Keep your religion out of my ethics

by Danny Colligan, a member of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford

In the August 13th editorial "Sense and Nonsense: God on Campus," Aysha Bagchi suggests that nonbelievers "must stop treating faith with militant scorn" in order for believers and nonbelievers' ethical systems to find common ground. The unspoken assumption that she relies on throughout her column is that this consensus would be societally beneficial and mutually desirable. This assumption, however, is entirely false. Nonbelievers have no interest in betraying the Enlightenment values of rationality and logic for the ignorance, superstition and harm that religion has to offer.

Why are atheists so vehement about their views? Because we simply can not understand how any educated person can jettison his intellectual faculties in order to traffic in religious drivel. Faith is the antithesis of critical thinking. With critical thinking, one demands valid explanations for every assertion, objective proof for every theory and hard evidence for every claim. Faith demands none of these things. Instead, it relies on wishful thinking to buttress claims about the supernatural that can never be falsified. What makes these delusions so queer is that they are in stark contrast to how everyone goes about their daily lives. Imagine if some hypothetical Stanford physics professor asked his colleagues to take his data-free paper as valid on faith -- he would be laughed out of the school. Comparing the intellectual legitimacy of reason and science to faith is a false equivalence.

To further compound nonbelievers' distaste for religion, modern civil society in America finds itself constantly under attack by the pious. Concerned parents across the country are fighting to keep 'Intelligent Design' and other religious nonsense out of public, supposedly secular, schools. Women need to remain vigilant lest the devout strip them of their rights -- whether it be access to birth control, access to medical services or even access to basic health information. Scientific advances such as embryonic stem cell research and cloning that could produce enormous value for society are forestalled by the deafening protest of the flock. Religious zealots also regularly want to interfere in the lives of chronically ill patients considering assisted suicide. And who can forget the recent sad episode in our home state when the religious establishment so effectively organized to deny homosexuals equal rights? The list of religious affronts to the public welfare goes on and on and on.

As an exercise in revealing just how destructive religion is, let's take a look at some of the revered religious figures of our time, shall we? Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two very influential ministers, engaged in much shameful behavior not the least of which was accusing feminists, gays, and the ACLU of precipitating the 9/11/2001 terror attacks. Another important religious icon, Mother Teresa, strove to perpetuate the desperate condition of the poor in service of her twisted ideology and refused to return donations to her "charity" organization that were stolen in the Savings and Loan scandal. In Europe and Asia, Islamic mullahs stoked murderous religious fervor a few years ago upon the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, resulting in attacks on European embassies and scores killed and wounded in the ensuing chaos. That episode's effect is felt to this day: the Yale University Press recently censored an academic publication that would have included the aforementioned cartoons, an instructive event in revealing how free speech has been stifled by calls for "religious sensitivity." Our former president George W. Bush, whose evangelical Christian attitudes were never in doubt, in 2003 encouraged French President Jacques Chirac to join in the invasion of Iraq because he believed the biblical creatures Gog and Magog were there and had to be defeated. Donald Rumsfeld's briefings to Bush were also laden with biblical quotations, passages that surely strengthened Bush's resolve to wage war. The Iraq war has now resulted in the deaths of at least a hundred thousand people, debilitating injuries to others and mammoth American financial debt.

Lest the reader thinks I am unfairly picking and choosing examples of abhorrent fundamentalists from amongst the majority of decent religious, let me offer the following response from Richard Dawkins to the same criticism (in his preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion): "If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them."

The devout's views would be little more than a societal curiosity if it weren't for the enormous consequence of their faith. But as it stands, free speech, women's rights, secular education, public health, etc. continue to be suppressed by the insidious virus of faith. There is much at stake in the battle between religion and our public institutions. So forgive nonbelievers if we seem militant and uncompromising; any concession to religion just brings our society that much closer to the Middle Ages.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS! VIM

Back to Danny Colligan's Stanford writing and speeches