Religion does not appear to hold the key to moral behaviour. Far from it, in fact, the gods that believers profess to be their moral guides are depicted in ‘holy’ writings as violent and jealous gods, and with few exceptions, their prophets (Moses is a good example here), are as deeply ﬂawed, generally violent, intolerant and highly prejudiced sociopaths and mass murderers as the gods themselves.
Religions admittedly do give people something to believe in, but to believe without critical thinking often leads to unethical behaviour.
Taking a fairly recent example, consider the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones. That ‘prophet’ led his enthusiastic group to Brazil where, on November 18, 1978, he persuaded over 900 of them to commit mass suicide.
He may have thought he was doing a good thing, but most people would agree that persuading 900 people to commit suicide is unethical.
But if you take people who have stopped thinking for themselves and will do whatever their religious leader tells them to do, you can persuade them to do anything. The Reverend Jim Jones could have told his tribe to go out and kill babies and they’d have done it. He could have told them to go and hijack passenger jets and ﬂy them into schools, or tall buildings, and they’d have done exactly that.
The point is that the ethics of right and wrong do not exist for people who take their beliefs from others, because if you do that, you are taking on board the possible twisted ethical beliefs of someone else.
Taking your ethical beliefs from religion, or religious leaders is abdicating your own responsibility to decide what is right, and what is wrong. Leave that to rabbis, priests or mullahs and you may ﬁnd yourself killing or dying in the name of your religion, as millions have done in the past in the name of gods no longer worshipped, and prophets who no longer matter.
Contrast that situation with the critical thinking of an atheist who must decide what is right and what is wrong based on a sense of humanity and common compassion. The great moral thinkers of our day are not, as a rule, religious leaders, but atheists, as I’ve mentioned before, like A.C. Grayling, and Richard Dawkins. And it also seems to be the case that the more religious a person happens to be, the less they are guided by common decency and compassion and the more they are guided by the outmoded mores, or morals of the ancient writings that document the dogma they adhere to.
Compare being guided by outmoded morals and ancient murderous and bigoted thoughts and writings, to synthesising the original thoughts of the most sublime and intelligent thinkers of the current day, and choosing what is best from all of them… Even a non-contemplative person should be able to work out which of these options would be most likely to lead to an ethical way of life. That religion encourages adopting the outdated ethics of the past, and discourages believers from adopting a system of ethics based on common decency, fairness, and equality for all, is a bad thing about religion.
Religious institutions have openly opposed most major scientiﬁc, cultural, and medical advances that have occurred over the last 2000 years.
Whilst each religion thinks it has the key to enlightenment, they generally oppose enlightenment of humanity through scientiﬁc advance, because every time we explain an aspect of life through science, it takes away another bit of institutional power. Thus religious fanatics resist each advance, and that slows our progress.
It is difﬁcult to quantify how much progress has thus been lost, because every advance in science and thought comes, to paraphrase Newton, from standing on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before. If the inquisition hadn’t suppressed the mind of Galileo, just as he was making his greatest breakthroughs, we might have gained ﬁfty years in scientiﬁc thought. If they hadn’t burned healers at the stake, we might already have a simple cure for cancer. If they hadn’t suppressed the expression of independent thought with their threats, punishments, and wars, we might have a far more humane society by now, and a world at peace.
Religions, as a rule, always seem to think that the most recent concession they have had to make to science, and even to civilised society, is the last one. But religions of today have a long way to go before they catch up with civilised society. One thought consoles about ‘martyrs’ who blow themselves up for the glory of God and the seventy-two virgins awaiting in paradise–may they all be old hags.
What would it take to bring peace to the world over the next hundred years? Since it seems most unlikely that we are going to get rid of religious institutions and their perpetuated myths and discriminations in such a short time, it would be good if those with inﬂuence could at least make it a goal for their institutions to preach tolerance and compassion from their pulpits.
If the history of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is anything to go by, the process of civilising inﬂuences will be painful and bloody. As people become less credulous, through education and the spreading of scientiﬁc awareness and knowledge, religions that still have life and death power over their herds of human sheep will use everything in their power to stop the spread of knowledge. In the end though, knowledge will win, as it always does. You can stiﬂe it, and it will grow in secret. You can kill those who teach the truth, and others will teach it later. Science always wins in the end.
If you don’t believe that, look at every battle there has ever been between church and science. Knowledge is unstoppable. But the fact that it’s a ﬁght; the fact that there is an ongoing struggle to civilise our world in the face of the ignorance and superstition perpetuated by the churches, and in the face of the vested interests of preachers and institutions who rely on the ignorance of their congregations for their income, and that is definitely a Bad Thing About Religion.