One of the most common rebuttals I face, generally from well-meaning friends, is the old chestnut: “Why do you care? What’s wrong with religion if it doesn’t directly affect you? Why can’t you leave people alone?”
This stance neatly condemns any attacks on “soft” theism/deism whilst open-endedly permitting criticism of religion that does directly affect me, or people in general.
I am constantly at pains to sculpt my position with the utmost clarity. I don’t like religion. I don’t like unfounded beliefs that have more in common with delusional fairy tales than a rational response to the universe; similarly I am compelled to wax vitriol against beliefs in the supernatural, in the pseudoscientific. But as far as religion goes, I am restrained.
People often assume that I’m unrestrained, the kind of person who would cheerfully punch an old lady if she was wearing a crucifix. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t like religion, but I can cope with it if I never have to hear about it. More or less by definition, the people I debate and argue with (or “attack”, if you want the negative labelling) are the fundamentalists; the irrational, outspoken children of whatever God or Gods they follow. If you’re a 65 year old vicar with a flock of hens as your parish, the odds are slim that I’m going to come to your door and demand you explain the quote mining of Darwin. But if you approach me in the street with your beliefs, tell me I’m going to hell, support the death penalty for apostasy, preach unscientific nonsense and generally act like a dick – you’re fair game. I refute the people who make the noise, not the people who quietly pray and leave their religion inside their own heads. When was the last time I accosted a stranger on the street and asked them if they’d considered atheism? Well, it’s never happened. My stance is reactionary.
Surely that’s fair enough? If you lie and harass people, spread inflammatory bigotry and lie about what is patently true . . . aren’t we free to call such people out on their actions, if they’re impinging on other people? But of course we all know about that side of things. I’m not really aiming to discuss that right now.
The thing is that, despite my live and let live attitude toward “soft” theism, people who quietly worship in their own way, I do care. As soon as you think about what a religious belief entails – the notion that an invisible being not only created everything, but guides it, and also speaks to you in your head and you can talk back despite absolutely no positive proof – isn’t that uncomfortably close to not only delusion, but insanity? Somehow, billions of people have devised a truly frightening psychosis that is lauded rather than questioned, a delusional state not even given a second thought despite being kissing distance from madness.
It’s been said before by better folk than I – sanity in numbers. What is believed by one person is madness, when believed by a few hundred it’s a cult, but at some nebulous point the threshold is crossed; culthood becomes a religion, madness becomes a fiercely protected way of life. Think about what is is to follow a religion. And think about how you would react if you discovered a friend, or just a co-worker or colleague, believed in something bizarre:
everyone is made of chocolate on the inside but as soon as you get cut or x-rayed it turns to regular flesh
an invisible hat runs the universe, and the hat talks to you
We are fortunate to live in a society where the gentle insanity of religion is tolerated; it’s for precisely this reason that religion isn’t seen as delusional, because there is little societal friction and no demand to explain yourself. People walk down the street thinking things that, should they exist in isolation, would lead potentially to medication and possibly incarceration. Hundreds, thousands of infants have their genitals mutilated in sanctioned religious barbarism. If an isolated family was discovered to be cutting the ears of new-born males with razors, how shocked would public reaction be?
So even if you are a gentle village vicar with snow-white hair, I care. I’m affected. Because you are delusional, and in a very real (if specific) sense mentally unwell. Something has gone wrong with your brain, and it’s only the society we live in that allows you to think everything is fine when equally nonsensical beliefs would be considered potentially harmful if taken in isolation.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Sounds sweeping and cruel and generalised. But when you realise that believing in God is simply a more complex version of a child’s imaginary friend, doesn’t it seem strange . . . the extent to which these beliefs are left to run free?
I keep quiet. I hold my tongue when I see someone wearing a crucifix or a yamulke, if they’re not disseminating. But I can no more ignore the implications of religious faith (or faith in mediums, or astrology, or homeopathy) than I can ignore the implications of someone who is convinced that the world is actually run by reptilian aliens. Those people are considered cranks. Why are you a balanced person if you quietly believe in God?
The final thing is this: religions provide succour, provide comfort. This is clearly true, and one of the foundations of the “Why do you care?” argument . . . yet I believe in nothing but the beauty of the universe, see morals as nothing more than social constructs, see no purpose or fate beyond that which we create for ourselves, and I don’t need comfort from God. I’m not even a particularly well balanced person, and I’m fine by myself. For every person that gains comfort from religion, there’s someone like me who doesn’t need it – and someone else who is confused and conflicted by their faith. I may as well argue that playing guitar provides comfort so everyone should do it.
I can stand to leave you alone if you believe quietly. I can respect how you may need it, or think you need it. But, as strangely Christian as this may sound, I’m worried for you. Because you believe in stuff that isn’t there, and brother, that be a whole pile of no good.
I think such morally sanctimonious mealy-mouthed sentiments signal the end of this.