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OTHER ARGUMENTS FOR ATHEISM - THE HARMFUL INFUENCE OF RELIGION ON SOCIETY

Throughout history, religion has been a force for control, repression and authoritarianism. Examples include the Catholic Church’s attempts to suppress free speech with its Index of Prohibited Books, the wholesale persecution of purported witches throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods in Europe and the New World, and the 15th Century forced conversion and repression of Jews and Muslims in Spain. As late as the 19th Century in England, atheists who had the temerity to openly advocate their beliefs were jailed, and even today laws still exist in many parts of the United States forbidding atheists from serving on juries or from holding public office.
I wouldn't say that religion has promoted the social progress of mankind. I say that it has been a detriment to the progress of civilization, and I would also say this: that the emancipation of the mind from religious superstition is as essential to the progress of civilization as is emancipation from physical slavery.
- Culbert Olson (1961)

It has also been a reactionary force deeply opposed to intellectual and scientific advances. For example, for over a millennium (from the time of St. Augustine until the Renaissance), Christianity, the dominant religion in Europe, deliberately arrested the development of science and scientific thinking, limiting systematic investigation of the natural world to theological investigation. The scientific discoveries of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were, as far as possible, suppressed and destroyed for centuries by the Christian Church, and were only later re-imported back into Europe via Middle Eastern sources. As a result, scientific knowledge progressed hardly at all during the so-called Dark Ages, and the populace was mired in the deepest squalor and ignorance.

Even when scientific investigation into the natural world resumed in the Renaissance of the 16th Century, organized Christianity did everything it could to stamp it out (the cases of Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno are good example of this). The Church also opposed the introduction of the printing press, concerned that the scriptures and other knowledge would become easily available to the masses, thus by-passing the traditional vetting and interpretation of the clergy. Despite some significant back-pedalling, the conflict between religion and science continues today as Christian fundamentalists demand that their creation myth be taught in place of, or alongside, the theory of evolution in the public schools.

Religion has also been accused of the repression of literature and the freedom of the press, examples being the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, the Muslim fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his 1989 book “The Satanic Verses”, and violent Muslim demonstrations against the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in 2005.

Karl Marx saw religion as a political tool utilized by the oppressing ruling classes, arguing that it is in the interests of the ruling classes to instill in the masses the religious conviction that their current suffering will lead to eventual happiness, so that they will not attempt to make any genuine effort to understand and overcome the real source of their suffering. It was on this basis that he described religion as “the opium of the people”.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
- Karl Marx (1844)

Some political leaders (such as the Egyptian Pharaohs, the deified Roman emperors and the Emperor of Japan) have taken this a step further, claiming to be the earthly embodiment of a god. Some controversial religious cults have also taken authoritarianism to a higher level, with cult leaders like Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Raël and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh establishing absolute, dictator-like powers over their members, to the extent of obtaining sexual gratification on demand, and in some cases leading members into bankruptcy, terrorist attacks and mass suicides.

It can also be argued that religions do tremendous harm to society through their use of war, violence and terrorism to promote their religious goals (to give just a few examples: the Crusades, the Jewish-Roman Wars, the French and other European wars of religion, the European and Russian pogroms against Jews, the Taiping Rebellion, the Mideast conflict between Israel and neighbouring Muslim countries, the Islamic Jihad, the Indo-Pakistani War after Partition, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Sri Lankan civil war, etc). Religious leaders often contribute to secular wars and terrorism by endorsing or supporting the violence, and, conversely, religious fervour is often exploited by secular leaders to support war and terrorism. In a world largely dominated by the religious moralities of various factions, we are still constantly beset by wars, injustice and brutality.

Women in particular have suffered at the hands of organized religion over the centuries. From the Biblical encouragement of the treatment of women as property to the barbarous witch hunts of medieval Europe to the Catholic crusade against birth control and abortion rights to the ghettoization and repression of women by Islam, women have been singled out for special treatment by the dominant religious groups. Some extremist faiths keep their girls and women ignorant of almost everything, believing that the only suitable occupations for women are marriage and motherhood.

Sex in general is often depreciated by religion, with some practices like homosexuality being the victim of outright hostility and sometimes violence, and many religions seem to have an unhealthy and rather anachronistic preoccupation with sex.

Some religions also come into direct conflict with both the medical profession and the law, and there are numerous accounts of faith-based healing practices (e.g. religious parents withholding medical care and relying on prayer to cure a child's disease) leading to harm and even death. The current pope, Benedict XVI, is on record in 2009 as defending the views of some of his cardinals that condoms in some unexplained way worsen the AIDS problem, and has claimed that the Catholic Church itself is “the most effective presence” in the battle agains HIV/AIDS. An archbishop in Mozambique has even claimed that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV in order to spread AIDS in Africa.

The religious right is often responsible for some of the more radical invective against environmentalism, such as opposition to action on global warming and cavalier attitudes towards the extraction of oil and other natural resources. One high profile example comes in James Watt (Ronald Reagans’s Minister of the Interior in the early 1980s), who told the US Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in the light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ: “That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have: to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

 
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