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The New Atheism
Is Religion Bad For Society?
by Rev. Bob Eckhard
My hope in this article is to outline a rational case that there is great benefit for society generally when it facilitates the activity of religious groups committed to the worship of God. I therefore challenge the atheistic notion that if only God could be disproved once and for all, the world would be a far better place to live in. Although there are many religious groups who could be mentioned here, there is not enough space within the parameters of this piece to do justice to each one. For reasons which will become clear, my thinking will broadly focus around the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Religious Extremism and its Discontents
I find it necessary to begin by addressing one concern that I know many atheists have in regard to the way that believers have conducted themselves over the centuries – the issue of fundamentalist belief and extremism. Indeed, the impression that I am left with is that atheists believe that religion is best explained by reference to the extreme elements within it. This implies that someone with spiritual conviction should be viewed with suspicion, because a presumption is made that they will sooner or later hold an agenda that will cause them to act in ways that run contrary to the well-being and development of society. Indeed, the events of 9/11 and instances in which religious pro-life groups have bombed abortion clinics are often heralded as examples of how those who act on God’s behalf do so in ways that are detrimental to society. The atheist assumption seems to be that sooner or later those with religious conviction will want to impose their own particular understanding on others. Indeed, we might have some sympathy for this belief, because religious groups have often sought to control social direction through overt or covert means - sometimes through the dictates of the religious structure, or perhaps by individuals or groups seeking to influence government decision-making in ways which favour their religion’s values and beliefs. However, it is when religious people engage in terrorist activity that people are most concerned – mainly because such actions are a threat to the liberty and freedom that we currently enjoy.
Terrorist activity is nowadays commonly associated with religions, irrespective of whether this association is truly reflective of the religious tradition itself and the tenet of its beliefs. In short, a gross generalisation and polarisation occurs in which many people rather simplistically see secularism as good and religion as bad. But this is nonsensical thinking, and herein lies the problem.
If all of God’s followers were committed to terrorist atrocities we would have good reason to agree with the presumption that religion is bad. The problem is that it does not fit with what we all know about belief. For example, we know that many people who believe in God serve their communities as doctors, nurses, care workers, occupational therapists, social workers and the like, and that often, the reason these believers have embarked on such career paths is their faith. They may have chosen to give up the luxury of a comfortable lifestyle so that they can alleviate the suffering of others in an impoverished part of the world.
Faced with the spectrum of religious understanding and commitment, in which extremists commit themselves to destruction and chaos, and others seek to bring healing and value to the poor and destitute, it is clear that it is impossible for belief systems to be defined by the actions of a few individuals within them, in much the same way that it is inaccurate to define the attributes and workings of the human body by reference to a single freckle that appears on the skin. To see the extreme elements within a faith group as characteristic of the whole is to make the same mistake as those who believe that every twenty-something Muslim is a potential terrorist bomber, or that every Christian is primed and ready to attack the doctor at the local abortion clinic. Yet this is a point worth making simply to counter the gross generalisations of those atheists who tar the many decent and affable worshippers of God with the same brush that marks out the extremist elements within those groups. Take serial killer Dennis Nielsen, who murdered fifteen people in the late seventies and early eighties. We do not presume that all people called ‘Dennis’ are likely to become a serial killer. We might hope that there are far more instances of people with the name ‘Dennis’ who are involved in doing good work or carrying out altruistic acts as there are criminals with the same name (although we would never know for sure…). Neither do we presume that the arrest and conviction of a mother found guilty of murdering her son) heralds a new wave of women psychopaths who cannot be trusted to safeguard their children. Similarly, we do not condemn all Germans as Nazis because at one point in history fanatics with extremist ideas committed atrocities in pursuit of their Arian ideology. We are reasonable enough to ascertain that this sort of behaviour is not indicative of every German.
Actually, what we discover in all this is that extremist activity is by its very nature at odds with the norms of society - the action is considered extreme because it does not fit with normal behaviour. (This is not to say that extreme perspectives should not be monitored and policed where this poses a threat to society and our collective existence.) However, what of the majority - those people who believe in God and have acted or are acting in ways that benefit themselves and society?
Belief and its Benefit to Society
At this point, I would like to redraw the parameters slightly, to consider how extremism can be helpful to society in some contexts. I’m not talking about the type of extremism that leads individuals to commit terrorist atrocities, nor am I referring to those who lead people to engage in holy war for the sake of their faith, bringing carnage and grief to many. No – what I am saying is that religious teaching and instruction can actually be beneficial to society because it encourages people to prioritise a love for humanity as part of their worship of God – a practice that might also be categorised as extreme simply because it challenges the boundaries of secular understanding and practice.
I am aware that what I am proposing here is problematic because, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. One need look no further than the brutality of the Inquisition (to name but one of many extremist atrocities) to realise that individuals have often committed heinous acts and fallen short of the outcomes that might be expected from their own religious understanding. We might want to question how Jesus Christ’s greatest instruction to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength… and love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12: 28-34) – an instruction which is not only part of the New Testament but also found in the writings of Islam and Judaism too – could ever be interpreted in such a way that would lead believers to consider inflicting physical violence on others. Here it becomes clear why I have chosen to group these three traditions together in this piece: because of this wellspring which dictates that love of God equals love of humankind.
From this perspective, we can see even more clearly that a religious belief is poorly defined by selecting as a sample the extreme and vocal minority who least understand or practice the central instruction within its primary texts. There are many more believers who choose a different direction and engage in altruistic acts of service because their love for God has prompted them to have a love for their fellow man and woman. I could not list the many believers who have committed their lives in this better way – one reason being that very often these altruistic acts have been carried out by individuals in the quiet backwaters of small communities, where their endeavours went unnoticed and were not recorded for posterity. However, I think it is worth mentioning the achievement of John Newton and William Wilberforce, who campaigned in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries to see the abolition of slavery. This is even more significant in Newton’s case because much of his early life was spent as a merchant captain transporting slaves for a living. Although it appears that his conversion did not immediately result in him giving up the slave trade, Newton’s actions later on contributed to the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. which resulted in a truly great change in the thinking and condition of society.
There are many other examples that might be included here, and not all to do with altruistic activities. We are also indebted for the way that the worship of God has acted as the catalyst for many believers to explore and develop the arts, for example in the music of Handel and Bruckner, or other disciplines, such as science (formally ‘natural theology’) and architecture. Whether it recognises it or not, society owes a huge debt of gratitude to the inspired believers who, in their attempts to please and worship God, have unintentionally redrawn the boundaries of many disciplines and advanced culture in ways that benefit all.
A Lesson From Pandora’s Box
In Greek mythology, the story is told of Epimetheus, who leaves his bride Pandora in charge of a box given them by Zeus. Inside this box were all the ills of the world. However, Zeus’s instruction that the box should not be opened under any circumstance is problematic, because another of Pandora’s gifts was that of curiosity. One thing leads to another and Pandora opens the box, allowing evil, illnesses and disease to fly out and wreak havoc upon the world. The lid is replaced just in time to stop hope flying out from the box and being lost to the world altogether.
Although Pandora’s Box is a myth, like many myths, a serious point is being made here about the value of hope and its benefit to people in whatever circumstance they find themselves in. I’m thinking about the millions of people who live in impossible situations, where they encounter persecution, or struggle with long-term physical disability, or are crippled by mental or emotional illness, or live in abject poverty: those for whom the rigours of this life are only manageable because they hold out the hope that beyond the immediacy of this world and their personal circumstances there exists a place where suffering and hardship will be at an end, and which brings meaning and significance to the trials being endured.
We still live in a world of much hardship and suffering often made more bearable to people because they believe that God is aware of their situation and ready to act. If for no other reason than that people are enabled to continue enduring hardship and adverse circumstance because of their belief in God, it seems that the believer’s ‘hope’ is a very good thing – a real blessing within a society in which humanist solutions have not readily provided all the answers to the dysfunctional aspects of life.
Hopefully, it will be apparent that the atheist’s insistence that society would benefit from the removal of religious groups is quite unfounded. It could instead be argued that society would be wholly impoverished in a number of ways. Aside from the cultural and altruistic benefit that would be removed, it also seems the atheist would remove any vestige of hope from those who are suffering and holding out for a better life beyond this world, and leave them to the desperate conditions of a world fashioned only from the seeds of futility and hopelessness.
© Rev. Bob Eckhard 2010
Bob Eckhard is an ordained minister in the Church of England and has a degree in Contextual Theology and a Masters in Education. He is the author of The God of the Cruel World and A Short Book of Believer Absurdities.