P.Z. Myers is very clear in his views on religion: he doesn’t like it. For Myers, Ken Ham is an example of why religion is so damaging. In one sense, I agree — scoundrels like Ham make religion look pretty bad.
Defenders of religion would argue that the problem isn’t religion, it’s religious extremism. I have to say, that’s an appealing argument, especially considering what I see when I visit Greta’s very moderate church. There, faith is used as a motivator for good works. If you believe in God, you should be helping the poor, opposing war, forgiving rather than condemning. Every week these people get together for one massive dose of humility. It’s almost enough to make me reconsider being an atheist.
If this was all religion was, it wouldn’t be terribly hard to get behind it. But then you’ve also got wildly popular wackos like Ken Ham, who go around telling little kids to argue with their teachers about whether dinosaurs existed. To be a good Christian, according to Ham, you not only have to have faith, you also have to deny reason. How can we believe the Bible, Ham argues, if we ignore vast portions of it?
What’s bizarre about the biblical literalists, of course, is that they ignore the very human process of putting the Bible together in the first place. The Bible has two different creation stories. I’m not a biblical scholar, but I suspect that the process of choosing these stories for inclusion wasn’t much different from the selection of the four gospels for the New Testament from the dozens of candidates: there were lots of stories, and a political process led to their winnowing down for the “authoritative” text. If they spent any time at all considering how the Bible was written, it seems to me that those who based their faith on a literal interpretation of the Bible would have it quickly shattered.
But I guess if you’re able to ignore the most manifestly obvious facts about science, it’s not hard to ignore the obvious truths about politics either. The crowds of Muslim fundamentalists who burn embassies and demand that the infidels be slaughtered in response to the “sacrilegious” cartoons published in Denmark don’t seem to realize that the Danish government didn’t sponsor the cartoons. They’ve been lathered up into a frenzy by their leaders, and they’ll direct it at the nearest proxy for the object of their anger. Are these people even acting in accordance with the dictates of their own religion? I doubt it. I suspect the behavior is more like the riots that always seem to occur after a Super Bowl victory than an expression of religious faith. Nothing shows you’re a true believer like torching a car — or screaming at your teacher.
So what does this have to do with the millions of moderate Christians — and Muslims — who gather together peacefully to celebrate their faith and do good works? Is it okay for them to wrongly believe in God but rightly want to use that faith to inspire each other do good things? P.Z. Myers would say no. Only when we can cast away our irrational beliefs and seek only natural explanations for the world can we truly understand it.
I’m almost willing to go with P.Z., but I’m not sure I’m ready to give up everything religious faith has to offer — it’s inspired great works of art, literature, even science. And I do wonder what would replace the great charitable function of religion, inefficient as it is ("please donate your spare change for the Katrina fund, and don’t forget to make that $10,000 pledge for the new church annex!"). If all we got were weekly reminders of how we should be behaving, without all that God stuff, I think I’d find church much more appealing, but I’m not sure how many others would be coming along for the ride. The “new church annex” isn’t all vanity, either. Greta’s church uses its Sunday school facilities to house homeless people during the rest of the week.
Should we end religion because some people use it to work people up into irrational frenzies? Maybe, but then I think we’d have to ban sports, too.