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                                         A force for evil?

                                                                        AC Grayling

                                                                       July 9, 2007


I don't know whether there was intentional irony in holding a debate on the question, "Is religion a force for good in the modern world?" last Saturday, July 7, rather than some other day, 7/7 being one of the iconic dates relating to contemporary religion-inspired mass murder, but no one mentioned it from either the platform or the floor during the debate's course. (You can listen to a recording of the debate here.)

That, in its way, is an interesting fact: we are conscious that the families and friends of those murdered in London in the 7/7 atrocity each have a life sentence of memory to bear because of it, yet the murderers did no lasting damage to the body of society as such, illustrating the futility and pointlessness of such acts, which in the end hurt individuals alone - the victims, and those who grieve - and also the cause and beliefs in whose name the atrocity was committed. For the world has changed: now when people do vile things in the name of their religion, prompted and encouraged by their interpretation of it, screaming the name of their deity as they do it, what can the reaction be but disgust, directed both at the contemptible actors themselves and the world-view they invoke.

Everything human has its lunatic fringe, and we could dismiss those who kill for their superstitions as such if they were such. But the truth is that religion itself is the lunatic fringe of human thought, and that is why we see scores or hundreds murdered daily for sectarian reasons, infantile mobs yelling in the streets of Pakistan over a book they have not read, religious organisations tearing themselves apart because of their ancient prejudices against homosexuals (as if there were not genuine problems in the world to be exercised about), and much, much more besides that is puerile, nauseating or plain dangerous.

Religion's apologists in the formerly Christian western world salve their embarrassment at the way religion flaunts its true colours in these ways by fixing their gaze, and attempting to turn that of their critics, to the pleasant folk who shake hands with each other in an English country church on Sunday mornings - a much dwindled and still dwindling rump of folk, true, but harmless and even admirable for the cakes they bake for the Saturday fete, raising money for developing world children and other good causes. They waste their time in trying this on: for the kindness of such folk would still be there if they had never heard of religion and if their country town had no parish church with decorated arcading in its south porch. For kindness needs no ideology; ideologies (including religions, the prime examples of such) are required for unkindness, division, mayhem and murder.

In the debate last Saturday the old argument was run that we who criticise religion are imposing our own straw-man definition of "religion" on religionists. So let me make quite clear what I mean by the word. I use it to mean belief, typically organised into doctrine, in the existence of one or more invisible beings who, again typically, command human beings to live and act in certain ways, and reward or punish accordingly. That is the essence of the thing, no matter how slippery the gloss, how polysyllabic, how evasive and gestural, how cloaked in appeals to mystery and depth and the convenience of our own epistemic limitations, that theologians and apologists invoke in their continuous attempts to move the goalposts whenever they come into the firing line for holding what is, fundamentally, exactly the same kind of commitment - exactly the same intellectual delusion - as is involved in believing that there are pixies and gnomes lurking invisibly among the rhododendrons.

Nothing that is not in essence this is a religion. If a world-view and an attached ethics does not premise the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, typically as the explanation (!) of its existence, as determiners of its point, and as arbiters of the right behaviour for humanity, it is not a religion; it is a philosophy at best, and an outlook anyway, but it is not religion.

And here is the problem. Religion premises an absolute authority over the self, which trumps everything else. In the 16th and 17th centuries "Papism" was both hated and feared in Protestant countries because Roman Catholics had a higher loyalty to the pope than to their temporal rulers and their fellows in society. They were thus seen as potential betrayers and subverters, and Guy Fawkes (would-be perpetrator of a 5/11) proved them right. The "higher loyalty" of religionists to their equivalent of pixies and gnomes places some of them actually, and all of them uncomfortably in principle, in the same boat.

And so they all hasten to distance themselves from their extremists - all religions have them - and to assert their peace-loving credentials, a claim that rings very hollow indeed in the light of history and their own sacred texts (which they have to cherrypick and heavily reinterpret to make them halfway acceptable, so filled are they with testimony against that claim), to say nothing of every day's newspaper reports under our noses.

In my contribution to the debate last Saturday I said that religion is a force for ill in the world because although there are sincere religionists, and although some religious organisations do charitable work (but 80% of British charities are non-religious, and non-religious people give more to charity than self-described adherents to a faith), they create divisions which too often lead to conflicts, teach false beliefs, and premise morality on fallacious foundations; and that the principal victims of religions are children and - overwhelmingly - women.

It would have been enough to read aloud from the day's newspapers to make the case that religion is, overall and by a large margin, a force for ill in today's world, but these general points merit statement and constant iteration, in the hope that as water wears away stone, it will conduce to a desirable effect: first, that religion will recede into the private domain where it belongs if it belongs anywhere, and secondly, that the business of freeing the mind of mankind from its distorting and imprisoning absurdities can begin; to start with, by protecting small children from the abuse of brainwashing and proselytisation in "faith-based" institutions and the legal requirement for "acts of worship" in every school - remembering that children are not born Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Jew, despite what the first and last of these would say, but have to be manipulated into becoming so by conditioning and lies.

No doubt people will still find reason to quarrel, and peoples will still find reasons to go to war with each other; but in the absence of the portmanteau appeal, the all-trumping, simplistic, total motivation that religion provides to people who think it gives them divine sanction to murder strangers, that indeed makes the murder of strangers a moral good, there will have to be much sounder arguments and much better evidence available for doing evil. At present, all that evil needs is the name of faith.


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com


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