The real problem with religion

I haven't been as busy lately with the whole blogging thing, which may seem kind of odd in light of some of the stuff happening in the world right now. Muslim radicals have been trying to murder cartoonists who dared to satirize religion by drawing Mohammad. Nergal, frontman for Polish metal band Behemoth (of whom I am a huge fan) has been arrested on charges of insulting the Catholic church after he tore up a Bible as part of his act. And the Catholic church is in a messy state of affairs, with literally hundreds of new sex abuse cases rising up, and once again the problem is not that they happened, but that the church covered it up. This time around, the Pope himself looks at least partly culpable in the cover-ups. There was also some news about vice president Biden having a rather unsuccessful (to put it charitably) visit to Israel. Apparently peace is not in the making anytime soon.

All this had me reflecting on what exactly the problem is with religion. Because religious people tend to defend themselves by pointing out that pedophiles, jihadists and people convinced god is a real-estate agent do not represent all believers. Which is true, of course, but it's obfuscating the real problem with religion.

In Richard Dawkins' special The Root of All Evil?, Dawkins interviews a young man born in the states who is now a radical Muslim living in Jerusalem. He's a young fellow, and clearly quite intelligent despite being deluded to the point that it is dangerous. He tells Dawkins that the entire world will be converted to Islam at some point, and suggests that violence is a perfectly acceptable means by which to accomplish this goal. Dawkins says something during the interview that is very important. He says (paraphrasing) that there is someone else on the other side of the world who is just as passionate and convicted as this young man, but whose beliefs are opposite. And that really strikes at the heart of what, really, is wrong with religion.

Debate all you want about whether religious people, and religious institutions, do more harm or good. But there's a fundamental question at the root of all skeptical inquiry into religion: How do you know what you claim to know? When you have two or more people claiming that their beliefs are founded on immutable truths, but those truths are irreconcilably antithetical, reason is forfeited and no compromise can be reached. And while liberal religious believers love to talk about how people of different faiths can all hold hands and get along, the reality is that all religions make antithetical and contradictory claims. The can certainly all be nonsense, but no two of them can both be true. Some of us are lucky that we live in a culture where religious truth-claims are often tempered by secular modernism; many others, however, are not so fortunate, and the results of these conflicting truth claims is devastating.

I saw a special on the Israel/Palestine conflict some time ago, and a woman was settling in contested territory. She was asked why she was doing that, because not only could her home be torn down in the blink of an eye, but she was risking her life and the life of her family. She replied, "Because God gave us this land." How can you argue with that? When someone claims that something is true, we should inquire as to how this knowledge has been attained. On what basis is something asserted as true, much less as infallibly true? Atheists/skeptics/agnostics such as myself believe that we should base truth claims on evidence alone. Not on feelings, emotions, personal revelation, or tradition. And it is for that reason that any skeptical inquiry into the truth claims of religion will inevitably lead toward a rejection of such dogma.


Here is the aforementioned Dawkins interview:

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