Respecting religion

I’m not concerned here with forced respect, such as saluting a superior officer. I am concerned with respect for individuals freely given, unrelated to their nationality, race, gender, status, or philosophy. In a way, it bespeaks a quiet love of people or, at least, a live-and-let-live mindset. But respect for beliefs and creeds is quite another matter since they refer to a way of thinking, a philosophy, a way of behaving. The upshot of this is that although I respect religious persons, I’ve no respect for religious persons’ religion.

To respect religion, I would have to respect fuzzy thinking, unjustified conclusions, compromised human intelligence, and a form of philosophical pollution akin to the “whited sepulchers” mentioned in the Biblical book of Matthew. Religion is like a freshly painted house, unceasingly trying to hide the rotten wood so colorfully camouflaged. Just as I would find a primitive tribe’s rain dances and animist beliefs anthropologically interesting, so I find the tenets of modern religion; that hardly qualifies as respect.

However, these sentiments exist alongside my conviction that all persons should have the right to whatever opinions they choose about reality whether or not I think they make sense. That openness, however, in no way impedes expressing my own opposing views, nor you yours. Religious views are a proposed construction of reality and deserve no special protection from criticism, though normally they seek that protection whether by social norms, government protection, or persecution, even death. In the United States, happily, only the first two are usual.

One of the great evils of religion is teaching children that unquestioning faith in deities and dogma needs no evidence, handicapping them with an understanding that facts, testing, and scrutiny are not necessary to determine truth. Just feelings, passion, and trusted authorities’ pronouncements will do, giving rise to the “I know in my heart” proof. While Santa Clause and the Easter bunny can and should be cast aside as remnants of childhood, “Jesus loves me” and “God is love”—with not a shred more evidence—are expected to continue until death. Further, though there is variation among religious persuasions, this childish brand of epistemology requires threats and promises to maintain. Christianity, for example, notably convinces adherents of their worthlessness (“a wretch like me”), then holds out its bizarre cosmology and “salvation” as a cure. Under these circumstances, having a healthy self-concept is difficult, always in need of a supernatural prescription.

That is probably why Christians are frightened of being without their faith and can’t understand how atheists can be quite as happy without any. The faithful must be constantly reminded how weak and vulnerable they are without Jesus and how dark their lives would be without him. To bolster the persuasion, there is the inducements of heaven and hell and, to support them, the fantasy of life after death. Citing or even needing evidence for these farfetched ideas is not part of the picture.

Further, should our natural pursuit of knowledge introduce a conflict with dogma, Christian hegemony allows the opposition to be brushed aside, no matter how overwhelming the data. Examples abound, including biological evolution, global climate change, geology, utility of intercessory prayer, and astronomy. Not all religions at all times have done so, but great impediments have been thrown up to block the advance of human knowledge and understanding, so much so as to be an embarrassingly significant part of intellectual history.

But is it not true that religion has been responsible for great works of charity? Yes, it has and should get credit for that. Human beings naturally desire to help sentient beings, including mostly other humans in need. Without religion, there would still be charity. I have known many good people who, through religious affiliation, have brought improved life conditions to others, social, medical, economic, and otherwise. Since Christians are instructed to “give God the glory,” it is hard to tell if religion itself is the motivation or merely the vessel for their goodness. In either event, I am happy to recognize that religious organizations have performed many good works, inspired excellent music, and encouraged great art.

Data are hard to come by, but the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that in the U.S. the most religious section (the South; measured by church attendance) gave the highest proportion of their disposal income to charity (defined as tax deductibility, therefore including churches), while the least religious section (the Northeast) gave the least. However, if you remove the money given to churches, the propensity to give charitably is reversed, the South dropping from 5.2% to .9% and the Northeast dropping from 4.0% to 1.4%. While I doubt that research like this is very precise, what is glaringly obvious is that it gives no support to the general belief of religion as more charitable than non-religion. Moreover, we should recognize that most contributions to churches are not used to help the needy, but to support the costs of running a church and proselytizing, neither use charitable in the usual sense.

The Catholic Church, possibly the largest church provider of health service to the poor is, at the same time, uniquely responsible for contraception prohibition leading to crippling reproduction and continuation of poverty. Even many of Christianity’s truly charitably activities frequently includes a poison pill, pushing a little piety as a price of admission, a stealthy trade in corporeal indulgencies

But isn’t religion to be honored for its support of private and public morality? Hardly. Research fails to demonstrate that religious people in America are more moral than nonreligious, nor that U. S. states with more religious practice are more moral than those with less, nor that countries with less religious influence are less moral than the more religious. I think most Christians, as my sister argued to me years ago, believe Christian morals by themselves constitute a great gift to humanity, apart from other aspects of religion.

For reasons I’ve described elsewhere (“Sin,” 7/18/2014; “Morality is too important to be left to religion,” 1/2/2014), Christian morality is quite flawed, certainly no model for beings capable of better. Christian morality was mixed on slavery, mostly unmoved by the status of women, pervasively shameful to gays, and in general bizarrely focused on genitals. Morality-relevant attributes of the Hebrew god are nothing short of despicable. Further, in whatever ways Christianity and its predecessor Judaism have contributed to rules of civility and humaneness in the world, other religions and non-religions developed earlier.

Religion is guilty of impeding scientific discovery, shaming people to enforce its power, detracting from studied attention to sensible morality, and reinforcing a primitive, childish approach to understanding ourselves and our universe. In exchange, it has contributed marginally to charitable engagements. Its net value is negative.

That is why—in much the way Christians claim to hate the sin and love the sinner—I have no respect at all for religion, a disdain that co-exists comfortably with respecting individual human beings captured by its allure, its threats, or the social pressure that supports it.


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About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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