Bigotry is never acceptable. But one form of bigotry, religiophobia, seems to be increasingly common, even as other forms are becoming heavily criticized.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are religious, or groups of religious people, who are undeserving of criticism. It isn’t even to say that you cannot criticize religion as a whole. I personally do not understand belief without evidence. And I do mention that to my religious friends. However, there is a difference between friendly criticism and outright bigotry. Much of what I have seen coming out of certain groups is not criticism, but pure hate speech.
The American Bar Association defines hate speech as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” I think that we need to consider justified cases however. For instance, if the trait is bigotry, can we really call insults against a group of bigots hate speech? Can we call speech against murderers hate speech, even if it offends, threatens, or insults them? I don’t think so. Hate speech must be unjustified attacks.
Patheos Atheist blog is full of hate speech. While I understand that any people have had negative experiences involving religion, to take those experiences, and judge religion as a whole, is no better than saying that blacks are criminals because some black guy mugged you. Of course it would be racist to make that kind of statement. It would be just as bigoted to say that religion is violent or abusive, because you were abused by religious people. It is a generalization that is in no way justified.
Religion and War
Many argue that religion is a primary motivator of war, but is there even any evidence to support this? Not at all. A detailed analysis of multiple conflicts show no causative relationship between religion and war. Indeed, only a small fraction of all wars seem to be connected to religion. Furthermore, there is evidence that religion can actually have a net beneficial impact on crime and violence rates.
Religion and Mental Illness
This discussion is a partial analysis of the question of religion as a mental illness. For more, I also wrote a full rebuttal to Richard Dawkins‘ attacks on religion.
This mentality is probably one of the clearest examples of hate speech. To call religion a mental illness is to label the bulk of the human species, throughout its existence, mentally ill. The very idea that a species could even survive for over 100,000 years, without evolution weeding out a nearly universal mental illness, is rather absurd, not to mention that a mental illness implies a dysfunction. If every human functions the same way, it is not a dysfunction, but rather simply a function.
But don’t take my word for it. Consider the expert opinions of various scientists who study the topic. According to Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, there are many psyhological benefits to religion and spirituality. Another study suggests that children who are religiously affiliated fair better than those who are not. While I do not think that religion is the only system which can provide these benefits, it does contradict the position that religion is a mental illness.
Finally, while some have claimed that religion is a form of child abuse, according to a study of over 2,000 children aged 6 to 19, those who are classified as religiously affiliated showed improved health over those who were not religiously affiliated. The study, which can be found here, is however provisional.
Additionally, it is rather absurd to claim that the bulk of the human species, from the time that it first emerged, through the last 100,000+ years of its existence, has been mainly composed of mentally ill individuals. Cultures with more complex religions also have a tendency to take over those that do not. The ability for such cultures to survive and prosper, as a whole, seems to be adaptive rather than maladaptive. If it is indeed maladaptive however, then natural selection has failed. So, if calling the bulk of humanity mentally ill, just because they are religious, is not an unjustified attack against a group of people, then I don’t know what is.
Impact on Intelligence
Related to the mental illness claims are claims that religion negatively impacts intelligence. Of course, there have been plenty of devoutly religious individuals who were also very intelligent. Newton was religious. So was Kurt Gödel. He constructed a mathematical proof, attempting to show that god must exist . William of Ockham, a man’s whose logical razor is cited frequently, created it to help argue for the existence of a god. Freeman Dyson is a brilliant scientist, who has written about science and religion (Infinite in All Directions – Amazon).
Of course, a few examples isn’t sufficient evidence. So instead, why don’t we look at research which compares the aptitudes of Chrisitan and non-Christian children to science. One might think that Christian children would perform more weakly. And indeed, that negative stigma, which is held both by the Chrisian pupil and the teacher, has a negative impact on educational outcome. But taking that stigma into account, differences in ability between Christians and non-Christians disappear (Negative Stereotypes Cause Christians to Underperform in and Disidentify With Science).
What is really absurd is that this stereotype actually drives Christians away from science, which is the exact opposite of what we want to happen. We need to get Christians to embrace science.
One Sided Attack
One of the issues with religiophobic attacks is their one sided nature. Religion has existed for essentially all of human existence. It is easy to find negative aspects of it, as there is for most things. Humans can be a violent species. But simply taking a collection of disconnected negatives does not validate an attack on religion any more than listing malpractice case after malpractice case would constitute a valid attack on medicine and injuries/deaths from side effects. In order to show that religion itself is “negative” one would need to use a comparative approach. Anything less than that is simple bigotry.
To see why this is the case, let us consider another topic: science. Much harm actually has been done in the name of science or because of scientific progress. The atom bomb allowed for mass murder on a whole new scale. There were points when neuro-scientists cut open living peoples’ brains to see how they functioned. Psychologists in some cases tortured people to see how they would respond. This page lists 10 examples of highly unethical studies in psychology.
Criticizing Claims vs Criticizing Religion
This is a direct response to arugments like the one expressed by Atheist Revolution. So long as “faith” is an answer for why someone believes something, and there is no evidence that the belief is incorrect, there is no reason to criticize. You might not get any benefit from faith, but many people do. Religion tends to have positive impacts on mental health, as addressed earlier in this discussion. It’s a matter of subjective satisfaction. The only issue is when religious individuals try to push their beliefs onto others, but that’s true for all beliefs. Such attempts demand evidence.
But ridiculing and mocking is not questioning. Even questioning someone’s belief can be met with a great deal of apprehension. Mocking someone’s belief, just shuts down the discussion and closes the other person’s mind. There is also no justification to mock religion in general. It’s simply a bigoted action. If you do not obtain any satisfaction from religion, then do not rely on it. But do not mock others who do obtain something from it.
It may be difficult to fight religiophobia head on. Bigotry is often justified within the minds of those who express it, even if that justification goes only as far as satisfying their personal biases. Education in general helps. Better comparative religion courses in schools, including courses that go into the anthropology of religion itself can help.