Is Religious Tolerance Necessary?

The more I think about religion, the more disgusted I become. The evils perpetrated in the name of religion outweigh the good a thousandfold. Not all religions are equally reprehensible, of course. The Quakers seem, from what I’ve read, to be a rather benign bunch; the Moslems, less so.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that religious faith is, by definition, irrational. That is, religious faith asserts as fact various things that cannot be rationally proven, things for which there is no credible evidence whatever. And it is invariably an article of faith that no rational proof is required. From time to time, supposed rational proofs (bleeding statues or whatever) are trotted out. They invariably prove to be hoaxes, or simply egregious misuses of reason. Strangely, the lack of evidence fails to shake and may even reinforce the faith of the believer.

What hope is there for a tool-using species that can’t overcome such madness?

When I was younger, I had no strong feelings about religious faith, other than that I thought it was all rather silly. I considered such activities as Catholicism and Judaism personal eccentricities, no more to be criticized (and no more to be taken seriously) than a passion for bowling, horseshoes, or croquet.

I no longer feel that way. It’s clear that religion causes immense human suffering. Here and there, religion also leads to good results — but in no case is it evident that the good results could not have been achieved (and perhaps greatly improved upon) without recourse to religious belief. The converse is not, however, the case. When religion becomes malignant, as it very often does, it is usually quite clear that the malignancy is entirely due to the dire influence of religious doctrine.

In spite of which, very few people are willing to criticize religion per se. Toward religion, most of us practice, and our society gleefully enforces, a degree of tolerance that is bizarre to the point of incomprehensibility.

If a doctor declined to perform a life-saving medical procedure because, he assured us, pixies were whispering in his ear and telling him that if he did the procedure, his skin would erupt in boils, we would take pains to remove his license to practice medicine, and quickly! Yet we allow doctors to retain their licenses even when they refuse to perform abortions that would save women’s lives — and why? Because an old man in Rome has told the doctor that if he performs the abortion, after death he will be cast into a pit of unending torment.

We let these imbeciles retain their licenses because we have been intimidated into silence. We have allowed ourselves to become convinced that criticizing someone’s religious beliefs is not polite, not permissible.

Books have been written on the delusional belief systems that are nurtured by mainstream religions, and the incalculable harm that they cause. I’m not going to rehash every detail here. I recommend Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. The question that interests me at the moment is, what is an appropriate social response when one encounters a person who professes some form of religious faith? Are we required to smile and say, “Oh, that’s nice”?

Arguing with them is generally pointless. They’re not capable of rational discussion. They will cling steadfastly to their delusions, no matter what we say to them. Maybe the polite thing would be, if someone says, “I’m a Catholic,” to respond, “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope you get over it, and I hope your children’s lives aren’t ruined by it.”

I’m not advocating religious persecution. I want to make the distinction quite clear. Churches should not be closed or burned down. Books, no matter how absurd or filled with incitements to terrorism (as is the Old Testament, to name one prominent example), should not be banned. The property of the faithful should not be confiscated, and the faithful should not be locked up or burnt at the stake. Freedom of association must continue to extend to places and occasions of “worship” (whatever that is).

But we could go quite a long way in discouraging religion without crossing into persecution. To begin with, churches ought to be subject to the same laws as other non-profit institutions with respect to non-discrimination in employment, and with respect to their operation of outside enterprises such as hospitals and schools.

The business of religion-oriented primary schools (and of home schooling) is tricky. It’s in the best interest of society that all children should be taught science and critical thinking, neither of which is taught in religious schools in anything but a warped and deranged way. And yet, given the dismal state of the public schools in the United States, I’m not quite willing to suggest that all children should be required to attend public school. Perhaps there’s a middle ground. Perhaps private schools should be allowed, but if and only if they meet the strictest academic standards with respect to teaching science and avoiding any form of religious indoctrination.

It almost goes without saying that anyone who professes a belief in God should be disqualified from holding public office. The belief in God is not compatible with an ability to formulate effective public policy — because, to reiterate, such a belief is irrational. We would not elect a Congressman who not only professed a belief in UFOs but vowed to be guided by the messages radioed into his head by UFOs. Why is a belief in God any different?

Answer: It isn’t.

Most of the religious people that I know are nice people! They’re not raving lunatics. At least, they don’t do any raving when they’re around me. Yet I’m pretty sure that some of them, when they go to church, smile and nod through sermons in which they’re encouraged to practice all sorts of grotesque evil. They’re instructed, for instance, to teach their children abstinence from sex as the only acceptable form of birth control, when all of the scientific evidence indicates that this teaching is ineffective and promotes both disease and unwanted pregnancies. They’re incited to vote for politicians who vow to throw adults in jail for having forms of fun that the elders of the church disapprove of.

This is what’s wrong with religion. It warps good people so that they do profound evil without even recognizing that they’re doing it. Those men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center — make no mistake: Their religion assured them that they were doing something good, something for which God would reward them beyond measure.

Were their motivations any different than the motivations of Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice who repeatedly decides the law of the United States based entirely on his understanding of what God wants?

No. Scalia and the 9/11 terrorists are cast from the same mold. The mold is religion. We need to break the mold.

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