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Religion: an obsolete concept

After the twin bombings in Jakarta this week, many people called and urged me to attend one prayer vigil or another; calls for prayers from various religious leaders and the devout of many different cults were heard all over the city and beyond.

These pleas that we focus more on god infuriated me and I’m afraid I aliented some misguided although well-meaning people who wanted to encourage me to be closer to god at this time. I just wanted to scream, “Wake up! It’s that superstitious faith in magic, and the belief that my magic is more true than your magic that killed and shattered the bodies of people about whom I cared. Stop it!!!”

Below is a more thoroughly explained outline of my view.

Looking forward to a post-religious world

Patrick Guntensperger

Although at this time neither the identities nor the motives of those responsible for the bombings at Jakarta’s Ritz Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels have been established, it seems to be a good time to discuss the role religion plays in our society. No matter how many times we hear a few clerics state in the aftermath of a terror attack that Islam is a religion of peace and that the terrorist’s actions are inconsistent with the real Islam, the fact remains that the terrorists themselves invariably claim their religion as their motivation and guide.

Denials by clerics of the legitimacy of the terrorists’ interpretation of religious tenets is no more than to state disapproval of mass murder; that reasonable people agree that actions with the specific intent of mutilating and killing random innocent people are wrong should be painfully obvious. Those mild denials only serve to emphasise that too many people don’t see things that way.

After the most recent cowardly and evil act, in which one friend was killed and several maimed, I was asked by someone I respect and admire to attend a mass prayer session. I don’t think she understood my instant hostility to the idea. I find the idea of a gathering in any religious context grotesquely inappropriate under the circumstances.

Religion is among the most pernicious evils in the world today. Assuming for the time being that the most recent detonations were the work of the same terror groups that have been active in Indonesia for the last decade, they were inspired by religion and motivated by religious differences; the bombers were trained by religious figures and the murders were done in the name of their religion. To invoke religious sentiment in the aftermath is to add insult to the injuries the victims have already suffered.

Those of a religious bent – any religious bent – ought to consider just keeping that to themselves at this deeply painful time; right now is not the time to rub religion in the faces of the survivors and the families of victims. They have suffered enough. As the friend of some of the victims of religious violence, I find a religious display in honour of the brutality to be profoundly offensive and deeply unfeeling.

While religious terrorists are clearly aberrant, even in the irrational sphere of religion, what seems to be lost is that the very concept of religion is an aberration. The default position for rational beings is atheism; that is the natural worldview. The claim that there exists a supreme being of any sort is an extraordinary one, and therefore requires extraordinary evidence. For that proposition, however, there doesn’t exist a shred of evidence that would be acceptable in any rational field. The idea of a supreme being who created this world and watches over us out of parental love is beyond preposterous and is inherently contradictory.

Nevertheless, we have been socialised to grant those absurd propositions a special status. Out of historical and cultural habit, we continue to permit statements of staggering absurdity stand as unquestioned fact, and to serve as the foundation for many of our laws and mores. It is not too much to ask that when patently ridiculous beliefs are imposed upon others, we be shown some sort of evidence to justify those beliefs.

One frequent response to that not unreasonable proposal is that religious enlightenment is not subject to empirical testing; that revelation is an internal matter and takes the form of deep, inner certainty. Any rational person would recognise the hypocrisy of that argument. I challenge anyone who would make that claim to try the following test: 

Blindfold yourself then run across a toll highway, relying on a deep, inner certainty to time your sprint. Even if you’d be willing to do that, I suspect that you would agree that whipping it off and relying instead on the evidence provided by your eyes would result in a safer run.


And yet those same people would dismiss empirical evidence and rely instead on blind intuition when making the most profound life-changing decisions. Rational people won’t.

The time has clearly come for the special status of religion – all religion – to be taken away. Religion – all religion – is an irrational belief in a series of absurd propositions that starts us on a slippery slope to rejecting reason in favour of strong feeling. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence or in the face of compelling counter-evidence; having faith is not something to be admired. On the contrary, it is to be pitied like any other delusional behaviour.

Religion by its very nature is divisive. It is time that we began the process of weaning ourselves from the idea that our more preposterous and patently mistaken beliefs should be treated as the norm and enshrined in law and social intercourse. The sooner we come to accept that worshipping an imaginary friend and believing we hear him guiding our lives is an aberration, the sooner we’ll be able to have genuine tolerance in our society.

When we get to the point at which religious belief is seen for what it is – a neo-tribal system of exclusion, xenophobia, and rationalised bigotry – the sooner we will be able to move toward real understanding and acceptance of our differences. Religion perpetuates and sanctifies our most hateful prejudices and justifies brutal savagery. It has had its day.

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