I’ve been musing about how religious people, who firmly believe they are good, so often do such monstrously evil things. I think maybe I have a handle on it. If you start with a few basic premises — and I think these are all premises that today’s religious adherents would agree with — you can dig yourself a deep hole quite easily.
Here is a list of what I see as the premises to which today’s religious would express allegiance. They’re all absurd premises, of course, but at the moment I’m not planning to wade into that debate. I simply want to set out the premises and see what they lead to.
- There exists a supremely powerful, conscious entity that we call “God.”
- God is good.
- God is aware of and cares about the human race and about individual humans.
- God cares enough about us to have provided a book containing clear instructions on how He would like us to comport ourselves. This book may require interpretation, but its origins were inspired directly by God, and thus it is free of outright error.
- God has endowed us each with free will, so that we can freely choose to do things that please him, or things that do not please him.
- God has prepared a paradise to which humans can expect, or hope, to be transported when they die, so death is not a reason for anxiety.
- Those who fail to follow the instructions in the book cause suffering here on Earth — because of course the instructions come directly from God and are therefore perfectly reliable. They may also expect not to be rewarded with paradise after death.
The first thing to note is that if you and your friends (probably your friends from church) all believe these things, you’re likely to be very happy! These beliefs have, that is, an immediate positive result. They produce good feelings. They also provide some guidance for steering a serene course among life’s inevitable difficulties. How could a set of beliefs that produces such good results possibly lead to hateful, destructive behavior?
The catch lies in the first significant word in the first premise: “supremely.” The assumption that God is supreme and perfect (and therefore unchanging) has a very unfortunate side effect. The side effect is that if questions are raised about any of the premises, the entire structure sways and totters like a skyscraper made of matchsticks.
Consider, for example, the current struggle over gay marriage. Several types of marriage are approved of in the Bible, including one man having several wives, one man having both wives and concubines, and so forth. But nowhere in the Bible is there a blessed word about two men marrying one another.
If you believe the premises above, then clearly gay marriage is one of the things God doesn’t approve of. If He had approved of it, He would have put it in the book! A believer who starts to think that maybe gay marriage isn’t so bad after all faces a powerful dilemma, because if gay marriage is okay with God, then Premise 4 is clearly wrong. The book is defective and unreliable. And if Premise 4 is wrong — if God didn’t give us humans a reliable guide to what he wants us to do — then Premises 2 and 3 start to look pretty darn shaky too.
Once a single plank of this platform is called into question, the whole thing starts flapping around like a tent in a hurricane. This is bound to produce deep anxiety on the part of anyone who is relying on those premises to generate good feelings and smooth social encounters with their like-minded friends.
The alternative is to believe that the premises are correct, and that gay marriage (or, indeed, being gay at all) is one of the not-okay things that people sometimes do under Premise 5. If the premises are correct, then being gay must be a choice — and a bad one.
The final nail in the coffin is this: If we let people freely make bad choices, and don’t do anything to correct or prevent their bad choices, then (a) the bad choices will inevitably cause suffering here on Earth, because God has told us how to be happy, and (b) people whom we care about may be led astray into making bad choices, and may as a result end up in Hell in accordance with Premise 7. This result is obviously one of the things that God wants us to guard against. (That probably qualifies as another premise.) So it’s our God-given duty to stand four-square against any sort of tolerance for homosexuality.
Have I missed anything in this analysis?
The practical result, as we can see in the news headlines every week, is that people who are basically kind and sincere rush around hurting anyone whose behavior is not approved of in the Bible (as their pastor interprets it). They hurt people by denying them legal rights afforded to others. They hurt people by denying them medical care. They sometimes hurt their own children by trying so hard to control non-gender-conforming behavior that the children run away, live on the street, become prostitutes and drug addicts, catch horrible diseases, and get beaten up by goons who enjoy hurting anybody who is perceived as different.
Kind, sincere people causing widespread and entirely needless human suffering — and all because they’ve accepted as unquestionable a set of premises that are seductive, yet toxic.
This is why I hate religion.