Religion's terrifying capacity for unquestioning faith

Victor Billot argues that the Otago Daily Times series "Faith and reason" has so far featured a lot of faith, and very little reason.

As a non-expert citizen, my basic claim is this: Religion is nonsense. Often it is dangerous nonsense.

The late American writer Kurt Vonnegut observed "say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith. I consider the capacity for it terrifying." I agree.

The common religious belief in a "supreme being" is a psychological and social construction.

Religion is made up, an invention given credibility simply because a lot of people agree with it.

It is the product of primitive human societies which required a way to explain reality and create social rules.

Religious leaders developed in history as a privileged class who still insist they have all the answers and a direct line to the Creator of the Universe.

Yet the list of these individuals is hardly confidence-inspiring; just imagine ending up in heaven and finding your eternal flatmates are the Ayatollah Khomeini, the current Pope, and Bishop Brian Tamaki.

In our society, the "right" God is usually one of the various Christian versions.

However, it doesn't take much to realise that if the same New Zealand pastors, priests and door-knockers happened to have been born in Iran, they would no doubt be devout Muslims, or in Timbuktu, devout followers of the established religion of Timbuktu, whatever that may be.

The basic line of most religions is that our religion is completely right and everyone else is completely wrong.

We are blessed and others will be sorted out by God. How do they know?

It says in their preferred collection of fables from the dim past.

No evidence is required and there is always the fall-back position of "faith".

If I was to proclaim my faith in Zeus and Apollo, most people today would rightly regard me as a lunatic.

Yet absolutely nothing separates faith in Zeus and Apollo from faith in Christianity or Islam in any respect but current popularity.

If religion had not been challenged by reason, and free-thinking independent minds, we would still languish in the dark ages.

Most major Western religions are filled with guilt and sadistic violence.

Their so-called "message of love" is complemented by a message of fear and retribution.

If you don't obey the angry male father figure in the sky, you will be thrown out of paradise, burned, drowned, cursed by plague, turned into a pillar of salt, plunged into eternal torment etc - the vengeful imagination of our loving creator knows no bounds. One could say the "love" of God is conditional.

Love me, and more importantly obey me, or face the consequences.

Even if God existed, why would people wish to "worship" such a psychopathic control freak? By all decent standards, if such an individual was human, he would be locked away for the safety and wellbeing of the rest of us.

Why can't we take this disturbing God character out of the equation and just treat each other with compassion and respect for their own sake, rather than because we want a reward or to avoid punishment?

Religious advocates often assert science "does not have all the answers". Of course science does not have all the answers.

Nor does it claim to, unlike religion which pretends to have the answers for everything, even if those answers are gibberish.

Religion encourages mindless obedience and unshakeable certainty, not reason.

Those who reject scientific concepts such as evolution seem to generally have no problem with aeroplanes, electricity, hygiene, dental care and all the other products of applied science and reason that we enjoy.

This is complete hypocrisy.

Thanks to reason, we have realised we are not at the centre of the universe, woman was not created from the spare rib of the first man, and that the earth is unlikely to have been created in seven days (although that would have been far more efficient and impressive than the boring several billion years it did take).

The reality revealed and investigated by reason is far more complex, amazing and wonderful than the cramped one-stop shop presented by religion. So much for faith.

Science doesn't provide a moral or ethical framework, but it is a way of describing reality far superior to religious explanations.

It allows us to a limited degree to understand why people are the way they are, and to a limited extent act the way they act.

This does not create a moral or social framework in itself, but can inform the way we look at moral and social questions.

There are many moral or ethical ideas or behaviours that can be adhered to without believing in superstition, and it is about time religion was challenged on its self-appointed moral high ground.

My argument is not that religion is the sole cause of the world's problems, and obviously there are countless decent people of both religious and non-religious opinion.

I support freedom of religion, which in my case means freedom from religion.

However, an outlook based on reason, openness, respect and dignity is possible and in my view preferable, even if it does not always provide simplistic easy answers to the tough questions.

It will be difficult to move to a post-religious world.

The disappearance of religion has dangers, too, if people are simply going to fill its absence with mindless consumerism or ego-driven selfishness, the creed of modern capitalism.

But move to a non-religious world we must, if humanity is to survive and grow beyond a dangerous and challenging century ahead.

•Victor Billot is a Dunedin atheist and humanist.

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