I recently attended the monthly meeting of SWiFT, a freethinkers group for the Milwaukee area. The group uses the term “freethinkers” I believe to widen the range of members and interests, but I think most of the members would consider themselves to be atheists. They hold meetings on Sunday mornings . . . of course. The December meeting included a good deal of discussion on a broad range of topics of mutual interest. And the thread of discussion that most caught my attention concerned the issue of the extent to which freethinkers should actively oppose religious belief.
Some members felt that we should actively promote a science-based, rational perspective and proactively challenge a faith-based view of the world. Others argued that it was enough that we be comfortable in our own point of view, that if others are content in their religious worldview, we should respect that and leave them to that perspective. As one member put it, what is the harm if someone takes comfort in his or her religion-oriented perspective? I realize that this blog is testimony to the fact that I personally have actively sought to “educate” and, yes, “convert” others to my point of view. But, initially, at least, I thought the member’s comment made sense. However, the more I thought about the issue the more I realized that there are reasons to work actively for a decline in--or, perhaps more accurately, to hasten the end of--religious belief.
The first reason was recently driven home for me by the movie Philomena, a powerful story beautifully acted by Dame Judi Dench and Steven Coogan. This true story concerns the enormous harm done by the Catholic church to a woman by the name of Philomena Lee when, as a teenager in Ireland in the 1950s, she bore a child out of wedlock. The emotional harm done to her by depriving her of her son was heart-wrenching. In brief, religions can cause great harm to individuals through the imposition of misguided rules of conduct because of their misunderstanding of the human condition. If there is an objection that the events of the movie occurred more than 50 years ago and that times have changed, I would point out the more recent horrendous sexual misconduct committed by thousands of priests. And of course there continue to be prejudice against and ostracization of gays and lesbians, there are “honor killings” of women who have suffered rape, there are children dying because their parents relied on faith healing rather than medical science, and there is incarceration and even execution for "religious blasphemy.” In short, the harm done by religion in the name of scriptural authority is morally execrable and inexcusable.
The second reason to seek an acceleration of the demise of religion is perhaps a bit more subtle. I am constantly amazed by the number of people I know who are highly intelligent and yet are devoutly religious. In some cases they have immersed themselves in the religious life and have become clerics or have otherwise devoted a great deal of their intellectual effort to furthering their religious faith. I continually ask myself how that can be. Yet there it is. And why is this a problem? Because I believe those persons, if their intellectual abilities had been channeled properly, could have been powerful advocates for addressing in a more effective fashion the problems we need to deal with, namely, through science and rational analysis.
© 2013 John M. Phillips