I noticed a link on my Facebook feed this morning to a Salon article on the "6 reasons religion may do more harm than good." The first reason listed: religion promotes tribalism.
Religion divides insiders from outsiders. Rather than assuming good intentions, adherents often are taught to treat outsiders with suspicion. “Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers,” says the Christian Bible. “They wish that you disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them,” says the Koran (Sura 4:91).
At best, teachings like these discourage or even forbid the kinds of friendship and intermarriage that help clans and tribes become part of a larger whole. At worst, outsiders are seen as enemies of God and goodness, potential agents of Satan, lacking in morality and not to be trusted. Believers might huddle together, anticipating martyrdom. When simmering tensions erupt, societies fracture along sectarian fault lines.
No fan of tribalism, me, but religion is hardly unique in this tendency.
Case in point: In a link right under the one for that article, I noticed another Salon article, really a book excerpt, on "toxic atheism." In it, atheist Chris Stedman describes the same kind of tribal exclusivity, judgment, and othering among his compatriots.
I sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other, intensely aware of how out of place I must have seemed. Next to me on the couch were a woman in her mid-40s with a shimmering peacock brooch and a man in his late 30s wearing a denim shirt and a tan corduroy vest. I introduced myself and asked what they’d thought of the panel. They raved: “Wasn’t it wonderful how intelligent the panelists were and how wickedly they’d exposed the frauds of religion? Weren’t they right that we must all focus our energy on bringing about the demise of religious myths?”
I paused, debating whether I should say anything. My “Minnesota Nice” inclination warned me to let it be, but I had to say something. So I started small, asking them to consider that diversity of thought and background fosters an environment where discourse thrives, where ideas are exchanged, and where we learn from one another.
I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost,” said the woman with a flick of her hand that suggested she was swatting at an invisible mosquito.
As a former Evangelical Christian, these words were hauntingly familiar, and they represented a kind of sure-handed certainty and dismissal — a kind of fundamentalist thinking, really — that I’d hoped to leave behind with my “born again” beliefs.
Our conversation continued, and I offered up petitions that the positive contributions of religious people be considered with equal weight alongside the negative.
“I understand what you’re saying,” I said, trying to weigh my words carefully, “but how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”
“Oh, I get it,” the man jumped in with a sneer. “You’re one of those atheists.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. I shifted my weight from one side to another — another nervous habit — and picked at an hors d’oeuvre that I thought might be some kind of cheese.
“What do you mean, ‘one of those atheists?’”
“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’”
Not a real atheist. I’d heard words like that before — in my youth, when I was told I couldn’t be a real Christian because I was gay. Once again I didn’t fit the prescribed model, and I was not-so-gently shown the door.
This tribal, group-think behavior can be seen in all walks of life, religious and secular. It can even be observed in web communities made up of people who've never met face to face -- people who have bonded over interests as divisive as politics and as uncontroversial as needlepoint. People form cliques and in-groups. It's what we do. The reason may be as simple and obvious as evolutionary biology -- follow a strong leader, stay with the group, and survive.
Both of the above articles describe extremist ideology and it's painfully obvious that religion has no lock on such extremity. As Stedman points out, the New Atheist movement is not so much atheist as it antitheist. Religious scholar Reza Aslan explains how the political reforms of the Enlightenment, which sought to separate the state from organized religion, were contorted into movements at least as oppressive and bloody as the worst theocratic excesses.
Yet in the century that followed the Enlightenment, a stridently militant form of atheism arose that merged the Enlightenment’s criticism of institutional religion with the strict empiricism of the scientific revolution to not only reject belief in God, but to actively oppose it. By the middle of the 19th century, this movement was given its own name – anti-theism – specifically to differentiate it from atheism.
It was around this time that anti-theism reached its peak in the writings of the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx famously viewed religion as the “opium of the people” and sought to eradicate it from society. “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness,” Marx wrote in his celebrated critique of Hegel.
In truth, Marx’s views on religion and atheism were far more complex than these much-abused sound bites project. Nevertheless, Marx’s vision of a religion-less society was spectacularly realized with the establishment of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – two nations that actively promoted “state atheism” by violently suppressing religious expression and persecuting faith communities.
Atheists often respond that atheism should not be held responsible for the actions of these authoritarian regimes, and they are absolutely right. It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?
The relentless obsession of New Atheists with Islam as what Sam Harris calls "the motherlode of bad ideas," fills Karen Armstrong with very justifiable fear.
It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.
This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.
The secular state is historically new, but as previously discussed, that brief history is replete with bloody wars and grotesque atrocities that would make a Medieval Inquisitor blush.
"Religions seek power," writes Valerie Tarico, rounding out her list of 6 criticisms of religion. "Think corporate personhood. Religions are man-made institutions, just like for-profit corporations are."
Yes! Precisely! Religions are like a lot of other organizations. And we need to stop blaming institutions for the human nature that created them.