Friday, April 23, 2010

Christian Indictment

A friend of mine, Jim Dugan, a PhD Student and part time lecturer in Anthropology at Tulane University, and a fellow atheist on the panel at the UNO dialog wrote this article. It thought it was a great summing up of religions, or more specifically Christianity’s failings.

Christianity: An Indictment

There's plenty of evil in the world, some of it done by members of one religion, some by members of another, and some by people with no religion at all. Neither religion nor its absence is any guarantee of good behavior, peace and justice, or civil orderliness. The question before us is not whether believers behave better than non-believers, or vice-versa, but why people do the things they do. Which stance, which world-view, causes more or less sociable behavior.

I will approach this in terms of the religion best known to me, Christianity. But many of these remarks apply equally to other religions, at least to those that believe they have an exclusive claim on ultimate truth. I am not claiming that Christians do bad things, or that non-Christians behave better. I am saying that Christian doctrine leads people, actively gives them impetus, to do evil things. I realize there are differences from denomination to denomination, but all of the problems I'll mention here are widely distributed throughout Christian institutions.

The belief in absolute and exclusive truth is incredibly divisive. The endless splitting of schisms, heresies, and denominations, often over obscure doctrinal details, would be an amusing oddity to the outsider if it didn't spill out of the churches and into civil society. Too often these trivial differences are used by one group to denigrate another, to oppress or subordinate another. In extreme cases, these differences are used to market or justify violence, including witch hunts, inquisitions, and crusades. These happen less often today, not because churches have gotten better behaved, but because civil society has wisely limited the power of religious institutions.

Christianity too often resists normal and positive social change in favor of the status quo. Who's in charge and how things are run have changed often over the last 2,000 years, but too often with the churches mounting fierce resistance, slowing the process down, and adding to the associate levels of violence.

Christianity has been there to resist every major expansion of civil liberties in the history of Europe and its former colonies. Churches have supported the right of the Pope to make and unmake kings, the divine right of kings to rule, the colonization of Africa and the Americas, have supported the scripturally approved institution of slavery, and have resisted the secularization of governments around the world.

The entire mindset of Christianity seems designed to prevent human beings from solving real human problems in the here and now. It encourages people to focus on an imaginary afterlife instead of the world they and their children actually live in. It reserves to an imaginary god the right to structure and order society, convincing most people not even to try. It detours, misdirects and misguides those who would take action by channeling them into prayer and Bible reading instead. Whether its conservation of natural resources, economic justice, or political equality, the churches are there to tell people to accept their lot in life uncritically.

Christianity interferes with the full equality of women in civil society. The role of women inside any particular denomination is, of course, its own internal affair. But denominations don't keep their backwardness internal, trying instead to inflict it on the broader society around them. Christianity stands for the limitation of women to roles defined by tradition rather than reason. Respecting the full legal and ethical rights doesn't stop with voting rights, equal opportunity and equal pay. It includes every woman's right to control if, when, how, and by whom she becomes pregnant, and whether or not she remains pregnant.

Similarly, Christianity interferes with the full equality of gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities in civil society. Again, they fail to keep their backwardness contained within their own institutions, trying instead to drag the rest of society down to their level. Whether or not any individual or denomination considers one or another kind of sexual behavior to be a sin is not a relevant factor determining the equality of individuals in civil society. Churches try to interfere with protections of sexual minorities from hate crimes, equal opportunity in employment and housing, and access to civil marriage. This is divisive and evil.

Christianity interferes with the advancement of science. This is understandable, since the expansion of scientific knowledge leaves less and less room for belief in a miraculous and intervening deity. But its not excusable. Whether threatening

Galileo with torture for teaching that the earth goes around the sun, continuing to argue about Evolution a hundred years longer than any logic or reason could permit, or actively resisting stem cell research, religion constantly tries to make a stumbling block of itself.

Missionizing outside of one's own immediate society is an unspeakable evil. Peoples everywhere have their own cultures, histories, social orders, ethics, and religions, and white, middle-class; North American Christians are arrogantly disrespectful of all of it. It's understandable if some groups want to help a community in a developing country to build a hospital or a road, but the price missionaries ask is far too high: stop being you and become one of us.

Christianity is bent on making people feel guilty about sex. There is no logical reason for this obsession with normal, healthy, bodily and social functions, so I agree with Darrell Ray that this is a very self-serving game. The church sets itself up both as the instigator of guilty feelings and the only institution that can expiate that guilt, guaranteeing a revolving door of sinner-patrons.

Christianity is a morally bankrupt religion. It's obsession with sex reduces the question of morality to whether somebody's zipper is up or down instead of whether there's justice or suffering in the world. You can be the CEO of a corporation that strip mines Brazilian rain forests or pays Vietnamese children 15 cents a day to make somebody's sneakers, but as long as you keep your pants on and pay your tithe nobody's going to criticize you. Christianity claims the moral high ground, but can do so only when it gets to define morality, circularly, as Christian belief itself, rather than the sociability of rationally determined action.

Does Christianity do enough good in the world to cancel out the negatives? Certainly not!

It might be argued that fear of hell deters some from committing horrendous acts, and that might occasionally be true. But for the most part well socialized individuals behave well and poorly socialized individuals behave badly, regardless of their religions or the lack thereof. Religious proponents like to raise the specter of social chaos, which they claim will arise without morality, which they also claim can only come from religion. More realistically, we now have, and have always had, good systems of secular ethics. Every system of ethics we've ever had was invented by human beings, since it is mythology to claim that some god wrote the rules on stone tablets, or an angel whispered them into some prophet’s ear. The difference is that when we admit that our ethical systems are human inventions, we can take responsibility for them, we can adapt them according to the real-world sufferings and injustices we can observe. And when we deny the humanity of our ethical systems, we reduce them to arbitrary, non-adaptive platitudes, obeying them because they're old, or because some people say they are divine, rather than because they make sense.

Christianity is still hopelessly trapped in the Middle Ages, while the rest of the world marches on. As a personal matter, every individual is entitled to his or her beliefs, and churches can assert whatever truths the wish to claim. But the tendency of religious institutions to interfere with social progress, to slow down scientific advancement, and to justify intolerance is a problem for our entire society. net-net, Christianity does a great deal more harm than good.

Version of 16 April 2010, by Jim Dugan

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