Religion's biggest threats

Our economy runs on the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion

Published July 14, 2012 1:00PM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>Kzenon</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kzenon via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Adam Lee's new book, Daylight Atheism.

Beneath our advanced 21st-century economy lies a smoke-belching 18th-century economy. For all our sophistication, we still depend on fossil fuels dug from the earth to power our homes and offices. And it is now abundantly clear that this dependence is becoming a lethal threat. From the burning of coal and gasoline, we release into the atmosphere toxic mercury, acidic sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter that produces choking smog and causes asthma and other respiratory sicknesses. But more dangerous, because less noticeable, is the invisible gas carbon dioxide, which is released in vast quantities, billions of tons per year, by the burning of all fossil fuels.


Rising into the troposphere, carbon dioxide accumulates in a stifling blanket, trapping the rays of the sun and warming our planet as surely as a hot car left in a parking lot. In the past, feedback mechanisms in the biosphere prevented excessive warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: the oceans absorb it, green plants drink it, rain dissolves it, carbonate rocks sequester it. But we're pumping it into the atmosphere at a prodigious rate, burning through millions of years' worth of hydrocarbon reservoirs in decades, driving the climate system relentlessly out of equilibrium. And decade by decade, global temperatures tick upwards, glaciers recede, habitats dwindle, ice caps fragment, sea levels rise, storms gain strength, the extremes of flood and drought worsen, desert spreads, and the powerful and wealthy special interests who stand to profit by mortgaging the planet attempt to denigrate and marginalize the voices crying in the wilderness to warn humanity of the danger.

But combustible hydrocarbons aren't the only product of the Middle East that shapes the face of the world today. From those desert sands comes another fuel. Like oil and coal, this fuel has its origins in the distant past; unlike oil and coal, this one is invisible, intangible. Rather than being transmitted through drills and pipelines, it travels through the air, leaping from one mind to the next, igniting conflagrations figurative and literal. Our economy runs on the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion.

Instead of the compressed remains of long-dead living things, the religions that dominate our world today are made up of fossilized dogmas, shaped in the cauldron of a long-gone world and compressed by time and tradition into a rock-hard mass. Religion, too, has its impurities, but instead of sulfur and mercury, humanity's beliefs are contaminated with impurities of tribalism and xenophobia, fractions of hate and fanaticism and glorification of martyrdom. And when they burn in human minds, instead of smog and acid rain, they give us suicide bombers exploding in crowded streets, the suffocating darkness of fundamentalism, bloodthirsty mobs in the streets screaming for holy war, armies marching forth to conquer under the red banners of crescent and cross, the Twin Towers collapsing in flame.

I'm not claiming that religious belief is uniformly harmful. At its best, religion can inspire human beings to perform acts of great charity and compassion and create works of wondrous beauty. But these good works have been endlessly reported and praised, and they need no additional documentation from me. If anything, people who report on religion have a tendency to only report its good effects, while sweeping the bad ones under the rug or blithely dismissing them as perversions of "true" faith. I seek to provide some balance to these choruses of praise by reminding people that religion has also directly caused many acts of terrible bloodshed, cruelty and destruction.

Worse, many of these evil deeds come about not by twisting or distorting the teachings of scripture, but by obeying them. There is much material in every religious tradition that teaches violence, intolerance and hatred of the infidels. Modern theologians who recognize the savagery of these passages have either ignored them altogether or else have elaborate schemes of reinterpretation aimed at convincing themselves and others that these verses don't mean what they say. Unfortunately, there will always be believers who see through this charade and interpret the violent verses with the frightening simplicity which their context suggests. These people are a threat, and so long as we persist in believing in books that contain these sorts of dangerous messages, they will always be a threat. It will be one of the major themes of this chapter that people become irrational and dangerous to the precise degree in which they truly believe their religion and take its claims seriously.

I'm well aware that the majority of individual believers are not hate-filled fanatics, but ordinary, decent people. However, as I hope to show, decent people do not need religion to justify their actions, whereas the fanatics do. Good people would be good with or without their religious beliefs, but religion has far too often been used to inspire and promote acts of great evil and cruelty against others who believe differently, and lends itself far too easily to that use. As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg put it a few years ago:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil -- that takes religion.

The fundamental problem at the heart of religious morality is simply this: religious morality is not grounded in human needs and human concerns, but in an entirely different idea -- namely, obeying the will of God. (In practice, the role of God is played by the sum total of teaching and tradition which a believer has absorbed and the religious authorities whom they follow.) When these two align, good results can occur. But when the alleged will of God does not line up with human desires and needs, the results are dreadful.

When a person believes, truly believes, that they know what God's will is, they become almost impossible to reason with. This is because most religions teach that faith -- belief not supported by evidence -- is not just acceptable but commendable, and is the sign of a virtuous person. Of course, beliefs that weren't based on evidence to begin with usually can't be changed by evidence. This makes religious faith a very dangerous thing, because when a religious believer chooses a course of action that's evil or harmful, efforts to persuade them to stop will be futile. After all, if God has told you what he wants you to do, any person who has a different opinion must be an agent of evil, and any compromise would be not just foolish but a sinful violation of God's command.

Now more than ever before, we see this dangerous, dogmatic certainty wreaking havoc all over the world, causing untold harm and suffering to innocent people. When religious believers value obedience to their superstitions more highly than they value the lives of human beings, the consequences are always catastrophic.

The most obvious example was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much could be written, and has been written, about the foreign policy decisions, the economic conditions, or the cultural circumstances that inspired such rage and resentment in the Arab world toward the United States. However, the fact remains that religion -- deeply held, devoutly believed religion -- was the primary motivating factor in the transformation of 19 young men into willing instruments of death. The 9/11 hijackers sincerely believed, as countless other suicide terrorists have believed, that God would reward them for killing themselves in the service of jihad by granting them an eternity of bliss in a heavenly garden of paradise, complete with 72 concubines.

Faced with these facts, some people have gone too far by stereotyping all Muslims as a monolithic bloc united in violent opposition to the West. In fact, despite all the damage that terrorists have wrought in America and Europe, people in primarily Muslim nations have suffered at least as much, if not more, from the evils of Islamic fundamentalism.

Consider the fanatical Islamic regime called the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were deposed in 2001 (though they've been making a violent resurgence). Afghanistan under the Taliban was a brutal theocracy, a state of religious terror both for men and, especially, for women. The Taliban was infamous for forcing women to wear the burqa, a black shroud covering their entire bodies, so that men didn't see any body part of a woman to whom they weren't related. Refusal to wear this stifling, dehumanizing garment in public was punishable by imprisonment, beatings, torture and death. Women under the Taliban were forbidden to attend school past the age of eight, to work outside the home, or indeed to leave their home for any reason -- even to seek medical care -- if not accompanied by a male relative. Even then, women were forbidden to see or be treated by male doctors, even in case of a life-or-death medical emergency. In this cruel and savage society, women were little more than prisoners in their own homes.

This isn't to say that life under the Taliban was much better for men. Under the fundamentalist Islamic law code of sharia, human rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment, torture and execution were common. Crimes included having too short a beard or wearing shorts in public. The barbaric punishments for breaking this law included public flogging, amputation of limbs, being buried alive, and execution by stoning, in which the condemned is bludgeoned to death by crowds wielding heavy, jagged rocks.

Saudi Arabia, America's oil-rich ally, enforces a version of sharia almost as strict as the Taliban's. All religions other than the kingdom's fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam are banned. Women are forced to wear head-to-toe coverings in public, and can't legally work, drive or travel without the permission of a man. In one infamous incident from 2002, the mutaween, the Saudi religious police, prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning building because they weren't "properly" dressed to appear in public. Fifteen died in the flames.

Islam isn't the only religion that's been used to justify violence. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, often thought of as peaceful faiths, have inspired their share of conflict and bloodshed. But there can be little doubt that next to Islam, the belief system that poses the greatest threat to human liberty and world stability is Christian fundamentalism. In most Western countries, Christianity has lost most of its political power or evolved into more benign forms. But in the United States of America, a belligerent, authoritarian faction of Christian conservatives possesses a great deal of power.

Today's Christian fundamentalists, for the most part, don't pursue their goals through violence as Muslim fundamentalists tend to do. Nevertheless, they're just as committed to their desire to take over society and remake it in their own rigid, theocratic image. Regardless of whether this lust for dominion arises in Christianity, Islam or any other religious tradition, it's equally tyrannical and should be equally abhorrent to freedom-loving people everywhere.

Consider one of the most obvious examples. Contrary to what some people seem to think, marriage isn't an exclusively religious rite but confers many civil benefits: the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital; the right not to testify against one's partner in court; and the right to share health insurance and Social Security benefits, to name a few. There's absolutely no good reason to deny these benefits to anyone in a committed relationship, regardless of their gender. Yet a majority of American states have voted to outlaw same-sex marriage; some have even advocated making it illegal for employers to offer the same benefits to same-sex couples as they do to opposite-sex couples.

These campaigns are invariably led by Christian conservatives who appeal to prejudice and homophobia dressed up in the guise of "protecting marriage." The question is inevitably never answered -- protecting marriage from what, exactly? Would allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry harm heterosexuals somehow? Would it negatively affect existing marriages in any way? Of course not -- a moment's clearheaded thought should make that obvious enough. But religious conservatives have effectively prevented that moment of clarity by clouding their followers' minds, inciting paranoia and hysteria and whipping up the flames of hatred. Their rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from the pre-civil rights era opposition to interracial marriage, although the comparison hasn't seemed to trouble them.

Some states have carried anti-gay hysteria even further by banning gay people acting as foster parents or adopting children, regardless of their qualifications or their ability to provide a loving and stable home environment. Showing the revolting depths of their hatred and prejudice, some state legislatures have proposed laws that would prevent gay people from adopting children, even if they are related to them, or that would break up preexisting adoptions by gay parents that were performed legally in other states if the parents merely traveled through the state in question with their child.

The most appalling part of this is that the people behind these efforts claim to be "pro-marriage" and "pro-family." How can these claims be considered anything other than the opposite of the truth? They are not pro-family; they're fighting against gay families and doing their best to tear those families apart. Nor are they pro-marriage: they're in favor of restricting marriage, of keeping it off-limits to people they disapprove of. A person who was in favor of marriage would want to make marriage accessible to as many groups of people as possible.

There are two more stories worth recounting that shows the depths of religious anti-gay hysteria, and offers a frightening glimpse of what these would-be theocrats would like the law to be. In December 2006, a schism within the Anglican church over how to treat gay congregants boiled over, as two large, wealthy, conservative parishes in Virginia with over 4,000 members voted to secede from the American branch of the Anglican Convocation and align themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria and its ultra-conservative archbishop Peter Akinola. Akinola is the head of the second-largest branch of the Anglican church, with around 17 million members, about one-quarter of the denomination's entire global membership. He's also spoken in support of a horrendous Nigerian law that would punish any homosexual activity, private or public -- even something as inoffensive as holding hands -- with five years imprisonment. Even if not all the members of the American churches agree with Akinola's beliefs, they evidently don't consider them to be a deal-breaker either.

The religious right's obsession with sex, and more specifically its wish to punish people who don't conform to its ideas of sexual propriety, shows up in other contexts as well. Consider the growing problem of religious pharmacists who refuse to fill certain prescriptions because they disapprove of the use of the drug being prescribed. There's been a rash of Roman Catholic pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control pills -- even to people who aren't Catholic -- because Catholic dogma forbids the use of contraception. In at least one of these cases, not only did the pharmacist refuse to fill the prescription, he refused to return it to the patient in an attempt to prevent her from having it filled at a different pharmacy. And in many states, legislatures are debating so-called "conscience clause" laws that would explicitly make these actions legal.

If we allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions on religious grounds, what's next? Will we see pharmacists refusing to sell antiviral medicine to people with AIDS because they believe HIV is God's punishment for homosexuals and people who have extramarital sex? (Christian conservatives are on record as opposing the vaccine for human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted disease that causes thousands of cases of cervical cancer each year, because they see it as tantamount to a license for young people to have sex. Evidently, they believe that teenagers who aren't abstinent deserve to get cancer as punishment.) Will Christian Scientists, who believe in the healing power of prayer and shun medical science as a rule, become pharmacists and then refuse to dispense any medicine at all? Will we see doctors blackmailing their patients by demanding that they convert to their religion or attend their church in exchange for medical treatment? Once we allow people to refuse to do their jobs on religious grounds, where will it end?

Even these insults may be just the tip of the iceberg. There's substantial evidence that the religious right's goal is to eliminate contraception altogether -- not just the birth control pill, but condoms, IUDs, and any other invention that lets humans control their reproductive systems. This springs from their view that sex should only be for procreation, not pleasure. Although this view was once solely the position of Catholics, it's beginning to appear in strength among the evangelical Protestant right as well.

Followers of this view have launched a variety of tactics to throw up obstacles to people seeking to obtain contraception. Among these tactics are pushing for religious exemptions that allow insurers to refuse to cover contraception, seeking to prohibit the sale of birth control to minors, banning comprehensive sex ed from public schools, and spreading misinformation about the efficacy of condoms in preventing the transmission of STDs. Under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, religious fundamentalists succeeded in lobbying the FDA to overrule its own scientific advisory committee and deny over-the-counter status to Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill. Most disastrously of all, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the Bush administration's decision to emphasize abstinence-only programs to the exclusion of all other methods forced overseas relief programs to cut funds intended for preventing the transmission of AIDS from mothers to children.

And then there's the elephant in the room: abortion. The idea that a woman should be able to exercise control over her own body and terminate an unwanted pregnancy is anathema to the religious right, because of their belief that even a one-day-old embryo -- a microscopic ball of undifferentiated cells, possessing no organs, no body, no brain, utterly incapable of any kind of thought or feeling -- possesses an invisible supernatural appendage called a soul that makes it equal in moral worth to an adult human being. The state of South Dakota's draconian 2008 anti-abortion law, which made no exceptions even in cases of rape or to protect the health of the mother (thankfully, overturned by referendum) was a particularly cruel, but by no means unrepresentative, example of what religious conservatives would implement if they had their way.

Although South Dakota's law and other, similar anti-abortion measures have been consistently defeated in referendums, the religious right has been trying to enforce them anyway. In November 2009, a pregnant woman came to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix with severe pulmonary hypertension. The hospital's ethics committee judged that her death was virtually certain if the pregnancy continued, and the doctors performed an abortion. In response, Thomas Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix, demanded that such a procedure never be performed there again, not even to save a woman's life. To their credit, the hospital refused, and Olmsted responded by stripping the hospital of its Catholic affiliation. Sadly, it appears that this was a rare case of courage on the hospital's part: In surveys published before and since, other doctors working at Catholic hospitals have come forward to say that hospital administrators refused to let them perform life-saving abortions on women suffering severe complications from pregnancy, even if the woman was already having a miscarriage and no possible treatment could have saved the fetus.

The deepest irony is that the religious right's rigid opposition to contraception and sex education hasn't produced a more stable or healthier society, but has resulted in the opposite. Among Western nations, the United States has the highest divorce rate, the highest teen pregnancy rate, and the highest rate of STD infection; and within the United States, the highest rates of these social ills are found among the highly conservative, highly religious states usually referred to as the Bible Belt. Meanwhile, a 1999 study by conservative Christian pollster George Barna found that atheists as a group have lower divorce rates than virtually all Christian denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, born-agains, and evangelicals.

And just as religious conservatives want to intrude into the beginning of life, they seek to exert control over its end as well. Many conservative Christian denominations, especially the Catholic church, want to ban not just active euthanasia, in which a terminally ill person is administered drugs that cause a painless death, but even passive euthanasia, in which life-extending treatment is withheld from a person who's terminally ill so that nature can take its course. Instead, these churches argue that a person who is alive must be kept alive, regardless of how badly they're suffering, regardless of whether there's any hope of recovery, regardless even of whether the person wants to continue treatment. As one Roman Catholic website puts it, "Human beings do not have the right to decide when we die." Another religious anti-euthanasia group adds that "even if that life is full of suffering... [w]e have no right to terminate life."

In all these incidents, a broader trend is visible. Religious conservatives oppose abortion, oppose birth control, oppose gay adoption, oppose same-sex marriage, oppose euthanasia -- in short, they want to control how people are born, how they marry, how they raise families, and how they die. During the most private and important moments of a human being's life, they want to barge in and demand adherence to their rigid, paternalistic creed. Again, because their unwavering religious belief has led them to the blind certainty that they know best how life should be lived, they have no qualms in seeking to intrude upon the lives of others at the most important and personal moments.

There's one more threat that needs to be mentioned. Despite the outrages upon human dignity that they've caused, none of these beliefs directly threaten the future of the human species as a whole. But there is one that does. This is the most frightening and dangerous religious belief of all, the most potentially catastrophic of all the fossil fuels, and it's alive and virulent today: the belief that the apocalypse is coming soon, and that this is a good thing.

A poll taken in 2002 found that 59 percent of Americans expect the events in the Bible's book of Revelation to come literally true in the future. In other words, almost six in 10 Americans believe that sometime in the near future, the world will be destroyed. That's what the second coming of Jesus Christ implies in Christian theology: global disaster and catastrophe, the deaths of hundreds of millions, and a day in which "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). A large number of believers are looking forward to this event and believe it's a desirable outcome. And when people truly and sincerely believe this, their actions will follow suit: either treating the planet where we all live as if it were of no consequence, or worse, taking steps to start this world-destroying war themselves.

Here's the Christian pastor John MacArthur explaining how his belief in the imminent second coming relates to his views on the environmental movement:

The environmental movement is consumed with trying to preserve the planet forever. But we know that isn't in God's plan.

The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet -- it is going to have a very short life. It's been around six thousand years or so -- that's all -- and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.

I've told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it.

...This earth was never ever intended to be a permanent planet -- it is not eternal. We do not have to worry about it being around tens of thousands, or millions, of years from now because God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth.


The recklessness and callousness proclaimed by writings like this is unbelievable. These views impact all the rest of us who must share the planet with these people. We all live on this world together, and we're all connected by what happens to it. Sulfur emitted into the air in one country causes acid rain in another; fertilizer dumped into a river upstream causes toxic algae blooms downstream; carbon emitted by the United States causes melting glaciers in Asia and Africa and global warming in the Arctic. We can't solve the problem of environmental degradation in one place without solving it everywhere. Yet Christian fundamentalists such as MacArthur shrug off these efforts because they consider the planet "disposable," and they're willing to make that decision on behalf of all of us -- and let future generations suffer the consequences if they turn out to be wrong.

Adam Lee is a writer and atheist activist living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his blog, Daylight Atheism.

By Adam Lee


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