The last few years have seen a renewed enthusiasm for atheism and secularism in much of the world and debates between believers and non-believers have become ever more vigorous. One distinction that is frequently made, particularly by theists, is that between faith and religion. Whether such a distinction is meaningful or relevant does not fall within the purview of this debate, which focusses entirely on religion in the ordinary meaning of the word. In addition it will focus primarily on the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) purely on the basis that they represent the largest of the world’s religious traditions.
Debates on religious issues are notoriously challenging because the burdens of proof can vary hugely and the term covers so many traditions and so many exceptions- that there always seems to be a counterfactual available to any evidence-based argument. Take, for example, the well publicised and widely discussed Roman Catholic prohibition on contraception. From a purely secular perspective, the decision makes no medical sense. However, from a religious standpoint it encourages abstinence and faithfulness, which are seen as valuable normative goals in and of themselves.
It would be wrong to ignore the fact that debates on religious issues also have a tendency to be heated and, in the case of public debates, can be frustrating because of the reluctance of anyone in the room to criticise their own views. However, precisely because of these factors, discussions on the value of religion for excellent training and competitive debate topics. Debates on religion compel speakers and adjudicators not only to question their own views but to focus on the structure of arguments themselves, rather than relying on frameworks of assumed knowledge, as can often be the case in political debates.
Usually, debates on this motion run along the lines of the impact of religious organizations on various moral issues and the groups affected by them. Abortion, gay marriage, women’s rights and others tend to come up. A common theme also tends to be the extent to which organisations are responsible for the actions of individuals who profess that particular faith. There is a frequent claim that religions- or the organisations that represent them- get to pick and choose. As a result, the argument goes, Islam is not responsible for terrorist atrocities nor is the Catholic Church culpable for child sex abuse. It’s an interesting distinction and one that is likely to exercise both sides of the debate.
Efforts to play the same argument the other way around against secularism do not really work, as it is difficult to find an instance of acts comparable to religiously sponsored intolerance being committed as a direct result of the actions of secularism. Opposition teams often resort to the use of examples that break Goodwin’s law. A desperate opposition team may discuss that securalist or atheist tendencies of Hitler and Stalin – although rarely to any effect.
Ultimately this is a debate that is all about defining the parameters of discussion. It is all too easy for it to degenerate into general assertions about charity and bigotry and yet there is plenty of fact on both sides.
It is a basic tenant of all religions that they divide humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – believers and non-believers. However, the divisions of society perceived by religious believers do not stop there, and have a tendency to reflect the social and moral views of an earlier and far less progressive age.
As well as condemning those who practice other faiths, or who choose to follow no faith, they have fought, and continued to fight, the expansion of the rights of women and of socially marginalised castes, among other social groups. All of the major churches and sects have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, and most of them are still desperately trying to ignore the existence of modernity. While justifying their political and moral positions through obtuse and deliberately obscure interpretations of religious texts, obscure texts even the mainstream interpretations of major religions are usually sexist, frequently racist and almost universally homophobic.
Preventing access to contraception is the single largest block to women getting out of poverty. There are many other examples of the excesses and double standards of mainstream religion – too many examples to pick one.
All of the major religions teach respect for others regardless of whether people agree with their lifestyle or beliefs. That’s a huge advance on much of secular thought – quite without the help of religious organisations, prejudice exists within the worlds of business, politics and science. It seems a little unfair to single out one area of life. At least religious organisations are based on the belief that everybody should be treated with respect, which is not a claim that could be made be most political creeds.
In addition there are few social changes that have not involved religious radicals at their foundation. Rightly or wrongly, major religious organisations tend to reflect the views of the societies of which they are a part. It seems unfair to blame the religious organisations for that.
It is also worth distinguishing between nations where one religious belief is wide-spread and almost normative in nature, and those where it is far more of a choice. If women or homosexuals chose to join a church in a pluralist society, presumably they are not expecting to be a priest.
Particularly in the case of contemporary Islam, although other historical examples could be referred to, the combination of certainty and the promise of life after death is a sure route towards violence. That said, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland demonstrated this until recently; the Yugoslav wars between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, both sides of the battle for Israel/Palestine and many others in history could also be thrown into the mix.
Allowing people the opportunity to claim that “God’s on our side” can be used to justify anything, especially when He appears to be fighting on both sides.
Many people have been keen to wrap themselves in the trappings of religion just as they do in the flag or in the rhetoric of one political ideology or another.
Seeking to associate one’s opinions with one creed or another is the oldest trick in the ideologue’s book.
The fact that men of violence claim to be doing things in the name of peaceful religions tells us very little about the religions themselves. In the modern world they is no reputable religious leader doing so and those minority leaders who attempt to are generally condemned and ostracized by the principle leaders of their faiths.
Laying responsibility for violence at the foot of religion as a whole gives credibility to a handful of extremists – in much the same way that conflating patriotism and fascism would.
Although in much of the world the days of the crusades and the inquisition may be gone, there are plenty of nations were religious disobedience still is still punished harshly, summarily or extra-judicially. In other countries, semi-official militias are left to enforce the minutiae of religious law, although usually in such a way as to disadvantage women and others already persecuted in society.
It should be noted that what tends to be the focus of such persecution is a lack of adherence to an ultra-orthodox position. It is frequently a cover for political or social prejudice. Charges of heresy or apostasy are easy to level and nigh on impossible to disprove.
Even beyond these extremes, demands for religious observance play out in US elections and, inexplicably, the views of religious leaders are sought on areas where they really have no relevant expertise at all, such as advances in medical progress. Those who disagree on matters such as stem cell research or gay rights are, apparently, arguing with the Almighty.
Secularism is a peculiarly Western European concern. In most of the world religious observance is taken very seriously. Denying people access to the guidance of religious leaders flies in the face of allowing people freedom of choice and conscience.
Secularists routinely, and somewhat arrogantly, insist that their voices must be heard but those of people of faith, despite representing the overwhelming view of humanity, should be silenced.
Equally where there are religious precepts incorporated within the law. One of the oldest systems of secular, state arbitrated law- the common law of England- is based largely on religious principles. For secularists to attack religious people for criticizing difference, when all they are really saying is that most people aren’t secularists, is the height of hypocrisy.
Most of the world takes religious observance very seriously and expect their beliefs to be respected by their international political leaders and others
In a world consumed by the belief that the only thing in life that genuinely matters is money, religious bodies serve as a welcome reminder that other activities- besides “wealth creation”- can be meaningful and valuable too. In addition to promoting morality and spirituality within society they have also, historically, been sponsors of great art and music.
The fact that religions are also international organisations bring perspectives that believers in some countries may find uncomfortable, but which act as a reminder of more universal truths – primarily, altruism.
The simple reality is that religious organisations in most of the world are all too willing to involve themselves in ecumenical politics and issue declarations on economic matters. Equally, presenting the absurd and grotesque wealth and power of the world’s major religions as having anything to do with quiet spiritualism is, frankly, absurd.
In some circumstances, major religions can provide international perspective but, all too often, that simply means importing the most reactionary position available – African Anglicans on gay ordination in the US; the mediaeval views from Islam in the Middle East into discussions on the rights of women in European migrant communities. Generally this brand of internationalism simply reopens social battles that were settled a century and more ago in the West
At times of great need or celebration, religious communities and organisations are often the only organisations that seem fit to the task of marking them.
This principle applies both in people’s own lives, with the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, but it can also apply to national events. At times of great tragedy it is frequently the main religious community that is expected to sum up the mood of a nation and to provide explanation and succour. It is difficult to see how a politician, jurist or academic could fulfill that role so well.
It is interesting that although we may ignore the day-to-day role of religion in society and in communities, at moments of great trial, or great celebration, it is to religious rites that most people turn.
It is an interesting defence of a position to note that people only really turn to it when they are emotionally vulnerable and their mental faculties are at their weakest. It’s scarcely a clarion defence of the benefits or religious observance or practice.
It is no doubt true that when we need an explanation for the apparently inexplicable- the death of a child, say- there is more comfort to be found in the ministrations of a cleric than that of a statistician. However that in no way makes the cleric, or their creed, right.
The cold hard truth is that personal and national tragedies do have logical explanations, it just happens that we may not want to hear them at the time. However, any other credo which used other peoples emotional weaknesses to push their view of the world and the universe would be treated with contempt. For some reason, religion gets a pass.
Whether sending food support in famine zones, providing education, hospices or a vast range of other charitable activities, religious organisations are streets ahead. In addition they frequently are the only organisations willing to go into certain high risk areas throughout the world.
I addition in many sociogeographic areas, especially those of urban poverty, priests may be the only professional that many hundreds of people can access. Churches and mosques are frequently the only place of sanctuary and peace.
In addition religious organisations have historically been the first to provide education and healthcare with nation states following their example.
Religious education frequently has more to do with indoctrination than anything else, as is seen in so-called schools where reciting the Koran or Talmud passes for education or in privately funded education in the UK and US where evolution is taught as ‘just another theory’.
In terms of tackling poverty, there is no doubt that many religious organisations- especially the Catholic Church- provide enormous quantities of relief to the poverty directly caused by their policies in the first place.
No single cause of poverty, especially among women, is greater than denying women access to contraception, closely followed by denying them access to education. As the woman is frequently the primary care giver, their poverty affects their children.
Blair, Tony, 'Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century's epic battles', The Guardian, 25 January 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/25/religious-differenc...
Goodrich, Terry, 'Do Reli9gious People Love Their Neighbors? Yes -- Some Neighbors', Baylor University, 23 January 2014, http://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=13...