Monday, January 12, 2015

Is religion bad for humanity? (Part 2)

See Part 1, where I argued that we don’t know how to answer the question, is religion bad for humanity?  Part 2 consists of some of my more personal reflections.

I am not a religious person.  I don’t belong to a religious organization.  I’m not “spiritual but not religious” (whatever that means).  I don’t believe in God, gods, or other supernatural beings (cosmic Buddhas, angels, bodhisattvas, Satan, etc.).  I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, whether of the heavenly or rebirth variety.  I don’t think a human life without religion is inherently meaningless or not worthwhile.  I think we have to set our sights a bit lower than cosmic significance, but meaning and worth are there all the same.  Nonetheless, I am also humbled by the fact that many of the most inspiring and morally decent people I know have been religious, both in my personal experience and through my study of thousands of years of history and philosophy in many different cultures.  (Many of my personal heroes, people like Gandhi, Ambedkar, and King, were religious).

Many anti-religious people are keen to point out that religion isn’t necessary for a good or fulfilling human life.  I agree.  But in fact religion seems to help a lot of people, even if something else could help them just as well.  And how do we know that a world without religion would be any better or worse?  (See the science fictional South Park episodes “Go God Go”  and “Go God Go XII," which lampoon Richard Dawkins and suggest that humans in the future might fight over something just as silly as religious differences.)

So, where does people’s certainty about this issue come from?  I think it largely comes from personal experience and from the sensationalization of violence in the media.  I’ve anecdotally observed that anti-religious people often grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist context.  There’s nothing like bigoted, intolerant fundamentalism to turn people off from religion.  My own religious upbringing was relatively mild.  My irreligion was more of a gentle realization that I no longer believed than anything as dramatic as an inversion of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  I never formed the idea of religion as a wholly virulent force.  As a kid, I thought the only difference between the Catholic and Methodist churches I attended were that the Methodists didn’t wear robes.  Aside from some weird stuff about the rapture and things about homosexuality that I never quite brought myself to believe, I admit that I had a relatively easy time of it and enjoyed a lot of the social aspects of religion.  This probably makes me less disposed to see religion as entirely bad.  In any case, I don’t think we should let personal experience alone answer large questions for us, especially since this makes us more susceptible to confirmation bias  (in particular, those predisposed to think religion is bad will more readily notice the bad things, while those predisposed to think religion is good will more readily notice the good things).

And let’s not forget that the media sensationalizes religious violence.  If it bleeds, it leads, and all that.  Terrorist attacks get a lot of coverage (at least if they’re not bombs on NAACP buildings in Colorado), but community programs and personal meaningfulness rarely do.  The bad things are more noticeable in our media-saturated world, but it doesn’t mean the good things aren’t there.

So, does religion do bad things?  Definitely.  Does it also do good things?  For sure.  If we want to make things better for humanity, I think we need subtlety and wisdom to tell the difference between the good things and the bad things rather than bombastic claims to know that which we do not know.  And if religion ever does go away (and I doubt it will anytime soon), our descendants will need to understand the difference between what hurts us and what harms us lest they repeat our mistakes.

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