My idea of a bad time is witnessing the practice of religion.
Why? Because religion has time and again proven itself to be a debauched carnival of scientific and philosophical ignorance.
If religion is such a sore point for me, why don’t I just do things I enjoy—like sipping tea under a shade tree and reading a book—and ignore religion? Why on Earth did I spend years studying religion and writing a book about religion? Am I a masochist?
No. Rest assured; I am more Hedonist than masochist.
The reason I fuss about religion is the same reason a smiling man, ambling down a sandy beach at sunset, hand-in-hand with his lovely wife, will suddenly stop and curse the tiny nugget of seashell lodged in his left sandal.
Unfortunately, religion is not as harmless as a nugget of seashell lodged in a sandal. It is more like a seven-foot scorpion with a bad attitude. It’s that hard to ignore.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of religious people whom I adore. But I have met only two or three individuals in my entire life who were improved by their religion.
Those individuals who were improved by religion were complete scoundrels, so any random change would probably have been an improvement. And even in these cases, they didn’t convert from atheism to religion. They were already religious, in the sense that, if asked, they would say they believed in God. What changed was not so much the nature of their convictions as their commitment to those convictions. Taking their religion seriously improved them. But, as I said, this enhanced religiosity only improved these few individuals because they were in such an abnormally sordid state.
The vast majority of believers would be kinder and more open-minded if they gave up their religion. That’s not idle speculation on my part. There’s empirical evidence that makes this prediction plausible. The evidence comes from studies involving open-mindedness reported by Dr. Frank Sulloway of the University of California, Berkeley, and intelligence levels correlated to religious skepticism by Professor Miron Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, as well as crime-related statistics cited by the author Timothy Ferris in his book The Science of Liberty.
The world is stocked with plenty of wonderful believers. Many of them are highly intelligent. In fact, I know lots of believers whom I readily admit are kinder and smarter than I am. But the gap would probably be even wider if they took a few religious doubts on board.
I have earned the right to say this because I took on doubts as a believer. When I became a nonbeliever I continued to have doubts about my atheistic convictions, enough doubts that I tried to read all the pro-belief arguments I could find. My rule of thumb is that I either had to identify a flaw in the argument or else accept the argument and its conclusions. That has been my approach throughout my life, during my believing years and my nonbelieving years alike.
In short, the proper attitude is to let the facts and arguments determine what we believe. If you or I don’t like a particular conclusion, tough. We must accept the conclusion if it makes sense.
It is important that all people, religious or not, understand that their beliefs are—and must forever be—subject to critical scrutiny. When a set of beliefs is insulated from critical scrutiny, the individuals who adhere to those beliefs do not benefit from learning to respond to criticisms. The beliefs ossify. The believers’ intellectual faculties atrophy. Their minds begin to close.
When I was a young man, strolling hand-in-hand with a pretty young lady, I pointed at the full moon and commented, “See that little bright spot on the moon at about the ten o’clock position? Here, look through this monocular.”
“You carry a monocular?”
“Yeah, you got a problem with that, bitch?”
“That little bright spot is Aristarchus crater, formed from a massive impact that occurred about 450 million years ago.”
“Uh huh,” she shrugged, handing me the monocular.
I made deliberate eye contact and said, “When that impact occurred, it might have been witnessed by some of our aquatic ancestors, whose descendants emerged onto dry land roughly eighty million years later.”
“Humph, I don’t believe in that evolution stuff. I believe in the Bible.”
Christopher Hitchens wrote a book in 2007 titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything. I enjoyed that book, and I always enjoyed watching Hitchens in debate. He said that he honestly believed that religion poisons everything. Although I take pride in being just as radically, fanatically, and sometimes ungrammatically anti-religious as was Hitch, his claim that religion ruins everything was a tad exaggerated.
That said, religion does ruin a lot. As illustrated by my Aristarchus crater anecdote, it turns moonlit ladies into dullards who can’t appreciate the majesty of science. It prompts otherwise sensible people to disbelieve “that evolution stuff.” It severs the natural bond between us and our animal cousins. It shatters our ties with the cosmos.
The notion of “faith” is especially pernicious. It propagates disrespect for intellectual integrity. It teaches that reverence and awe can be experienced only by those whose minds are steeped in fatuous folklore.
Herbert Spencer eloquently expressed the alternative perspective when he said the following:
“Is it not, indeed, an absurd and almost sacrilegious belief that the more a man studies Nature the less he reveres it? Think you that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses anything in the eye of the physicist who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning? …think you that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of a geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.”
So religion is not just anti-science. It is also anti-poetry.
And those are two very good reasons to be anti-religious.