I have debated here at great length the degree of benefit or harm offered to society by religion. My position is that religion–even in its so-called moderate forms–causes more harm to modern society than it offers in return.
My argument, in summary, is that religion is the direct cause of significant anti-intellectual sentiment in this country, and that this disrespect of logic and reason, as a foundation for public discourse, erodes American society as a whole. I feel that, for most people, separating religion from thought regarding civics, politics, and one’s general approach to life is not possible. And given that, the mixture that inevitably occurs results in an interpretation of the world that inhibits human progress.
The counter-argument I receive most from religious apologists is that the negativity in religion comes from extremists alone, and that moderate religion is nearly invisible in society. They go even further, saying that religion as a whole in America nets a positive effect, if anything.
I strongly disagree, and I think this article from Pew Senior Research Fellow David Masci supports my position. In this article he presents some compelling evidence regarding what American’s really think about their separation between religion and public discourse. I hope the apologists take notice.
- 42% of Americans outright reject evolution
- Another 21% say that evolution was guided by God
- Only 26% think it happened naturally
Are you kidding me? That’s only one quarter of Americans that realize humans evolved naturally. 1 out of 4. It’s not some minority of extremists that reject science in America–it’s the overwhelming majority. And it’s not because they don’t know what scientists believe: nearly two-thirds of adults say they believe scientists agree on evolution. And it’s not that they think science is bad, either. 87% of respondents said scientific developments make society better.
So where’s the disconnect? Simple, they think science is good for some people but not for the religious. If they have to make a choice between what’s scientifically correct and what feels right to them, for religious reasons, they’re going to choose religion. This is precisely the sentiment that seeps into public discourse and causes harm to modern society.
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.
Breathtaking. But it gets worse.
Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.
This, in my opinion, clearly explains why it’s so difficult to debate with the religious right in this country. Quite simply, if facts don’t matter as much as feelings, you have no discussion. I think this can be seen clearly in the current healthcare reform debate. As Johann Hari points out in a recent piece, the problem permeates all areas of discourse:
They insist gay marriage would cause the institution of the family to collapse. In reality, where it has already been introduced in Europe, heterosexual families continue just as before. On the list goes: evolution is a lie, a blastocyst is akin to a baby, torture produces actionable intelligence…
And he goes on to make make my exact point:
How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have “faith” – which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don’t have “faith” Australia exists, or fire burns: you have evidence. You only need “faith” to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.
So, perhaps Hitchens was being a bit hyperbolic when he said, “religion poisons everything”, but it does poison rational debate, and therefore the foundation of modern society. So, yeah, it might as well be everything. And unfortunately, contrary to what the apologists will tell you, this behavior is not isolated to some small subset of believers. Polling has shown us repeatedly that much of the American public is willing to outright reject truth not due to a lack of evidence but directly because of religion.
Teaching people to rely on religious upbringing rather than evidence has direct, negative, and lasting repercussions in our society (stem cell research, abortion, health care, etc.). This type of irrational belief is clearly not something that can be partitioned off from the shared and secular world. And because of this, the practice of teaching people to put religious beliefs before evidence (the very definition of faith) is inherently dangerous. The sooner we all realize this the better off we will be. ::