What is religion good for? For secular humanists on the atheist side of the spectrum, the reflexive answer is often “Nothing much.” Congregational and religious humanists might object that the great faiths have brought forth towering cultural achievements in domains ranging from architecture, music, and painting to ethics and philosophy. Religions embody some of the richest wisdom developed over millennia of the human quest. Counterfactual, even steeped in error as they are, surely the result of so many person-years of striving cannot be wholly without value for the men and women of today. Yet rationalists can argue that precisely because of their counterfactuality, their rootedness in the naïve guesswork of ancient pastoralists, the religions of old are perforce irrelevant to contemporary concerns and aspirations.
So complex is this question that no single view of it may be possible. Gathered here are three radically distinct perspectives.
Taking the stance that Christianity of a nuanced sort is necessary after all, in “Christianity Doesn’t Need God,” Catholic iconoclast Daniel C. Maguire argues that in the face of looming ecological catastrophe, humanity must search for wisdom wherever it might be found—even in Christianity, uncomfortable as many secularists may find that prospect. In his forthcoming book, Christianity without God, from which this article was adapted, Maguire—a professor at Marquette University who has been one of the most provocative gadflies within America’s Catholic Church—reveals himself as a disbeliever in the divinity of Christ and the truth of the Bible, and indeed as very nearly an atheist. Even so, and even while acknowledging that much in the Christian patrimony has helped to establish a destructive vision of humans standing wholly outside of nature, Maguire contends that there are other strands in Christianity that we should not hesitate to make use of as we gird to save twenty-first-century humanity from itself.
Historian Thomas Tandy Lewis takes a different tack, focusing on the Old Testament pseudohistory of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. In “An Indictment of the Biblical Deity for the Crime of Genocide,” he charges that the biblical narrative unmistakably shows God leading his chosen people to exterminate the Promised Land’s original populations. Even if historically untrue (as it almost certainly is), this archetypal narrative has established a predatory ideal that echoes in such real crimes as Europe’s rape of the Americas and Israeli brutality in the Middle East.
In “Reason Unhinged: The Religious Subversion of Civil Accountability,” philosopher Andy Norman examines neither the cultural deposit nor the historical assertions of any particular faith. Instead he probes faith itself, that core religious process, and finds in it a distilled defiance of all the rules on which a civilized community depends. It is a novel and, to my view, uniquely forceful argument that faith itself—the method by which believers come to assent to otherworldly propositions without regard for evidence or in outright defiance of the evidence—has a unique and corrosive power to coarsen human discourse and incline us toward the worst within ourselves.
After reading these articles, you may not think you have discovered answers. But I suspect—and hope—that you’ll never view the question in quite the same way.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and the editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007).