Ban religion?

The so-called New Atheists* vilify all forms of theism, insisting that, while liberal theists might not be as overtly dangerous as other theists, they support them by virtue of their belief that something called divine revelation is superior to reason and evidence. I don’t know what’s new about this as I’ve been hearing it for the entire forty years that I’ve been a card-carrying atheist. I even agree with it, although I consider it better to err on the side of moderation in expressing ones beliefs due to the fact that hardliners alienate everyone but other hardliners. Then again…

Madalyn Murry O’Hair was much more abrasive than the New Atheists, and I used to wonder if, given that atheism got even less notice back then than it does today, the negative attention she brought to it might not have been preferable to silence. If so, the same is probably true of the New Atheists. Moderates don’t make the news, and if you are to succeed in your fight against something as rich and powerful as religion, you have to make the news.

One of my readers suggested that the New Atheists want to see religion outlawed. While I don’t follow their latest pronouncements, I at least scan every book on atheism that comes through the library, and I haven’t run into such a proposal. I wrote to a friend who stays more attune to such things than I, and asked if he knew anything about it. He responded:

“…I’ve never heard anyone honestly suggest that religion should be banned. Hitchens was one of the most strident and he often described religion as evil and poisonous, but I don’t believe he advocated for a ban. Today, P.Z. Myers is one of the most ardent anti-religious voices and he certainly doesn’t suggest banning religion…When a Christian leaps to claiming that atheists would ban religion, they are usually attempting to derail a conversation which has become uncomfortable for them in some way.  I believe it’s a form of the ‘Going Nuclear’ strategy when you are losing an argument. One person points out how the Catholic Church systematically raped children and hid the crimes and the other responds with ‘You atheists want to herd us all into rail cars like the Nazis.’ I’ve seen one of your commenters do this on several occasions.”

All this got me to thinking about my own feelings in regard to outlawing religion. I didn’t have to think long because I consider the following self-evident: 

1) Religious teachings that inflict emotional harm upon children constitute child abuse; 

2)  Such teachings should be illegal in the presence of children. 

You can beat a kid with a stick, or you can beat him with the fear of God (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”—Proverbs 9:10), and when you have a kid hiding under the bed as I did because he’s afraid of God, you’ve beaten him pretty badly. While the New Atheists might not openly support a legal ban on the ability of religion to emotionally brutalize children, I would, if only such a thing were possible. Unfortunately, the only way to bring it about would be to take children from the homes of those millions of parents who are so benighted as to imagine that they are saving their children from hell after death by making their lives a hell on earth. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, who long ago wrote a sermon that’s still found in college-level literature books:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you...he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

If you imagine that this kind of villainous talk was long ago abandoned by the church, I would point out that I grew up with it (though not always in such flowery language), and that it characterizes the teachings of Catholic, evangelical, and fundamentalist churches to this day. Churches like my childhood church might put more emphasis on their belief that only the blood of God the Son protects us from the righteous wrath of God the Father, but it remains church doctrine in nearly all of the churches I’ve studied, and I’ve studied the basic beliefs of dozens.

*The best known being Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.


Charles Gramlich said...

Dawkins has made some comments about banning religion. I suspect, personally, that without religion we'd have virtually no civilization as we know it today. On the other hand, in the modern scientific driven civilization, religion often has become a real millstone around the neck of progress.

Snowbrush said...

"without religion we'd have virtually no civilization as we know it today."

You say this as if it would be a bad thing, which I very much doubt given that the stronger religion is in a given culture, the worse-off that culture seems to be. My question would be whether it is even possible for any religion to be desirable. While I don't mean to imply that everything needs to be founded upon science, it is invariably true that religion goes further than that in that it is anti-science in the sense that it elevates divine revelation (which is accepted upon authority) above methods that have been shown to work in determining truth. I suppose if you were once a hard-drinker who gave it up upon finding Jesus, you would say that religion was certainly a good influence your life and hence in society, but that would be to take a pragmatic position, and I have trouble doing that, perhaps because I tend to elevate objective truth over everything else. Once the importance of such truth is discounted, where does it logically stop being discounted? My fear is that it doesn't, that the end will be widespread rank superstition, something that we have too much of as it is.

Marion said...

Religion has played an important part in my life. Of the thousands of books I've read in the past few years, none have moved me as profoundly as the Bible did when I first read it at age twelve. I belonged to no church but I felt God's presence. I learned love, forgiveness, kindness, caring, morality, belonging, tolerance and faith...among other things.

I think a world without religion would be a cold, dead place. xo

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." ~C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Snowbrush said...

"none have moved me as profoundly as the Bible did when I first read it at age twelve."

Which was about the age that I read one of several Scriptures in which God ordered the Jews to commit genocide, and my religion went out the window and never completely returned.

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell."

If I believed that God existed, and that God was worthy of worship, then I would worship him/her/it, but I can't very well worship an entity whose existence I don't accept, or whose goodness (based upon the Bible) I couldn't accept even if I did accept his existence.

The Elephant's Child said...

And what would replace religion? Because I feel confident that something would, and while I could hope that the replacement was better, I wouldn't like to take any bets on it.

The Blog Fodder said...

Banning things usually doesn't work. Education works.

ellen abbott said...

I totally disagree with Charles that without religion we wouldn't have civilization as we know it today. I don't believe that religion was the motivation behind civilization. And by religion did he mean christianity? because there have been incredible civilizations on this planet long before christianity and even after. More like, religion has held civilization back from the get go.

Snowbrush said...

"And what would replace religion?"

I suppose the Scandinavian countries are the best examples of what a nearly religion-free society would look like, and the people there seem quite content (although I don't know anyone can be content when it's so cold and dark in winter). As for the assurance of divine protection and life after death, obviously no religion-free society could provide that, but then not all religions do either. As for feeling secure in this life, Scandinavia appears to do that quite well for its citizens, so maybe if people in other countries felt similarly protected, divine protection and belief in an afterlife wouldn't seem so important to them. As it is, many people turn to religion simply because their lives are so bad on earth.

"More like, religion has held civilization back from the get go."

I would tend to agree, but would also suspect that polytheism was much less harmful that monotheism simply because, once you accept the idea that there is only one God, you naturally want to stamp out the belief in all those other Gods, whereas polytheists never exemplified such intolerance.

lotta joy said...

I'm so tired, and getting more tired. So I don't even think of being an athiest versus a christian any more.

Consider my shock when my husband told me, while crying, that he finds it so horrifying to know he'll never see me again after I'm dead because of my lack of belief. Now I'm feeling responsible for more than myself and don't know what I'm supposed to do to ease his emotional pain.

Snowbrush said...

"I'm so tired, and getting more tired."

I wish I could make you well if for no other reason than my own selfishness. You are one of those who have hung in there with me, and I'm devoted to you. It's commonly said that humor is born out of pain, and that's so obvious with you because the things you write about aren't at all funny in themselves, and, indeed, you used to write about them with bitterness. I just wish you had the energy, desire, and years to throw yourself into producing humor for fame and money.

"Now I'm feeling responsible for more than myself and don't know what I'm supposed to do to ease his emotional pain."

If he believes, as so many do, that his all-loving, all-just, and all-merciful God sends good people to eternal torture simply because that they were unable to accept the authority of anonymous people who died 2,000 years ago regarding God's existence and his utterly bizarre "plan of salvation," I guess there isn't anything you can do. I don't get it, though, how people can believe things that cancel one another out. I want to be sympathetic, but it's hard for me as I know it would be for you if it were anyone but him who is suffering. I wonder if his clergy person could offer him any hope based upon a more compassionate reading of Scripture. After all, you're not saying no to God because one who can't believe in God can't say no to God. In this, you are as a person who never heard the "gospel." Like me, if you should be wrong, and end up before God someday, you could truthfully say that you did the best you could given the light that you had, and, hopefully, your husband might find it within his heart to accept that, if God is a God of justice and mercy, that this would count for a great deal.

bluzdude said...

The point about religious people claiming that atheists want to ban religion is just a garden-variety “straw-man” argument, wherein they take a preposterously exaggerated position and claim it represents their foe’s views, and then attack it. It happens constantly in politics and hourly on Fox “News.”

It’s an effective, albeit dishonest ploy, especially with those who want to believe it or are too insulated to know any better.

PhilipH said...

Banning things often makes them more 'desirable' - vidé prohibition in the USA.
Live and let live is the best policy imo. So many people simply cling to the "sure and certain hope of life ..." after death that means it would be cruel to ban such sad belief.
I'd love to see certain religions fade away, such as Catholicism and its idiotic "rules". But it will keep going long after I've gone. The Pope has retired, long live the next Pope ... Huh! What a murderous lot the old Popes (Borgias? perhaps) and there I rest my case.

Snowbrush said...

"The point about religious people claiming that atheists want to ban religion is just a garden-variety “straw-man” argument"

Many Christians claim that the New Atheists behave similarly by only attacking the most literalistic forms of Christianity while ignoring the ones that, in the view of those who subscribe to them, are more rational. I've received similar criticisms. My defense is that I usually limit myself to what I perceive as the most prevalent Christian views because it would be impossible to get around to every variant even if I wanted to., although I did devote quite a posts to liberal Christianity recently.

"So many people simply cling to the "sure and certain hope of life ..." after death that means it would be cruel to ban such sad belief."

Well, it would also be impossible, and maybe even counterproductive--as it was in ancient Rome. More importantly, the atheists I've known think people have a right to believe as they please. Where atheists have issues is with things like tax exempt churches, faith-based child abuse, and efforts by religious people to impose their beliefs upon others by creating closer ties between church and state.

Lee Johnson said...

@Charles - Yes, Dawkins has made comments about banning religion such as this one:

"It would be intolerant if I advocated the banning of religion, but of course I never have. I merely give robust expression to views about the cosmos and morality with which you happen to disagree. You interpret that as ‘intolerance’ because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, which expects to get a free ride and not have to defend itself."


"I think a world without religion would be a cold, dead place."

A few weeks ago I was seated in a restaurant next to a group of ladies who spent about 10 minutes loudly praying and 30 minutes discussing how to force their children into their religious beliefs and pray out the demons in their houses.

I found myself deeply saddened by the sheer emptiness of their lives, squandering their time and energy on beliefs that were so patently false and harmful to their relationships.

The problem with the C.S. Lewis quote is that the sun is an actual object. Worldwide, people agree that it exists and provides us with light, warmth, and energy. Lewis is arguing that there are other suns, visible only to a subset of the population and even then with no agreed upon position, magnitude, or quantity. The "many-suns skeptic" can no more be moved by the glory of invisible suns than the atheist can be moved by the glory of gods that exist entirely within the minds of other people.

Snowbrush said...

"You interpret that as ‘intolerance’ because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, which expects to get a free ride and not have to defend itself."

This is the kind of thing I was referring to when I expressed uncertainty about whether the New Atheists are a force for good (or at least more good than bad). I, frankly, believe they are, and I completely agree with the above, yet I can also see how it could be seen as alienating. In my blog, I try very hard to not be alienating, yet I realize that I might express myself that way without intending it because the differences between atheists and theists are simply so profound. Tact fails at times.

"how to force their children into their religious beliefs and pray out the demons in their houses."

Sounds like you got a free floor show. I recall a story from ancient Greek philosophy about two philosophers, one of whom was so filled with compassion for human foolishness (and the pain that is caused by it) that he was often in tears. The other found human foolishness so absurd that he was often seen laughing. I relate to both of these views, but I prefer the second.

"The problem with the C.S. Lewis quote..."

Atheists invariably think poorly of Lewis, which is ironic in that traditionalist Christians consider him one of their most impressive apologists. Such is the distance between the two camps.

C Woods said...

Hi Snowbrush,

I've been AWOL again. But I read several of your posts today. I was a member of M. O'Hair's group in the early 80's but she used to anger me to no end with her brash comments that immediately made religious people stop listening to anything rational she had to say. At the time, she was the 'only game in town' so I continued my membership. But I joined the FFRF later. They have a softer approach, yet I think they are very effective in bringing religious abuses to light.

As to banning religion, I agree that banning something makes it that much more desirable to people. If religion were banned, it would be like the prohibition years, with religious speakeasies, secret meetings, and people being arrested for their beliefs. As someone else said, education is the answer.

What worries me is how many of our young people are home schooled ---where they are spoon-fed their parent's religious beliefs at the same time they are isolated from other belief systems ---or lack thereof. A neighbor home schools her child. From what I see, he has no social skills, no friends his age, and is a general doofus. I predict he has a good chance of one or more of the following happening: becoming a scary fundamentalist or rejecting religion completely or neurotic due to all the guilt inflicted upon him or being gay and rejected by his parent (I see the signs.)

I used to say I didn't hate religion, but I have gotten past that. Every time I see the pope on TV or hear a dumb-ass comment that Pat Robertson has made, I have a little spark of anger and great dislike, if not hate.

By the way, I'm reading a book now you might enjoy ---"The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J.Jacobs, an agnostic Jew who decided to try to follow all Biblical laws for a year ---just to see what would happen. I'm only into his 3rd month---and at least he hasn't stoned anyone yet. But he grew a beard, wouldn't touch women or work on Saturdays, ate kosher, wore tassles on his cloths, stayed with an Amish family for a weekend and visited a creationist museum. He's still an agnostic (so far in my reading) but he is more sympathetic to religion than he used to be ---I think mainly because most of the time he is talking to people who are moderately reasonable about religion. It's thought-provoking and humorous.

(His previous books were "The Know-It-All" about a year spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica A-Z and "Drop Dead Healthy" about his year trying to find the best formula for a healthy life.)