The Misconceptions Surrounding Religion

Religion is not ignorance. It is not ridiculous superstition. It is not defined by hatred nor by antagonism to any other field of human endeavor. It is merely faith in something greater, in something beyond us that we cannot explain or control.

These are facts, not assertions, about religion. Unfortunately, these facts sometimes go unnoticed by Amherst students who see religion as a fantastic dupe propagated by wicked liars who wanted to trick you out of your money. In last week’s op-ed “Gradual, Passive Secularization is Too Slow,” Daniel Diner ‘14 fell into the same fallacies about religion that I have been surprised and alarmed to hear several of my fellow students express. Their words hurt me. They make me feel like I’ll never be able to fit in here because I am a Christian. These words make me angry because they’re just plain wrong. In refuting them, I hope I can make Amherst students understand that religion is not evil, but rather legitimate, even good, and that the spirituality of others deserves our utmost respect, even when we disagree with their beliefs.

Religion isn’t superstition, and its tenets aren’t “dangerous unfounded beliefs.” In fact, theism is a serious and legitimate philosophical position, even in the present day. Christian apologists make a priori arguments for the existence of God and use reasoning to interpret the Bible, creating a rational and credible basis for faith that Diner completely ignores.

Similarly, religious tenets are not insane and dangerous, despite the best efforts of the Westboro Baptist Church and Rick Santorum to make you believe so. Christianity, at least, preaches grace, compassion and moral behavior, not violence and hatred. The ravings of comedian George Carlin against religion distort the tenets of Christianity so badly, it’s almost as if he’s trying to make a joke or something. Quoting Carlin proves nothing if not that atheists can be as militant and intolerant as religious extremists. Theism deserves as much respect as secular atheism.

Furthermore, religion is not a fiction only stupid and ignorant people can believe in. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Kant, Darwin, Einstein — all of these great Western thinkers believed in God, and their ideas are still pervasive in higher education today. In claiming that there is a “nearly perfect” inverse relationship between religiosity and intelligence, Diner not only commits the fallacy of correlation without causation, he also falsely calls every religious person stupid. The argument is flawed and insulting. But what do I know? I’m just a Christian who lucked into getting into Amherst. It’s a miracle!
Diner falsely assumes that “tenets of theism contradict tenets of science.” I understand why Diner might think this; all we hear in the media are ridiculous debates about creation versus evolution. However, religion and science aren’t mutually exclusive belief systems fighting for the heart of America, as people on either extreme of the argument like to think. In fact, religion is perfectly compatible with science. I believe Darwin’s theory of evolution and see the Genesis creation story as not literally true, but as a sacred story that enlightens our understanding of who we are as humans and our relationship to God. And heck, even Darwin himself was Christian. Albert Einstein was a devout Jew. And Francis Bacon, the founder of modern empiricism himself, considered science to be the “most faithful attendant” of religion.

Scientific theories never preclude the existence of divine truth, of revelation or even the possibility of miracles because science is inductive and empirical, dealing only with the physical universe and the laws of nature. Nor can scientists ever devise an experiment testing whether God exists or not, because God is immaterial; only a priori arguments can even begin to claim to establish whether God exists or not. Using science to judge religious truth is like trying to scientifically determine whether Rafael was a greater artist than Michaelangelo–it just doesn’t apply. In addition, just like any other field of human inquiry, science rests on several fundamental, a priori assumptions: cause and effect or the uniformity of the laws of nature, for example. With such assumptions, science could not be reasonably made the test of every other human pursuit, including religion.

Which brings me to my final point: religion is actually a force for good in the world, not evil. I’m not referring to the extremism of Al Qaeda or other groups who appropriate religion to justify their hateful political and social agendas. These groups, along with all other hateful groups with them, completely misinterpret the religious teachings of their faith. The purpose of religion is not to deceive or destroy, but rather to map the path humans must follow to live according to divine will or reach ultimate spiritual fulfillment. I don’t know about other religions, but a fundamental part of being Christian is trying to make the world a better place. William Wilberforce spearheaded the abolition movement because he believed slavery was against the will of God, and Martin Luther King Jr. preached civil rights from the pulpit. Christians volunteer at homeless shelters, run programs for drug and alcohol addicts and travel across the world to participate in disaster relief.

Like any other topic — global warming, underage drinking or the merits of dining at Val — religious beliefs can be discussed, questioned and even debated in a respectful manner, but no one should dismiss someone’s beliefs before even considering them. Doing so is degrading, hateful, arrogant and rude, even if one doesn’t intend to come off as such. Unfortunately, this is what Diner does in his article; he freely admits that he does not produce a single rational argument for why theism should be discarded, because, in his words, “I find its fallacies far too obviously evident.” He doesn’t even pause to think of a warrant for his assault on religion. Think of the Golden Rule: do you want your ideas baselessly demeaned before you can even explain why you think them?

Diner’s mistakes are understandable. At Amherst, religion is not only unpopular but also a somewhat taboo topic, and so, instead of discussing the diversity of faith we have on this campus, we tend to keep our thoughts about religion to ourselves. Sometimes, this means we nurture false, harmful beliefs about the beliefs of others, leading to an intolerance that undermines our Amherst values. Until non-religious students discuss their faith with a religious peer without malice or antagonism, they may never realize just how reasonable and just how worthy of recognition religion truly is.