We’re all familiar with those people who claim that no foul deed, no murder, no injury can be laid at the feet of faith—at least in modern times. They might grudgingly admit that the Inquisition or the Crusades may have had something to do with faith, but those were the bad old days. Now things are different. And while religion may seem to be involved in today’s horrors and evils, when you look deeper, they say, you’ll ultimately find the real causes. The Protestant/Catholic fracas in Northern Ireland? A historical squabble—religion was just a “label” for political opponents. The persecution of Galileo? A civil and political affair, not involving faith. The institutionalized slaughter of the Jews during World War II? Well, the Nazis needed a scapegoat somewhere. The murder of UN workers and Afghanis in last week’s mosque-fuelled riots? Islam had nothing to do with it: it was simply the effect of lying, manipulative mullahs inflaming a populace who hate the colonialism of America and Europe.
Very often these “excusers” are those also those who argue for the compatibility of science and faith: those who tell critics of religion to shut up because that species of “militancy” drives people from science. If you feel that you must coddle the faithful to achieve your goals, then you can’t be caught out saying bad things about religion. It’s much easier to blame politics, the inherent xenophobia of humans, and the like. People are much less offended when they’re criticized for being, say, Republicans than for being Catholics. There are anti-defamation leagues for Jews and Catholics, but none for Democrats and Republicans.
Granted, evil actions often stem from a complicated nexus of faith and secular factors. But I wonder about this: if people say that the root causes of evil in this world are things like xenophobia, politics, colonialism, and the like, why wouldn’t you place faith among them? After all, to many people faith is far more personal, far more important, than politics. Many Catholics go to church weekly; many Muslims pray five times a day and read only the Qur’an. Many people say that their faith is the most important thing in their lives. And, as I said, people consider it far more insulting to criticize their faith than their politics. Given this, why wouldn’t faith be responsible for some awful things? Why is it alone excused from being an impetus of evil? We all know the reason: belief in belief.
Given our inability to rewind the tape of history, and to do controlled experiments in which we can insert or remove religion like a chemical in a test tube, we’re left with the notion of “reasonable inference”. And of course people will disagree about what inferences are reasonable, just like they disagree about what evidence for global warming is reasonable.
So I offer a tentative suggestion to identify situations in which religion is “responsible” for evils. It’s this:
Would those acts have still been committed had there been no religion?
I’m not a philosopher, of course, and this criterion isn’t perfect. For one thing, it doesn’t mean that religion is the only “cause.” And there can be other factors, like politics, personality disorders, civil strife, and so on, that are “causes” in the same way: absent the factor, the acts wouldn’t occur. My criterion is based on what I call the John Lennon Factor (“Imagine no religion”): “Would the amount of evil in the world be reduced if there were no religion?” And let us not forget that while religion can incite people to violence and murder, the ultimate responsibility for those acts rests on the people who commit them.
Given that criterion, I lay the following “modern” evils at the feet of faith—things that wouldn’t have happened without religion. There are, of course, many more beyond this list.
- The represssion of women according to Islamic law and custom
- Deaths from AIDS because of Catholic importuning against birth control
- The sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests
- The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled in children by Catholic priests who scare them with thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin
- Ditto for Islam, which threatens apostates and doubters with eternal hellfire
- The deaths and injuries due to Sunni/Shiite conflict: arguments about who are Mohammed’s true successors.
- The deaths of children whose parents relied on faith healing
- The persecution of gays on religious grounds, as occurs in both America and the Middle East
- The pedophilic marriage customs of some Mormon sects
- The mutilation by acid of Afghani girls who dare attend school
- Sexual fear and loathing
- Blanket prohibitions on abortion even when the mother is raped or her life is at stake; the persecution of single mothers in countries like Ireland
- Opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia
- The fleecing of the innocent by Scientology (if you consider it a religion)
- And, of course, the opposition to science instantiated in American creationism. Note that this is among the least harmful effects of faith. Nobody dies because they don’t learn evolution.
I’m sure that readers can add more of these; the point is that these effects are either ignored, minimized, or ascribed to other factors by those whose political strategy requires them to osculate the rump of faith.
h/t: Ophelia Benson, with whom I’ve discussed these issues over the years