he discussed his company's support for "the biblical definition of the family unit". His Christian beliefs directly influence the actions of the WinShape Foundation, the charitable group founded by S. Truett Cathy and his wife Jeanette. WinShape, heavily funded by Chick-Fil-A, has donated millions of dollars to anti-gay groups. In 2010 alone, the group donated nearly $2 million22 to such groups as the Marriage & Family Foundation, Exodus International, Family Research Council, Georgia Family Council, and others. Not a single group views homosexuals in a positive light. "We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit," Dan Cathy said. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that." Cathy invoked his religious beliefs on the equality of marriage by saying "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about." Cathy's religious beliefs spark actions. Those actions influence and support others. When Jesus taught his disciples against judging people, one can only assume he wasn't providing exemptions for folks like Dan Cathy.
I was stunned to listen to the following comments from Dr. Reverend Phil Snider, a preacher from the Brentwood Christian Church in southwest Missouri, made in front of his local city council. The council was hearing public comments regarding a proposed amendment to an ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity protections. The transcript of his speech is below and is worth a read.
This step of gay rights is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the Last Days. This ordinance represents a denial of all that we believe in and no one should force it on us. It's not that we don't care about homosexuals. But it's that our rights would be taken away and un-Christian views will be forced upon us and our children, for we would be forced to go against our personal morals. Outside government agents are endeavoring to disturb God's Established Order. It is not in line with the Bible. Do not let people lead you astray.
The liberals leading this movement do not believe the Bible any longer but every good, substantial, Bible believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know what is happening is not of God, When you run into conflict with God's Established Order you have trouble. You do not produce harmony. You produce destruction and trouble and our city is in the greatest danger it has ever been in its history. The reason is we have gotten away from the Bible of our forefathers.
The comments seemed completely in line with the kind of expectations one might have listening to a southern preacher discussing the topic of gay rights. What happened next came as quite a surprise. Dr. Snider continued:
I'm sorry. I've brought the wrong notes with me this evening. I've borrowed my argument from the wrong century. It turns out what I've been reading to you this whole time are direct quotes from White preachers from the 1950's and the 1960's all in support of racial segregation. All I have done is simply take out the words "racial integration" and substituted it with the phrase "gay rights".
I guess the arguments I've been hearing around Springfield lately sound so similar to these that I got them confused. I hope you will not make the same mistake. I hope you will stand on the right side of history.
In one swift movement, Dr. Snider cleverly frames the debate as a civil rights issue highlighting just how others have used the Bible in the past to condone the bigotry of segregation. I give him credit for being bold enough to confront the same type of rhetoric that was used during the struggles of racial segregation during the last century. Unfortunately, not every Christian is as liberal or tolerant as Dr. Snider.
If you've watched a national news show or picked up a newspaper anytime in the last decade, I'm sure you've seen the antics of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the same people that proudly proclaim "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags". These fundamentalists use a literal interpretation of the Bible and often ignore the parts of the Bible that others might interpret as similes, parables, or metaphors. All of their actions are taken under the guise of Christianity. I'd go so far as to say that in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, religion can be used to give people permission to behave in ways that even a lunatic might raise an eyebrow to. Whether you agree with their actions or their philosophies, there is no denying that they use religion to justify it all. They are extremely homophobic, and just like the witchcraft example from earlier in this chapter, there isn't anything positive to say about homosexuality in the Bible. When God refers to homosexuality as an abomination as he does in Leviticus 18:22, He isn't mincing words. In the King James Version, Leviticus 20:13 tells us "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." Again - no mincing of words. The appropriate punishment according to God is...death. If God condemns homosexuality and you're a Christian, who are you to call the members of the Westboro Baptist Church immoral? Your God has commanded it. This bigotry isn't the exclusive domain of the fundamentalist however. I know far too many people who are not outwardly expressive about denouncing homosexuality, but who harbor the same feelings and opinions quietly to themselves. They'll work with gays because they have to, but don't think for one second that a gay person will get the same type of consideration with these people that a heterosexual person will. They are a means to an end - something to be quietly tolerated.
No matter how someone slices it, gays and lesbians are human beings who deserve every bit of opportunity at a happy life as you and I do. To say that gays and lesbians can't get married because it is against my religion is like saying that someone else can't eat donuts because I'm on a diet. To say that gay marriage is a redefining of the word "marriage" is to conveniently ignore the fact that we no longer sell our daughters into marriage for five goats and a cow. Historically speaking, the word "marriage" has already been redefined. King David had many wives - many of which are named in 1 Chronicles 3:1-5. Jacob has two wives and they are given to him by their father in exchange for working for seven years. God is apparently just fine with polygamy and also seems to be at ease with treating women as property. When we don't kill the bride at a wedding in accordance with Deuteronomy 22:13-21 for the crime of not being a virgin on her wedding night, we've already redefined "Biblical marriage". For married couples caught committing adultery, God tells us in Deuteronomy 22:22 that we should kill both the man and the woman. There is something wildly hypocritical with Christians denouncing gay marriage while blatantly ignoring the specific commands given by their God in relation to heterosexual couples.
If we look at marriage the way it actually is and not how we want to view it, we'll see that it is a civil right and not a constitutionally-protected religious freedom. While people do get married in churches, they can also and frequently do get married in courthouses, backyards, country clubs, and even on beautiful, sandy beaches in foreign countries. A member of the clergy is not required to perform a marriage ceremony. Any justice of the peace, sitting judge, governor, mayor, county clerk, or ship captain (if you happen to be at sea) can and frequently do officiate at weddings. While the religious often decorate the marriage ceremony with references to God including the pretentious sacredness of commitment before God Himself, they often overlook some rather obvious facts like the marriage certificate which is issued by the government and not the church. A marriage is after all an agreement between two consenting adults and the government. When a marriage is dissolved, we don't require a priest, rabbi, or reverend to oversee the dissolution. Instead of clergy, we frequently find attorneys involved. Of course, who can forget the words uttered at the end of virtually every marriage ceremony: "by the power vested in me by the State of ..."? The power to officiate is derived from the State and thus from the people. This is the very essence behind what constitutes a civil right. To think of marriage solely in religious terms and bound by religious dogma is to remain completely ignorant of the reality of marriage.
Now, to go so far as to call someone an abomination because of their sexual orientation and to suggest that their punishment should be death is frankly disturbing. It would appear that God has no compassion or morality on this topic. The Christian god is a bigot by the very definition of the word. Even if a religious person does not personally believe in the persecution of homosexuals, that doesn't negate the fact that their religion surely does. If a social club held such intolerant views, how long would people remain members? Why should religion get a free pass?
Homosexuality isn't the only area of irrationality. If a particular irrational belief doesn't exist, it can be created. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church told their faithful that unbaptized children would spend eternity in Limbo, a place without God. According to the church, baptism is necessary for salvation and infants would be punished for original sin even though they themselves had never committed any personal sins. It turns out that St. Augustine was wrong. Originally commissioned by Pope John Paul II and authorized for publication by Pope Benedict XVI, "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized" was released. It would appear that the Vatican had officially closed Limbo without ever officially endorsing it. Since the Middle Ages, Limbo had been a "real" place believed in by millions of people, but now we have the Vatican clearly going against the views of many previous popes including Pope Pius X who said "Babies dead without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer, because, having original sin alone, they do not deserve paradise, but neither do they merit hell or purgatory." Try and imagine the kind of trauma that the concept of Limbo put millions of people through over hundreds of years. Can you imagine the millions and millions of tears shed by grieving parents thinking that their infants were in Limbo? That is the true power of religion. It can make people believe in anything...literally. What once was real is now imaginary. For centuries, people believed that Limbo was as real as Heaven and Hell. You couldn't convince them otherwise. Their faith was unshakeable. For some people, even the announcement from the Vatican can't convince them that Limbo isn't real. This situation bleeds delusion from every angle.
We can look through the pages of history to see more examples of this type of irrational behavior conducted under the banner of religion. As I have touched on before, the Crusades were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Victims left in the wake were not always given death. Countless numbers of people were raped and tortured while towns were routinely pillaged. The Roman Catholic Church taught their soldiers that if they were killed defending their faith, they would bypass Purgatory and be taken directly to Heaven. This provided strong motivation for many soldiers and helped ease their fears of dying during battle. This was all done under the banner of Christianity and under the same papal office authority that both created and closed the fictitious Limbo. Interesting enough, this is precisely the tactics we see deployed on behalf of Islam by modern day clerics to ease the fears of wannabe martyrs.
It's hard to pay attention to politics these days without having religion infused into it. The concept of religion has tangible, real-world consequences. It was revealing to watch the potential candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination for President of the United States debate the merits of the Obama administration's new mandate for contraceptive coverage in health-care policies. Christian advocates, spearheaded by the Catholics, were up in arms that they would have to pay for something that violates their belief system. They would instead choose to make it more difficult for their flock to get coverage. Catholic leaders may fight this, but the inconvenient truth is that more than half of all American Catholics agree with the decision to have contraceptive coverage and an estimated 98% of all have used contraceptives in the past23. This is the very personification of "do as I say not as I do."
Three of the Republican candidates that dropped out of the race for the 2012 Republican nomination have said that God told them to run for President. Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry all had divine inspiration. Herman Cain even compared himself to Moses in hearing God's calling. With hindsight we can say that if this were a baseball game, God would have struck out. The race however was telling as those folks, along with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, played the religion card at every opportunity they could. We saw this later in the contest when Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan told thousands of Evangelical Christians listening to a call hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition that a vote for then-President Obama would compromise "Judeo-Christian" values without actually explaining what specific "Judeo-Christian" values would be compromised by a Christian president. That type of accusation required no evidence for a crowd that can be inflamed and motivated on religious grounds alone. It's easy to sway the votes of those who have little to no knowledge of the issues if one uses religion. The "evangelical vote" is an important part of the Christian-Conservative bloc. These people vote in great numbers so candidates tend to pander to them whenever they can. Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum each suggested that they'd like to do away with the separation of church and state when speaking to religious organizations, but later when asked about those comments by mainstream media, they try to backtrack and obscure their message. The pandering is pathetic but it serves a purpose. Sadly and far too often, religious pandering is the reason why many voters cast their votes in favor of a particular candidate. It's getting nauseously annoying. It would appear that I'm not the only one who thinks religion and politics is a bad mix. The Pew Research Center released the results of a survey indicating that 38% of Americans believe that their political leaders are overdoing it with their prayer and faith. That's up from 12% in 2001. Today, 54% of Americans believe that churches should stay out of politics. That's up from 43% in 1996. The trends should tell us something.
The biggest danger of faith in politics is that politicians may use faith in their decision making. I take issue with that because I would rather have our leaders use such tools as rationality, logic, evidence, and common sense over faith every time when making decisions that will impact me, my family, and my country. We saw this when Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that we use prayer instead of changing our gun laws to address gun-related violence24. We saw this when Louisiana Senator Mike Walsworth grilled a high school teacher about evolution during a hearing and asked the leading question of whether or not E. coli bacteria can evolve into a human being. Lately it appears that we've taken several steps backwards in our country. We have somehow managed to elevate ignorance and punish elitism. In the political environment today, elitism has become a bad word. It has a negative connotation and is used to paint a candidate as out of touch with the normal American citizen. I can't think of another profession where elitism is so poorly regarded. Michael Jordan was an elite basketball player who lives a lifestyle that I (and 99% of America) wouldn't relate to. In no way does that mean that I would pass on the opportunity to have him on my team. Politicians have a tremendous influence on our daily lives and I think that because we place such a high emphasis on religion, we don't always get the elite. If a qualified person were running for president, how far could we expect that person to get if his/her answer to religious affiliation was: none? John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholicism was very tough to overcome on the campaign trail and that was a mere 50+ years ago. Imagine the difficulties for an atheist or agnostic candidate! The candidate could be absolutely brilliant with very sensible positions on issues of morality and fiscal responsibility, but that same candidate would be excluded from the race before it even began simply because he/she didn't believe in an invisible person in the sky. Considering that the vast majority of our scientific elite are either agnostics or atheists, that group is automatically ineligible. Religion is a barrier to getting the most capable of our society to even consider a run for public office. Religion is such a handicap in politics that a candidate can be religious but not agree with some religious doctrine and find himself on the outskirts. When Jon Huntsman ran for the Republican nomination in 2011, he made the cardinal sin of telling people that he believed in evolution which essentially eliminated his chances with the evangelical voters. His departure from the race could be clocked with an egg timer. The religious condition in politics forces us to dismiss many potentially elite candidates.
Barry Goldwater, the former 5-term Senator from Arizona and the 1964 Republican nominee for President, saw religion's ability to influence politics and warned us of its dangers decades ago. The man known then as "Mr. Conservative" would be considered liberal by the Tea Party standards of today. Goldwater warned us of these dangers in a speech in the US Senate on September 16, 1981 by saying:
In 1994, Goldwater cautioned us about the dangers of mixing religion and politics, and nearly two decades later we've seen his words become reality.
This is precisely what has happened to American politics. We have not heeded the warnings from folks like Barry Goldwater even though we've had ample time in which to do so. An August 2012 Gallup poll showed that a record low 10% of Americans approved of the job that Congress had been doing. When 90% of the population is sick and tired of the lack of civility and compromise by our political leaders, the infusing of religion into the political decision making process is not helping the situation. As Goldwater foresaw, many of these politicians were unwilling to compromise on positions where religion eliminates any middle ground. Religion is holding back progress and it is becoming imperative that we recognize this.
The retardation of progress by religion appears to know no bounds. Today we have politicians dismissing well-established scientific principles in favor of religious narratives. It becomes more than inconvenient when the politicians happen to be on the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. It becomes embarrassing and dangerous. Representative Paul Broun, a Republican from the great state of Georgia, delivered a speech in 2012 at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman's Banquet in which he referred to science as the work of the devil. Mr. Broun is a medical doctor with a B.S. in Chemistry which makes his comments all the more troublesome and provides ample evidence to support the statement that religion has the ability to manipulate and warp even the most brilliant of minds.
And what I've come to learn is that it's the manufacturer's handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that's the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I'll continue to do that."
When a politician openly admits to allowing the Bible to be a major influence on how he votes, it is both inappropriate and problematic to have a man like that on such a scientific committee. Sitting next to him is Republican Todd Akin from Missouri who when talking about abortion and pregnancy as a result of rape famously said "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down." This is similar to comments made by another Republican Henry Aldridge who in 1995 told the state House appropriations committee that women who are truly raped can't get pregnant because "the juices don't flow, the body functions don't work." These are men who are not only influential in crafting laws that affect citizens on a daily basis but also on issues of great importance that are contradictory to science. Rep. Broun and Rep. Akin are members of an official government body whose purpose is to enhance "long-term economic competitiveness through investments in science and technology" and yet these same folks dismiss both scientific and medical conclusions. A man like Broun who dismisses overwhelming scientific consensus for abstract "scientific data" showing the Earth to be no more than 9,000 years old and created in 6 Biblical days does not belong on a government committee charged with keeping scientific advancement at the forefront. It's no different than asking a pedophile priest to run a daycare - it's inappropriate and wrong.
Politics isn't the only arena in which we as a country seem to be elevating faith over substance. Religion has the ability to infect the very fabric of our society. A significant percentage of the American population literally believes in the talking snake from Genesis. They readily believe the creation of the first woman from the rib of her partner while he himself was created from a combination of dirt and divine breath. Among the world's developed, industrial nations, the United States ranks at the very bottom, just above Turkey, in the percentage of the population that believes in evolution. This ignorance of scientific facts breeds scientific ignorance in other areas. Denying scientific facts in favor of supernatural explanations leaves us stupid. The combination of stupid, complacent, and powerful is dangerous.
The simple lightning rod is a fantastic case in point. In 1749, the lightning rod was introduced to America by Benjamin Franklin. In the event that you are unaware of how a lightning rod works, the electricity from a lightning strike is attracted to a metal rod, follows the attached wire, and discharges the electricity into the ground eliminating the danger of electrocution or fire to the building and its inhabitants. The lightning rod became ubiquitous in our society precisely because of its life and property-saving benefit, and yet religious leaders at the time denounced Benjamin Franklin for circumventing God's will. Lightning was considered an act of god, and how dare Franklin show such arrogance in denying His will!
This exact same line of defense is still being used today in poorer, less literate parts of the world where vaccinations are seen as a circumvention of God's will. If God's plan was for millions of people to die each year from such illnesses as malaria, polio, and measles, by what right do we as His flock have to prevent such illnesses? Even today there are groups around the world who object to vaccination on religious grounds. This endangers them as well as the people around them. Only a religiously-warped mentality can find the moral justification here. In each of these cases, religion serves as an intellectual slaveholder to progress and those actions have consequences.
It may be hard to believe, but in the years 800 - 1100, the intellectual base of the world was in the Middle East. Forgive the pun, but it truly was the Mecca of intellectual advancement. To this day, we have the Arabs to thank for things like algebra (al-Khwarizmi) and the recognition that fever is actually part of the body's natural defenses (Abu Bakr Zakariya al-Razi). Two-thirds of all the star names in our skies have Arabic names. If you deal with money at all, you're doing so using Arabic numerals. The world saw amazing advances in mathematics, natural sciences, and astronomy during this 300 year period. To give you an idea of the American equivalent, Baghdad back then would have been to multiple disciplines of science what Silicon Valley is to information technology today. All of the latest advancements, both philosophical and physical, came from this part of the world and Baghdad was open to ideas from people of all religions. For those folks who have only contemporary knowledge of this part of the world, they may be forgiven for not knowing some of its historical contributions. So what happened? It's as simple an explanation as it is tragic. Imam Hamid al-Ghazali was a Muslim theologian, philosopher, and mystic who changed the course of Islam and Islamic scientific progress. He denounced math, science, and philosophy as completely inadequate in solving any sort of spiritual concerns. In The Confessions of Al Ghazzali, we see that he believed strongly in these disciplines only for studying earthly matters. Anything that could not be found in the Qur'an was essentially the work of the devil. Under al-Ghazzali, often considered the 2nd most important Muslim after the prophet Muhammad, this region of the world began elevating faith over logic. Revelation became more important than reason. The entire intellectual foundation built up over centuries crumbled and it has never recovered. A thousand years later the Middle East is considered "backwards" and a relic in comparison to the rest of the world. Can you seriously imagine Baghdad today being what it was back then? The Islamic clerics would never allow such a thing. The clerics back then put faith above all else and the region continues to reap what they've sowed.
There is a lesson to be learned here. As George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I can't help but look around my country and see similarities. Looking ahead, I believe our future and our economy depend on reasoning, logic, and scientific advancement. Faith has the ability to kill this progress as it has done in the past. I'm literally watching this happen with every new political season. My country has become complacent and religiously motivated which does not bode well for future progress. For example, from an economic and medical perspective, we have allowed faith to prevent us from furthering our research with embryonic stem cells. President George W. Bush famously cut federal funding for this research and the faithful in our society cheered him for it. China, on the other hand, has significantly increased its efforts in this field over the past decade. They have devoted considerable research on bone marrow and embryonic stem cells and have clinical applications of stem cells in cases of acute heart failure and acute liver failure. China has created the most favorable environment for this type of research. They have leapfrogged us in this area and we have nobody to blame but ourselves. This type of tissue engineering holds tremendous potential, both medically and economically, precisely because the new tissue won't invite the same type of attack from the patient's immune system as is commonly found in donor tissue. We as a society applied religious reasoning to this situation and are losing out on this advancement because some believe that these embryonic cells are...babies. The problem is that they are not babies. Human embryos are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Blastocysts are made up of just 100 cells. They do not have a central nervous system and cannot feel pain. Because they do not have a brain, they are not conscious beings. We will allow someone's life to be ended when there is no more brain activity, but stem cells without brains are somehow off limits. We treat the potential of life as more important than the potential betterment of existing life. Religious belief has stopped that process. Imagine if history one day references us in the same breath as the Middle East from 1,000 years ago. In retrospect, the Middle East paid a terribly high price for their faith. It saddens me to think that my country could pay a similar price for our faith.
Faith is the name that we give to the practice of believing something without rational justification and it is the excuse we give each other for allowing the belief to perpetuate. In fact, the very definition of faith should give us pause for concern: a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.25 Once given critical consideration, it becomes obvious that religious faith is not a virtue. Voluntary ignorance is not something to be proud of and yet we can find great numbers of people doing this on a daily basis. These same people will use reason and logic in virtually every facet of their lives, but when it comes to the big questions, they readily abandon all reason and logic particularly if it conflicts with their faith. Why should we choose faith over reason for the most important truths?
Faith can make us do things that others might question but that we can morally justify purely on the basis of our faith. For example, a dear friend of mine that I have known for more than a decade has a terrible marriage. She has suffered through physical and verbal abuse. She has considered divorce and has even gone so far as to consider legal proceedings. When asked why she didn't go through with it, she responded "because it would be wrong in God's eyes." Faith in God is preventing her from leaving a bad situation. She truly believes that being in that marriage is better than disappointing God. That seems, to me at least, to be utterly ridiculous, however she can morally justify it. Her vows to God on their wedding day transcend the physical and verbal abuse that she has endured and will continue to do so. She is religiously faithful, so it begs the question: how is faith good in this situation? In the tragic event that her husband takes it too far one day, what will be said about the virtues of that vow to God? In the event that her God does not exist, who was that sacred vow given to?
There is no doubting that faith influences our actions. In December 2012, a 25-year old woman entered the emergency room of a medical facility in Cologne, Germany. As a point of reference before we begin, it is worth noting that the Catholic Church is the second-largest employer in Germany and more than 90% of the funding for the Church's social facilities comes from the government. This gives the Church incredible latitude in the standards of morality that employers and patients must adhere to. Upon arrival, the young woman notified the attending physician, Dr. Irmgard Maiworm, that she had been raped26. The police were notified and Dr. Maiworm prescribed the morning after pill - emergency contraception that can be used to prevent pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex. When Dr. Maiworm tried to transfer the woman to the nearby St. Vincent Hospital for evidence-gathering purposes, the hospital refused to accept the victim because acceptance could breach their ethical guidelines and put nuns and doctors in a position where a possible abortion could take place. The mere mention of the morning after pill prevented the Catholic-run St. Vincent's as well as the Hospital of the Holy Spirit from assisting the victim. The practices and preachments of the Catholic Church were more important than helping a woman who had been the victim of rape. Whether it's refusing to help rape victims or a woman staying in a dangerous marriage out of fear of God, I just can't picture Jesus Christ endorsing these actions.
Faith can make us take other kinds of irrational actions as well. Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, whose mission is to send the Christian Gospel into the world, has on multiple occasions predicted the Rapture - Jesus' second coming. Each of his predictions came and went without Jesus coming back. Many scholars believe that when Jesus spoke to his disciples about his return, the timeline was more immediate. Matthew 24:34 says "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." Obviously, Jesus did not come back. Nor did Jesus come back in 1844 when William Miller predicted it. Jesus failed to return during the many predictions in the 1900's from Jehovah's Witnesses, Chuck Smith, Edgar C. Whisenant, or Harold Camping. Other than the failed predictions themselves, what remains common through each of these moments is the utter disappointment along with the emotional and financial difficulties heaved upon the gullible believers. Each of these days came and went without anyone being magically whisked away up to Heaven. These failed predictions are a great example of cognitive dissonance, which refers to the difficulties that one experiences by having conflicting understandings. They believe in Jesus and they believed that Jesus was coming. When he didn't come, these people were left to try and reconcile the reasons why. They'll do as Harold Camping did by revising their predictions or simply abandoning the prediction all together. Surely it couldn't be because Jesus isn't coming back, right?
Many people laugh off the absurdity of these prognosticators, but they fail to see the consequences which are not nearly as funny. During the run up to Camping's first 2011 prediction of May 21, 2012, I was surprised at how much money was being spent to "save" everyone. Billboards went up all around the country warning us of the impending date. Believers spent their life savings, left their jobs, and traveled around the country warning others. What took years to acquire was lost quickly and there's little humor in that. Sadly, the belief of an impending return by Jesus is not relegated to the margins of society. According to a recent Pew Research survey, 4 out of every 10 Americans believe that Jesus is coming back during their lifetime. That number approaches nearly 6 out of every 10 Americans if you're an Evangelical (of which, more than half live in the South). Should this not strike us as egotistical? Why else would 41% of Americans believe that they're going to meet Jesus soon in the Rapture? I'm not sure that it would be a good idea for the religious to start dumping their life savings just yet. I'm fairly certain that Jesus is not coming back during our lifetime any more than Elvis is living quietly incognito somewhere. Jesus didn't come back to destroy the Roman Empire as his followers believed he would. He didn't come back during the next generation, or the next generation, or any of the subsequent generations that followed. There is no reason to believe that Jesus is coming back anytime soon and certainly not during our lifetime. If someone really believes that Jesus is coming back, what is their incentive to make the world a better place? What motivation exists to improve the lives of others if 41% of Americans believe that everything is coming to an end in the very near future? That type of thinking can and does influence our actions.
Religious texts are open to interpretation. Interpretation leads to belief and belief leads to action. Action is what causes religion to climb over the secular wall. Nowhere is this more flammable in our contemporary society than with Islam. The Middle East has been a tinder box ready to burn for decades for a multitude of reasons. Even with the Arab Spring, many of these societies remain oppressive, uneducated, and deeply-religious. This lethal combination erupts anytime the prophet Muhammad is portrayed negatively by citizens of secular countries as evidenced in recent years by the deaths resulting from a Danish cartoon in 2005/2006 and a low-budget American video entitled "Innocence of Muslims" in 2012. Both depicted the prophet Muhammad and both led to riots which in turn led to deaths. It is just as tragic as it is true that dozens of people have died as a result of a cartoon and a poorly made film. A nonreligious person would look at this situation and say that the cause and effect are not equitable. A cartoon is incapable of physically ending a life, yet many Muslims found those deaths acceptable in accordance with scripture. A fatwa (a religious ruling) was issued in response by a Muslim cleric from the Iraqi city of Mosul urging fellow Muslims to "expel the Crusaders and infidels from the streets, schools, and institutions because they have offended the person of the prophet." It's difficult for those in secular society to comprehend how something passive like a cartoon - offensive but yet physically benign - could warrant a death sentence. It is difficult to imagine a Broadway production like The Book of Mormon being performed satirically about Islam and not having riots erupt around the globe.
The pious outrage from the Muslim world regarding "Innocence of Muslims" spread to over twenty countries in a matter of weeks. Thousands rioted calling for the death of the infidel. Many believed they had a divine mandate to ask for death. By now, this type of situation has become predictable. Someone, often intentionally, offends the religious sensitivities of Muslims, riots erupt, our government apologizes for the effects that our right to free speech apparently causes, the violence subsides, and we restart the whole circle the next time the prophet Muhammad is impugned. If the Muslim world is offended, we in the secular world should feel equally offended each time this happens. When the Danish cartoons caused uproar, politicians were quick to issue their condemnations. When the low budget film caused uproar, our political leaders rushed to issue their condemnations. When Salman Rushdie's fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, caused uproar among Muslims, it prompted the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini to condemn the insult by issuing a fatwa calling for the author's death. In each of these instances, the condemnations from the non-Muslim world were made not for the violence that erupted but for the blasphemy! In Rushdie's case, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Vatican, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and even U.S. President Jimmy Carter condemned the blasphemy although Carter also condemned the fatwa. As unnecessary and insulting as these provocations may be, the target of our condemnation has often been misguided.
The dangers of Islam and irrational thinking extend well beyond pious rioting. We see this type of irrational thinking anytime a Muslim father learns that his daughter was raped and his first instinct is to kill her out of shame. We saw this type of irrational thinking in 2002 when the mutaween (religious police) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia prevented young schoolgirls from leaving a burning building because the girls were not in appropriate Islamic dress. Ridiculously this resulted in the deaths of 15 girls and 50 injuries. We saw an irrational response in Lahore, Pakistan in early 2013 when hundreds of Muslims set the homes in a Christian neighborhood ablaze because it was thought that a Christian man had committed blasphemy against the prophet. In 2012, a Pakistani mob physically overran the police station in Bahawalpur, dragged away a mentally-ill man suspected of burning a copy of the Qur'an, doused him in gasoline, and set him on fire while hundreds of Muslims watched as he screamed for help. It took an Islamic court mere minutes to find Sayed Pervez Kambaksh guilty of blasphemy in 2008 for distributing writing that criticized Islamic Law for its treatment of women. We see irrational thinking whenever a young girl is forced into marriage using the relationship of the prophet Muhammad and Aisha (engaged at age 6 and consummated marriage at age 9) as justification. We see irrational thinking each time someone like Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, a senior Iranian cleric and seismologist, preaches that "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes."27 Earthquakes people! We see it every time a Muslim straps a bomb to his chest and detonates it killing those around him. The danger in basing a world view on religious texts like the Qur'an or hadiths is that people will translate those beliefs into actions. For example, take away the belief that martyrdom and jihad lead to divine riches and those who feel compelled to treat these actions as career opportunities are less likely to strap on those bombs. Islamic apologists can be seen and heard after each atrocity committed in the name of Islam to remark that Islam is a peaceful religion where peace is achieved by submitting oneself to God. The Qur'an, like every other holy book, is full of contradictions to this premise. It clearly says "Do not destroy yourselves" (4:29) but it also promises eternal reward for those who fight and die for Allah. In fact, the reward is far richer for those who are martyred while fighting the unbelievers (4:74-78, 4:95-101) than it is for those who don't. Martyrdom is the only way that a Muslim can avoid the lines leading to Judgment Day and be immediately ushered into paradise where dark-eyed virgins wait to greet him.
It benefits no one to dance around the issue here. There is no other religion that more fully embodies terrorism in contemporary society than Islam. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Arab news station Al-Arabiya, highlighted this when he said that it is a "fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims." We can't paint an entire faith with the broad brush of terrorism, but we can't deny the number of people who support such actions either. While large majorities of Muslims across the Middle East denounce attacks on American civilians and find them counterproductive, a significant enough percentage support them that it should continue to cause us worries28. Nearly 1 out of every 3 people in Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Morocco hold positive views of terrorist attacks on American civilians. As it relates to al-Qaeda and former leader Osama bin Laden, 21% of respondents in Egypt support their attacks while almost half the population continues to have positive feelings toward bin Laden. More than half the population in the Palestinian Territories support terrorist attacks on the U.S. Conversely, a Pew Research study in 2007 showed a majority of Muslim Americans reject extremist ideologies29. Fewer than 1 in 10 Muslim Americans support suicide bombing. This same report however showed that more than half of all Muslims living in the United States refuse to accept the fact that the terrorist attacks of September 11th were carried out by Arabs. Of those who deny the involvement of al-Qaeda on that fateful day, many are highly religious and do support suicide bombings if it's being conducted in defense of Islam. The data shows that we've made marked progress but that we still have tremendous work ahead of us if we ever hope to curb the influence of irrational thinking.
At every step of the process, faith is entirely about irrational thinking. If, for example, the Abrahamic faiths were founded today and made the same type of irrational claims, they would be largely ignored. To make a cosmological claim two or three thousand years ago about the creation of the universe is one thing. It would be entirely different to try and make that initial claim today. The claim that someone was born of a virgin was plausible two thousand years ago, but that type of claim wouldn't find much traction today, because in addition to being a theological claim, it would also be a biological claim that could be accurately evaluated. Every faith can be painted with the broad brush of irrationality and this irrationality warps our ability to think critically. For example, if we were to give the Israelis the state of Florida in exchange for giving up Israel, would they take this offer? It would mean no more rockets being lobbed over their border, no more suicide bombings, and no more living in fear. God's chosen people would finally have peace. The Jewish people would never accept this however, and the reason they wouldn't ever accept a proposition like this is because they believe that they were given rights to their land by God himself. This kind of thinking puts not only the Israelis in danger but their allies as well. Believing that God, in his role as a divine real estate broker, gave certain primates exclusive domain over a piece of land is the very essence of religious irrationality.
Religious irrationality becomes plainly evident any time we encounter religious fundamentalists. To read and interpret the Bible or the Qur'an as it was written gives us people who do derive their morals from these texts; however these are not universally-accepted morals. Our mainstream society in the United States generally frowns upon fundamentalists and the messages they spread. It seems like a rather obvious question, but if we as a society find fundamentalists so deplorable, why don't we extend that same deplorability to the religion to which they adhere so strictly to? We can't logically argue that their interpretation of the text is wrong per se. Frankly, fundamentalists are generally much more knowledgeable about their holy book than their moderate counterparts. If we could bring a first century Christian or a seventh century Muslim into the 21st century, we would likely find their religious knowledge to be as comprehensive as any fundamentalist today, but their world knowledge would embarrass any grade school teacher. At one time it would have been both rational and moral to stone someone for working on the Sabbath, yet most Christians and Jews wouldn't consider such a thing today. Modernity continues to chip away at religious irrationality but there is still work ahead of us.
Perhaps one day modernity will finally eliminate the differences between non-religious and religious people. A nonreligious person believes that man is born good and is made bad through his actions. A religious person believes that man is born incurably bad and can only hope to become well through faith. The nonreligious person believes that their time on Earth is all that we have and it should be treated with care while we're alive. The religious person believes that the show doesn't end with death. There is a better place to go once they die. The problem is that every religion has a different place to go. Sadly, religious zealots would like to get us there quickly and that's a dangerous problem.