One obvious problem with this anti-religious position is that it blurs the line between belief in God and human action; more exactly, that `believing’ in God automatically means `doing’ evil. There are two errors with this view. The first is that the belief in God is intrinsically harmful to the human psyche. The second is that human actions solely and automatically arise once we have come to hold an idea as true.
In reference to the first error: Much can be written on this, but for now, one can easily point to how individuals who have believed in God have positively contributed to the areas of personal morality, the political and legal system, the rise of human rights, education, philosophy, science, and the arts. I do not state this to imply that non-believers cannot be moral or contribute to the common good of society, but merely to show that believing in God does not in itself lead to doing evil, but that for many, the belief has led them to personal transformation, and moved them to pursue the good. Like all human enterprises, religious systems have both a light and a dark side to them. Belief in God has often inspired an individual to lay his life down for justice, feed the poor, heal the sick, write poetry, sing, dance, prevent wars and save trees. Even if these attempts to do the good were done imperfectly (like most of our actions), those imperfections do not detract from the social efficacy of their beliefs in action. Religious belief systems have provided individuals with the strength to move onward in difficult times, solace and hope when things go wrong, and the moral wisdom of loving one’s neighbor even when one really wants to shoot him in the head.
In reference to the second error: To believe in something does not necessarily lead to one living what one believes. Even religions tell us that there is often a conflict, or disconnect, between what we know is the right thing to do, and doing what is right. The religious principle of `Loving your neighbor as oneself’ is in itself a good thing. However, no matter how much I may believe it to be so, or even think that it is a rational moral practice to exercise, my intellectual acceptance of it or wish to practice it is not a guarantee that I will not do violence toward those who annoy me. Similarly, just because people may fail to practice what they may sincerely believe, does not imply that what they believe is wrong. Failure `to do’ does not mean that the `belief in’ the principle is wrong. Just because a Christian may take up arms against another, that does not mean that the command to love your enemy is not worthy of holding. Such occasions serve more to illustrate that human beings often fail in doing the good.
Along these lines, even if a religious principle be used as a tool against another person, does not imply that the principle itself is wrong. It merely means that human beings have the ability to take something that is good and corrupt it for their own purpose. Thus, belief in God may itself not be wrong, even though an individual or community uses it for their own morally questionable benefit. Let us note that modern science itself is not evil, but people have used scientific knowledge to create and efficiently employ weapons, attack the moral belief of others, generate human life in the lab to experiment (do research), and manipulate the human psyche.
So, in response to Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Harris, the belief in God does not cause war, hunger, environmental degradation or violence. It is what we do with the belief that determines whether we do the good or evil. We could even argue that genuine belief in God may serve as an occasion for us to pause and reflect whether the actions we are to undertake properly follow the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, body and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves.”
It is the human heart, the ego-centered belief that we are masters of the universe, along with the arrogance of thinking that we can control our lives only if we had enough knowledge and power that lies at the core of the social evils we often experience. Though we use belief systems to justify what we do, the reality is we do not need religion, science or any belief system to do what we desire. Often we use beliefs such as `The Invisible Hand’ of the market, Manifest Destiny, patriotic idealism, and the idea that `might makes right’ to justify poverty, confiscation of land, war, the exclusion of other from the public square, and the imposition of our view on life on others. But the bottom line is, it is we who act, not our beliefs or the belief-systems in which they are housed.
Evil arises when we attempt to become the center, the definers and the masters of the Cosmos. At least all religious systems are wise enough to tell us that what defiles the beauty of creation, our relationship with others, and our very being, is that which arises from ourselves, from our hearts (Gospel of Mark 7:15). It is when we attempt to define ourselves as gods (Genesis 3:5) that we become most vulnerable to doing evil.
Children often blame others for the bad consequences arising from actions that they themselves have committed. It is time that we grow up and stop blaming God for the social evils that we bring into the world.
Get email alerts of future postings of LA Catholic Examiner by clicking the subscribe tab.