People who argue against the influence of religion, and argue for its separation from public life (which Jesus also did, by the way, for those of you who actually bothered to read scripture), are commonly asked the same question: why do you want to get rid of religion? Atrocities have occurred throughout history committed by people who tried to outlaw religion (Pol Pott, Stalin, Mao) – why would you want to go down that path? Surely outlawing religious practice would lead directly to the same atrocities!
Unlike other arguments that I present and then ridicule, this argument actually has some merit. History has indeed shown us what happens when you try to force a belief system upon a group of people, whether it be state-sponsored atheism or state-sponsored religion. Horrific deeds are the result when you try to control someone’s mind. The problem with the argument is that it makes an erroneous assumption: that I (or those with similar viewpoints) want to get rid of religion.
I will state here unequivocally that I have no interest in taking religion away from people, even if such a thing were possible. Religion, like racism (and herpes) will be around in some form or another regardless of legislation or acts of physical force, and will just keep cropping up here and there. However, even if I could somehow mandate the removal of religion, I would not. I have no right to make decisions on someone else’s behalf – respect for individual autonomy is a fundamental tenet of ethics.
So why write all of this stuff then?
There is a common misconception that people who argue against the influence that religion has in public life are somehow trying to take away their ability to believe what they want. This is the same line of reasoning used by people who accuse affirmative action advocates of taking away jobs from white people. It comes from a mindset (which I’m sorry to say seems to be held pretty much exclusively by conservatives) that the way the world is now is the way it is supposed to be. White people are at the top of the heap worldwide? Ah, well that must be their manifest destiny! Christians dominate the political spectrum? It must be God’s will.
This is inherently built in to the concept of ‘conservatism’ as opposed to ‘progressivism’. Conservatism, by definition, is about holding on to and maintaining traditional structures and events. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Some traditions are important to maintain, in order to understand where we came from – go to a military parade exercise and look at the seemingly-archaic procedures of marching and saluting. However, when we take a nuanced view of traditions, we understand that some of them need to be updated to reflect present-day reality. Conservatives deny this, instead fighting to maintain the status quo.
Some people who identify themselves as ‘conservative’ will say that the conservative movement is about maintaining individual autonomy, and refusing to capitulate to societal pressure or government shows of force. This philosophy is correctly called Libertarianism, and for reasons that I can’t quite fathom it has been rolled up in the conservative platform. Libertarianism stands opposed to collectivism (or authoritarianism – a rose by any other name…), and should not be confused with conservatism. In the same way, many people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ (myself included) do not see themselves or their values reflected in the communal-authoritarian or arch-relativistic philosophy of progressivism. While their/our beliefs may often overlap with those in the liberal movement (gay rights, public education, health care), there are things to which they/we voice strong objection (health “freedom” woo, the role of business, religious “tolerance”).
What does this have to do with anything?
Humankind, like anything else, must constantly adapt to reality as things change. This philosophy is perhaps best encapsulated in the Taoist tradition, in which one is exhorted to be mindful of the flow of the universe (the Tao), and instead of resisting its direction, to allow one’s self to move in harmony with it. This adaptation and change is necessary for survival – as we know from evolutionary biology, those species that cannot adapt, die. If we want to survive as a species, or as a society, or as individuals, we must learn to respond to environmental/social/political challenges and find a way to live with them.
This need for change stands diametrically opposed to the religious/conservative philosophy (small wonder that those who oppose the teaching of evolution are almost exclusively conservative religious people), in which the status quo must be preserved. If the world works this way for a reason, then any attempt to adapt the way we do things is a betrayal of the order of the universe. Change is bad, and so are those who advocate it.
Religion is an impediment to human progress. It is the yoke around our necks that slows us and prevents us from being able to adapt and explore and challenge new frontiers. While sometimes progress needs to be examined closely through the eyes of caution (life-extending technology is perhaps one example), that is not the same as standing as a roadblock to progress at every opportunity. Sometimes (in fact, often), rapid response is needed to relieve or prevent human suffering, and when we have to wrangle at every step with those who refuse to accept rationality or observed reality as truth, suffering is prolonged. The problem with simply throwing up our hands and agreeing to disagree, is that one of these philosophies is trying to kill us.
So should we abolish religion?
I don’t think it is generally advisable to abolish religion. It’s definitely not a good idea to outlaw certain types of belief. That is merely substituting one form of tyranny for another. This seems to be the fear of religious people in the face of secularism – that somehow they will be persecuted and forced to recant, or prevented from practicing their beliefs.
Nobody is advocating this position – not seriously, anyway.
But there needs to be an admission on behalf of the religious community that curtailing the outrageous level of privilege that religious belief has enjoyed over the past few thousand years is not the same as oppressing religious people. Currently, being a “person of faith” is somehow seen as a virtue, and piety is confused for righteousness. Religion has become a qualification for public office (thankfully not so much here in Canada, but that may be changing), and school boards everywhere are becoming entrenched in fights that are ideological, rather than fact-based.
When we no longer accept religious beliefs as valid arguments, and instead rely on evidence and logic, we are better-suited to adapting to changing reality. The founding fathers of the United States understood this, which is why they expressly forbade religious involvement in legal and political matters. Sadly, this has been slowly and steadily eroded to give us a system wherein Sarah Palin is taken seriously when she says we have a Judeo-Christian heritage in this society. However, the principle still stands. If we are able to move back toward such principles, in which superstition is not granted equal time to fact, we will be in a much better position to address the challenges that we face today as a species, and the ones we will undoubtedly face anew tomorrow.
TL/DR: While I do not think it is a good idea to outlaw religion, I would like to see us move toward a system that does not grant it the special privileges it currently enjoys. Also, a bunch of stuff about how conservatives are trying to kill us.
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