Would the world be a better place without religion?
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The title says it all. Religion is not something author Christopher Hitchens finds merely unhelpful, unpleasant, or out of place within his own life. Rather, religion is “a poison . . . a menace to civilization . . . a threat to human survival.”1
Sam Harris agrees. His 2004 work, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris likens religion to the medieval practice of alchemy. He suggests that all “faith-based religion must suffer the same slide into obsolescence.”2
These are not new arguments. A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud described religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis.”3 He believed that humans created religion as a coping mechanism in light of their fears and unfulfilled desires.4 But science, he argued, has shown religious belief to be an illusion that must be rejected for human civilization to march forward.5
Are these modern critics right? Is religion not only a pathetic delusion, but a detriment to all of humanity? Let’s set aside the issue of whether specific religious beliefs are objectively true and take a look at the more pointed question: Would the world be a better place without religion?
Religion and Terrorism
On one level, this question is virtually impossible to answer. How does one calculate the overall costs and benefits of religion over the scope of human history?
Yet no one can deny that there are many tragic events in history in which religion has played a key role. Most obviously, one thinks of violence, wars, crusades, and terrorism done in the name of religious extremism.
But is religion the chief cause in all these instances? How much do other motives—such as greed, politics, survival, duty, bloodlust, or even nationalism—play a more prominent role?6
Let’s consider recent terrorist activity. Many suicide bombers claim affiliation with a religious group. Naturally, critics like Hitchens and Harris use these incidents as Exhibit A to illustrate the violent results of genuine religious belief. But what if religion isn’t the primary motivation for such events?
Terrorism expert Mia Bloom asserts that humiliation, desire for fame from martyrdom, and political resistance to the governing authorities are the primary motives of suicide terrorism in Palestine and Sri Lanka (which account for the majority of attacks in recent years).7 Moreover, Robert Pape, another expert on terrorism, studied every single recorded terrorist suicide attack from 1980 to 2004 and concluded that 95 percent of all attackers were motivated not by religious reasons, but by clear strategic and political objectives to end the threat of foreign occupation. “Absent the goal of compelling modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly,” Pape writes, “suicide terrorism hardly occurs.”8 If we are honest with this data—that violence is often caused by nonreligious factors—then religion should no longer be made the default scapegoat.
The Good of Religion
On the flip side, how do you account for all the good religion has done?
It was monks and Christian leaders who increased literacy rates and preserved so many ancient writings during the Middle Ages.9 It was religion that inspired the greatest architecture of the Byzantine Empire and the most celebrated art of the Renaissance. It was religious conviction that drove groundbreaking scientists like Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Blaise Pascal. And it was Christians like William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela who led the most important Western movements against slavery and racism.
These are just a few examples. But they certainly suggest one cannot simply dispense with religion in hopes of making a better world. In fact, a strong case could be made to the contrary.
What Is Religion?
A fundamental problem we must face is the notoriously difficult task of defining religion. Unfortunately, Hitchens chose not to define religion—even though his book is about religion. The same goes for Sam Harris. As a result, they are able to pick and choose what accounts for religion (and is worth condemning) and what does not.
It is easy to see belief systems like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism as religions. But what about other ideologies?
Religion scholar William Cavanaugh notes that “a survey of religious studies literature finds totems, witchcraft, the rights of man, Marxism, liberalism, Japanese tea ceremonies, nationalism, sports, free market ideology, and a host of other institutions and practices treated under the rubric of religion.”10 Scholars treat each of these things as religions because they function asreligions in their ability to stir passions, evoke commitment, unify groups of people, deify abstract concepts, and legitimize beliefs and actions.
If this is the case, shouldn’t we also question their existence when they lead to harmful outcomes in society? Why aren’t Hitchens and Harris calling for an end to sports and video games?
Cavanaugh contends that separating “secular” from “religious” ideologies allows secular ones— such as patriotism, free market capitalism, and American civil religion—to be seen as rational, valueless, and superior over traditional religion and its irrational tendencies. This is a modern construction; “there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion.”11
That’s not to say the term “religion” is useless. But it means that ideologies often labeled as secular or simply not categorized as religious should receive no less scrutiny than religion. Put another way, perhaps we should be asking: Wouldn’t the world be better off without patriotism? Capitalism? Marxism? Liberalism? Any “ism,” really?
Religion and Drugs
One other analogy may be helpful. Ultimately, the question of religion’s costs and benefits is akin to asking: Wouldn’t the world be better off without drugs?” Perhaps it would. One can immediately conjure up images of all the destructive effects of drugs like cocaine, heroine, and even alcohol. But what about the drugs millions of us take every day to mitigate pain, prevent diseases like malaria, and treat illnesses like diabetes, HIV, and cancer? Think of a world with no medicine. It’s a hard to imagine.
Even in a culture where chemical substances are often abused, we all recognize their extraordinary value. In the same way, even when religion is sometimes abused, it’s hard to imagine a world without its contributions.