The rise of the so-called New Atheism has brought forth numerous critics and criticisms. Some critics believe that religionists who hold negative religious ideas are not influenced by their “sacred” texts. Rather, they use or misuse religious texts only after they have embraced some insidious agenda.
This view is incredibly biased in favor of faith. After all, these same critics never doubt that religious texts influence positive ideas and actions. For example, they do not doubt that the Bible and Qur’an influence acts of generosity and kindness. They do not doubt that biblical teachings influenced the civil rights movement or the abolitionist movement.
Many people simply assume that popular religious texts could not possibly encourage inhumane behavior. However, just a cursory examination of the Bible shows that it obviously condones sexism, slavery, homophobia, intolerance, anti-Semitic bigotry, genocide, and other crimes against humanity.
Even many of those who understand the wildly contradictory nature of religious texts believe that negative religious teachings have little if anything to do with negative behavior. For example, many leftists believe that powerful individuals and organizations simply manipulate and dominate the gullible masses, encouraging them to inflict harm upon their fellow human beings.
In many African nations, religionists persecute and kill alleged witches. Some people believe that poverty, illiteracy, an unequal distribution of wealth, and the like—rather than religion—are the real culprits. Though all of these problems are real and are largely responsible for the phenomenon of witch hunting, there would be no witch hunters if people did not believe in witches.
The Bible teaches that people should not suffer a witch to live. Many grow up learning that they must believe everything they read in the Bible. Many who did not grow up inculcated with this attitude cannot understand it. However, the fundamentalist mindset is real. Deeply religious people are sincere in their faith, and they honestly want to please God. They favor blind obedience to the supposed Word of God over trying to do that which is morally right. This mindset is not limited to those on the bottom rungs of society. Religion—for better and worse—motivates many people across the board. Moreover, when influential religious leaders focus obsessively on negative biblical teachings, people are more likely to follow their lead and to engage in negative behavior.
It is widely noted that Muslim extremists—Osama bin Laden, for one—often have affluent backgrounds. Many have been highly literate and very well educated. These facts should help to make it clear that religious extremists do not have to be desperate, illiterate, poor, and impoverished to sincerely believe that through extreme actions they are doing the will of God.
It is easy to believe that Martin Luther King was influenced by the Bible to love his fellow human beings, yet it is hard for many to believe that Martin Luther was influenced by the Bible to hate Jews. In the case of King, one refers to the Sermon on the Mount and other positive biblical teachings. However, in the case of Martin Luther, one could point to 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 and other passages for support of anti-Semitic bigotry. Again, one does not have to be grossly underprivileged to sincerely buy into the negative teachings of the Bible.
Throughout Africa, religiously induced homophobia is spreading like wildfire. In Uganda, the religious masses—rich and poor, literate and illiterate, educated and uneducated—are striving to pass a “Kill the Gays” law under which homosexuals can under some circumstances be put to death. In Malawi, two gay men, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, are being persecuted and prosecuted for being in love; religious homophobes from across the board have united in hatred against them. In Uganda, Christians from the United States have clearly helped to fan the flames of homophobia and have influenced Ugandans to call for and support the proposed law. In Malawi, some intellectuals believe that the influence from Western Christians is minimal, if it exists at all.
In the United States, homophobic religionists from all backgrounds oppose same-sex marriage and the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons (LGBTs). Religious conservatives from the lower, middle, and upper classes —Black, White, and Latino—throughout the country have united in support of proposed laws forbidding same-sex marriage.
How could anyone honestly claim that these religionists are not being influenced by their religious texts? Why wouldn’t large numbers of Christians in Uganda want to kill gays in light of the fact that morally repugnant though it may be, their position is biblically correct (Leviticus 20:13)?
As feminists noted long ago, patriarchy, sexism, and violence against women are to be found among all social and economic classes. These problems often stem from the negative teachings of religious texts, and many women buy into them as readily as men. Millions of girls and women, from all backgrounds and from all over the world, are absolutely convinced that female submission is the surest route to heaven or paradise.
Some leftists maintain that proponents of creationism and intelligent design are not primarily influenced by religious teachings. Rather, they contend, these religionists have other ulterior motives and hidden reactionary agendas. There might be some truth to this contention. Still, these leftists do not consider the fact that millions of citizens are scientifically illiterate and sincerely reject evolution. They have read the Bible literally and quote it accurately, and they have honestly concluded that it, not science, must be true. Why should this be so difficult for some on the Left to understand?
Most religious progressives simply assert that religious conservatives “misinterpret” their religious texts. Yet why do religious progressives assume that they necessarily have the correct interpretations in all cases? Moreover, why would an omniscient and perfectly wise God leave his words open to different interpretations, especially considering that human salvation depends upon a proper understanding of the divine message?
Similarly, progressive religious apologists maintain that religious conservatives quote their holy books “out of context.” Again, it is as though progressive religionists could not possibly quote their religious writings out of context. Ironically, though, religious progressives are more apt to quote out of context than are religious conservatives. This should not be surprising. After all, the Bible and the Qur’an were written by patriarchs living in pre-modern times when slavery was the order of the day. One should expect that their views would often be more in line with conservatives than with progressives.
Saying that the Bible and Qur’an do not influence people to be sexist, homophobic, intolerant, and the like is like saying Mein Kampf did not influence Nazism or anti-Semitic bigotry. The only difference is that Mein Kampf is not a sacred text exempt from criticism in the public mind.
Good people must fight against poverty, illiteracy, and the many other ills afflicting society. However, it is also important to fight against negative influences rooted in the teachings of deeply cherished religious texts. Indeed, this should be the top priority because people can inflict harm without a bothered conscience so long as they believe they are doing the will of God.
Even when religion is not the root cause of a social problem, it is often a major con
tributing factor. Intense faith often greatly exacerbates problems, just as throwing fuel on a fire causes it to rage out of control regardless of what its root cause might have been. Sometimes religion acts as the match that lights the fuse, causing a deadly explosion. Its influence must never be underestimated.