It is time that atheists came out. And agnostics, too, for that matter. It is time that a blight on all humanity was recognized as such, its terribly harmful effects and its lack of truth being very important elements of that blight. It is time that the highly desirable acceleration of the decline of religious belief was given extra impetus by continual injections of contrary opinions from those that have been too silent for too long. Not one of the religions is worthy of exemption from the powerful criticisms that it is not difficult to muster.
This silence, not a total silence, of course, is a state that has endured over the centuries. And now, in 2001, the Government of the State of Victoria has passed a bill that ‘will make unlawful serious or harmful abuse or expressions of hatred or contempt for a person’s race or religion. (Rob Hulls, Attorney General of Victoria, in a letter dated 29/5/01 to the present writer.) So here is how things stand: a citizen of Victoria may now break the law in that State if he or she criticizes an influence on the people that is both harmful and untrue. One may break the law, that is, by speaking the truth. Hatred does not come easily to me, but I have a deep contempt for religion, which, in this document, I seek deliberately to express.
The reasons for religion’s longevity are many. Humankind’s difficulty in understanding the world meant that ignorance in many important matters was universal. That ignorance has been receding over the last few centuries, despite the intense opposition of religion; there has been little need for a long time now to turn to the myths of religion in seeking a true understanding of the world. Great philosophers and great scientists have opened our eyes and, we should hope, our minds. Theologians are, and belong, in the unknowing past. The right of a person to be religious is not, of course, disputed here.
Further, the opinion that religion is somehow ‘good’ has been fostered over the centuries, and many people feel that it should not be criticized. That is, it may be said, a kind of indoctrination has occurred. So people with strong arguments that refute religious belief weaken in any resolve to take a stand. They have thoughts like this: “Oh, people are entitled to their opinions, [of course they are] so I should leave religion alone.” That is, they condone, (yes, I emphasize that word) for one thing, the appalling dictatorship from the Vatican, a dictatorship that insists, among other things, that women, millions of them living in poverty, in parts of the world, must continue to give birth to unwanted babies. In July of 2001, news services informed us that a Roman Catholic Archbishop in South America was demanding publicly that members of the faith must not use condoms. Nothing new about that demand, of course: that is the unwavering policy of the dictatorship. The church has its own, facile, explanation for that policy. But more adherents of the faith; more jobs for clerics; more money for already overflowing coffers; more power for the functionaries of the dictatorship; those are the things that really matter.
By not challenging religious beliefs, atheists and agnostics condone the results of the truly awful murderous hatreds in Ireland, the Middle East, in Indonesia and Pakistan, in Afghanistan and the Balkans and India, and all those other places where religions exert their power over people. Some consider that their success, say, in business or in politics or in some other activity, would be jeopardized were they to reveal themselves as opponents of religious belief. And so on and so on. There is hardly an end to the harmful effects of religious belief. Yet many atheists and agnostics believe that it should be protected despite knowing the harm that it does.
Humankind is not up to the task of taking seriously and practising the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount. You need only to look at much of the conduct of the so-called Christian nations over the centuries and just recently for that matter. I have in mind the events in the Balkans a couple of years ago. And I have in mind particularly here, the reaction of the church to the bombing atrocities in Yugoslavia and later Iraq. What reaction? you may well ask. I thought the silence of the wide Christian community, not to mention other religions, contemptible. I was prompted to send this brief letter to The Australian newspaper. It was published on 17/2/01, but the final sentence was omitted. I wonder why?
Bomb-happy-bogus-lefty Blair, pal of Beazley and Gallop, lackey of the supreme-court-elected Bush, has again joined in the dropping of death on Baghdad. Christian leaders everywhere should join in protest. But they will not, of course.
Religion is not only not good; it is positively harmful. On top of that, and perhaps even more to its discredit, it is not true. (And I am about to use an argument of Bertrand Russell’s here.) There is a number of major religions. They differ from one another in important respects. It follows as a matter of simple logic that not more than one of them can be true. Atheists think that not one of them is true. As for the harm that religion does, consider first this example: in many parts of the world people kill one another in its name. That is true. Little children, in many parts of that same world, are indoctrinated with opinions that cannot stand up to scrutiny. That is true. Over much of the world, unwanted little children are born because there is religious objection to other than church-approved means of contraception. That is true. Criticisms of religion are so very easy to come by. Remarkably, the pope, himself, has recently made apologies for his church’s terrible behaviour over the centuries. Those admissions suggest that the church is on very shaky ground and so it deserves to be! And luminaries from all the branches of religious belief, do have so much scope for many words of contrition. Really, though, how can so many truly believe the virgin birth story, or the story of the resurrection, or that should you die for your religion you will go straight to heaven? As for the question of the virgin birth, I shall include this comment from Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. The Sunday Age thought it wise to omit it from a letter of mine that was published on 5/2/1995:
Take, for example, the matter of the alleged virgin birth. It is fairly widely known, but of course not much mentioned, that the words “young woman,” were mistranslated from Hebrew to Greek as ‘virgin.’ Thus: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene 1989.
What of faith? If there are religious teachings that you badly want to believe, or being a religious leader you badly want others to believe, but there is no proof of their truth, what do you do? You rely on faith. Russell said: “Faith is a belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Someone else wrote: “Faith is believing in what you know to be false.” (When I write of truth, I am using the opinion that a statement or belief is true when it corresponds with fact. If it is a fact that a god exists, then it is a true statement to say that he does.)
Atheists and agnostics should not be afraid to proclaim their unbelief or doubts about the existence of god and other religious so-called truths. What evidence is there for the belief that Jesus Christ existed? Bertrand Russell wrote that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed. Unbelievers should not be afraid to come out. The press has been more receptive to the opinions of unbelievers in recent years than was earlier the case. The new laws against free speech in Victoria, however, will very likely mean a retreat by the press. Religion has had its opportunities for so long now to show the world that, even if it is not true, it is at least ‘good.’ It has failed dismally the world’s peoples. It is time for it to be regarded as the ancient, harmful and untrue institution that it is. Enough of superstition!
By John Rawson