Why debate religion – part 2

Sam Harris 2

In my previous article, Why debate religion – part 1, I explained how by debating religion, one is actually paying it a surprising amount of respect. This is for the simple reason that one is actually taking it seriously enough to invest time and effort into engaging it.
In this installment, I would like to give five reasons why I think religion should be argued against. These are by no means the ONLY reasons, simply the five that I consider to be the most important.

So why debate against religion:

1. Because religion makes people believe things that are nonsensical and oftentimes self contradictory, even on their own terms. One might think that simply being wrong about something is no crime, but when people begin to base belief systems, morals, economics, law, science and social structures on these false claims, they tend to be susceptible to all manner of problems – many of which can be tremendously destructive. Thousands of people (mostly men) are, at this very moment, teaching many thousands of children nonsensical things about the nature of reality, and teaching children to value myth and superstitions over logic and evidence.

2. Because religions teach people that there are deep and profound differences between them. Think about the struggles in places like Iraq, Northern Ireland, Israel, former Yugoslavia and many others. A large number of people would like to think that these struggles are political or ethnic, but the fact of the matter is that without religion, there would never even be a way to distinguish between the sides in these conflicts. How, after all, can one tell the difference between a Shiite Iraqi and a Sunni or Christian Iraqi? How would anyone ever tell the difference between a Serb and a Croat without Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, respectively? The situation that is created is that children born to parents from one religion are taught that they are profoundly different from children born to parents of another religion, and these arbitrary separations that religions make between identical humans, oftentimes lead to exclusion, oppression and war.

3. Because religion teaches people to accept ignorance and stultify curiosity, doubt, irony and other intellectual pursuits. It must be said that some religions do seem to promote the principles of education and learning, but sooner or later all religions have a point where they try to convince people to put their healthy doubt and curiosity to sleep and replace them with faith. In other words, at a certain point, people simply MUST believe things on insufficient, or nonexistent, evidence. Curiosity and doubt, at this point, are seen as negative attributes – challenges to overcome -rather than healthy motivators that should be cultivated. The attempts to snuff out curiosity and doubt will also quickly lead to the desire to suppress irony and humor at the expense of faith. This sometimes leads to furious outbursts of violence over things as silly as cartoons. Religion is the only field of discourse where it is still, for some mysterious reason, considered completely legitimate for a person to claim to know things they cannot possibly know. The only way this charade can continue is if large populations are made to believe that ordinary people are not to be questioned or doubted, or made fun of, when they make ludicrous and self contradictory supernatural proclamations – and it is this that needs to be repudiated.

4. Because the universe is so fantastic, and life is so naturally enchanting, that stultifying our expanding understanding of it and throwing a veil of myth and superstition over it is a tragedy of enormous proportions. Compare the legends from the Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian scriptures to what we can actually see, measure and know about our enormous, ancient and ever expanding universe, through the Hubble telescope, or through scientific theories (like the theory of relativity) that can actually be demonstrated. We now know that all of the basic elements that comprise our world (and all other worlds) were created inside the cores of massive stars which then had to explode in order to scatter these elements. The carbon and water in our bodies, along with the calcium, iron, and the various amino acids that we are made of – giant stars had to explode in order for us to exist. We are literally made of stardust, as Carl Sagan so memorably put it – we are the universe experiencing itself. To know all of this through demonstrable reason and evidence is such an amazingly transcendent thing; made even stronger by the fact that our knowledge about life and the universe keeps expanding at a tremendous rate. To turn away from all of this and to reach for ancient tribal legends is one of the saddest and most unfortunate tragedies one can imagine.

5. Because you can.

No, I am not trying to be facetious here (or not entirely). If you look at human history, there have been very few times and places where you could actually get away with arguing against religion without getting yourself tortured or executed, or both. For a person to express their opinion – any opinion – is a relatively new thing, and something that is still suppressed in many parts of the world. I see it as an honor, not to mention a hard won and long awaited privilege, to express what I think, and to tell people, who can no longer torture me to death, that worshiping bronze aged tribal Middle Eastern campfire legends is nonsense.

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