by Francisco Padilla García
Religion enjoys an undeserved respect because we are not expected to criticize it. It appears that we may disagree with other people about any other topic, but religion remains untouchable. For example, when people try to advance their religious views, you are supposed to nod politely as if agreeing with what they are saying lest you might offend them otherwise. This undeserved respect is due to an assumption that people have an emotional attachment to their religion and that it constitutes part of their identity, thus attacking their religion is equated to attacking the person. But, what about non-religious people? Do we not deserve respect? Religious people seem to think that we do not; hence, I will proceed to challenge that view.
The origin of this undeserved respect enjoyed by religion arises out of politeness and a desire to avoid confrontation. As such, it is not only undeserved, but also an unfair form of emotional intimidation. Religious people feel entitled to say what they want, but we seem not to have the same freedom; ergo, such respect is not mutual. For example, when in a conversation someone affirms that “Jesus is the son of God who died in order to cleanse our sins”, the rest of the participants have to “respect” that assertion. However, if other person responds that s/he does not believe in that God and that the concept of sins cleansing is absurd, then the religious person would show signs of being offended because someone dared to question their faith. Actually, we are the ones who should be offended in such situations because religious people imply that we hold their beliefs, yet they get offended if we express our views.
The ‘I am offended’ card is often used to restrict our freedom of speech. But, why is religion given this special treatment? The answer is a ploy created by religion to make itself immune to criticism and thus maintain its status quo. This ploy certainly aims to keep people of reason from creating doubts in the religiously indoctrinated.
Apart from that, most of us aim for positive social interactions; however, our courtesy has been abused by religious people as a form of censorship. In other words, it is the abuse of a social trait that has given religion special privileges.
Given that it is an abusive and an unfair attribution of respect, we must assert our right of mutual respect. Besides, nothing should be exempt of criticism, least of all religion. This is because religion has proved to be damaging to societies throughout the history of humankind by causing and justifying wars, conflicts, torture and mass murder. If religion was not damaging at all, I would be perfectly content to remain silent for the sake of harmonious interactions with people with different worldviews. However, the fact is that religion is quite damaging for society in many ways and if humans are ever to live in harmony, then religious thinking has to decrease.
Should we not just avoid discussions about religion altogether? My answer is yes, unless it is in a non-dogmatic way; for example, when studying the history of religions. When I traveled to the United States as an exchange student, I was advised to avoid two topics: politics and religion. The reason behind this well-meaning suggestion is that these topics can trigger heated arguments from otherwise friendly people. I have no objection to this suggestion unless others try to impose their religious views in the conversation or in the laws that affect people who are not religious.
When confronted, most religiously indoctrinated people defend what they were taught by appealing to their affective ties to religion. However, most of their arguments fall into the categories of personal revelation, tradition, and authority (Dawkins, 2003). The problem is that these three kinds of arguments are invalid because they do not justify an unreasonable adherence to religious beliefs. I shall explain.
The arguments on personal revelation are the ones in which a person affirms that they experienced supernatural phenomena. For example, they claim that a God communicated to them or that a miracle occurred as a result of that communication. Yet, fortune tellers and people under the influence of psychoactive substances may claim similar occurrences. The fact is that our brain is very susceptible to suggestion and to find meaning in unrelated events, especially in people who have been indoctrinated since they were children. Thus, personal testimonies of supernatural phenomena are simply not valid.
With the arguments on tradition, the person claims that they hold religious beliefs because their family or their friends do. This is just the unfortunate discovery that they have not stopped to question their belief system or, if they have, they are being forced to be intellectually dishonest. Thus, arguments on tradition do not justify unreasonable beliefs. To illustrate, the fact that everyone around you believes that the moon is made of cheese does not prove that the moon is actually made of cheese.
The arguments on authority are the ones in which a person claims that they believe in religious dogmas because a book or a person in authority says so. Imagine if the Pope suddenly declared that 1 + 1 = 3 because of some absurd relation to the concept of the trinity. Would that make it true? Yet, there would be many Catholics that would believe it! Thus, arguments on authority are obviously not valid and they should remind us that we should maintain a critical mind and should not assume that something is true just because an authority said it or because it is printed on a book without orthographic and grammatical mistakes.
I will not quote the bible because I think that most intelligent people have actually read it and, therefore, realized that it is full of inconsistencies and moral depravity. Thus, I will waste no more space on it. However, I will warn you of the dangers of basing people’s moral system on a book that promotes racism, violence, genocide, and irrationality. Thus, I will make the bold statement that anyone who believes in the bible literally is a danger to their immediate society and should, for the sake of the safety of those around her/him, be told to interpret it otherwise. As such, it should be obvious that the bible should not be the source of any moral decision-making. The bible is the most salient unreliable source to base anything on. Even when there are some bits that are morally-sound, these have origins in our innate sense of empathy towards others, not in that ancient collection of mythical writings.
Given that the threat of religion and its consequences are real, we––humanists––have the right and duty to counter its effects by raising awareness of its dangers. To do so, I have identified six arguments that support my claim that religion is harmful to society. These arguments can be easily tested by anyone. In fact, I encourage the reader to research further each of them because for the sake of brevity, I have not presented an exhaustive account of examples.
1. Historical: History shows us that religious thinking is dangerous. If we look at the torture and genocide committed by the Catholic Church during the Inquisitions, we would find ourselves outraged at the tortures that people were subjected because they had different worldviews. The fact that Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness for those atrocities does not in any way change anything. Imagine removing the charges of a murderer just because s/he asked for forgiveness. And it was not just one person who was publicly humiliated, beaten, tortured and burned at the stake. They were thousands, most of them Jews. It is no surprise that Hitler had an aversion towards Jews, since he was raised a Roman Catholic.
Religions have caused wars, conflicts, abuses, torture, and murder in most places of the world. There are countless examples that support this fact, among them, the Crusades, the “witch” trials, and the terrorist attacks advocated by Muslims with their concept of the Jihad (Holly War), etc. In Mexico when the Catholic Church felt their power was threatened by the Mexican Constitution of 1917, it incited poorly-educated peasants to overturn the government because it limited the absolute influence that the Church had over State affairs and education. This armed conflict is known as the ‘Cristero War’ and it caused the deaths of thousands of people because the Catholic Church intended to be the official religion in Mexico.
Even today, the Catholic Church in Mexico continues to interfere in public affairs related to discrimination against gay people, while some of its priests sexually abuse children (mostly boys). Moreover, these priests still remain in impunity. One of the most salient examples―out of many others that have been and are still being concealed by dioceses in Mexico and by the Vatican―is the case of Marcial Maciel, a Mexican Catholic priest and founder of the Catholic congregation of the Legion of Christ, who sexually abused of seminarian boys of ten years of age within the decade 1940-1950 (CNN Mexico, 2010). This is one of the widely known cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Mexico. There are many others that are not known because the Catholic Church has used its influence to silence the victims while obstructing investigations. These are just some examples of the the moral depravity that is caused by religion and religious following that priests impose on themselves. Clearly, the Historical Argument is one of the most compelling arguments because it provides verifiable evidence that shows that religion is harmful to society.
2. Geographical: People adhere to the dominant religion of their country. This argument demonstrates the absurdity of religion-specific dogmas that contradict the dogmas of other religions. The fact that someone happened to have been born in Mexico and is Catholic is not surprising. If the same person had been born in Afghanistan, s/he would believe in Alla with the same, if not more, devotion.
Roman Catholicism is the religion that was imposed by Spaniards who built churches on top of pre-Columbian monuments in order to force people to continue worshipping their deities. Its establishment was the result of the imposition and trickery that are usual for the Catholic Church. The result was the creation of eclectic deities such as the Virgin of Guadalupe that takes and combines features from Catholicism, Spanish, and Aztec mythology. This is not to say that native American religious beliefs were more reasonable than Catholicism, but it shows that the only reason many Mexicans follow these foreign-imposed rites is that Mexico was conquered by Spain.
The Geographical Argument shows us that the fact that there are many mutually exclusive religious dogmas proves that they are mere human constructs designed to manipulate the behaviour of the masses towards the agenda of those in power.
3. Legal: Constitutions and laws all over the world were framed to establish the separation of Church from State because religion is irrational, thus absolute theocracies are irrational forms of government that would lead to tyranny if these provisions were not made. The Mexican Constitution is among the rational ones that establish the separation of Religion from the Government. This means that we have the legal right not to have religion interfering in public affairs, especially in the education of children in State schools and universities. In addition, it is the legal basis on which we can argue against any interference in the enactment of laws that are not favoured by the Catholic Church. As a religious organization, they should have no saying in the decisions taken by elected officials. Therefore, if anyone should question our loyalty to our country, we should respond proudly with the reading of the Mexican constitutional article 130. §e on the historical principle of the separation of the State from Church:
The ministers shall not associate with political ends, nor proselytise for or against any candidate, political party or association. Neither shall they, in public gathering, nor through acts of cult or of religious publicity, nor through religious publications, oppose the laws of the country or its institutions, nor insult, in any way, the patriotic symbols. It is strictly forbidden to form any kind of political associations whose name contains any word or indication that relates them to any religious creed. There shall not be any political meetings held in temples.
In addition, we should defend the right of Mexican children to receive a non-religious, rational, and science-based education. The Mexican Constitution is very clear in this intention on article 3 §I-II which establishes:
The education provided by the State shall aim to develop harmoniously all the faculties of the human being and shall instill, at the same time, love for the country and a conscience of international solidarity based on independence and justice
I. Guaranteed by the article 24 on freedom of beliefs, this education shall be secular and, thus, shall remain completely alien to any religious doctrine;
II. The criterion that will guide this education shall be based on the results of scientific progress, shall fight ignorance and its effects, servitude, fanaticism and prejudices.
As shown, it is evident that the Mexican Constitution favours the establishment of a secular society. Its anticlerical intent did not emerge by chance, but it was a response to the abuses and dominance that the Catholic Church had over Mexican society. Therefore, we should be proud of our constitution and fight against any transgressions of its articles.
4. Cognitive / Educational: Religious faith requires the suspension of the critical and reasoning faculties. In order to believe unreasonable concepts, such as the creation, the afterlife, the fictional and fairy tale-like accounts of the Bible, the pregnancy and birth from a “virgin” and her subsequent apparitions in different ethnically-related forms in almost every small town in Mexico, the resurrection of a mortally-wounded human, the existence of immaterial souls, and the superstitious effect of praying, miracles, etc., one obviously has to suspend any trace of the reasoning faculties. The danger in suspending the reasoning faculties should be obvious. It is no wonder that religious people can commit so many atrocities. Yet, it is the miseducation that most Mexican children receive in catechism in which they are taught the aforementioned absurdities as if they were facts.
Do not get me wrong. I strongly believe we should foster children’s imaginations with fairy tales that stimulate the creative mind. That certainly involves the temporary suspension of disbelief as when reading fairy tale or other work of fiction. However, the difference between telling children fairy tales and indoctrinating them in religious faith is that fairy tales are not taught as fact and children are allowed to question them as they learn to tell apart reality from fantasy. Religious indoctrination, on the contrary, disrupts this process. Thus, the Cognitive / Educational argument clearly demonstrates that religious faith―even if it is moderate―is harmful, especially to children, as it is deeply opposed to factual reality as well as correct reasoning, i.e. the one that is not fallacious.
5. Scientific: Science has debunked religious dogmas that were held as unquestionable truth in the past. For example, the belief in Creation as literally stated in the Bible is still taught to children in catechism, but it is no longer believed as such by priests. If you ask them, they most likely will tell you that the Bible needs to be interpreted according to the cultural context of those who wrote it. They will also affirm that the Theory of Evolution is perfectly in tune with Creationism and that God started it all. However, this adjustment only shows that they were utterly wrong in the past and that they are only adapting their theological “teachings” to fit current scientific knowledge. That is why science and religion are deeply opposed. While the scientific method encourages questioning and testing of its tenets, religion strongly discourages critical inquiry. In other words, religion is harmful to human development because it hinders scientific research and its applications for the benefit of the human condition.
6. Humanistic: People do not need religion or faith in God in order to be moral. Our morality stems from our interaction in society and instincts of empathy and intra-group dynamics whose function is the survival of the species. In contrast, religion maintains a moral system that is detached from the realities of human nature. Religion, in fact, has never been actively opposed to slavery; on the contrary, it fosters slave mentality in people by encouraging the inhumane endurance of suffering and humiliation in the hope of a life after death. In other words, religion is harmful to the efforts of peace, fairness, and understanding among individuals and nations.
In conclusion, it is my hope that these six arguments have persuaded you to see that religion and religious thinking are harmful to society. While I am against finding meaningful patterns where there is none, I have to mention that I am glad to have come up with six arguments since such a number is feared in the Christian myth. However, our objective should not be to attack but to persuade and educate using reason and evidence. Thus, I urge you to use these arguments to raise awareness of the dangers that religion poses to humankind. Let us not be intimidated anymore because our duty as future professionals is to improve the quality of life of our country. Only through reason coupled with science will we be able to reach the success and respect that Mexico deserves.
Dawkins, R. (2003). Good and Bad Reasons for Believing: An Open Letter to Dawkin’s Daughter. In A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. (pp. 242-248) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
CNN Mexico. (2010, March 4). Cronología del escándalo en torno al fundador de los Legionarios de Cristo. Retrieved December 6, 2010 from: http://mexico.cnn.com/nacional/2010/03/04/cronologia-del-escandalo-en-torno-al-fundador-de-los-legionarios-de-cristo
Mexican Constitution. (1917). Retrieved November 29, 2010 from: http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/ref/cpeum.htm