The Larger Issue of Bad Religion

by Mark Isaak

One contributor to this board has commented that religion is never addressed critically here. That’s about to change. Below, I define a criterion for bad religion, explore reasons for its prevalence, and suggest means of combating it. I’m sure many people can find much here to disagree with; I hope they can find things to think about, too.

First, let me clarify that there are really at least two battles for evolution. The first battle is science vs. apathy and poor education generally. That battle, though important, is uncontroversial. The same battle exists for mathematics without excessively raising ire. I will not consider it further here.

The second battle is sometimes called science vs. religion, but such a characterization is grossly misleading. Really, the battle is science, religion, and just about everyone else vs. bad religion.

What is “bad religion”? Everyone has different ideas about what is good in a religion, so it might seem that defining bad religion would be impossibly contentious. But there is one simple criterion which gets to the heart of most religion-related problems and which must be embraced by anyone who accepts the Golden Rule: A person is practicing bad religion if he or she, uninvited, attempts to impose any of their religious beliefs on another. A bad religion is any religion which condones such behavior. Other bad practices and beliefs can appear in religion, but by sticking to that one criterion, we can keep this simple and hopefully less controversial.

On this board, we see bad religion mainly in the form of attempts to ban the teaching of evolution and/or to force the teaching of miraculous creation (aka “intelligent design”). But, as anyone who pays any attention to the news in the United States knows, the battle is far more wide-ranging, covering issues such as putting graven images of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, prohibiting certain love-based marriage, and allowing pharmacists to impose their religious practices on their patients. In other parts of the world, bad religion imposes strictures on every aspect of life and kills people for noncompliance. The problem of bad religion is already widespread, and it appears to be spreading. It must be fought.

To fight it, it might help to understand how bad religion got the prominence it has. Part of the reason is simply because bad religion attracts zealots, zealots make lots of noise, and the media and policymakers pay more attention to noisemakers. It would help, then, if we make more noise ourselves, and emphasize as well that the silent people are with us. Lists such as Project Steve can help here.

Bad religion has also claimed, falsely, the moral high ground. We need to take that away from them. We need to ask why churches today should act as though the Taliban is a role model. Most people believe that there is an intrinsic link between religion and morality, and that belief is going to be hard to dispel. But it hardly matters, because what bad religion pushes is more religiosity than religion. People can tell the difference between doing what is right and pretending to be right.

Bad religion also thinks it has the spiritual high ground. Again, this claim is false. I could go on at some length about how creationists’ attempts to show evidence for God are attempts to bring God himself into the realm of the very naturalism which they disparage, and how creationists often view faith as uncritical acceptance indistinguishable from gullibility, while they practically define themselves with their rejection of a truly valuable faith in the sense of accepting the world as it is. But let us stick to the point of bad religion as religion pushed on others. It is perhaps enough to point out that declaring that one’s own religious beliefs must apply to others, the hallmark of bad religion, is invariably hubris (and creationists go further to declare that their personal views determine the operation of the entire universe). We might also point out that bad religion pushes religion as an end in itself. This puts them in the same category as the hypocrites whom Christ berates in Matthew 23. The spiritual ground taken by bad religion is the lowest of the low. The spiritual high ground goes to those people (and I know many among evolutionists) who go through life cheerfully without mentioning their religion unless asked.

Bad religion becomes particularly prevalent during hard times, when people go to religion for hope, and bad religious leaders find in their followers’ desperation an opportunity for personal power. We need to show people the power-hungry nature of their leaders, but even more than that, we need to educate people that hope is not served by power grabs.

We must recognize that good religion is an ally. Religion, after all, is common to all cultures and has been around many millennia longer than science has. It is not going away any time soon. Nor should it, when it serves people’s needs. Since bad religion and good religion share a common tradition, the perspectives and contacts of good religion can be a valuable asset. But then, good religion should not be our only ally. Our allies are anyone who may be adversely affected by bad religion, and that includes very nearly everybody. We should encourage alliances with politicians, journalists, human rights advocates, popular writers, and anyone else who is willing to help.

Good religion is a particularly effective ally because creationists are scared to death of it. Creationists base everything on the message that they have the one true way to God. Every instance of a religious evolutionist calls that message into question (and exposes creationists as damned liars when they equate evolution with atheism). In Scientific Creationism, Henry Morris spends most of the book arguing against science, but his real vitriol is reserved for the section where he complains about other religious views.

Some people think religion cannot be rational and thus cannot be a true ally in science teaching. To them, I will point out that the irrationality they see, even though it may exist more than you like in good religion too, is not an essential part of religion. People can and do practice religion rationally. Others among the religious may object to working with atheists. To them, I suggest that they are approaching the criterion for joining bad religion. More generally, if you cannot cooperate with other decent people, the problem is not with the other people.

The issues here are far more complex than one can cover in one thread. I believe they should at least be introduced, and I encourage people to think about them more.

Mark Isaak is a contributor to the TalkOrigins Archive.