What’s wrong with religion?

(Photo by Fernando Venzano on Unsplash)

Excerpted from Debating Religion: A How-To Guide by Ami Toben (Amazon Digital Services, 2019). Reprinted with permission from the author.

I would not be advocating religious debate if I thought that religion was perfect, that there was nothing wrong with it. Though the various arguments in this book will go into great detail regarding much of what’s wrong with religious thinking, let me list some of the most basic problems with it.

1. Religion makes people believe things that are false. It really does make a difference if a person believes that the universe is only 6000 years old, that diseases have spiritual causes and cures, that creationism is true, that prayer works or that Allah wants Islam to spread over the whole planet (even through violence if necessary). People’s actions are dictated by their beliefs, and false beliefs lead to bad courses of action.

2. Religion teaches people to think illogically. It teaches people that objective-truth claims about the universe can be supported by subjective, faith-based personal beliefs. It teaches people to leap to non sequitur faith-based conclusions about the world. It teaches people to subjectively cherry-pick which deities they think exist and which religious laws should be followed while arbitrarily dismissing the validity of all others. It teaches people to employ bias, wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance in order to square various religious circles and quiet their logical minds in the face of blatant contradictions. Faulty logic leads to faulty beliefs, which lead to bad courses of action.

3. Religion teaches people to accept their ignorance rather than use it as a motivator for exploration and free inquiry. It teaches people to quiet their curiosity and skepticism and to be content with mysteries rather than try to abolish them and learn more about the world.

4. Religion teaches people to be credulous. It teaches people to rely on faith rather than investigation and verification. It teaches people to take the word of ancient anonymous writers as unquestionably true rather than use their natural skepticism. It teaches people to believe first and ask questions later, or not at all.

5. Religion makes people believe they are cosmically different from other people, creating sectarianism and strife. Only religion can convince people that there’s a cosmically important difference between Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Hindus, Sunni and Shia. And it teaches people that these differences start from birth, as if a baby born to a Hindu family is somehow different from one born to a Jewish or Mormon family. You can indeed argue that there are some geographical and cultural differences between people. But supposed deep distinctions between people based on ancient literature or their belief in different ghosts and ancient stories are not among those differences.

6. Religion makes arbitrary separations between morality and human well-being. Destructive and deadly ideas like suicide bombing or prohibiting people from using condoms during an AIDS epidemic can be viewed by religions as moral, while equal rights for women (half the world’s population) and research into life-saving medical cures are somehow immoral. This has enormous consequences, most of which are negative, on the lives of billions of people.

7. As Darwin pointed out, there’s grandeur in the non-religious view of life. There’s grandeur in how nature really is, in the scientific process that can reveal how it is. To ignore grandeur on this scale or to try to cover it up with mere mysticism is beyond sad. What the Hubble telescope has revealed to us about our cosmos, the mind-bending discoveries that people like Einstein and Hawking have made—to deny or conceal such things, to hold back humanity’s advances in knowledge and technology in favor of made-up stories about ghosts and magic, is a huge tragedy.

Ami Toben is a security expert and freelance writer who’s been debating and writing about religion for over a decade. His knowledge comes from years of active debates with hundreds of people from all faiths, analyzing what does and doesn’t work and synthesizing the most effective ways to debate religion. Born and raised in Israel, Toben had studied the bible in its original Hebrew for twelve years before studying and experiencing many of the worlds religions while living in Asia and in the US.

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