We need simple compassion not sanction-driven authoritarianismby Andrew Copson / February 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
A survey carried out in 2014 found that most people in Britain think that religion does more harm than good. Only a quarter think the opposite. But is the majority opinion correct? Certainly you can’t answer the question with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: inquisitions vs charitable hospitals, crusades vs almshouses, 9/11 vs campaigns against slavery, all totted up to give a final answer.
We need to clarify the question. Let’s not dig into history for an incalculable cost-benefit analysis. Let’s talk about the situation today, in the early 21st century, and the years ahead of us. Ours is a world more interconnected than it ever was, with the human race facing the greatest existential threats we ever have. At the same time we understand the universe and our place within it more fully than ever before. If the question is whether religion does more harm than good in our current global context, we begin to have something that looks answerable—at least in principle. The harms that religion can generate more effectively than any other—an “us and them” mentality, irrational and anti-scientific thinking—are undoubtedly more harmful in today’s precarious context than they ever were.
The old philosophers’ challenge to religion is as true today as it ever was: is there an example of a good deed done or an ethical proposition advanced by a religious person that could not be done or advanced by a non-religious person? There is none. But can you think of an example of a harm done by religion or a religious person that could only have been done in the name of that religion? There are many. Good people do good and bad people do harm, but for good people to do harm takes religion.
In the UK at least, as society has become increasingly non-religious, with laws built on secular principles of equality, human rights and freedom, we have seen increasing tolerance, mutual respect and social morality. We have become a less violent, less racist and more accommodating society than we were a couple of centuries ago, when religiosity was more widespread. We have become more critical of acts that harm others (like drink driving or rape) and less…