Over the past few years—probably because I’ve been paying closer attention and not because it’s happening more often—I’ve been hearing more and more voices crying out against religion—against all religion, from the likes of Bill Maher to the intellect of Richard Dawkins. Religion is bad. It’s bad for us. We’d be better off without it. Belief in God brings misery. Spreading the word is just about the most anti-human of all acts. So much misery has been done in the name of religion that religion is a viral cancer. ISIS. Trump voters. The Westboro Baptists. Colonialism, Imperialism, Zionism. If anything good comes of religion that good is small and private and could never match the evil religion does.
It’s a pretty strong case.
But does that critique actually make sense? I don’t think it does. And this is why: religion is neither good nor bad. I’m not going to offer any heart-felt defense of religion. Nor am I willing to condemn it. People are good and people are bad. Bad people use whatever means is at their disposal to effect their bad ends. Religion has no power at all to stop them, nor does it have any power to promote their hate; it has power neither to effect nor resist the evil ends of the people that use it. This is an essential point. The haters of religion have their heads on sideways when it comes to religion. They think if they would only get rid of religion things would get better. At least a little better.
Things would not get better. In fact things would get worse, though I don’t credit religion thereby. Nazism was not a religious movement. Communism is even less religious than Nazism. Pol Pot did not answer to any god. Nor have any of the leaders of North Korea. Donald Trump is not religious. People don’t need religion to inspire them in their hatred. They have nationalism and racism and sexism and plain old paranoia. The number of insignificant differences among humans available to exploit as though they were meaningful is as large the human imagination. Evil people will always have ways to appeal to hatred and desire to coerce their fellow humans into mass murder. There’s no more destructive force on earth at this moment than Capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t give a shit about God.
People are good, and people are evil. And they’ll use religion if it’s available. And they’ll use something else if it’s not available. Do people fight more recklessly or more viciously or with less fear when they fight for God? Some may. Some almost certainly do. Not many. And on the other hand the number of people whose lives are enriched by their spiritual practice—whether or not they are theists—is almost beyond number. That doesn’t make religion good. People practice religion to become good. Religion isn’t by any means the only path to goodness. There are plenty of good atheists out there. Better a good atheist than a jihadists or a klansman.
Those who point to Osama Bin Laden or Pat Robertson and yell, “evil,” also have to point to the Dali Lama or Desmond Tutu. Religion didn’t make the former evil or the latter good. (The good ones humbly tell us there is good and evil in all of us.)
Evil people quote their scriptures to justify their evil. Good people quote those same scriptures to refute the evil people. The scriptures are not good or evil. People use the scriptures for good or evil.
The people who decry religion as evil always reason in the most shallow way. They assume the subject does not have to be taken seriously. Bill Maher dismisses Islam with a pinky wave by counting how many Muslims believe hateful things. That’s guilt by association. That’s correlation as causation. That’s a willful unwillingness to look into the real, historical causes of hatred. You can’t even ask the question of whether religion is good or evil without doing your homework. What is Islam? What is Christianity? These are not simple questions. They can only be answered by drawing circles around certain populations, circles that could be drawn with equal validity around different populations, based on beliefs or practices chosen by the one who’s drawing the circles. And your not-quite-arbitrary-but-absolutely-not-necessary circle will answer your question for you. Are Christians those who “believe the Bible” (whatever that means)? Are they the ones who accept the Bible as “the Word of God” (whatever that means)? Are they the ones who interpret the Bible correctly (as though there were such a thing, as though there were a single interpretation that covered such a vast literature)? And who decides which encircled group of religious folk do that when even those who call themselves “Christians” can’t? The one who makes that decision, the one who draws the circle, is the one who wants to approve or condemn Christianity and who will draw his circle around those people that enforce that interpretation to justify his condemnation or praise. It’s all done in the worst bad faith possible.
Is religion doctrine or is religion practice? And which doctrines and which practices count? And how do you know? How will you decide? On what basis will you draw your circles? There is no such thing as “religion”—not in the sense in which it would have to exist to be condemned or approved as such. It lacks the ontological or epistemological center and body it would need to have to support the statement that “religion is destructive” or “religion is good.” People use religion to destroy and people use religion to build. And if you are convinced that more destruction is done in the name of religion than construction—you may be right. I don’t know. That only means that in the on-going struggle of humanity over itself, goodness is losing. It means we are a species more bent on our destruction than our improvement or one whose destructive tendencies are more effective than its goodness. I'm not saying that's true. It’s easy to blow up a building. It’s hard to build a plane. Or a community. It’s easy to hate. It’s hard to love. Religion does not teach anyone to hate. Hateful people use religion to spread hate. Loving people use religion to spread love. The hate would get along just fine without religion. As for love, I’m not so sure.