The Case Against ReligionBettina Krause November/December 2023
The lead sentence of a recent news release from America’s foremost atheist organization neatly sums up the feelings of many Americans today.
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation celebrates a new Gallup poll showing that the percentage of Americans identifying as ‘nonreligious’ now exceeds those identifying as ‘religious.’”
For a growing number of people, not just in America but in many other Western countries, religious practice and identity isn’t something to be celebrated. Religion, they believe, breeds intolerance, social divisions, polarization, and, ultimately, violence.
On the face of it, critics of religion have a compelling point. George Santayana, a Spanish-American philosopher and Harvard professor, put it eloquently when he wrote, “Christianity persecuted, tortured, and burned. Like a hound it tracked the very scent of heresy. It kindled wars, and nursed furious hatreds and ambitions. It sanctified, quite like Mohammedanism, extermination and tyranny.”
History is replete with Santayana’s sanctified “extermination and tyranny.” The Crusades, for instance, or the European Wars of Religion. Then there’s the barbarism fueled by the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls issued in the fifteenth century that cloaked the genocidal treatment of indigenous peoples—from Africa to the Americas—with a facade of Christian evangelism. In more recent times there’s the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Bosnian conflict, or the Islamist terror inflicted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Even the war in Ukraine has a religious identity subtext in the centuries-long tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
And then, of course, there’s the conflagration that has engulfed Israel and Gaza. Clearly the utter inhumanity of the Hamas attacks and the brutal conflict that has followed is driven by far more than just religion. But religious identity is, nonetheless, one of this conflict’s most visible and unavoidable markers.
As a person of faith, I can assemble a host of counterarguments to Santayana’s claim that religion is fundamentally harmful. I can point to the countless ways religion has advanced humanity in every field—science, art, law, and philosophy. I can point to Christianity’s essential role in shaping the liberal ideas so critical to the development of Western civilization and modern international law; ideas such as the inherent dignity of every person and the sanctity of human life. Celebrated historian Tom Holland, in his recent book Dominion, has written an epic account of these myriad ways in which Christianity has built our modern world. Even humanism itself, he argues, stands squarely within the moral framework created by Christian and Judaic values.
Still, I suspect my arguments won’t convince those who identify as nonreligious, especially when weighed starkly against the atrocities in which religion seems complicit.
So do atheists and secularists have the better part of the argument when it comes to assessing the social value of religion?
Not So Far Apart
Perhaps it’s a red herring to focus exclusively on religion versus nonreligion. Perhaps we should consider, instead, a different and more telling axis: liberal versus illiberal.
Question. What does a far right religious nationalist have in common with a far left secularist?
Answer: A lot more than you’d think.
Consider a controversial tweet from 2019 by conservative Catholic commentator Sohrab Ahmari, which he later expanded into an article published in First Things. According to Ahmari, the appropriate response to encroaching secularism is to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” It’s a sentiment echoed by other far right religious leaders, such as Reformed theologian Stephen Wolfe, whose book The Case for Christian Nationalism was published last year.
The sticking point, of course, is easy to spot. Who gets to define the “common good and ultimately the Highest Good”? And what happens to those who don’t agree? Pursuing a “righteous” goal by “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils” is a recipe for authoritarianism.
It’s not only those on the right, however, who are willing to upend or disregard liberal norms to usher in a “higher good.” The days following the Hamas attacks on Israel provided clear, chilling examples of how illiberal extremism has been embraced by some on the far left. Some progressive apologists for Hamas’ brutality couched their defense in terms of responding to historic and continuing injustices. On the steps of the Sydney Opera House in Australia, my original home country, a mob celebrated the murder of Israeli men, women, and children, chanting, “Gas the Jews.”
The most significant divide is not between religion and secularism, godly and godless. Instead, the most meaningful divide is between those who resist illiberal impulses and those who embrace them.
Here in America, illiberalism infects the language of both the religious far right and the nonreligious far left. In debates about public policy around religious freedom, for instance, there are those who seek to use the coercive power of law to advance their religious agenda. Conversely, there are those equally willing to use the power of law to constrain religious freedom. And many on both sides seek to coercively silence opposing viewpoints rather than to preserve space in society for dissent.
A shared commitment to the liberal democratic values of our First Amendment—the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—is the mortar that built America and keeps it standing today. When we dig away at this mortar, even if it’s in pursuit of a “higher good,” we weaken the entire structure of our society. Neither the godly nor the godless have a right to override constitutional protections, regardless of the righteousness of their cause.
Santayana was right in one sense. Religion, throughout history, has been implicated in some of the worst of human brutality. But in a far more fundamental sense, Santayana had the wrong villain. Our illiberal human impulse toward violence in pursuit of our goals isn’t triggered only by religion or religious identity. It’s agnostic. It can find expression through any tribal identity, philosophical framework, or political ideology that seeks a “higher good.” It’s equally comfortable with Fascism, Stalinism, and Maoism, or any other “ism” that’s prepared to set aside liberal premises about the worth, dignity, and equality of every person. The case against religion is really the case against the illiberal impulses of human nature.
By the way, Santayana, who spoke so powerfully of the evils of religion, often called himself an “aesthetic Catholic.” He had a deep love for the art and culture of Spanish Catholicism. In the final decade of his life, without family to look after him, Santayana put himself under the care of an order of Catholic nuns in Rome—the Little Company of Mary—and they nursed him until his death.
Article Author: Bettina Krause
Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.