Religion isn’t the problem

I’ve been toying around an idea in my head for a few days or weeks now and I want to flesh it out here, so bear with me.

The New Atheism is generally focused on the idea that religion is the root of all evil or religion poisons everything. It’s defined by it’s take-no-prisoners approach to religion as one of the largest sources of pain, suffering, and intellectual stagnation of the human species.

It occurs to me though that this approach may be wrong.

Not wrong in the religion is actually a good thing kind of way, but wrong in the these statements are vacuous kind of way. Let me explain.

Religion is a really poorly defined concept. It has an academic definition from sociologist Durkheim: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred thing” and a colloquial definition “belief in, or the worship of, a god or gods.” The New Atheism is squarely aimed at the latter definition, but it’s very disingenuous to argue that it is the only or even the correct definition.

One only needs to consider Buddhism and the rational religions of the 18th century to question the idea that religion requires a belief in the supernatural.

Declaring religion is the root of all evil makes as much sense as saying politics is the root of all evil. It doesn’t actually make any sense. There are good politics and toxic politics.

What I would argue is that we need to focus our debate not on religion, but on irrational dogma and authoritarian ideologies.

The problem with religion is that far too many of them promote dangerous beliefs. The beliefs are the issue, religion is merely one conduit for these ideas.

Expanding our criticism lets us tackle issues like Communism, Fascism, Apartheid, and Libertarianism. Each comes with unquestionable core beliefs, and each can be responsible for great suffering.

5 thoughts on “Religion isn’t the problem

  1. I am in agreement when you write . “What I would argue is that we need to focus our debate not on religion, but on irrational dogma and authoritarian ideologies.”

    Religion of one sort or the other is almost universal as a human trait. Every civilization, either ancient or modern utilized core beliefs that attempted to answer individual questions such as:
    -who am I?
    -why am I here?
    -where am I going after this?
    When those kind of questions arise, each society, tribe or culture is expected to provide an answer. Throughout history, various convoluted and creative dialogues developed to provide believable answers.

    Neandrathal grave sites have been excavated in Europe that contained food stuff, flowers, ochre and weapons. Why would a Neandrathal tribe place things such as this into a burial if there was not some concept that the deceased needed or may need things in whatever ‘after life’ they went to. I make the argument for this that ‘religion’ is not only reserved for human beings … here we have a different humanoid species with what can only be described as ‘religion’ or sacred beliefs.

    Existentialism provides a very valid answer to the same three questions. For an athiest, the answer to the questions must be:
    -you are a living entity now who will cease to exist at the cessation of your bodily function
    -there is no reason for you being here
    -you aren’t going anywhere … dead is dead.

    Lots of people have difficulty accepting existential / athiestic answers like those.

    So .. I ask the question; is there an individual need to understand our existence both in terms of our own life and our place in whatever culture we find ourselves?

    Hindu theology thinks in terms of a cosmic universe that is Trillions of years old with cosmic eras that last millions of years. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the earth/universe is about 8000 years old. Hundreds of millions of people adhere to one or the other of these very different ‘religious’ beliefs. I guess if it works for you .. great.

    But as you wrote, when some tribes/cultures start killing or oppressing those who don’t share their view or have divergent belief .. then we have a problem. Let’s face it, over centuries, lots and lots of people died over idiotic religious conflicts. Stupid .. yet very very human.

    Sorry for the ramble. Interesting topic and I’m glad you dipped your toe into these waters.

    Amen …. (or not) :)

    1. You hit on another topic I meant to touch on – that religion is purely a human created phenomenon. Since we created it, we can take responsibility for what’s good in it and reject the lesser parts (typically those that require blind adherence to dogmatic authorities).

  2. “The New Atheism is generally focused on the idea that religion is the root of all evil or religion poisons everything.”

    From someone who spends as much time with atheists as you do, I am surprised to see such a straw man featured so prominently. This mistake undermines your entire thesis.

    The position of “New Atheists” is not that religion poisons everything (though that may be Hitchens’ position), it’s that religion or faith (used interchangeably since one is simply the formalized practice of the other) is inherently bad. Inherently harmful. It’s not simply that it leads to “irrational dogma and authoritarian ideologies”, it’s that its very essence is based on either ignorance or denial of fact. In this it stands unique – political ideologies may be and are routinely questioned. It is only in those cases where politics is intertwined with religion that this is not the case.

    Faith uniquely shields all claims from criticism, because it ties those claims to things that are not only unknown, but asserted to be “unknowable”. It is this ability to get away with any and all claims, no matter how nutty-bananas they might be, that makes faith dangerous in and of itself. It precludes any attempt to separate truth from fantasy, and can therefore be exploited to justify anything from the absurd to the atrocious.

    1. Anything summed up in a tweet will basically come off as a strawman. It clearly wasn’t my intent, and I don’t think it kills my argument.

      Overall, I think we still agree. It may be that I’m simply arguing semantics, but I think the issue I have is the statement that religion is the formalized process of faith is not necessarily a true definition. There are many things that are not religions do require faith (political ideologies based on hidden assumptions like a future utopia or the inherent rationality of humans) and many aspects of religion that are not necessarily faith based (community, music, food, culture).

      Basically, I’m arguing that we break the definition apart and focus our criticisms where they are deserved – on unquestionable faith (what we all agree is wrong).

  3. I grew up in a non-religious, communist leaning, family, and for a long time I took that anti-religion point of view. But as I travelled the world and met more and more people, as well as reading more and more history, I gradually abandoned that idea. And I used a kind of Marxist idea in my change of opinion – it gradually occurred to me that blaming “religion” was a kind of reification or fetishism, and atheists were engaging in a reification of religion much the same way capitalists were reifying capitalist relations. I also read more and more Continental philosophy and found it more and more difficult to “rationally” distinguish religion from other forms of ideology or conduct. In fact any kind of human (particularly social) behaviour requires a great deal of normative (non-rational) assumptions. (This is built particularly on the work of Habermas).

    In the end people form all sorts of institutions and ideologies. Some are liberating some are authoritarian. I have seen religion be both things. I have non-religion be both things. In the end it is not the institution or the ideology, rather it is how people use it, pure and simple.

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