Opinion - Beliefs That Have Harmed Mankind
Posted by Preet Mohan S Ahluwalia on Tuesday, 8/28/2001 6:58 AM MDT
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Is religion any good
12 April 2001
One of the common accusations the faithful make against atheists is that the latter have no morality. Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are their favourite examples of what happens when people don't believe in God. Never mind that every one of Hitler's senior lieutenants came from staunch Roman Catholic families or that Stalin himself had planned to enter a seminary, so one could readily argue that they brought a religious mindset (i.e. irrational, intolerant, anti-empirical) to their brand of atheism.
In any case, it is fallacious to argue that agnostics or atheists can have no morality because they have no absolute authority - i.e. God - to justify their values.
The first fallacy of the argument is demonstrated by the fact that believers themselves do not generally adhere to the absolute moral laws laid down by their God. The Christian God, for example, holds that people should be put to death for sins such as adultery, fornication, blasphemy, homosexuality and a woman not being a virgin on her wedding night.
Now the Christian either has to agree that his God is a fiend, or admit that God changes His rules, or conclude that the Bible isn't actually the Word of God on every page.
Hindus face the same alternatives: God's laws are laid out in the Code of Manu which, among other things, orders that a sudra has to be the slave of a brahmin, and that hitting or kicking a brahmin be punished by the cutting off of hand or foot. The Vedas, in similar fashion, orders the execution of arsonists, thieves and squatters.
Muslims in Islamic countries do actually follow their God's moral laws, which is why all Islamic countries are so backward. Allah says, for example, that rebellious wives should be beaten, thieves should have their hands cut off, young girls should have sex with old men - oh wait, it seems that Trinidad actually is a de facto Islamic state.
But, given the state of all Islamic societies, it is clear that Allah's morality brings no benefits in terms of happiness, peace, justice, knowledge, equality or prosperity - in other words, no "good" in any empirical sense.
The second fallacy is that a moral axiom must be absolute in order to be valid. This argument does not hold even in so precise a science as mathematics. Euclid's axioms, for example, cannot be proved within the system of geometry: but the rules work quite well in practice. Ditto for arithemetic. The mathematician Kurt Godel proved that no powerful logical system can be both consistent and complete: but we go right ahead doing our sums anyway.
So, while it is true that the "ought" which exists in the human mind, is a mystery, that does not mean that God is the mystery's explanation. Nobody has yet given a satisfactory answer as to where morality comes from. But I have every confidence that some competent philosopher, armed with the paradigm of the computational theory of the mind, evolutionary psychology and the data from comparative ethnography, will one day explain how homo sapiens' moral beliefs arise and why such beliefs work and fail in particular circumstances.
The latter is a particularly important question. The believers' stock explanation - "Immorality happens when people disobey God's law" - is tautological. What we do know is that religion has made a significant contribution to the world's evil, from the Inquisition to slavery to the Holocaust. It is also an incontrovertible fact that those societies which have eschewed religious morality in favour of public or secular morality (i.e. ethics) are more peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian and law-abiding than those countries where religion still wields public authority.
History clearly shows that religion has always stood in the way of progress and civilisation, except where religion was itself a means of rebellion (usually against some other religion, as with early Christianity against paganism and, later, Protestantism against Catholicism). The Judeo-Christian tradition helped lay the foundations for modern democracy and science, and early Islam preserved and developed Greek philosophy and science during Europe's Dark Ages. But these have been religion's only positive contributions to the modern world.
It is argued that religious belief does good because it gives comfort and hope to people. The counter-argument is that comfort easily becomes complacency and complacency is the most fertile ground for evil to take root in. Besides, as a matter of principle, one cannot term "good" any belief system which is based on irrationality since such a system must - and has - prove harmful.
The primary purpose of most religions has never been to promote spirituality, but to exert psychological and political control. In a modern society, that kind of control can only have deleterious effects. It is for these reasons that combating religion is, as far as I am concerned, a moral duty.
Copyright ©2001 Kevin Baldeosingh
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