I used to think that religion caused undesirable behavior until I started looking more carefully at pagan rituals and mythology, human behavior in non-religious societies, and the differences and commonalities between various religions, both past and present. All religions had common traits and potential evolutionary explanations, including (1) the human mindset, which seemed prone to religiosity and (2) religion’s usefulness to the powerful in terms of controlling human behavior, while accumulating still greater wealth and power. At that point, most of the religious tenets, both bad and good, started to look more like reflections of human nature rather than the primary causes of undesirable behavior.
For instance, in primitive societies, misogyny could be explained by man’s (and in this case, I do mean *man’s*) need to spread his genes and protect his progeny; homophobia seemed to stem from the desire to increase the subject population, as well as the fear of one’s one natural homosexual tendencies (again, this mainly applies to men), and so on. Almost every common human trait could be explained in evolutionary terms, whether the explanations I just posited are accurate or not.
Of course, it is believed that human beings are capable of overriding evolutionary pressures through development of culture, but at what point this occurs — or even if it ever truly occurs — is hard to say. Many intellectuals in various disciplines have written on this specific issue and frankly, I need to read more before I address it in greater detail.
And while I agree with Christopher Hitchens and his ilk that religion both enables and perpetuates irrational fear, intolerance, hatred, and violence, I don’t see it as the primary cause of anything; the matter is far more complex than that. Organized religion seems to be the result of the interplay between the uncertainties of our lives and our inherently human traits. This is supported by the fact that the more violent and unstable a region is, the more religious the population. But religion isn’t the only tool in the toolbox, so to speak — any extreme system of beliefs, religious or secular, can accomplish the same goals — for examples, look at nationalism and communism. Even feminism, taken to the extreme, can be polarizing, tribalistic, and divisive. It is human nature to look for communities to unite us rather than divide us; we form groups with those who share similar world views; and in the end it is up to us whether such groups become a source of positive or negative influence in the world.
It appears to me that the above line of thinking is the only one consistent with the notion that man created god. After all, where would morally repugnant religious ideas otherwise come from? A nonexistent entity can’t require them, since it doesn’t exist. So both god’s attributes and general religious tenets have to reflect the needs of the men in power (as well as the common human need to have something to believe in). It can’t be the other way around; religion cannot cause anything, since it’s purely man’s creation.
This is why, despite my certainty that there is no theist god, at least not in any sense that humans can understand, intolerant and aggressive atheism scares me. Every exclusive and aggressive belief system seems to lead to harmful behavior and violence, which is exactly what I want to see eradicated. And it makes no sense to eradicate the things you hate by committing the same acts albeit in the name of a different cause, since that both stems from and leads to the belief that your particular group is superior, which is exactly the problem in the first place.
In a nutshell, behavior based on any extremist system of thought — be it religious, political, or economic — is harmful, and in the end the harm is usually the same: miserable living conditions, violence, and death for certain groups and group members, often on a very large scale. And this is exactly what I want to see come to an end. While religion is clearly an enabler, it can’t be the primary cause of anything, since man created it, along with gods and prophets with distinctly human characteristics.
Further, while I loved Hitchens while he was with us, I disagreed with his aggressive ideas on foreign policy, since, in my opinion, violence only begets more violence. That’s not to say that violence is never appropriate, it very well may be, but exactly when violence must be employed is a difficult question and one that I can’t fully answer. But, in general terms, I tend to favor restraint and containment over aggression, as well as a purely defensive foreign policy. (On a personal and legal level, my views are consistent with this: I favor restraint of individuals who can’t function in society, and violence only when absolutely necessary for defense of self or others.) Restraint and containment should be sufficient consequences to prevent undesirable behavior, and retribution is not necessary, even if it feels satisfying to some. In fact, arguably, restraint and containment are far better tools for prevention than violence and murder.
And this is why, though I believe that religion is both an emotional crutch and an intellectual error, I have no disdain for the religious. All of us, religious or not, have far more in common than it seems at first glance. Further, there have been no studies showing that the non-religious are intellectually superior to the religious (notably, this is different from the left v. right schism, at least in the US). Regardless of whether our beliefs are right or wrong, conduct based on intolerant and extremist belief systems is harmful to humanity, and it’s the harmful conduct that we must first seek to eradicate, not the beliefs.
(Note: I do, however, adamantly oppose religious involvement in government and science education. This falls squarely within the category of harmful religious conduct.)