Matthew Parris on religion – false, but useful!
Matthew Parris’ piece, in which he suggest that, though he is an atheist, he thinks religion is a powerful tool for good in Africa, something he recommends we foster and encourage, has predictably provoked responses from atheists. See previous post.
My small contribution here is just to repeat and edited part of my earlier post Is Religion Dangerous. The moral I wish to draw is, obviously, that even if religion can be a highly powerful and useful tool, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to use it.
Many, including Keith Ward, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved [more highly motivated to do good, etc.].
Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.
Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists … now about 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people.
[Who would have predicted that in just 50 years or so they would come to have such political influence in the US – to the point where even the last President appears to be a convert? Who would have predicted that 12% of British graduates would come to believe it by 2006]
We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things…
Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm [and perhaps even quite a bit of good].
But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.
Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that’s not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I’d suggest, is true of religion.
Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.
Let’s also not forget that less than five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we’d be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.