January 05, 2016

Dear Christians: No, not afraid of religion. Sorry.

Yesterday, the Friendly Atheist shared a quote from David Robertson at the Desiring God Blog. It goes a little something like this:

The first is fear. People are afraid of religion. After all, as is pointed out ad nauseum by all the atheist writers, atheists don’t fly planes into buildings. Granted, but then neither do they build hospitals or establish schools because of their atheism. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the others love to warn us that the religious are going to bomb us, take us back to the Dark Ages, and abuse our children.

I thought about starting this blog off by comparing God to other mythical beings--the usual set, I'm sure you can imagine--but I decided against it. Especially over the last year, I've started trying to craft this into a channel to talk about the specificities of one atheist's experience, not to mock or dissect, but to discuss. I won't veer from that mission today.

Before we dive into the meat of this, though, I do want to say: it's pretty shitty to mock the amount of harm caused by religion in our world. Unlike many of my fellow liberals, I find it pretty impossible to separate religion from the variety of factors that have caused so many atrocities. When someone says they are religious, I don't try to quantify it--I take them at their word.

My spouse and I were recently discussing this in light of the takeover of the federal wildlife preserve in Oregon. The dudes leading the charge have said that they initiated this move after a talk with God. I don't take that fact as completely separate from the rest of the ideology--it's an important part of the mosaic that makes up the action as a whole.

Does that mean religion causes all the bad things in the world? Heck no. It also doesn't negate the fact that religion does good in the world.

But that's an aside. What I really want to talk about is people being afraid of religion.


Most people are religious. This is indisputable. Here's a breakdown from the most recent Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Survey:

Table Pew Research Landscape Survey Christian and Non-Christian Faiths in the United States

All told, 78% of Americans are religious. That's a lot of people.

Now let's look at a table for the "unaffiliated", or "nones":

Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study 2014 Unaffiliated, Atheists, Agnostics, No Religion In Particular

22.8% total, but with an important caveat: not everyone in the nones disbelieves in deities. No matter what certain atheist activists insist, we cannot take that entire percentage as atheistic--it's simply not true.

So, that leads to a pretty obvious question: If people are, as Robertson asserts, afraid of religion, why are so dang many of us religious? Why, if people are afraid of it, are you likely, in approaching ten random strangers, to find eight of them to be religious? That's a pretty big discrepancy.

The truth is, I'm entirely unafraid of religion. What I am afraid of is its influence on people.

Steven Weinberg said this:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Personally, I'd broaden it. I think all it takes for good people to do evil things is an ideology they really believe in that asks them to (or suggests that they do so). That ideology could be a conspiracy theory, or a political movement...but often in the history of the world, it's been religion. This isn't a criticism, either. It's a testament to the power of religious belief. It can motivate good people to do things they would not otherwise.

Consider the number of parents who have abandoned their children because they were queer or gay. I would wager that the vast majority--perhaps all--of these estrangements over the years have been due to religion. Religion is such a powerful force that it can cause parents to disavow their own offspring. As a mother, that's stunning to me. That's an incredible, unthinkable amount of power.

And that power is in the hands of fallible human beings, human beings who will jostle for position, who will manipulate to get what they want, who will work to defend their own interests first. Yes, that idea is terrifying.

But religion?

Religion is not.

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