Sunday, 10 November 2013

On Religion as a Source of Evil

It is often claimed that religion is a cause of great evil, or even the cause of all evil, that all it does is divide people and cause wars, or that it exists, and was created, solely as a tool for the wicked to control the ignorant and the weak.  These opinions frequently come up in on-line forums whenever religion is mentioned.  Only a couple of days ago, a friend of a friend of Facebook commented on a post, saying that "religion is all about control".  I cannot, and do not disagree that great evil has been done in the name of religion.  However, to use this as an argument against the existence of religion doesn’t seem very sensible.

If I have a hammer, I can use it to knock nails into a wall, or a piece of wood.  This is what it’s for.  However, the design that makes it an excellent tool for banging in nails also makes it an excellent tool for crushing skulls and breaking bones.  A car is a wonderful thing for getting from point A to point B.  It’s large enough to sit in, and moves very quickly.  These qualities of size and speed mean that cars are also extremely effective at killing or seriously injuring people.

 It would, presumably, be possible to take a hammer or a car, and modify them in such a way as to make it impossible to break heads or run people over, but in that case you would also remove the ability to hammer in nails, and travel swiftly from place to place.

We have been given religion for specific purposes.  To bind us together, to encourage moral behaviour, to teach us about, and bring us closer to God, to support us in times of trial, to guide us when we’re uncertain.  The aspects that allow it to do these things are the very aspects that also make it a fearsome tool for encouraging hatred and bigotry, for enforcing the control of the few over the many, for sowing discord, and disruption, and creating an environment of fanaticism and wilful ignorance.

These are serious problems, and no reasonable believer can or should try to deny or downplay them, but the fault for these things no more lies with religion, than the fault of the murder lies with the hammer, or the hit-and-run with the car.   These are the faults of human beings.  It would perhaps be possible to remove the potential for causing harm from religion, but by doing so, you would remove the (I believe greater) potential for doing good.

The fact (and I believe that it is a fact) that religion does a large amount of good is frequently ignored.  Opponents of religion focus on crusades, inquisitions, jihads, persecutions, pogroms and sectarian violence.  They, either intentionally, or out of ignorance, ignore the schools, hospices, hospitals, care-homes, homeless shelters and orphanges, they ignore the disaster relief charities, the children’s charities, the homeless charities, all set up and maintained as a result of religions teachings and religious sentiment.  It is bad that these are ignored, because they are, like the crusades and inquisitions, a matter of public record. 

However, it is what isn’t recorded that I consider to be more important.  What is not a matter of public record are the millions of tiny, personal acts of mercy, of love, of forgiveness, of grace, of charity, of generosity that occur every day, probably even every hour, which are inspired by the religious beliefs of those carrying them out.  What isn’t recorded is the flame of hope when all seems lost, of faith when the universe seems cold and uncaring, of strength when the weight seems too much, of perseverence when the obstacles seem too high.  And it can be pointed out, quite fairly, that such things can occur entirely without religious beliefs, but I think that there would be far fewer of them, and the flame would burn that much more dimly, and would gutter and go out far more often.

Have great evils been done in the name of religion?  Undeniably, but I believe, and will always believe, that the aggregation of tiny, unrecognised goods outweighs and overshadows those great evils many times over, if only you are willing to take them into consideration.

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