On the intellectual edge of the current debate over religion, but very near the emotional core of it, is the claim that religion is not only false, but evil.
There are a number of objections that may be raised to such a vast condemnation. Only very rarely, however, do I see the most obvious. One would think, given the ethos of science with modern atheists, that theists would be faster to point out the lack of evidence for such an assertion – or the evidence to the contrary.
This is not to say that I am terribly proud of the evidence. The correlation between religious commitment and altruism should be much stronger than it is. But, if sociologists and anthropologists have established that believers need to be better at practicing the truths we claim, they’ve completely undermined the idea that religion is a cause of great evil.
For myself, it is this evidence (and not perpetual references to the crusades and atheist regimes) that settles the matter. What is more interesting is the shyness of both sides to actually engage with the data. But one should think that those who reference science so frequently on the issue of God’s existence would be interested in science on this point as well.
While I have my suspicions about the reasons for this omission, it does not do to dwell on them. But I think it fair to conclude from this that, whatever is said, the current anti-theist movement is grounded on something other than science.
Nor is it grounded on history. Only the most sophomorically Manichean understanding could lead one to the condemnation of religion as some singular force of evil in history. Or, for that matter, to any conclusion about religion as a singular force of any sort. Any critique of religion which begins under the assumption that all religions can be spoken of in the same breath is bound to fail – yet, this is only the first in a long series of factual errors leading to these conclusions.
But I find some solace in that the deepest problem with condemning religion as evil has been pointed out. This is the simple question of the basis for such condemnation. The pagan can understandably condemn Christianity for upsetting the divine order, the Muslim may do so for it’s rejection of Allah, and the Platonist for rejecting the universal good. Whatever we may think of these views, they are consistent with themselves.
The modern critic of religion en masse, however, is almost universally a moral relativist. And one cannot, if she is rational, summon moral outrage at religion while simultaneously claiming that morality is simply a matter of social convention.
Oddly, most atheists with whom I have debated answer this by pointing out that they are not wholly rational. That such morals are simply a matter of their cultural background. How much such morals are owed to Christianity is a matter for another time. Still, the sting seems here to be gone. If I am being asked to believe in something (all religion is evil) on the grounds of a standard that is admittedly irrational, I see no reason why I should be expected to produce a rational defense of my own moral system (God is the source of good). Much less do I see why I should abandon God on the grounds of culturally relative ethics when the majority of people in my culture claim that belief in God is a good thing.
In the end, we are both proselytizing. It is a matter of no small debate whether my theistic beliefs are rational. It seems, however, to be a settled matter that the current secular position, insofar as it makes a moral claim against religion, is irrational.
The last thing I desire, however, is for atheists do abandon their ethics in favor of pure rationality. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that ethics are both as undeniable and unprovable as the physical universe. Rather than crying foul for want of proof, let us look to the most rational (that is, the most consistent) explanation for morality and the universe.
In my view, that would be the divine maker of all ethics, and all rationality.