, Salem, MA

June 27, 2013

Column: It is time to rethink religion

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week’s column discussed the problem of faith — and true believing of any sort. I distinguished between healthy opinions — beliefs that we hold but that are open to new information and subject to adjustment — and unhealthy fundamentalisms, which are beliefs that we will not question and about which we will brook no doubt.

I pointed out that we can hold rigid, zealous positions about any number of things. We can be dogmatic about our politics, religions, art, food preferences, patriotism, privacy rights, environmental defense, gun ownership and many other things — really anything. But a common denominator behind all fanaticism is our certainty that our belief is the only correct one. And our minds are closed.

This column will focus on only one category of belief — one that is causing immense trouble across the world today — religious belief.

For the past 10 years especially, there has been a growing discussion about the damage that the very existence of religion is causing. Some thinkers, while acknowledging the significant good that religion can do, are proposing that it does more harm than good, and that it is time for us to voluntarily abandon either all of religion or significant aspects of it. A growing body of literature is examining that hypothesis.

Four books in particular are notable. They are: “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris; “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins; “Breaking The Spell,” by Daniel Dennett; and “God Is Not Great,” by Christopher Hitchens.

These books are complex and not easily summarized, but one of their main points essentially is that there cannot be good religion without bad religion. Because the Bible, the Koran and the seminal texts of other religions all contain exhortations to do both good and bad, there is always the reality that some worshipers choose the biblical (or other) instructions to do harm.

If we are literal-minded, as many are, we can find what we want in religious teachings. Turn the other cheek, or smite thy neighbor. Commit righteous suicide, or view it as a sin.

Religion has always been abused, and the authors argue that today the destructive actions perpetrated in its name are producing negative consequences that far outweigh the positive impacts of faith.

Doctrines frozen in time are partly the cause of this. Sam Harris points out that, alone among serious schools of thought, the various holy texts are not subject to rewriting or updating. Yes, they are subject to interpretation, but benign readings seem too often dependent upon the progressivity of the church or sect doing the translation. Would it help if all of the world’s religions edited their texts to remove all excuses for intolerance and violence?

To do that, all religions would have to admit that their teachings are fallible and open to question. They might have to reconcile their precepts and stories with history, science and practical consequences. Ultimately, they might become less like “faiths” and more like testable belief systems.

Unfortunately, sometimes religion is the opposite of good education. A good education teaches us to question things and test our beliefs against evidence and observation. Religion too often asks us not to question.

And that characteristic of religion’s nature — its need for adherence and obedience from its followers — is connected to its frequent aversion to compromise. Each religion has its dogma and its stories, and they frequently are in conflict with the narratives of other religions.

Contrast religion with politics. Representative politics is the art of the possible — forever requiring compromise and pragmatism from its practitioners, regardless of one’s political leanings.

Even the American Constitution — a great and prescient guide for a democracy — is amended periodically. In politics, we recognize that people, circumstances, civilization and knowledge change over time. Political man can and should hold on to noble principles, yet society and democracy require him to simultaneously adapt and work with others to create and maintain a good, just life.

In contrast, the very nature of religion can elevate ideology, rigidity, exceptionalism, intolerance and habits of mind that encourage blind faith, that is, a belief that cannot even countenance a challenge to its legitimacy or effect.

If we were to reform religion dramatically, or abandon it, humans would still need and benefit from nourishment of our spiritual selves. Religion at its best contributes to joy, solace, inspiration, ethics, morals, values and meaning, and its houses of worship offer one of the few remaining havens for reflection and humility. In a chapel, as in nature, we are reminded that there is so much that is bigger and more important than we are.

However, something is wrong with religion itself, and we need to give thought to what that is. It is quite possible that religion’s drawbacks are not fixable and, furthermore, increasingly dangerous. That is a startling thing to consider, and this is a very difficult topic.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at