Discussion of religion is becoming more and more hazardous in the 21st Century as believers of various stripes all over the world engage in increasingly irrational, aggressive, and violent antics in the name of their faiths. Apologists for the creeds in question, or for religion in general, are fond of saying “Ah! But you see, what these misguided people are doing isn’t the TRUE Christianity, Islam, etc. They woefully misunderstand the lofty teachings of their faiths.” On the contrary - it is abundantly clear that religion makes otherwise good people do bad things.
What, in fact, IS religion? And how “real” is it? I am increasingly coming to realise that religion, like all other constructs of the human mind, has no objective reality outside the imaginings of those who profess it. Of course, the actions religious belief generates impinge, often horrendously and disastrously, upon millions of non-believers; but the reality of religiously motivated behaviour does not make religion itself any more real.
To clarify: unless one believes in Platonic universals, there is no “perfect” archetypal Judaism, Roman Catholicism, or Islam “out there” in the abstract, any more than there is a perfect archetypal Platonic table or chair. Institutionalised religions have history, traditions, possessions, priests and other functionaries, but these do not make the religion any more “real” than it is in its individual living believers’ brains.
Religions are based upon faith, not reason. At some point – however sophisticated their self-regarding arguments – all religions demand the suspension of reason and a crucial leap of faith. They have no room for sceptical doubting Thomases. That being so, they will always attempt to ring-fence their “sacred” doctrines from reasoned criticism, which they denounce as blasphemy or - in the case of lapsed believers - apostasy, and regard as heinous crimes, sometimes even punishable by death.
So even if we confine this discussion to the three monotheistic religions, we are confronted with the spectacle of a myriad of conflicting sects each claiming that they are the “true” brand of the religion in question, and that those who disagree with them are wicked heretics: “My doxy is orthodoxy; your doxy is heterodoxy.”
What is the non-believer to make of all this? In the first place, we should be very wary indeed of taking sides with any religion, creed, or sect against its self-designated enemies of the same or other religious traditions. “A plague on all your houses” is the only rational response. We should seek to confine the propagation of religious dogmas to those which do not incite hatred of other faiths, or of non-believers, and which are privately funded. The state should give no public countenance to, and much less subsidise, any religious education. On the contrary, the state should ensure that all children, whatever their religious or community background, are educated in a cohesive system of national education which treats all religious beliefs even-handedly and encourages children to think about them, and everything else, in an open-minded way.
Above all, we must recognise that what religion means to those who count themselves as believers is the only “real” aspect of the whole business. If Catholics are brought up to believe that theirs is the only “true” faith, and that Protestants are wicked heretics, and vice versa, the results will be as we have seen in Northern Ireland for the past couple of centuries and more. If Muslim youths continue to be indoctrinated with the notion that Allah commands them to prevail over “infidels” by whatever means necessary, all we can expect in the foreseeable future is far worse threats of terrorism and sporadic violence than we have yet experienced. If “twice-born” Christians in the USA and elsewhere believe that a nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East will result in their being wafted up to heaven in Rapture, it behoves all who do not share that delusion to do everything possible to disabuse them of it and to abort any possibility of such a scenario occurring.
It has been said that people who believe nonsense will experience awkward consequences. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers in the nonsense who suffer because of it. Indeed, it is those of us who simply want to be left alone in peace to think what we choose and to live as we wish who have most to fear from religion. As a society, we cannot afford to extend tolerance to the intolerant, or to pay respect to the disreputable.