Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion
The other day, somebody asked me why I spend so much of my time on religion if I'm an atheist. Why am I reading the Bible? Why do I write so much on this blog? Why did I self-publish a book ($4.99 from Lulu)? There are actually multiple reasons. I covered this topic briefly in a short pamphlet that I wrote, A Brief Introduction to Non-Belief. I'll list a few quotes from there that begin to address these reasons, and then add some more explanation.
Well, the noble reason would be to say that it's for a love of the truth. And honestly, that is part of the reason. The universe is such a grand, wondrous place, that's all the more enjoyable when you view it without a filter. Looking back on when I was a Christian, it was almost like I was experiencing the world through a haze, and I do want to share that clear sightedness with others.
Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm a skeptic, and I mean that in the positive sense of the skeptical movement. A skeptic isn't a cynic. A skeptic is interested in the truth, and will research claims to determine their veracity. It just happens to be that people are gullible, and urban legends and myths can spread far and wide before someone with a skeptical mindset investigates them. Just take a look at any of my Factoids pages for an example. Most of the factoids I get in e-mail forwards are false, but some turn out to be true. With so many claims out there, once you've determined one to be true, it almost makes it special in a certain sense.
Religion is just one more subject for skeptical inquiry. After looking into it, I don't think any religions are true. And just like I share debunkings of other things on this site, I want to share the debunking of religion.
And like I wrote in that pamphlet, the universe really is amazing. When I was religious, my view was always colored by trying to fit everything into a religious framework. It's nice to to see the universe for what it really is, not tainted with mythology.
There are more pragmatic reasons, though. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." If people kept their religion private, I probably wouldn't be as motivated to write this. However, when people use religion as an excuse to bomb clinics, fly airplanes into buildings, interfere with school curricula, discriminate against homosexuals, treat women as inferior, etc., then I feel obligated to speak out.
This is perhaps the biggest reason I spend so much time on religion. I don't think people need religion to behave morally. Rather, I see religion as an obstacle to moral progress.
I just listed a few examples in that quote without providing sources. So, here are links to several examples of religion causing immoral behavior or retarding progress, including a few more examples than what I'd listed before.
- People - A Holy War in Pensacola (describes a fire bombing of an abortion clinic)
- Institute for Southern Studies - Abortion doctor killer a soldier in terrorist 'Army of God'
- National Abortion Federation - History of Violence (many, many examples of terrorism against abortion clinics)
- Wikipedia - September 11 Attacks
- MotherJones - Texas Public Schools: Still Teaching Creationism
- Pew Research - On Darwin's 200th Birthday, Americans Still Divided About Evolution (showing that 42% of Americans accept Biblical literalism)
- L.A. Times Blog - Mormon church reports spending $180,000 on Proposition 8
- ThinkProgress - Catholic Bishops To SCOTUS: Deny Marriage Equality Because Being Gay Is Just 'Conduct'
- Religion Dispatches - Christian Terrorism Comes to Milwaukee (describing the shooting spree on the Sikh Gurudwara in Milwaukee)
- Maryan Namazie - Let's Breast Them (describing the treatment of 19 year old Tunisian Amina)
- Huffington Post - African Children Denounced As "Witches" By Christian Pastors
- Time - When Parents Call God Instead of the Doctor
- PoliticsUSA - Mitt Romney's Misogynistic Agenda is Designed to Punish Every Woman (describes religion's role in this attitude)
I can give personal examples, as well. The other day, I overheard some acquaintances disparaging environmentalism because God gave humans dominion over nature. I know many opposed to stem cell research with the potential to help so many people because they think an embryo has a soul. And I've had people tell me that global warming can't be real because God wouldn't let that happen to his creation, so there's no need to do anything about it.
I could go on at length listing these examples. There's no shortage of immoral behavior motivated by religion. I know some people will read many of those examples and want to respond with some form of the No True Scotsman response. First of all, when enough people do something in the name of their religion, they cease to be the exception, rather they've become the rule. A lot of those examples above aren't fringe beliefs. Second, I'm actually reading the Bible right now (you can follow along in my Friday Bible Blogging series). I see a book full of immoral rules. If people read their Bibles and followed the Old Testament rules faithfully*, we'd be living in a much more violent world than we actually do.
Getting rid of religion is no guarantee to progress. You still need to get people to embrace critical thinking and humanism. But right now, religion is an obstacle to that progress.
But you can't simply outlaw religion. For one thing, our Constitution guarantees religious freedom. But even if it didn't, I'd want to live in a country that did. Only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs. And countries that have outlawed traditional religion in the past have simply replaced it by making the state the religion, such as the USSR. The only sensible way to reduce the effects of religion is by winning over hearts and minds - convincing people to face reality of their own accord. (There's also the slim possibility I might be wrong. I'm very, very confident in my atheism, but I don't have an unshakeable faith like I did when I was a Christian.)
So, in my own small way, I am trying to convince people to abandon religion. I'm not pushy. I don't go out on street corners preaching. I don't put leaflets in mailboxes or under windshield wipers. I don't go door to door proselytizing. I write for this website, and I won't shy away from discussing religion when it comes up in conversation (though even then, I mostly stick to the facts without trying to 'evangelize'). And the best way to engage in these types of conversations is to be knowledgeable. I also want to avoid the accusation of being close-minded. A christian might try to say that I haven't looked deeply enough into religion, and that's why I'm an atheist. So, by studying religion as much as I do, I can safely claim to know enough about it to reject it. In fact, this is one of my major motivations for reading the Bible a second time, to make sure that I truly understand what I'm criticizing.
In all honesty, I don't expect religion to disappear in my lifetime. It's simply too entrenched in society. But a more attainable goal is to get people looking more critically at their religion, and to 'soften' their attitudes. If people still claimed to believe in god but didn't participate in all those negative behaviors I listed above, then I'd probably lose much of my motivation to speak out against religion.**
There's also the fact that non-believers are deeply mistrusted in this country. I came to my atheism through honest inquiry. There's nothing dishonest or sinister about my worldview - it's simply the way I think the universe is. I could no sooner choose to believe in a god than you could choose to believe in fairies. I don't want to live in a society where people question my integrity simply because I believe in one less thing than they do.
There is a very high level of mistrust of atheists in this country. As summarized in the article, Research Finds that Atheists are Most Hated and Distrusted Minority, a study by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found atheists to be more mistrusted than any other minority they asked about. Almost 1/2 of Americans would oppose their child marrying an atheist. A Gallup poll found that just over half of Americans would vote for an otherwise well qualified atheist presidential candidate. According to a study by the University of British Columbia, "participants found a description of an untrustworthy person to be more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jewish people. Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree." And as if all that weren't enough, there are even laws on the books in some states prohibiting atheists from holding public office (though none of those laws would have a chance in court) - Unelectable Atheists: U.S. States That Prohibit Godless Americans From Holding Public Office.
So, by writing so extensively on this blog, people can see the reasons why I became an atheist. There's nothing about my worldview that should be a cause of mistrust. I only became an atheist after seeking out the truth of the universe and being honest with myself. What is untrustworthy about that?
I'll add a fourth reason why I spend so much time on religion - it's a hobby. While some people go skiing, or skydiving, or collect stamps, or do woodworking, I like to study religion. I always have. In fact, it's probably my interest in religion that in large part led to my atheism. If I'd only been marginally interested in religious questions, I probably would have stayed a nominal Christian. But because I was so interested in these types of questions, I dug deeper and discovered the truth. And it's not just Christianity. I enjoyed reading about the Popol Vuh when I was in college. I like Greek and Roman mythology. I've read the Tao Te Ching. There's just something about religion that I find intriguing, even though I don't believe any of it is true.
So, I spend so much time on religion so that I can do my part to help loosen its grip on society, to help share the beauty of the universe, and simply because I like to.
*This is where you get into different interpretations. Many Christians claim that there's a New Covenant, and not all of the Old Testament rules apply anymore. However, according to Matthew 5:18, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." There are other problems with the New Covenant interpretation which I discussed in a previous blog entry, The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange.
**Yes, I realize there are liberal Christians who aren't fundamentalists. The problem is that they're a minority of Christians. You may run into them more often in intellectual circles, but go down to a Baptist church on a Sunday morning and see what types of attitudes the people have. For example, according to a Gallup poll from 2007, one third of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true, and all but 19% of Americans believe it to be the inspired word of God. As another example, ten years ago, more than half of Americans were opposed to marriage equality. Now, it's about a third (source - DailyKos). Granted, attitudes are changing, but where do you think the still sizable opposition is coming from?