Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Condemning the Teaching of Religion

I have been writing a series in which I have been focusing on the wrongness of religion. So far in this series I have argued that:

1: In "Religion as Child Abuse" I argued that teaching religion to children does not automatically count as ‘abuse’, because it lacks the desire to do harm or indifference to harm done to the child.

(2) In "Teaching Religion," I rejected the idea that a prohibition on indoctrinating children even made sense. Educating a child necessarily means teaching children what to think. Even the issue of teaching children how to think is subject to disagreement. Still, even though it is not necessarily ‘abuse’ to teach children false beliefs, it is still bad insofar as false beliefs lead to mistakes – and some mistakes can be very costly.

(3) In "Religion and Bad Desires" I said that it is also bad to teach religion to children insofar as it involves teaching children bad desires – desires that thwart the child’s own desires, desires that make the child grow up to act in ways that harm others (particularly through the harmful legislation they support), and desires that waste time an energy because the individual pursues things that can never happen.

(4) Yet, in "The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion", I said that combating the badness of teaching religion to children, we must have a strong presumption against the use of violence (whether direct violence, or through coercive legislation) against beliefs and practices we do not agree with. Instead, the legitimate tools (for all but the most extreme cases) are words and private actions.

Today, I will add that even in the realm of words and private actions, far less is being done than should be done to counter the teaching of false beliefs and bad desires to children.

The Obligation to Condemn Religion

On the issue, the main message of those who have become the public advocates of atheism is correct. For far too long, people have not been raised with the inappropriate and costly attitude that they should have a social aversion to criticizing the fact that religions teach false beliefs and bad desires. In fact, it has been socially prohibited to even suggest that a religion can have these faults.

In saying this, these advocates of atheism have been blaming ‘religious moderates’ and others for this social flaw. In fact, it came mostly from academic, liberal philosophies such as cultural relativism and post modernism – philosophies that said that no world view could be called ‘better’ than another and that criticism is always, fundamentally unjustified.

It is a good thing that the social restrictions against criticizing religion are being lifted. However, they have not yet been lifted by as much as they need to be. An aversion to giving criticism, like any aversion, once learned, does not disappear instantly. It has to be unlearned. At first, giving religion the criticism it deserves for its false beliefs may be unsettling. However, it is still important.

False beliefs lead to mistakes that do real harm to the life, health, and well-being of the agent or to others. Agents with bad desires are a threat to themselves and to others, or waste their time in the pursuit of ends that can never be realized because the things the agents are working for are not real.

Religion, of course, is not the sole source of false beliefs and bad desires. However, it is a source, and a legitimate target for those concerned with reducing the harms that false beliefs and bad desires bring about.

People still show far too much favor towards religion. If a person withholds medical care from a child, we condemn the parents. When the parents say that they do so for religious reasons, the habit is still to back off and say, “Then that’s alright; you shall not be condemned for following your religion.” The proper answer would be to say, “A religion that causes parents to contribute to the death and suffering of their own child is particularly vile.”

'Unconstitutional' vs 'Wrong'

Set aside the constitutional issues involved in those issues where the separation of church and state are involved. Instead, focus on the fact that religion has made the individual a threat to their own children. “Your actions weaken the child’s resistance to the false beliefs and bad desires that religions promote, making the world a worse place than it would otherwise have been. For the sake of those made to suffer and die as a result of the views you promote, we need to resist the policies that do so much harm.”

There should be no qualms in saying (insofar as it is true), “Because of your religion, you have adopted a lifestyle of promoting ignorance and misery. You have made this your legacy, that your life is devoted to standing in the way of important medical advances that can reduce or eliminate much of the world’s suffering, opposing policies that would be prevent disease and fight poverty, working to reduce the quality of life of innocent people who would otherwise be productive and cooperative members of society, and waste countless resources in pursuit of a myth that could otherwise have been spent bringing about positive real-world change. This is the type of person that you have become because of your religion. It is not something to be proud of.”

In the realm of words and private actions, there should be no quarter given to those who promote false beliefs and bad desires.


These types of statements will probably anger those who they target.

So what? Since when is it a defense against wrongdoing that the wrongdoers might react angrily to an accusation? Imagine a defense attorney in a court of law saying, against the testimony of a witness, “I object! Prosecution is eliciting responses from the witness that make my client angry,” then having the Judge sustain that objection. This is a non sequiter.

Also, imagine the absurdity of a slave, saying to the other slaves, “The best way to win our freedom is to treat the master as well as we can, to make him as comfortable as possible. If we anger him and earn his wrath, we will never win our freedom.”

No significant moral advance has come from a policy of making the wrongdoers feel as comfortable as possible in doing wrong. Moral progress is made by making wrongdoers feel uncomfortable – with using condemnation and other social tools to mold the conscience of individuals so that they will avoid the discomfort of wrongdoing.

I may object to some of the things said against religion. However, my objections are not based on a moral requirement to ‘be nice’. They are based on a moral requirement to ‘be just’ – and to make sure that those accused of a particular moral crime are actually guilty.

When they are guilty – when their attitudes are those that make the world a worse place in which to live – what justification is there for ‘being nice’? You are talking about people who are depriving others of life, health, and well-being. ‘Being nice’ to those who cost others life, health, and well-being only ensures that there will be more people more strongly devoted to costing even more life, health, and well-being.

People who promote false beliefs and bad desires are doing real-world harm to real-world people. These are not the people we should be being nice to. Being nice should be reserved, as positive reinforcement, to those who work to reduce the incidences of false belief and bad desires – and who promote true beliefs and good desires.


Once again, I am talking about words and private actions here, not acts of violence (even legislative violence) except in the most extreme cases. And do not let others get away with equating the two – with calling others who know and respect the need to refrain from violent responses as ‘militant’.

We have lived for too long in a bizarre society in which those who promote false beliefs and bad desires are given a special type of social protection, while those who would speak up in defense of true belief and good desires are socially condemned for being rude. It is a system that guarantees more death, suffering, and wasted life than we would otherwise have to endure.

One final point to address is the fact that a project of eliminating (false beliefs and bad desires contained within) religion is impossible. Which is certainly true. One line of reasoning says that since we cannot eliminate religion, we should not condemn it. However, I see this as no different than arguing that, since we cannot eliminate rape, that we should not condemn it. The fact is, the degree to which false beliefs and bad desires can be reduced, to that degree the world is made a better place. The impossibility of complete success is no more an argument against an investment in reducing these evils than the impossibility of becoming independently wealthy overnight is an argument against investing in the future.

I want to repeat that the real badness here is in teaching false beliefs and bad desires. The real badness is not in teaching religion. The teaching happens to be one major source of false beliefs and bad desires. However, other sources exist, and a focus on the religion source should not be taken as an argument for giving a pass on other sources of false beliefs or bad desires.

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