I was once a believer of scripture. I walked in what was told to me to be the path of the Lord. Never did I question the existence of God, of the words of the Bible, until I entered my teenage years. I began reading books when I turned seventeen, slowly compiling a stack of theories, hypotheses, alongside the ideas of fiction’s authors. As my eyes were torn open by literature, especially by the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I left behind any pretense of believing in a god behind me.
What sickening teachings, I thought, as I finally read the Bible in its entirety. How cruel and heartless its words are, how grotesque its commands to slaughter disobedient children and peoples of different tribes. And how unmerciful of Yahweh to wipe out his so called children with a worldwide flood just because they had not obeyed His every word. Odd, considering that it was He himself who had allowed humans to have free will said the mythology.
But is religion truly such an awful force? Does Christianity teach nothing but bigotry and hatred for those it labels ‘sinners,’ ‘heathens,’ and ‘apostates’? Indeed, does any of its counterparts, be it Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam implant any ideas in their followers’ minds that do not involve the destruction of a designated group of peoples—rivals from battles belonging in history books brought back time and again due to the repeated circulation of the holy passages? To the former question I would have to say no, that religion is not in its entirety merely a tool for destruction and hate.
It is true that most beliefs impart on its students a certain degree of prejudice against some arbitrarily chosen members of other sects. Christianity against Islam, Sunni versus Shia Muslims, et cetera. Their believers are taught to consider the other group(s) as the villains of the story, or at the very least, individuals who have fallen prey to false gods. Either these opposing humans must be utterly decimated, or be coerced into following the same curricula as the ones adopted by the more dominant party. Whichever method is implemented, to those of us who believe in secularity, neither of the two approaches are worthy of praise.
Wars carrying the banner of various religions have of course erupted over the timeline of humanity’s past. It would not be too far fetched to suppose that the divisive lessons taught by most beliefs are responsible for these conflicts—from the Crusades, to the European Catholics versus Protestants hostilities, and so on. Yet I believe that a very rudimentary module of the human mind is the source of the problem, and the schisms that exist between religious groups are blunt manifestations of it.
We Homo Sapiens have what is commonly called the “us or them” mental component. Randomly generated by the process of evolution, we bear the habit of subconsciously dividing ourselves into separate groups, allying with those who are more in alignment with our views and desires, or the ones having enough power to drag us into their grasps. This results in the formation of various tribes with contrasting ideas on how resources should be divided, how lives should be lived, and how societies should be structured. Today we have Democratic, Communist, Authoritarian, and Anarchistic societies, along with a few other types that I will not mention due to their relative minuteness. Beforehand, we can only take the words of archaeologists on the types of civilizations that had once existed.
Many academics agree, however, that we as a species are not amongst the most peaceful of the animal kingdom. Like the ants that invade the hives of their neighbors, our prehistoric ancestors engaged in tribal feuds over food, land, women, status, and other forms of wealth, often culminating in the complete annihilation of the weaker clan. The geneticist Nicholas Wade—author of Before the Dawn, a book which explores the prehistoric era of our species through the methods of genetics—alongside archeologists the likes of Ian Morris, and neuroscientists as renowned as Steven Pinker have more or less agreed on one conclusion: That religion was one of the first tools used to unite groups of people under proto-governments.
As I’ve already stated, we are a divisive species. We seek to gain more than what is our fair share when we have the chance, such as when no repercussions from anyone seem possible. This is not to say that humans are evil creatures bent on hoarding and unknowing of the concept of fairness. It is simply a statement of the fact that we tend to look out more for ourselves and our kin—which has resulted in sacrifices as noble as a mother giving her own life away for her son—rather than complete strangers. As a result of this tendency to devote ourselves to our own, for human civilization to continue on its progress, a method for unifying the countless lineages of man is necessary.
Perhaps it is out of greed and laziness that we have given rise to civilization, as Ian Morris suggests. For a select few individuals have managed to unite the nomads of the past, gradually leading them to settling down in specific areas rather than wander around endlessly. Of course, the formation of such a social construct is beneficial mostly to the person at the top of the totem pole, regardless of their motivations and extraordinary benefits—harems, taxes, etc.—however, they have paved the way for our species to be what it is today.
Some of the ancients’ leaders proclaimed themselves to be the chosen ones of gods. Others dared to say that they are gods themselves, such as the case with the old Pharaohs of Egypt. In dynastic China, what is called the “Mandate of Heaven” grants an individual control over an entire nation, almost without challenge as democracy had not yet been thought of as a concept. A common theme can be drawn from these diverse societies, each with their own traits and separated by thousands of years. That is, everyone of their rulers utilized religious mythos to propel themselves upward in the competition for power.
What could possibly result from communes united under the rule of those claiming to be on the side of gods? The simplest justification for war, for expansion and plunder, would be to call other competing groups ‘heretics,’ peoples who have insulted their objects of worship and thus must be eradicated to appease the divine beings in the skies. To return to a previous example, the war which exploded between Catholics and Protestants is not a conflict started purely by beliefs. Political factors, such as the potential weakening of the Catholic church’s influence—one that is a considerable factor for them, as they had the capacity to manipulate the policies adopted by Catholic states—which would at the very least diminish should the Protestants be allowed to roam free. Furthermore, power struggles between the European kingdoms of old, most of which looked to expand their borders joined the ideological fray, as history has shown, to further unite their peoples and show which side they were aligned to for their allies and enemies.
What I am hoping to showcase through this article, is the fact that religion is not as horrific as many Atheists perceive it to be. We humans can always find a reason to fight one another—it is instilled in our genes, from the days when a neighboring tribe might mean impending death or unimaginable luxuries. The last great wars of Earth, the two World Wars, the Cold War, involved very little elements related to religion. Yet they are amongst the bloodiest conflicts the human race has had to endure. Furthermore, a clash of ideologies need not be related to religion, as the Cold War has demonstrated with its Democracy versus Communism debacle.
The horrendous crimes we witness today, as committed by infamous ISIS and their jihadists, essentially religious extremists in general, are not caused by the singular factor of belief in Allah and His fellow deities. These gods and the atrocities committed by their worshippers, once more, are manifestations of our instinct to side with one particular group and oppose another. We can, as the leaders of terrorist groups have done, drape our thirst for bounties under cloaks of holy wars. Nevertheless, they would still be a result of the millennia old module installed within our brains. The one that tells us to blindly spite, harm, and murder those who hold banners different from the ones in our hands, all for the game of survival.
To my fellow Atheists, I beg of you to see religion in a more positive light. We no longer see Christians and Catholics stoning disobedient children and promiscuous women. The sight of a man with multiple wives is uncommon in first world countries. The religious have begun to cherry pick their beliefs, to hold onto the ones that fit morals and norms of the present day.
Religion is not the sole factor to blame. It is perhaps a catalyst of conflict, yes, but it is not the root which we seek to exterminate. What we have to change, to pursue the goal of a future without war, are the invisible mechanisms that program our minds to think in destructive ways. We must not place blame, nor should we divert all our resources on the symptom of a disease. It would be similar to treating a cold by stuffing tissues up the sufferer’s nose—foolish, and wasteful—and pulling us down to the level of those who have convinced themselves that they are acting out the wills of the divine; something shared by nationalist-, fascist-, whatever-else radicals. Thus I ask of Atheist readers, should you wish to end the conflicts shrouded by the ornament that is religion, to focus your efforts elsewhere.
As have been shown repeatedly in this article, it is politics, struggles of power, and the pursuit over limited resources that have been the primary drivers of war. Here is where we should direct our assets, what limited ones we have; into introducing stability and justice to the most volatile of regions. As well as stopping, with whatever method we have, the quests for power chased by the minds of the aggressive, be it the heads of states, terrorist groups, any other individual out there who possess the power to murder and sow carnage wherever and whenever they please.