AFT Blog # 31: Criticism of Religion

Dare to Criticize Religion

Jean Delisle

“What has been affirmed without proof can also be denied without proof” Euclid

We have the good fortune to live in a country which is a signatory of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to criticize religion is a consequence of freedom of expression which is guaranteed by that Declaration and by our democratic political system.

To be truly relevant, such criticism much be done in historical perspective, especially in light of the importance which religions give tradition, an argument which religions often use, for lack of anything more convincing, to justify archaic practices, rituals and customs such as the celibacy of priests, the veil, circumcision, the ban on eating pork, the kirpan, the turban, the kippa, sideburns, etc.

For nonbelievers, a religion is a purely human institution founded on unverifiable premises (dogma, articles of faith, beliefs) and accompanied by more or less stringent constraints. The most fundamental of these premises is divine revelation, revealed by a god whose existence cannot be proven but whose will believers nevertheless claim to know: “I do this, because it is god’s will 1 ” they will say in order to justify their behaviour, no matter how inhumane.

The Inconsistency of Revelation

Strangely, the three great monotheisms are based on different revelations. The author of La Bible démasquée (The Bible Unmasked) clearly perceives the array of inconsistencies and contradictions which compromises the very concept of revelation:

How could the one true God have revealed himself to Christians to be a trinity, but resolutely singular to Jews and Muslims? How could he have prescribed monogamy and the ban on divorce to Christians and not to Muslims? Or the banning of images to Jews and Muslims, but not to Christians? A man who is God incarnate to Christians, but neither to Jews nor Muslims? Original sin to Christians only? Papal infallibility also to Christians only? 2

These few lines provide ample food for thought on the question of the origins of various religions.

Objectionable Aspects of Religions

No religion can claim immunity from criticism, “just as no political, philosophical or ideological school of thought can claim such immunity. […] In a secular society, religions are considered to be on a par with all other opinions.” 3

One may criticize any and all arguments from authority which assert, among other things, that so-called sacred scriptures (Bible, Coran, Talmud) teach the truth and contain absolutely no errors. Such an arrogant claim leads to divisiveness, exclusion and conflicts. History provides countless examples of this.

One may criticize the indoctrination of young children at an age when they are not yet able to make an informed judgement about what they are asked to belief.

One may criticize the various mutilations (circumcision, female genital mutilation) which believers impose on their children.

One may criticize privileges granted to religious institutions, extracting billions of dollars from states which have failed to keep their distance from ecclesiastical powers (the “purple economy”). Consider for example the incestuous relationship between the Duplessis regime and the Catholic hierarchy, based on the principle that “State and Church are one.” The crucifix installed in the main chamber of the Quebec National Assembly in 1936 to consummate this pact is a disgrace.

One may criticize the public financing of religious schools or of chaplaincies in prisons. It is not the place of a secular state to provide such services.

One may criticize the attempts by politico-religious Muslim groups to place so-called Divine Law above the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on the contention that man is a “subject of God” and not the product of evolution.

One may criticize the attitude of Muslims who contend that freedom of expression cannot justify disparagement of religions, and who condemn criticism of religion as a form of racism.

One may criticize the actions of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (57 countries) whose goal is to force international institutions, including the United Nations, to recognize formally the concept of “defamation of religion” in order to criminalize blasphemy and enshrine this “crime” in international law. This campaign is a frontal attack on freedom of expression which is essential to any democracy worthy of the name.

One may criticize theocracies which infringe upon the freedom of conscience of their citizens, block their democratic aspirations and systematically erect barriers to secularism.

One may criticize the refusal of religions to recognize medical discoveries (contraceptive methods for example), preferring doctrinal stagnation by remaining stubbornly attached to rigid moral prescriptions of a bygone era.

One may criticize the hypocrisy of many members of the clergy who display a facade of proper moral conduct., yet in private indulge in reprehensible practices contradicting the very code which they preach.

The list is endless.

To Criticize Religions: An Unalienable Right

By what principle must a religion be spared from all criticism? Because of their non-religious stance, atheists and other non-believers are well positioned to expose the inconsistencies of belief systems and to denounce, in the name of the humanist principles which they promote, all abuses of which religions are guilty, even if, as must be recognized, religious institutions finance many charitable works. They are however not the only ones who practice humanitarian assistance, and their “good works” do not justify granting them any special privileges. Indeed, in all honesty, is it really necessary to be an atheist or non-believer in order to denounce:

  • the profoundly immoral character of fatwas which require Muslims to assassinate blasphemers?
  • the intolerance of those who murder apostates and homosexuals?
  • the Vatican which condemns the use of condoms and remains coldly indifferent to the suffering caused by AIDS?
  • the abhorrent denigration of women by all patriarchal religions? Misogyny is certainly the most repugnant and reprehensible aspect of religion.

Remnants of a Distant Past

In the era when the various monotheisms came into existence, human beings believed that the earth was flat, that it was at the centre of the solar system, that mountains held up the sky, that it was possible to transmute lead into gold or that languages could be learned by taking pills. Is it any surprise, then, that religions continue to convey similar beliefs?

Do not creationists still maintain the conviction that the legend of creation recounted in the book of Genesis is a scientific and literally exact description of the origin of the universe created by god in seven days?

And so we must abstain from criticizing religions? On the contrary, now more that ever this sober critique is necessary so that the light of reason and knowledge can dissipate the darkness of ignorance and superstition.

Jean Delisle, Gatineau
Atheist freethinker
(This article is a translation of an abbreviated version of one which originally
appeared in Québec humaniste published by the Association Humaniste du Québec.)
(English translation: David Rand)

References

  • Atheist Freethinkers Blog #11, “The Will of ‘God’” by David Rand.
  • Normand Rousseau, La Bible démasquée. Incohérences et contradictions (The Bible Unmasked, Inconsistencies and Contradictions), Montreal, Louise Courteau, ed., 2010, p. 89.
  • Christian Rioux, “Les oiseaux de Rushdie”, Le Devoir, 28 Sept. 2012.

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