Should religions be tolerated?

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 10 October 2006

Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool. ~ Voltaire

Many people may think that whether religions should be tolerated or not is a religious question. Historically most religions have adopted the view that their own religion should be compulsory and that other religions should not be tolerated. In more enlightened times we have moved to the view that all religions should be tolerated, equally. But there are limits, because few societies condone ritual molestation, for example, in the name of religion.

So it is a question of how much should religions be tolerated. It is a question of not whether, but to what extent, religions should be tolerated. Under what conditions, under what constraints should they operate? This is perhaps the biggest social question we face in the 21st century.

The answer to be put forward here is that we should tolerate religion to the same extent that we tolerate all other harmful addictions and superstitions. However to arrive at this conclusion we need to determine the nature of religion and what claims they may have order to justify being tolerated. Of course, however harmful we may regard a religion to be, any attempt to prohibit it would not only be an unwarranted limitation of freedom and human rights, but would be bound to be counterproductive.

What benefits do religions offer? The view universally held by believers is that religions provide a valid system of ethics and morality. This view is false because religious ethics are in fact quite arbitrary. This fact has been known since before the invention of all major religions.

Is what is good defined by what the gods command, or do the gods command what they do because it is good? Socrates, Euthypro dilemma.

If it is the former, then some doctrine is required, providing the commands. If it is the later, then some independent criteria are required to determine what is good. Either way, the mere existence of a supernatural being does not provide a moral code. Something else is required.

It is often said that there is no agreed non-religious system of morality. This is not true. The Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated, is universally held, even in many religions. All would also agree that compassion, honesty, freedom and justice are good principles. Therefore be kind, be honest, be fair, because you would not like to be hurt or cheated. This is a common non-religious moral system. But it is not one that can always give black and white answers. This is because in many cases, there are no such answers, and religious pronouncements to the contrary only serve to undermine the quest for the best moral outcomes.

Being an atheist, one can be completely unbiased as to all religions. Therefore an atheist is perhaps the best qualified to judge to what extent religion should be tolerated. The Atheist Foundation of Australia defines atheism as follows.

Atheism is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god or gods or the supernatural. Atheist Foundation of Australia.

Religions disagree on all many things but all agree on this - they all dislike atheists. Historically, how much have religions tolerated atheism? History is littered with the blood of atheist martyrs. Socrates was one. Galileo escaped by forced recantation, but his compatriot Bruno was burnt at the stake. Many others suffered, their heroism unrecorded by their religious opressors.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. ~ Galileo Galilei

Returning to the question of how much religions should be tolerated, it is necessary to consider, firstly, the nature of religions and secondly, why are they a problem. Anticipating the latter, the propensity of religions to impose their views on others is the main problem, in particular by use of indoctrination or by force.

Regarding the nature of religion, the following needs to be said. Religions are a delusion. This is this not said maliciously or as an insult. It needs to be said to help people to overcome their delusions.

Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis. ~ Sigmund Freud

Religion... comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but in amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. ~ Sigmund Freud

In the debate about creationism, the extent of this delusion becomes clear. As Richard Dawkins suggests, the main argument that creationists put forward is that there exists some Phenomenon X, which is currently unexplained. Because of this, they assert, creationism is true. There is no logical basis for this conclusion. Another argument is that evolution is asserted to be wrong because it is not Christian. The Bible is asserted to be true because it is believed, not believed because it is true. There is a basic logical disconnection inherent in religious thinking.

Delusions are persistently held false beliefs. There is no doubt that most religious beliefs qualify as delusions, but does it matter? Are they benign or malign? Religions provide personal comfort, they are consoling and charitable. However, as has been discussed elsewhere, suffice to say they are morally, socially, economically, and politically deficient. On balance, all religions are bad.

Religions are loathe to confront their own history as this always leads to their derivation as myths. One religion is based on the supposed virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection of a person for which there is no contemporary historical record. Another is based on the supposed revelations of an angel in a cave. Despite the implausibility, the first has 2.5 billion believers and the second 1.3 billion. The world is now suffering from a possibly terminal battle of "civilisations" based on these archaic ideologies.

Apart form the mental block that religions have about their origins, there is another psychological aspect of religion that operates, one that relates to our evolutionary origins. Humans are tribal animals and religions are the new global tribes. As with our propensity for delusion however, if we are aware of our nature, we don't have to be slaves to it.

Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature! ~ George Bernard Shaw

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires. ~ Sigmund Freud

Religion easily - has the best bullshit story of all time. Think about it. Religion has convinced people that there's an invisible in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn't want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money. ~ George Carlin

The delusion of the invisible skyman may be funny at times, but the global consequences are disastrous. Consider the implications of the following. The invisible skyman has given your land to me. The invisible skyman told me to invade your country. The invisible sky man wants me to kill you. These delusions are rampant.

If only one person believed in the invisible skyman they would be certified as crazy. However because 5 billion believe it, it is considered to be quite OK, even to be good. But it is not good. It is 5 billion times worse, than if one person believed it.

How much should we tolerate religion in this sense, in this situation? How much can intolerant religion be tolerated? The current solution is multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism has provided great gains in respect and tolerance for other cultures. We now happily celebrate diversity. But where do we draw the line when confronted by intolerant religion?

The problem arises when we are required to pretend, in the name of tolerance, that all religions are true. This is effectively now the situation. "Religious sensibilities" are protected by law. This situation, where all religions are presumed true is dysfunctional and in the long term untenable. Society cannot live with such a lie indefinitely. The dilemma is somewhat akin to Pascal's wager. To fulfil the requirement one would have to believe 20,000 religions simultaneously. To do this one would need to be both a genius and crazy.

Consider the following. Religions are not true, otherwise they would not be religions. This statement true, by definition of the words "religion" and "true". As religions (legally) involve a "super" natural, which is not subject to factual verification, they therefore cannot be described as "true". Note that the statement is not quite the same as saying "all religions are false". This latter statement is more stringent, in that it denies religion the middle ground of being uncertain or indeterminate. It is however still quite reasonable, given the numerous factual errors and inconsistencies within and between religions.

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. Unknown author.

Basic principle in answer to the question of tolerance is as follows. Religious people should be free to believe anything they like but they should not impose their beliefs on others. However religions almost universally do impose their beliefs on others, particularly children. They do this because they would not survive otherwise, and also because they believe they should impose their beliefs on others, because their religion says that they should.

Inevitably, the nature of religion needs to be confronted. The best way of going about this is to explain the need to assert universal values, for the common good. It must be asserted that religions are not true, not necessary and not beneficial to society. As far as possible, beliefs should be criticised, not the people who hold them. The intention is not to insult people but to help them. This may seem a daunting task, but slavery and racism were once entrenched but have now been largely overcome.

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. ~ Seneca the Younger

Mr Howard, in a triumphal recent statement remarked upon the clash of civilisations, noting its resemblance to a new cold war, one that would go on for decades. It might be observed that Mr Howard and his ilk are not really unhappy about this situation. This is because the religious tribalism so easily lends itself to the "good versus evil" concept. They believe they are "fighting the good fight", which gives their lives "meaning and purpose".

But fighting a war with Islam is not going to work. Killing does not make people change their minds. It entrenches their belief. This is the true folly of the Iraq debacle. With new Islamic constitutions now in place in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the cause of democracy is already lost. Laws mandated by Allah cannot be changed by popular vote. Secularism is a precondition for democracy, but this has now been constitutionally precluded in these countries. In their religious fervour, the crusading invaders were blind to the need for secularism.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. ~ Steven Weinberg.

Religion needs to be discouraged not encouraged. Not long ago we had tobacco advertising and now we don't. Now we put warnings on cigarette packets and limit their use. Religion is likewise a dangerous addiction. However it is not discouraged but encouraged, rewarded with massive tax breaks and subsidies to religious schools. These policies need to be reversed. There is only one political party in Australia dedicated to this task - the Secular Party of Australia.

Now here's a thought. It is standard economic practice, that when you want to discourage something, put a tax on it. How about a tax on religion?

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Humanist Society of Victoria and is President of the Secular Party of Australia.

Dr Perkins represented the Atheist Foundation in a debate on the topic "Evolutionary Science is Reliable", organised by the Barptist churhes of Launceston, held on 29 September 2006 in Laucestion.

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