Throughout most of human history, the origin of the universe was unknown, the origin of life on earth and of our own species was unknown. Religion stepped into this void, providing supernatural explanations. In most cases when people died, the cause of death was unknown and supernatural causes were often attributed. Now, for the first time in human history, science has rendered religion’s explanations obsolete. A natural explanation has been provided for all these questions. We now know quite clear details of the origin of the universe, of life and of our species. When human death occurs, we know its cause. The mysteries that have plagued humanity throughout history have been removed. Supernatural explanations are no longer required.
Despite this, religion still holds great power over the human mind. Religious belief is still regarded as acceptable, normal or even necessary. Religious beliefs are usually inherited, as if they were genetic, but they are not. Children are indoctrinated, then become adults and pass on their beliefs. Religious beliefs are not widely or often contradicted. People are constantly reminded in the media that almost any supernatural beliefs are acceptable and that people who hold them are to be respected. The contradiction between different religions and between religion and science is seemingly not something that is considered necessary to resolve. Religion is often considered as benign and even beneficial in that it provides comfort to believers and enjoyment to its participants through its rituals. To raise the subject of the credibility of religion is considered impolite or insensitive and to offer any criticism is considered intolerant or offensive.
The events of 11 September 2001 indicate that this situation should be questioned. Those events were not caused primarily by economic or political grievances against the United States, even though such grievances can possibly be legitimately offered as contributing factors. The events were primarily caused by religion. The perpetrators acted in the sincere belief that they were doing the bidding of their deity and that their martyrdom would be instantly rewarded with a heavenly environment including 72 virgins for their pleasure. Religion is not benign.
The Islamic religion has particular characteristics that made the 11 September events possible. It is dogmatic, intolerant of disbelief, and has a world-view that it offers an alternative ‘civilisation’, in which secular institutions are unnecessary and undesirable. It seeks to propagate this view, in which non-Muslims are considered adversaries. The dream of ecumenism, of religious convergence, always illusory, has now been shattered.
But religion, the true culprit in the events of 11 September, has not been identified as such. Pursuing the ‘war on terrorism’ identifies the problem too narrowly. This because those pursuing this war are mostly also religious believers themselves and are unwilling or unable to perceive where the ultimate responsibility lies. It is unlikely that such a war can ever be won by military means. What is required is an intellectual battle against this ideology that so deprives people of morality that they imagine such depraved acts to be honourable. Without any kind of campaign to defeat the oppression of religion, including Islam, such events are bound to be repeated.
Religious believers have been described by British scientist Richard Dawkins as either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. For those in his first three categories he has presented reasoned arguments, seeking to convince them, but has declined to address those in the fourth. But the question of the inherent wickedness of those with religious beliefs, and of the beliefs themselves, is something that should now be addressed. In particular, what should no longer go unchallenged is religion’s claim to morality.
Religionists claim that their beliefs are necessary in order to establish morality. Religious leaders presume themselves to be the arbiters and guardians of morality. However those that indulge in beliefs without justification are often the very ones prone to an inadequate sense of morality. If beliefs are not based on evidence, anything can be justified. Justice delayed to an unknown after-life is justice denied. All religions require faith. But faith is nothing more than an appeal to belief without evidence and to action based on unfounded assertions. Rather than being necessary for morality. religion provides opportunity for immorality. Religion’s claim to morality is false. To make a false claim is immoral. Religion is inherently immoral.
Religious practitioners will no doubt profess their virtue. Indeed many may be virtuous but there is no guarantee this will be so. Their practical moral guidance is often controlled by religious leaders, and by these leaders particular interpretation of unfounded beliefs, and whose own presumed piety in fact makes them vulnerable to moral corruption.
To make claims without proof is just speculation. To claim such speculation as truth, is dishonest. To induce people to order their lives on the basis of such claims is deliberate deception. To convince people on the basis of such unwarranted claims to take action such as on 11 September is criminal. Religion has done this. The perpetrators of those acts believed that what they were doing was morally justified. At best this suggests that the distortion of reality induced by unfounded religious beliefs can lead to a dangerously distorted view of morality. At worst it indicates that religion is a psychological, even psychopathic delusion. In any case, it has demonstrated that it is a threat to world peace that is, in some forms at least, no longer tolerable.
What is behind the implicit logic of religion? It can only be the argument that something is true because it cannot be shown to be false. This is a reversal of the onus of proof, a reversal of the ‘null hypothesis’ of scientific method. Such a logic is invalid because it implies that any number of contradictions may all be deemed true. It is a logic that does not identify truth, but rather renders it arbitrary.
In contrast, society relies on belief based on evidence for its successful operation. Justice and progress cannot be achieved unless beliefs are formed in this way. Our legal system could not function without proof. All technical progress, ever since the Stone Age could never have been achieved without reasoned beliefs formed on the basis of evidence. Religion and other superstitions should not be an exception. They may make claims, but not unjustifiably claim truth.
Naturally, if a particular induced belief makes a person feel better, it will be more popular. Popularity does not imply veracity. A religion-induced feeling of well-being is no justification for deception. While not all the teachings of religions are bad, unjustified or u worthy, such teachings and practices should be modified to remove from them the deception of arbitrarily induced beliefs.
While religions make claims without evidence, they have now mostly given up claims that are directly contradicted by evidence. This is not so for fundamentalists, who cling to notions such as the six-day creation. In spite of evidence to the contrary, they take the word of their sacred text as the literal truth. To induce beliefs that contradict evidence is nothing less than blatant dishonesty and deception. In most western countries except for the USA, where creationists still prevail, this practice has been abandoned by religions for fear of ridicule. The Koran, like the Bible propounds a six-day creation. In Islamic countries, this still must be believed without question.
A strict form of Islam called Wahabism has been greatly promoted around the world by Saudi Arabia. Billions of dollars earned through sale of oil have been spent on the establishment of mosques and religious schools throughout the Muslim world and elsewhere. These have provided inducements for recruits to this particular version of Islam, which requires strict observance of the Koranic doctrine. It has fostered Islamic fanaticism, encountering little opposition. It is not an ideology that allows free thought. It is the same ideology as that of Islamic terrorist groups.
In societies where Islam predominates, its corruption of truthful inquiry contributes directly to the failure of political and legal institutions, the lack of which makes the alleviation of poverty and economic advancement more difficult in those countries. Conversely it provides legitimacy to the deprivation of human rights especially the rights of women.
The immorality of religion is not benign. Most of the serious conflicts in the world today are caused by religion. This is not restricted to Islam. Judaism has inspired Jews to unjustly claim Palestinian land as their own. However Islam appears to be the most ideologically dangerous religion. The Koran has several passages that urge violence against ‘infidels’. The Koran is professed to be the direct word of God and cannot be contradicted. Islamic leaders reject any move to secularise or modernise Islam but instead aspire to ‘Islamicise modernity’. Moslems regard their society as something that all people should emulate and their religion something that everyone should adopt. Instead it is a religion that has discredited all religions.
The problem of Islamic terrorism cannot be won by attacking terrorists. Neither is the problem posed by Islam one that can be won by seeking to attack or discredit Islam alone. The problem is a generic one and can only be solved by addressing the behaviour of all religions without discrimination. This applies as much to international relations between countries as it does to religious affairs and the relationship between religious groups within individual countries.
It may be now necessary for society to define certain limits to religious tolerance. For example tolerance of all religions requires an obligation that that tolerance be reciprocated. It may be that to be truly tolerant to all religions one needs to reject the claims of supremacy of any particular religion. This means perhaps that 'religionist' should have the same connotation as ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’. All represent supremacist claims that are unjustified. The right to freedom of religion is surely as important as the right to freedom from religion.
Educational institutions that engage in religious instruction, which include the misrepresentation of unfounded claims as truth, or the claim of supremacy of a particular religion, should not receive public funding for this instruction. Religion should ideally be a private matter. Many believers habitually display their religion in public, via items of attire, sometimes almost like a badge of honour. How should we regard this? Implicit in such displays of religious allegiance is an assumption of moral or religious superiority on the part of the wearer. If verbal statements of religious superiority are considered impolite or offensive, should not similar symbolic statements, made through attire, be also considered as impolite, if not offensive? Such practices exceed the limits of religious tolerance and the right to freedom from religion.
Given the current world circumstances it is necessary to give consideration to the limits society should place on the influence and the claims made in the name of religion. This is an agenda that may require legislative change. It may be simply a declaration by secular society on what it considers acceptable religious behaviour. After Western societies have effectively resolved this issue it may then be appropriate to similarly challenge Muslim societies – not militarily but on intellectual and moral grounds. In particular, if Moslems could first be encouraged to confront the issue of creationism, they may then come to the realisation of the doubtfulness of other Islamic teachings.
Once a policy regarding the right to freedom from religion is established, It should be pursued in the United Nations as a policy with universal applicability. Without recourse to international institutions, citizens of member states suffering from religious oppression may have no other avenue in which to pursue justice and seek relief. This is the challenge of this century is for humanists.
A version of this article was originally published in the the Australian Humanist, No.66, Winter 2002. See also a later article: Humanism and morality