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The Problem of Religion

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I try to avoid following the common stereotyped arguments used against distinct groups of people especially when those arguments are based on ethnicity, gender, age, religion, politics, philosophy, or any other belief. Of course I don’t always succeed and I do tend to be critical of religious groups and conservatives more than others. I think this is justified, but that is debatable.

I have regularly defended the people that the political right like to portray as being the cause of all of our problems: the unemployed, the left, unions, and Muslims. Yes, even though Muslims are members of one of the world’s biggest religions I have still defended them against what I thought were unfair attacks from conservatives and others.

I don’t like Islam, but I still object to people bundling the moderates in with the extremists, deliberately exaggerating the threat of Islam, and criticising Muslims for doing the same things which Christians have done in the past (and in some cases continue to do today).

But there is a limit. There is a point where any argument for religious freedom and tolerance is surpassed by the argument which says that a religion just has too many problems, causes too much violence and intolerance, and on balance just isn’t a good thing for human society as a whole.

Maybe that limit has been reached now. Some groups within the Muslim religion have been responsible for unacceptable behaviour in the past: the riots over the Danish cartoons, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the 9/11 attacks, amongst many others, and now the latest wave of violence – ostensibly as a result of an insulting movie – is affecting the world.

I have watched the movie “The Innocence of Muslims”. It is laughably pathetic and more of an insult to the Christian group who had it made – by a producer of pornographic films apparently (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, but this is where religion can take people) – than anyone else. A sensible approach would have been to laugh at it and point out how ridiculous it made the makers look.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead a bunch of religious fanatics – very few of whom had even seen the movie – went on violent riots across the world. When your whole life is based on an absurd belief you will always react irrationality. That is the danger of religion.

So that really gets one thing out of the way: Islam, like all conventional religions, is nonsense. It’s based on mythology with a bit of history thrown in, but so is Christianity and all other religions, so that isn’t necessarily an argument specifically against it.

Conversely, like all other religions, Islam adds variety and cultural diversity to the world, and it gives many people a philosophical and social basis to their lives, so it is a good thing from those perspectives.

Whether Islam itself is a religion of peace or not is debatable. But what isn’t debatable is that a huge amount of violence occurs around the world because of it. Whether the motivation behind the violence is political, social, or economic is irrelevant, the fact is that religion is used as a motivating factor to make people do hideous things.

I would like to present some quotes here which illustrate my point…

Religion: It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. – Sam Harris

Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities. – Voltaire

It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere. – Voltaire

I think these are very true, but a quote means nothing on it’s own so let me try to justify the truth of these and say why I think they are relevant.

If you examine what religious people actually believe it is ridiculous. If anyone had these ideas and genuinely believed them without being part of a religious group they would probably be labelled insane. Note that this criticism applies fairly equally to all the world’s “great” religions, including Christianity and Judaism. I realise there are people who only take the religious stories as metaphors but are they really religious? I don’t think so. So I think the Sam Harris quote is well supported.

Rational people rarely resort to violence. I’m not saying it never happens because sometimes the only rational approach to an attack by an irrational group is to use violence in defence. But as soon as people start believing something which is absurd they can be manipulated into doing atrocious things. The history of Christianity is littered with examples. Anyone who is irrational enough to believe in witches can easily be convinced that murdering them in a terrible way is OK, for example. So I think the first Voltaire quote is also supported by both history and current events.

There is no doubt that many people become prisoners of their belief system. Their religions tell them what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot believe, and even how they should think about the world. Religion is the ultimate prison and I believe the prison the whole western world was thrown into by the Church during the Dark Ages is the greatest atrocity even committed on the human race. Now it is the Muslim’s turn to be imprisoned by their religion but, as Voltaire observed, you cannot be freed from a prison when you believe the prison is really a paradise.

There is a case to say that Islam is the greatest threat to the world today. Not because it is particularly bad as a religion or because Muslims are more evil than any other group, but because it has got to the point where it is taken too seriously and has too much power, just like Christianity did during the Dark Ages. If anyone who supports greater power for other religions – Christian conservatives for example – want an illustration of why they are wrong they should just look at the Islamic world today.

Is that where they want to go? Really?

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