Have you seen this video?
It’s a poem called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” It points out a lot of the hypocrisy that pervades organized Christianity and concludes that faith in Christ is the way to salvation. No religion necessary. You may have heard it expressed as “I’m not religious, I just have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” or its shorter, less defined version – “spiritual, but not religious.”
This is not a new idea. It’s very common in liberal circles, and I can see the appeal. It’s not the bible that causes the oppression of women and gays, restricts abortion, dominates our politics, and generally makes people miserable. It’s religion that does those things. Free from the organization and power structure of Big Church, people are free to develop their own spirituality and channel it into inclusive and positive avenues. Without the dogma and evangelism of traditional religion, all of the problems associated with religion can be solved.
…or so the thinking goes. But this overlooks the biggest problem (and quite possibly my only problem) with religion: faith. By faith, I’m using the second definition here – that is, “belief that is not based on proof.” Faith, in this sense, is what people use as an alternative to reason.
Faith is the real problem. All of the problems with religion are due to the fact that religions promote faith and suppress reason. Dogma is merely a suppression of reason. Bigotry thrives on a lack of rational thinking. Conservative politics rely on people voting against their self interest. All of these issues could be solved by reasonable thinking.
The religious are often quick to point out that the worst leaders of the 20th century – Hitler, Pol Pot, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Stalin, etc. – were all atheists, and established atheistic societies. While some of these claims are doubtful, the idea is largely irrelevant anyway. Even if these leaders established atheistic societies, the societies in question looked awfully theistic in terms of encouraging faith. Except that instead of worshiping a god, they worshiped a charismatic leader. The belief systems of these societies were just as faith-based (if not moreso) than a religion. Like Sam Harris says, “no society in human history ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” The problem isn’t religion – it’s faith.
This is the reason why I often feel like I have more in common with fundamentalists than I do with moderate believers. In my experience, fundamentalists tend to care deeply that their beliefs are true. While fundamentalists have faith, it often seems that their beliefs take less faith than those of religious moderates. Fundamentalists have faith in a book, faith in a leader, or faith in their parents. Many fundamentalists are very rational, once you recognize their assumptions. Moderates tend to make up their own religion, which means that each belief is its own separate article of faith. I actually find myself in agreement with Mike Tudoreaunu (arguing in favor of organized religion), when he says:
[n]ow let me be absolutely clear: abandoning organized religion to embrace an ill-defined “spirituality” is a rejection of logic and reason, not an affirmation of it.
The other thing to remember is that not all religions involve faith. Several forms of Judaism are only concerned with ritual and tradition, with no false beliefs. Certain forms of Buddhism are about practices and lifestyle rather than an actual belief system. Unitarianism can basically be anything, including merely a community.
Skeptics are now forming communities that resemble religions in several respects. Some skeptics have an issue with this, as anything resembling religion is generally mistrusted. It’s a good impulse, but I think it’s misguided in this sense. It’s not organization that we need to be avoiding – it’s faith. So long as these organizations aren’t promoting dogma or authority (and to my knowledge, they are not), there is no problem.
This is why I think my identity as a skeptic is more important than my identity as an atheist. Atheism is just one byproduct of skepticism. Polyamory (for the right people) is another. Ditto for feminism, humanism, and left-wing politics. Skepticism informs my entire worldview, not just my views on religion. Skepticism is much bigger than that.
Opposing religion is a worthwhile endeavor, but religion is only one way in which faith-based thinking infects our societies. It’s important to remember that.