With the recent terrorism in Paris, a lot of people have been wondering whether these apparently religiously-motivated attacks tell us anything about religion in general or Islam in particular.
Let me get out of the way that I think killing people over cartoons is bad and censorship is also bad, even if the cartoons in question are often racist and rarely even all that funny. I also think that demonizing a group of 1.6 billion people due to the actions of these individuals is bad (it’s also a fallacious hasty generalization). This case also raises issues of race, identity, and imperialism (see this nice piece by Teju Cole on many of these issues). But I want to get to another issue: Is religion bad for humanity?
Let me start with a few observations. First, this is the kind of question about which many people have strong opinions. Second, it is also a question that seems like it should be extremely difficult to answer. Third, whether any religion is true is an independent question of whether religion is good for us (it could be false and good for us, or true and bad for us).
Many people have strong opinions on this issue. The New Atheists are out there, ramping up Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” with an anti-Islamic twist frequently veering into Islamophobia. (For a critique of the politics of the New Atheists, see “New Atheism, Old Empire” by Luke Savage). On the other side, many religious people claim that, despite a few bad apples, religion is overall a force for good in the world.
I think it’s odd that people are so quick to answer this question. What's the evidence?
On the religion-is-bad side, you’ve got the big headline issue of religiously motivated terrorism not to mention holy wars, guilt, shame, and promotion of ignorance and backwardness as well as all manner of religiously induced bigotry, hatred, misogyny, racism, etc.
On the religion-is-good side, you’ve got religiously motivated social justice movements, religious charities, and hospitals, not to mention religiously inspired art and music as well as the fact that religion gives many people a sense of greater meaning and social belonging in their lives. With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up here in the United States and the release of the excellent film, Selma, let’s not forget that King was a Baptist Minister.
What puzzles me is how people can so easily claim to weigh all the evidence to produce a verdict worthy of passionate assent. For all we know, for every terrorist, maybe there’s a religious organization feeding the hungry. For every misogynist religious leader, maybe there’s a religious group building a school for girls. For every guilt-inducing sermon, maybe there’s a person feeling self-worth for the first time. For every intolerant bigot, maybe someone else is inspired to feel love and compassion for everyone.
I’m not claiming that religion’s goodness and badness are a wash. I can’t know that, either. I’m claiming that none of us really know how to answer the question of whether religion does more harm than good. We don’t know what evidence to seek out and we wouldn’t know how to weigh it even if we did have all the evidence. The most rational response is to withhold judgment.
(For my more personal reflections on this topic, see Part 2.)