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Religion: the necessity of criticism

By John Glazer

John is one of our regular guest writers and this month he explores the question of whether we are permitted to criticise religion. Ever since his younger years, John has questioned religion and, like many of us, never received satisfactory answers.

If you can't see the cat, is it really there? Image generated by Bing AI.

A priest and an atheist are arguing. The priest says the atheist is like a blindfolded man, in a dark room, searching for a black cat that isn’t there. The atheist says the priest is exactly the same, only he claims to have found the cat. This, I think, sums up neatly the dilemma between those who believe in a deity and those who don’t. However, having a faith is not the same as having a religion, and it is religion which, in my view, has caused more problems in the world than it has alleviated.

When I was a child, I thought like a child, but as I entered adolescence and my thought processes started to mature into those of an adult, I started to question the fundamental conundrums of religion. Conundrums such as these: If Adam and Eve had two sons, how did the human race survive? If the Earth was really flooded, where did all that water come from, and where did it go after it stopped raining? And, even more importantly, why did the Bible claim that human beings had existed for only 6,000 years, when science had come to a quite different conclusion?

No satisfactory answers were obtained by asking the adults around me and, of course, the internet, where I might have got some satisfactory answers, was still thirty-five years away. So, on top of my doubts about the veracity of the Bible, I could see that the adults around me, who professed to be practising religion and took the Bible to be the word of God, only believed in those things which suited them. To my young mind this seemed to be the height of hypocrisy.

Back in the 1960s I knew no one who called themselves either an atheist or an agnostic, so I largely kept my thoughts to myself until I became a teenager, when I rebelled against being forced to believe in what I perceived to be an outdated fairy tale. In the 1970s, the Troubles of Northern Ireland came into focus, as two different sects of the same religion clashed violently. Later still, it became obvious that Islam was at war with anyone who wasn’t prepared to accept its view that Muhammad was the last prophet and Allah the one true God.

In addition to the many religious wars that had plagued humanity for centuries and brought misery and death to countless millions of people, troubling stories were emerging about child sexual abuse by religious leaders – and cover-ups by those at the very top. In addition, there were stories about the inhumane treatment of young girls who had fallen pregnant, had their babies taken away from them and been forced to work as slave labour in laundries, primarily located in Ireland although similar institutions existed in other countries as well. One religion even seemed to endorse marriage between men and young girls although, in Islamic jurisprudence, the definition of a marriageable age can vary. It's typically understood as the age at which an individual is considered mentally and physically mature enough to enter into marriage.

In general terms, however, if religion professes to teach a moral code that is about love and kindness and treating other human beings with respect, why did there seem to be so little evidence of it, at least in the three Abrahamic religions, and so much evidence of cruelty and inhumane treatment of the vulnerable?

On a purely technical point, freedom of religion or belief is a human right that has been guaranteed under international law since 1966. It is not just the freedom to hold personal thoughts and convictions, but also the ability to express them individually or with others, publicly or in private. It includes the freedom to subscribe to different schools of thought within a religion, change one’s religion or beliefs, including to leave or abandon religion, and hold non-religious beliefs. In my view, religious leaders are not held sufficiently accountable to these human rights and even in our increasingly secular society there still seems to be a reluctance to do so.

“You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Jonathan Swift

I see religion as outdated, often harmful to society and the individual, an impediment to the progress of science and humanity, and a political tool for social control. The old saying that in polite society it is not the done thing to discuss religion or politics is probably because, where religion is concerned, there is no logical reasoning behind a person’s adherence to their particular religion. It's a case of indoctrination from a very early age. In 1721, Jonathan Swift explained it thus: “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Perhaps true, but by not discussing such matters we allow all of the downsides of religion to be swept under the carpet. In order to advance the human condition and promote a fairer future I strongly believe that criticism of religion is not just desirable but essential.

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