Religion: A Fortress Built on Sand
“I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” -Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
Imagine you are a General assigned the task of toppling an enemy's fortification. Your army is strong, well supplied, and structured around logic and reason. Your first task is to examine the structure of your adversary and survey the outlying areas. You see the fortification has been built on an island, and surrounded by redoubts, moats, and trenches that connect the smaller outer defenses to the main structure. The castle's walls are high, and well garrisoned. A direct assault is simply not possible. Victory does not seem possible. Then you smile. You smile because you realize that the opposition has built their castle on sand. For all of its appearance of greatness, you know that in time, the castle will collapse on itself because it has no foundation.
Religion is a fortress built on sand, on an island called faith, garrisoned by taboo. It survives because, like the fortress of my previous paragraph, no direct assault is possible, leaving the masses no hope of thinking the mission can be accomplished. However, despite all of this, each century the castle erodes a little more.
The Island of Faith
...faith is a cop-out, a defeat--an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith. -Dan Barker
We all have faith. Society is not possible without faith, and it shouldn't be too hard to see. There's nothing intrinsically valuable about money, and yet because we all have faith in it, the world's economic system works. We're always aware that there are crazy people in the world, that not all of our neighbors are good-natured, and yet we have faith that we can still live our lives in relative peace and comfort without carrying guns everywhere we go, or padlocking all our doors and windows. When we read books, or newspapers, we can never know for certain that what we're reading is true, yet we don't doubt everything outside our own experiences as a result, rather we have faith that the systems put in place for dispersing information are well made. Faith is critical to the social contract.
Yet, while faith is necessary for society to grow and for individuals to live, not all faith should be treated equally. Not all faith is made equally. Imagine you were about to go under the surgeon's knife. While you're being prepped, the surgeon says, "don't worry, I haven't done this before, but I have great faith that this will all go well." Would that make you feel better?
As Dan Barker, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and former evangelical preacher, has argued sensibly and persuasively, there is no claim that is ever made stronger by attaching the word "faith" to it. Try it, and if you think you've found one, let me know!
"I am a great person." "I have faith I'm a great person."
"I am qualified for the job," "I have faith that I'm qualified for the job."
When we think about faith, we don't normally abandon all common sense or scrutiny. Again, imagine someone tells you about their extreme faith that aliens visit them in their sleep. You might not question their sincerity, you might not question the possibility, but would you say that the claim is beyond scrutiny because an individual believes it? If so, then presumably aliens regularly come to Earth, Elvis is still alive, and the Loch Ness monster is a real threat to swimmers.
Religion is the exception to all this. When a person says that what they believe is apart of their faith, they have played a trump card. They have made it clear that they are not interested in logic, debate, or new ideas.They have fallen back on a "don't hurt my feelings" type argument. In absence of thought, they have made clear that what they believe is not a subject they wish to, or are capable of explaining. They have created an island. A magical place disconnected from the continent of reality.
The Soldiers of Taboo
In the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is palpable. -Sigmund Freud
There are plenty of topics which are labeled as taboo for good reason, Religion isn't one of them. The religious should not be allowed any sort of special right to be offended that no other group is allowed. How is it that we ever allowed a small group of people to claim knowledge of what they could not possibly know, while simultaneously telling everyone else that it's not polite to talk about this negatively?
The religious remind us day in and day out of their conviction, they wear symbols of their faith, they yell it in the streets, they advertise it everywhere. They ask us to forget that better than 90% of the prison population believes in God, while better than 90% of scientists don't. And yet, if a person even suspects that they're speaking to an atheist, they begin dismissing and rationalizing anything said.
Thanks largely to taboo, when an atheist speaks, they are almost immediately labeled as militant. It doesn't matter how respectful you are, it doesn't matter how logically or sensitively you make an argument. Once a person knows that you're not a member of their group, they either begin to defend all aspects of their faith (as if their very identity were on the line), or simply end the conversation. It doesn't matter that the leading killers of Christians are other Christians, that the leading killers of Muslims are other Muslims... We should remember that every group in American history which sought rights and a platform to be heard has been labeled as militant. This applies to the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, any peace movement, and many more.
Taboo means that the closest we can come to assigning responsibility for pedophilia in the Catholic Church is making jokes. It means that when we talk about college educated, and wealthy individuals seeking martyrdom in the name of Islam, we must say it is everything but religion which drove them to do it.
As a history student, I often wondered how anyone could have read Mein Kampf, and then been surprised about what Hitler did. After 9/11 I found out. No matter how many times suicide bombers tell us why they are killing themselves, the message simply doesn't sink in, not because we don't understand the message, but because we simply don't want to believe it's true. We don't want to blame their faith, because once some people's faith is questioned, then everyone else's gets put on the table as well. I find this akin to the "kings don't kill kings" theory of the medieval age. The point is, we SHOULD QUESTION EVERYTHING, MOST ESPECIALLY THAT WHICH IS OFF LIMITS FOR NO GOOD REASON.
A Foundation built on Sand
Throughout the last 400 years... the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obstructionism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. -Bertrand Russell
Trying to figure out what a moderate theist believes is like trying to nail jello to a wall. There are no rules, no guiding principles, no foundation. Take Christianity for example. You would think that if there was any single axiom for which all Christians could agree, it would be found in the divinity of Jesus Christ. So do all Christians believe Christ was divine? The answer is no. For every religious abolitionist in America, there was a religious slave holder; for every religiously inspired soul who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was a religiously inspired bigot waiting to counter protest; despite all the religious arguments against capital punishment, the Bible belt still kills more people than the rest of the country combined.
Religion comes in every flavor, if you believe that God cares what position you have sex in, or answers personal prayers, then there are religions and sects for you. If you believe God to be infinitely merciful, or simply a passive observer, there are still more religions for you. Modern quasi-secularized thought actually advocates, in many cases, adopting a potpourri of different views, no matter how divergent the overall religions are. The idea being that if it makes sense to you, and makes you feel good, then it must be wise.
When the Church had the authority to burn non-believers alive at the stake, they did. When Kings had to procure consent from the Pope for their policies, the Pope never failed to get something in return. When witches, and necromancers were up to no good, casting spells and poisoning the faithful, the Church never came up short in finding culprits. Hundreds of years later, we think of the age of faith, better known as the dark ages, as being a product of primitive man, not primitive religion. Despite my belief that any benefit of religion could be arrived at through countless other institutions, religion still possesses the ability to shed responsibility for atrocities while holding a near monopoly on human virtue.
Thankfully, their grip slipping.