Is Religion Evil?

From the time of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), many have viewed religion with indifference or hostility, but there has never been such widespread hatred of religion as can be seen today in popular culture. One manifestation of hatred towards religion is the popularity of so-called “new atheism.” Here are some typical “new atheist” quotations:

That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization. —Sam Harris

We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid. —Christopher Hitchens

One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are really not answers at all. —Richard Dawkins

Nothing is wrong with peace and love. It is all the more regrettable that so many of Christ’s followers seem to disagree. —Richard Dawkins

Most conscientious people know why the “new atheists” feel the way they do. Religion is often misused to rationalize violence, misuse of authority, hatred, and war. But many good things can be used for evil purposes, including family and ethnic loyalty, philosophy, patriotism, and political/economic theory. In fact, although “new atheists” look to science as the basis of rationality and human dignity, science is no more immune to misuse. Principled opponents of eugenics programs have been called “antiscientific,” and the Darwinist principle of the “survival of the fittest” has been used to rationalize slavery and ethnic cleansing. Marxist dogma claimed a “scientific” basis for exterminating entire classes of people it labeled “parasites” or “enemies of the working class.”

Although reason and science have proven their power, they are useless as moral guides without the guidance of religious principles. During World War II science made it possible to incinerate Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima, but contributed nothing to the discussion of whether doing so was justifiable.

Most people recognize that knowing whether a potential action is “good” or “bad” is more important than merely knowing how to do it. Determining whether an action is moral or immoral is a judgment of value and faith, not of mere reason. Values and faith are intrinsically linked to religion. Even the most basic assumption of science that “knowledge is good” is a judgment of value—a religious act. (See What is religion?)

Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other “new atheists” aren’t the only people who recognize how destructive misused religion can be. One need not be educated in Oxford or Harvard to recognize religious fanaticism. People from every historical period and every culture know the dangers of religion gone amok. A short list of those who warned against religious dogma and religious excesses would include Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Isaiah, Zarathustra, Socrates, and Jesus Messiah. Despising religion instead of seeking its renewal isn’t a step towards enlightenment but a step towards nihilism and despair.

Religion—in the sense of a faith system that establishes parameters for good and evil—is just as necessary as science. Rather than being the enemy of science, true religion humanizes and civilizes it and keeps it from creating monsters.

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