The hiss of religious obscurantism 18

Has anything caused as much human suffering as religion? You might say disease, but religion itself is a disease, of the human race and of individual minds. Persecution, war, torture, terror, bodily pain, mental anguish, profound misery, wasted lives are the chief products of religion.

Religion should have been wrecked beyond repair by science. If science were properly taught to children, and all god-stories classed with fairy-tales as they should be, religion as a force in public life would soon come to an end. We doubt there is an innate need in the human psyche to believe in the supernatural. We doubt that religion arises naturally, fulfilling some evolutionary function. It arose in history because it is natural to homo sapiens to seek knowledge of his world. Religious answers were guesses. Science now provides real answers, more than enough of them to expose the old religious explanations as childish fantasy. It is past time for humanity to give up its religions.

Yesterday we posted an essay on the man whose death inspired the invention of Christianity which argues that he was a lunatic. A reader, Troy, commented that the Christian writer C. S. Lewis “famously said Jesus was either the Son of God or a lunatic”. C. S. Lewis himself apparently weighed up these alternatives – surely with some organ other than his brain – and came to the conclusion that he was the Son of God. In our book that makes C. S. Lewis a lunatic too. In most believers, religious belief is a compartmentalized lunacy. Millions of people continue to believe in the mad ideas of ancient religions while remaining sane in all other respects.

There are even scientists who believe in a supernatural creator of nature. Some scientists who are themselves atheists maintain that there is “something feckless and foolhardy, even indecent, about criticizing religious belief”, as Sam Harris writes in his book The Moral Landscape. He heard some of them “ give voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest prodding.”

Many scientists and public intellectuals … believe that the great masses of humanity are best kept sedated by pious delusions.  Many assert that … most human beings will always need to believe in God. … People holding this opinion never seem to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view it is of the rest of humanity – and of generations to come.

He analyses the arguments of scientists who try – and fail – to reconcile science and religion in a chapter titled Religion which he concludes with this:

It can be difficult to think like a scientist (even, we have begun to see, when one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than an attachment to religion.

And we continue to be astonished that any sane, adult, educated, intelligent person can believe in the supernatural.


Concerning religious belief and lunacy, here’s another quotation from The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. It’s a horrifying story.

The boundary between mental illness and respectable religious belief can be difficult to discern. This was made especially vivid in a recent court case involving a small group of very committed Christians accused of murdering an eighteen-month-old infant. The trouble began when the boy ceased to say “Amen” before meals. Believing that he had developed “a spirit of rebellion”, the group, which included the boy’s mother, deprived him of food and water until he died. Upon being indicted, the mother accepted an unusual plea agreement: she vowed to cooperate in the prosecution of her codefendants under the condition that all charges be dropped if her son were resurrected. The prosecutor accepted the plea provided that that resurrection was “Jesus-like” and did not include reincarnation as another person or animal. Despite the fact that this band of lunatics carried the boy’s corpse around in a green suitcase for over a year, awaiting his reanimation, there is no [other] reason to believe that any of them suffer from mental illness. It is obvious, however, that they suffer from religion.