I’ve been pretty hard on religion over the last several years, mostly in response to the hatred and violence I’ve seen perpetrated by those who proclaim themselves conservative Christians or Muslims and justified on the basis of their religion. I am certain the world would be a better place without the religions practiced in much of the world, with the Middle Eastern monotheisms being the worst offenders. However, since religion has been around for as long as there have been people and clearly serves a purpose in helping some people make sense of the world, we’re stuck with it for a long time yet.
As a reasonable person, I work hard to justify when I’m strongly against something. Like most non-theists, I’m not against religion as a phenomenon in human life. It gives purpose and structure to a great many people’s lives, and no fair-minded person would be against such a phenomenon in general. I’m purposely calling religion a phenomenon rather than a practice, because religion seems to arise naturally in many different cultures around the world and shares certain common traits as well as many that appear dependent on a particular culture or physical way of life. To be against something that naturally arises as a condition of human life requires some justification.
While I can certainly argue that belief in a purely metaphysical system, one that has no influence on the physical world, is harmful or at least unproductive, I think the best approach is to regard religion as a fact in the world, not as something we can nullify with any amount of effort. Accordingly, I will consider religion as I do other structures in the world, as having good and bad effects, and attempt to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
Since we are in the domain of religion, I will be dealing at least somewhat with perceptions of good and evil. I will define evil here as anti-life, both because this definition covers all or most of the practical overlap between “bad” and “evil” in this context and because most religions will agree with this definition to some extent. This approach posits life as the primary goal and that which supports life as the primary virtue. Human life is foremost in this consideration, but it’s considered in the context of life generally, because humans cannot survive without recognizing and acting on their interdependence with all life.
Both the greatest good and the greatest evil in religion arises from a particular religion’s stance on how to treat other living things, so it’s appropriate to focus on these aspects. When I use the term “religion” going forward, I will be referring primarily to an individual’s view of what their religion compels them to do in the world, though it should be clear from the context what I refer to. It’s time to put forth some statements to serve as the basis of arguments. These are going to be very general statements, but experience tells me they will still serve as a good starting point for debate. These will all be stated as defining evil traits, because I set out in this essay to justify my stance toward certain religions (or aspects of religions) I consider harmful.
- Hatred and Cruelty – If your religion promotes hatred and cruelty rather than kindness and love, then it’s an evil religion.
- Controlling Others – If religion provides a set of rules and compels you to force others to comply with those rules, and to control or harm those who won’t comply, then it’s an evil religion.
- Changing Others – If your religion focuses on changing others rather than changing yourself, then it’s an evil religion.
- Absolute Truth – If your religion compels you to convince others that your beliefs represent absolute truth, then it’s an evil religion.
- Judgment and Divisiveness – If your religion focuses on dividing others up and judging them strictly according to their beliefs or immutable qualities rather than their actions, then it’s an evil religion.
- Fear Based – If your religion is based on fear of punishment or promise of future reward (i.e. fear of losing that reward), then it’s an evil religion.
- Rigidity or dependence on fixed dogma – If your religion is based on a fixed set of principles that cannot be altered for any reason and must be defended from “infidels”, then it’s an evil religion.
- If your religion justifies suffering on the part of innocents as part of an ordained reality, and thereby allows you to stand by and do nothing to relieve this suffering, then it’s an evil religion.
The rules above are a good start and I will continue this exploration when I have time. For now, I invite comment on what I’ve written so far.