22 April 2007

Is Religion morally Neutral? Actually a better title might be this: Does religion have any utility in the modern age?

The question is this. Is religion morally neutral? I know there are those who would argue that it is. There are those who would argue that it isn't', and there are those who would campaign for the notion that it is really the morality of the person professing belief that shapes what kind of religion they express. I have been having a debate with a friend of mine for the past few month about these issues.

The character of these debates have been largely one of him being for a fairly liberal theology (one that probably would really cause no harm), and seeing some merit in the antecedents of his religious thoughts. As such he can appreciate things like Catholic theology much more than I can. He also takes the position that sectarian violence has less to do with the religious factions that are fighting, and more to do with human nature and various political, and economic factors. There is certainly some truth to what he is saying, but it isn't the whole story. Belief is a lever to action and what people believe does affect their day to day conduct.

In short, I don't think religion-any religion-has much utility in the modern age. It may provide comfort, and allow people to believe their lives have some purpose, but that isn't utility, and such well being enhancing qualities certainly have no bearing on whether any religious proposition is true. Leaving aside the debate on whether religion is one of the great causes of human warfare in human history, there can be almost no doubt that religious ideas and beliefs have contributed to the suffering of countless millions over the millenia. It continues to be a source of human misery even to this day. One need only read the newspapers, or watch the news or listen to talk radio to see that religious faith is informing some of the most critical of today's debates. When people discuss stem cell research they mostly couch any objection in religious terms. They speak of things like souls and God, and leave out-as much as is possible-facts. National policy in the middle east owes much to the messianic fetishism of American Christians. The US's more or less unwavering support for Israel has much to do with the fact that fundamentalist Christianity needs the country so it can be destroyed when Jesus returns.

This can't bode well for our future. When religion trumps the realities of our time with the fantasies of ancient peoples we are, all of us, in big trouble. In every other sphere of human endeavor the notions of the ancients have been supplanted by the knowledge of new peoples. The world was flat for thousands of years to many, then it wasn't. After that we laboured under the touching conceit that we were the center of the Cosmos, Copernicus, and Galileo disabused us-after a great hue and cry-of such notions. Galileo suspected that our own Solar System was just one in a multitude. Modern science has proven his case. There is a deep strangeness that we would cling to the religious notions of ancient people when every hypothesis of such people has proven enormously, completely, wrong. Why do we suspect their religious ideas any closer to the truth than their ideas about humors, and the ways you could tell if someone was a witch?

In the US the God of Abraham figures prominently in several acrimonious debates. God's followers have been in a battle with science for at least four centuries, but it is in the US alone among western nations where that fight continues to be fierce. Here they fight facts, and research assiduously. They fear the concept of evolution in every way. They are no happier with astronomy, or physics. Geology is also verboten. Any science that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible is locked in their cruciform crosshairs. Their attacks do not further knowledge, or understanding as their "science" has no substance, but they do obstruct research, money and time from scientists and philosophers, and educators who are actually in the business of furthering the human endeavor.

I have "faith" in my position, and nothing you can say will make me waiver in my conviction. What an utter conversation killer. But this religious non-response is typical, and demonstrates what a stiltifying effect religion has on discourse. This effect ruins lives. That is no overstatement. When the Catholic Church claims to be concerned about AIDS in Africa but then says condoms are an evil it can't tolerate, and also goes out of its way to propagandize against the use thereof, it isn't just religion being quaint. It is genocidal stupidity. That is just the tip of the religion-is-silly iceberg. I could go on in this vein for another 6 pages but instead I will just leave it at that.