Begin typing “what good” into Google and “what good has religion done” is the first auto-suggested search phrase. It shouldn’t be a surprise: almost all discussion of religion’s place in the 21st century swiftly dissolves into strident rhetoric of the “you are an idiot for believing” variety.
Witness Chris O’Dowd, actor, comedian and, apparently, noted atheist, sounding off about religion in a GQ interview this month: “As time goes on, weirdly, I’m growing less liberal. I’m more like, ‘No, religion is ruining the world, you need to stop!’ There’s going to be a turning point where it’s going to be like racism. You know, ‘You’re not allowed to say that weird shit! It’s mad! And you’re making everybody crazy!’”
It’s certainly been a month rich with material for the Proud Atheist set. The death of Fred Phelps – excommunicated founder of the Westboro Baptist Church – has seen many members of the non-believing left whipping themselves into a lather over how best to send off a man whose vocal hatred fuelled a million “Why Religion Is Evil” blog posts. Picket his funeral? Pray – for the first time ever – that there is a hell and he’s got a one-way ticket?
There were some voices of reason from the Reason set, such as actor and queer activist George Takei, who has in the past publicly debated Westboro members: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God Hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”
The “religion is ruining the world” stance is typical of much knee-jerk atheist commentary, which tends to jettison nuance in favour of zeroing in on religion’s worst crimes. After all, few reasonable people are about to disagree with the notion that the widespread sexual abuse of vulnerable people is an appalling abuse of power.
There is less focus on the subtler ways in which religion and the religious interact with the world – how much comfort, for example, the opiate of the masses brings people, or what incredible art and music it has inspired. Nor, indeed, is much given to the idea that anyone of faith isn’t a complete idiot.
The news that a group of Christians had staged a prayer vigil at the office of immigration minister and alleged proud Christian Scott Morrison was met with widespread contempt from those for whom any mention of religion is a hair-trigger. This, despite the fact the “non-violent act of civil disobedience in the form of a prayer vigil”, according to spokesman Matt Anslow, was inspired by the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King jnr.
There was something subversive about that act and, indeed, the very act of having faith in an era in which non-belief is so pervasive. Church attendance in Australia continues to plummet; more than 4.5 million people reported “no religion” in the 2011 census. Atheists may lampoon the lemming-like behaviour of religious fundamentalists, but what of those who maintain their chosen faith alongside a keen political engagement? What of those – and despite what the Proud Atheists would have you believe, they do exist – who continue to believe alongside a secure “belief” in evolution?
My friend Elizabeth – a young woman engaged in popular culture, science and queer activism – was recently baptised. Like most people of faith I know, there seems to be little intersection between the woman she is and the people many atheists suggest characterise the faithful. “The best way to prove they’re wrong in their sweeping generalisations is through action. The Gospel is a message of love and being a good person,” she shrugged when I asked about her experience as a recent convert. “I firmly believe that the second you start using it to hurt or scare or intimidate someone, you’re misusing it.”
Liz is active in her faith. She goes to church each week and may one day go on a mission. I admire that commitment. Like many of my friends – among them, those raised Jewish, Mormon, Catholic and Islamic – I cling in a desultory manner to the faith in which I was brought up. I have fond memories of my first confession, aged five, in which I had an epiphany of sorts. I realised Jesus didn’t care what I did so long as I didn’t murder anyone. I got the priest off my case by mumbling, “Uh, I said ‘bum’ this week, amen”, and never again returned to a confession booth. A life of contraception and school science prizes ensued.
I’ve never quite been able to comprehensively jettison Catholicism from my life, perhaps because, as Winston Zeddemore so sagely put it in Ghostbusters II, a movie decried by Christian film critics to this day: “I love Jesus’s style.” Despite everything I have learned, I am unable to say, conclusively, there is no God. There’s a comfort in the idea (note: not a certainty) that there’s something out there, something that has been a source of great solace in times of despair. When a friend and I visited the incredible landscapes of Utah and Wyoming, we often exclaimed “God is real!” and we weren’t always joking.
There are no easy answers in these debates. Atheists will continue to attack religion’s evils just as the faithful will counter with a litany of science’s failings. I don’t consider myself to be “religious”. I “believe” in science. How I wish, though, that atheism’s most vocal proponents could avoid falling into the same patterns of heated, hate-fuelled fundamentalist discourse as the very religions they seek to dismantle. As Carl Sagan, scientist and noted atheist, wrote in his novel Contact: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Bible bashing". Subscribe here.