Monday, January 16, 2012

The Dark Side of Religious Fervor

A friend brought these clips to my attention.  While I don't endorse Christopher Hitchens without qualification (since I have my own opinions), here he summarizes an insight that was crucial to me as I came to doubt my old, naive faith in religion (leaving God out of it for the moment).  Religion doesn't make people better.  I am not certain (as Hitchens is) that it makes them worse, but it certainly can countenance bad things, including some things so bad that they take my breath away.

In at least some cases, religion seems to exacerbate human situations that are already suboptimal, taking something bad and making it truly rotten.  My faith crisis involved seeing this on a small scale in my own life (as I recognized toxic ideas I was clinging to because I had religious faith in them), and on a large scale in the world (where I awoke slowly in the wake of 9/11 to the fact that religion kills as much as it creates, that it is at least as cruel as it is kind, that I was ignoring the vast potential for ruthless destruction that lurked under my innocent willingness to do without question whatever a particular group of older men might tell me to do).  This was something horrible to contemplate, but I am honestly more scared of the results had I not dared to look into the abyss and ask myself, "Do I really want to pledge my soul to somebody else? Can I live with faith in an institution that demands unqualified, uncritical obedience?"


  1. It seems to me that institutions exacerbate human weaknesses and pettiness, not just/necessarily religions. Any time a group of individuals get together on the basis of an agreed "truth" -- be it religious, political, personal, educational, or from any other source -- it risks turning a "living" (if you will) truth into a one-size-fits-all, set-in-stone stereotype that can be used poorly.

    I said that badly. I guess what I mean to say is that the tendency you discuss here seems to be a human tendency rather than a strictly religious one: religions play off of that tendency insofar as they involve humans. But perhaps I am just missing the subtle nuances of your argument, since I admittedly did not watch the clips to which you are responding. *ahem*

  2. I tend to agree with you, Kirsti. Hitchens is the one who thinks that religion is somehow uniquely bad when it comes to creating communities. As I see it, the real problem is one of values: in communities where social values trump intellectual ones, dumb things happen (people blow themselves up in supermarkets because Santa demands it). Hitchens' crusade is properly directed from an intellectual position (morality should make sense) against a social one (morality should be whatever the majority of Santa's elves happen to think), not an atheist crusade against religion. Hitchens would disagree, of course. He just wants people to stop taking Santa seriously, at all.