In my previous two posts, I addressed The Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God , as a lead-in to discussing The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful by Greta Christina, my favorite atheist writer. Here, finally, is my direct answer to "The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful"
The heart of Greta's thesis is this: "I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing. It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.
It therefore has no reality check.
And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality."
She correctly notes that religion is not unique in having true believers- any institution does. But, she argues, other intuitions have a reality check: does it work? Communist countries adopt capitalism to increase wealth; capitalist countries adopt socialist policies to better serve the public, etc. But, she says, "Religion is different. With religion, the proof is emphatically not in the pudding. With religion, the proof comes from invisible beings, inaudible voices. The proof comes from prophets and religious leaders, who supposedly hear these voices and are happy to tell the rest of us what they say."
The flaw in this argument is in the difference between "religion" and "faith" They are separate things, and the difference is crucial.
"Faith" is what people believe. It is in fact "...ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die." Faith changes little, if at all, over the centuries. Faith has no objective reality check. But faith is NOT religion.
Religion is not what we believe; religion is what we do. For example, the Catholic faith can be communicated in the Bible and the catechism. But the Catholic religion is much, much more. Nothing in the Bible tells you how to conduct a mass, how to organize the hierarchy, how to ordain a priest, or what color smoke to use when you pick a Pope. Or even whether you should have any of those things. The Bible describes a church as "Wherever two or more are gathered in his name"- it gives no instruction on how to build a church, or whether you should have a standing church at all. It doesn't tell you whether you should be led by elders, or by elected leaders, or whether you should just sit still until the spirit moves someone. The Koran tells us to be modest; whether that means wearing a space suit or just "For God's sake, will you put a shirt on already?" is a matter of culture, not faith. Religion is a culture.
Faith doesn't deal with these things. Faith tells you how to retain your humanity in the face of pressures that could break you. Faith gives you a reason to go on when you are despairing. Faith is about what you are.
Why is this important? Because cultures ARE subject to reality checks. Cultures DO evolve. You may decide that your religion requires celibacy. Reality check: last I heard, there were only four Shakers left on earth. Faiths are directed by doctrines that only change, if they do, by new prophets and revelations; religions are directed by rules, habits, and traditions that may be admittedly hard to shake, but are, in the final analysis, recognized as such and changed as necessary. This is why Greta is also wrong when she says, "Yes, Even Moderate Religion Still Does Harm". Moderating the behavior of a culture is a good thing- and as I said, religion is a culture. Saying that moderate religions, even if not so bad themselves, are bad because they perpetuate bad institutions reminds me of the anarchists and communists of the last century who fought against social reforms because they would perpetuate the system.
God is not the problem. Belief in God is not the problem. In the final analysis, everyone is devoted to something larger than themselves. A secular humanist is devoted to humankind- that's why atheists are as moral as theists. But that, too, is an irrational devotion; no one has ever presented me with a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man. We're both irrational- why claim that your irrationality is better than mine?