Harmless believers?

In my last post, I was talking about myself, saying that I reluctantly accept the label “atheist” to characterize my stance on religion. As is often the case, a discussion of atheism soon gets broadened into a wider discussion about religion in general. This shows that religion remains a significant topic among believers and atheists alike, a fact that both explains and justifies the continuing vigorous debate.

In a thoughtful comment, Ted Marcus, in his inimitable style, raises issues that I would like to consider but which I think deserve longer treatment than an answering comment. I am therefore dedicating a post to the matter. You will find Ted’s comment in its original context here. The issues I raise concern the following quoted passages:

1. “most religious believers are harmless folk”

2. “religious belief is [not] inherently pernicious”

3. “a sufficient minority of religious believers do seek to coerce others and/or acquire money (from whatever source) that they tar the harmless majority with their bad reputation”

4. “It’s important to distinguish between organizations (with leaders who use religion to acquire wealth and power) with individuals”

1. & 2. “most religious believers are harmless folk” and “religious belief is [not] inherently pernicious”

If we accept these propositions then I think that means that we happily accept religious belief as just another facet or quirk of human nature, a harmless eccentricity, as long as people do not use their beliefs as a reason to abuse others. Is this a reasonable view?

I would suggest that there is a continuous spectrum from unbelief (atheism) to pathologically obsessive belief (“extremism”) and that everyone fits somewhere along the line. In my view, there are no walls, no compartments, that divide “harmless believer” from “extremist”. It is simply a matter of degree, just as atheism shades into agnosticism and agnosticism shades into belief. I am not saying that “harmless believers” all risk becoming “extremists” for that, I think, is self-evidently false. However, you have to accept that some extremists were once “harmless believers” who later became “radicalized”, i.e. who later became “extremists”. Hence my contention that there are no compartments on the spectrum of belief. I think that wherever there is religious belief, there is always the possibility of abuse in the name of religion, even if this is nothing more than parents browbeating their children into accepting beliefs and behaviours for which there is no rational justification.

It has often been pointed out that few people, from being atheists, embrace a religion in adult life. (This scotches the notion that religious belief is somehow the default for the human mind.) The complementary fact is that people who are believers overwhelmingly believe in the religion they grew up in. This hardly speaks of free choice. Rather it speaks of indoctrination. It says (to me, at any rate) that the vast majority of believers believe because they were brought up to believe, not because they made a free choice to believe as consenting adults. I would therefore say that “harmless believers” in fact commit one very palpable harm: they indoctrinate the children of their community into belief without giving them any choice in the matter. This is tacitly recognized by religious communities themselves when they show immense keenness to get hold of young people. What else are “faith schools” all about?

Given the choice, how would you approach the world – seeing it as it really is or seeing it through eyes misted with false views? You can see where this is going so I won’t bore you by spelling it out. I will deal with one detail, however. Religious people will say that my view of the “real world” is just one opinion among the many and could be warped, inadequate or just plain wrong and that the religious viewpoint is no worse than this and is in fact better because it comes with the authority of God. Let’s take a closer look at that.

How many religions are there in the world? How many have there been that no longer exist? These all individually make a unique claim to the truth. If all religions said the same thing, we would really have to sit up and take notice, wouldn’t we? (Just as we have to sit up and take notice of scientists who, by and large, all say the same thing.) But all religions don’t say the same thing. They in fact say many different things and there is no agreement among them. They fight like cat and dog except when they unite with one another to confront the nasty atheists. Now suppose there is one religion that speaks the truth. That means that all the others are wrong. That in turn means that the majority of religious believers are wrong in what they believe. If we suppose that one religion is true, then we are faced with the question “Which one?” Can any intelligent person really believe that of all the religions that exist and have existed there is one that is the unique repository of truth? Yes, apparently millions do but of course they each believe it is their own religion.

In other words, believing in a religion inevitably induces a false view of life, the universe and everything in at least the majority of believers – and, more likely, all of them unless, of course, you happen to believe in the mythical one true religion. (This incidentally squashes “Pascal’s wager”, since Pascal would first have to know what the true religion was in order to pretend to believe in it and thus save himself from the ire of God. The wrong choice would positively disadvantage him.) I don’t know what you think but I think that deliberately adopting a false view of the world is a rather silly thing to do and that inflicting a false view of the world on children is heinous. So in that sense, at least, religions are “inherently pernicious”.

3. “a sufficient minority of religious believers do seek to coerce others and/or acquire money (from whatever source) that they tar the harmless majority with their bad reputation”

I would first enquire who this “minority” is. As far as I can see, they are members of some religious community or other. In some cases, they may belong to a small idiosyncratic sect set up for the sole purpose of committing whatever atrocity they have in mind but more often, they are members of mainline religious groups and, whether or not they are condemned by the majority of members, nevertheless share the same basic beliefs held by the latter. There are pathological cases in all communities, of course, and it would be unfair to judge a community by its lunatics and criminals though I think it is fair to look at the causes of lunacy and criminality to see whether the community somehow encourages them to exist. I happen to believe that the Theory of Evolution is the best model we have to explain how life developed on earth but I have yet to hear of anyone blowing up ordinary people in the name of Darwinism. The majority of religious believers don’t blow up people, either, but those who do are almost more often than not motivated by some religious creed. The irresistible conclusion is that this dangerous “minority”, while being a minority, nonetheless comes from some community of “harmless believers”.

4. “It’s important to distinguish between organizations (with leaders who use religion to acquire wealth and power) with individuals”

When I was a child, my mates and I never did anything wrong. Whenever an adult accused us of some misdeed, we rebutted the claim: “Big boys did it and ran away”. In the same way, whenever you point to abuses committed in the name of God or of some creed, believers indignantly reject the accusation: “We would never do anything like that. Our religion doesn’t allow such abuses.” No, sorry, plenty of people do think that their God or their religion sanctions such abuses. “It wasn’t me, it was the organization I belong to” is not much of a defence is it? And, after all, what is an organization? Isn’t it simply all of its members taken as a group? If the Cult of the Yellow Lizard perpetrates some evil act, then all members of the Cult, whether or not they personally took part on the act, have some serious questions to answer. Around the world religious organizations are committing all manner of horrors and insofar as the members of those organizations continue to be members, do not protest and simply accept what is being done in their name, they necessarily share in the guilt. There is no let-out clause: organizations are the people who belong to them.


I would like to live in a world from which religious belief and all belief in the supernatural has been expunged and in which people take responsibility for their own actions, instead of blaming these on some monstrous supernatural being, and illuminate everything with the light of reason. This much desired goal will not be reached in my lifetime. I can only hope it will come about in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, I would like to believe that we could reach a position where religious believers keep their beliefs to themselves, practise them in private, and refrain from foisting them on others. If that were the case I would happily refrain from foisting my atheism on others. Unfortunately, such a goal is impossible to achieve. Faith groups by their very constitution, cannot refrain from foisting their beliefs on others. To start with, they regard it as a sacred duty to indoctrinate their children, thus keeping alive the same pernicious, mind-dulling lies for yet another generation.

They insist on telling the rest of us how to live, what our duties are and what we must not do and pursue these tenets through Parliament and the courts. Because they regard these precepts as God-given, they consider themselves empowered with ultimate authority to do whatever it takes to implement them. Gay people are harassed, abortion clinics attacked, theatres closed down, protesters sent death threats or even murdered. Much as I wish we could live companionably with religious believers, I don’t think we can. Yes, you can point to groups who do try to co-exist peaceably with others but I think they are a minority. Even some of these, who have traditionally remained calm, have recently started taking direct action. I am not naming names because I don’t want to seem to be targetting any particular group but you only need to keep up with the news to see examples of the type I mention.

I therefore conclude that religion is not merely wrong-headed but is positively bad and that we should expose it through education and rational understanding so that people learn to see through it and abandon it. I don’t believe in persecuting religious believers and would defend them as I would defend any persecuted group but equally, I believe we should prosecute any crimes and abuses irrespective of whether they are motivated by religious belief and that a person’s faith should not be a reason for him obtaining special rights and privileges or for being granted exemptions under the law. A crime is a crime no matter who commits it or for whatever motives.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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3 Responses to Harmless believers?

  1. athinkingman says:

    Regardless of whether or not individual believers are harmful or not, I agree that there is a case to be made that religion in general is harmful.

    First, there is the developmental harm. Historically, there is a case to be made that the West went into the Dark Ages in the fifth century as the church stifled activity in the fields of medicine, technology, education, science, and it took over 1000 years for it to recover.

    In the present day, Sam Harris, in ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ has collected some interesting statistics. Countries in the developed world that have nearly shed religion to a large degree – Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Japan, Netherlands, UK – have the best life expectancy rates, the highest adult literacy, the highest educational achievements, most gender equality, and least infant mortality.

    Of course, the correlational data between measures of ‘health’ and a lack of religion (and the corresponding correlation between faith and less societal ‘health’ – 70% of the people in French jails are non-atheistic Muslims) do not resolve questions of causality. Belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God. However, they suggest that atheism is compatable with the basic assumptions of a civil society, whereas the case for religion has yet to be proved.

    Secondly, there is the economic harm. In an interesting paper from 2002, (Australian Humanist, No.68, Summer 2002), John Perkins tries to assess the economic cost of religion – keeping women from the workforce, time spent on religious activity, cost of defence resulting from religious conflict etc. He concludes: “While religious beliefs may be implausible, counter-factual and irrational, and while religious institutions may be immoral, may encourage outdated cultural practices and may stimulate dangerous conflicts, these faults do not entail religion’s most serious shortcoming. The main negative impact of religion on the world community today is its enormous economic cost, estimated here to be a fixed cost exceeding $US200 billion, which falls mainly on poor countries, and an annual cost, again exceeding $US200 billion, which falls mainly on the industrialised world. The cost of religion is not just a shameful waste of human potential, but also a waste of economic resources often by those who can least afford it. These are resources that should otherwise be used to improve the human condition.”

    Thirdly, there is the cognitive cost. I love a phrase from one of the characters in Christopher Brookmyre’s recent comic novel “Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks”. When talking about belief in the supernatural, he says that it ‘just clogs up cognitive evolution’ and therefore should be got rid of.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Valuable additional points. Thank you.

    I think that an additional factor in religious sensibilities in the West (though this may be changing in the US because of the increasing militancy of the Religious Right), is the fact that we have settled into a fairly comfortable relationship with the established church so that people tend to think that “religion” – seen solely in terms of this church – is fairly harmless. This view ignores the very real damage done by Christian churches right up until quite recently: wars, persecutions, torture and burnings at the stake, to mention but a few.

    When you remind people of this they tend to dismiss it as part of man’s barbaric past and say “It couldn’t happen now”. Couldn’t it? All over the world people are being tortured, killed and oppressed in the name of religion. In the West, we have been through a long struggle to free ourselves from the grip of religious authorities. That I can today openly declare myself to be an atheist without fear of arrest for blasphemy is down to the fact that people have suffered and died to procure that right. We would be foolish to forget that.

    Woe betide us individually and as a nation if ever the Christian church were to regain its ancient power over the lives of citizens.

  3. Pingback: Challenging Myths 1 « A Thinking Man

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