Religion: More Than Harmless Nonsense
A Defense of Atheism
It seems to be a fairly common feeling among atheists and agnostics that to defend their beliefs and express their viewpoints would be tantamount to the very evangelism they find so offensive in religion. It's understandable that after being repeatedly barraged by religion, one might try to be above it in some way and keep one's views to one's self. Many nonbelievers quietly hold their views without explaining them for fear they might offend or seem to evangelize. There is a line, however, between trying to change others' beliefs and trying to make others' understand yours, and definitely a difference between trying to evangelize and merely defending your own view.
There were many reasons why I left religion. I was a Pentecostal, and one of the first things I recognized as exceptionally negative about it was that very evangelical spirit. Once I had stepped back from religion I was able to look at it from a more critical standpoint and notice a lot of things I hadn't seen before. What made me such an adamant atheist, and convinced that it's a belief worth expressing and defending, is what I could see that religion does to people; religions encourage faith, believing in something without skepticism or critical analysis. By believing that you are absolutely right, you close your view to other possibilities when the only real way to find truth is through self-skepticism. The unquestioning outlook religion preaches, calling it a virtue and naming it "faith"--once learned and reinforced--is far too easy to fall into as habit.
Ruining minds with this way of thinking has wasted immeasurable human potential and turned countless individuals who might otherwise have gone on to contribute to human knowledge away from a search for truth altogether. We can see many scholars throughout history who avoided drawing important conclusions from their knowledge because it went against religious doctrine, and many more examples of religious authority directly having impeded human advancement. Not only does the religious mindset discourage the type of behavior needed for critical analysis and intellectual advancement, but it also encourages closing one's eyes to the very existence of other ways of thinking and other views.
I often hear people speak as if Christianity were the only religion, rarely even admitting that the other Abrahamic religions--let alone any eastern, polytheistic, or naturalistic religion-- could be taken seriously. Those raised to believe in any of the other religions would, of course, likely feel the same about their own beliefs.
A belief I hear from many nonbelievers, and which I think greatly contributes to our lack of self-expression, is that if religion is nonsense it's harmless nonsense that gives people purpose and fulfills some need. But the Crusades, the Inquisitions, Witch Hunts, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, Protestant and Catholic Ireland, fanaticism, and the post 9/11 world have shown us that religion is far from harmless. Religion is not only an excuse in the hands of a few inherently dangerous individuals, religion actually encourages the insanity. By promising some wonderful place after death, or a world that would be perfect if only it were freed from heretics, the otherwise normal barriers imposed by common sense are often obliterated, thus allowing people to commit atrocities while believing they're doing good. The individuals taking it to extremes would never go so far if they weren't in societies that encourage those beliefs at some level, telling them it's all right to treat the outsiders differently because, of course, they're wrong no matter what--and we'd be better off without them anyway. Religion encourages atrocities by equipping people with the psychological capacity for extreme acts. There's nothing special about any religion that could make its adherents above this. Any society with an ambient religion can fall into a mindset of vindicated hatred. It was not so long ago that Christianity, itself, was right there--plundering, killing, and torturing in the name of "God."
The idea that religion is the only option for filling our human need for purpose and morality is false. Look at what people get from religion: an idea of what they need to base their actions on and a hope that through their own actions they might be able to do "good"--as defined by their religion, of course. But with religion, what people base their actions on are egotistical goals of righteousness, and immortality in accord with archaic moral codes, indisputable word of dogma, and archaic beliefs passed down from different times which disregard the current state of the world. Look at the world. It's rife with religious morals. See the result.
Sure, there are a number of good moral precepts, but those often end up being ignored by the people who most need to follow them. Without religion, people might instead look at the world objectively and begin to base their actions and morals on making the world how they think it ought to be--here and now--rather than on trying to get into an afterlife or adhering to whatever moral code someone else long-dead wrote for them.
Take away the subservience to religion and, to fill the need for virtue and purpose that is given as an excuse for religion, people will look to the world around them, and based on what they see and what they think is good, will decide on their own and attempt to make their actions good accordingly.
Some people say that people would become hedonistic and possibly malevolent without the fear of religion. But, the ones whose behavior would collapse without religious instruction are the ones who don't feel the need for purpose and virtue anyway. Fortunately, however, most people do feel some need to fulfill a sense of purpose and do good, and the few who don't are often the ones who are especially dangerous within religion, with its justification for irrationality.
No, religion is not just harmless nonsense. Religion encourages a destructive mindset and it enables people to commit horrible and absurd acts, both individually and collectively. As long as religion present, it prevents to at least some degree the formation of rational morality based on observation of the real world, precisely the type of behavior that is most needed now.
It's time for rational thinkers and nonbelievers to explain the virtue of their very lack of belief, and to stand up for living in an objective world. Nonbelievers need to realize that religion is not just a delusion, it's not just a little comfort to the weak and downtrodden--it is a dangerous force in this world.
Despite hating evangelism and zeal in religion, rationalists, nontheists, and silent secularists need to learn a bit about it. The evangelical religions preach the need for conversion to save nonbelievers, but it's the nonreligious who now have a rational claim to that line of thought. Those who still believe need to be given the chance to understand our view, and decide between rationality and irrationality, between dangerous false hopes and real, possible, "salvation" from ourselves and by ourselves.
Atheism is certainly worth defending, so long as humanity is.
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