Religion under Scrutiny

Author: Russell Blackford

Religious teachings seem to promise so much. Think of the great religions of the world — they  offer a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives and morally superior conduct, and such extraordinary benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being, liberation from earthly attachments, or a blissful form of personal immortality. All this sounds good, but is any of it actually true?

Many of us doubt it. In 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, Udo Schuklenk and I present essays by atheists and religious skeptics from around the world. All continents except Antarctica are represented.

There’s an overwhelming case to scrutinize religious teachings. Partly it’s the intrinsic importance of religion’s large claims. If any of them are true, let’s find out! In fact, many books have been published arguing for one religious viewpoint or another. Let’s also consider the reasons for disbelief.

The case for scrutinizing religion goes even further. In the 1970s, or even the 1990s, it was possible to think religion had lost its power, and that further challenges to religious doctrines, organizations, and leaders were unnecessary. On this view, all the hard work had been done, and religion was withering away. Against that background, it became almost taboo to criticize religion in the public square; it was widely assumed that religion was retreating, and didn’t shouldn’t be fought anymore.

Well, that was premature, and the situation now looks very different, even in the nations of the West. Religious organizations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults.

We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies; and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to specifically Christian moral concerns.

In the United States, religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right. American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

When religion claims authority in the public square, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority. If religious organizations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? When such questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s entirely healthy.

In a different world, the need to scrutinize religion would be still be present, but rather less urgent. There would still be reasons to want to know whether any of it is true, but the debate would have less edge to it.

There are strong arguments that even if some religion or other is true, we should still separate the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture) from the levers of state power, and that public policy should rely entirely on secular principles. It’s important to put those arguments, and I’ve done so in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, my new book from Wiley-Blackwell.

The arguments should appeal to many or most religious people, as well to non-believers. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State updates Enlightenment views for the twenty-first century. In particular, it presents a clear, modern, relevant version of the ideas of John Locke, who was religious believer.

I believe the arguments are powerful, but I can be sure that they won’t persuade all people, irrespective of their starting points. Many religious sects, including some or many mainstream Christian denominations, don’t want to distinguish between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power. Some of these groups look to a time when their (allegedly) righteous views will prevail in the political sphere, and be imposed by law. If that’s your starting point, I might not change your mind.

We should go on putting the strong arguments for secular government — I most certainly will. But religion itself also merits our scrutiny. There are now many people who do not believe in any God or gods, or in the truth of any doctrines involving supernatural entities and forces, and are prepared to say so in public. Many have interesting reasons for their views, and it’s valuable for all of them — for all of us, I should say — to speak up. We should tell our stories and offer our arguments.

This is a good time for atheists and religious skeptics to join the public debates. There’s no time like now to voice our disbelief.

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