I stumble across atheist rants every now and then, denouncing the evils of religion. Usually I smile in vague amusement and move on, but lately, something about the atheist anti-religious meta-narrative has bothered me. It took me a while to see it, but I think I’ve finally figured out what, exactly, has stuck in my craw.
The meta-narrative goes something like this: (1) those who practice religion/believe in a higher power are uneducated nut-jobs looking for a crutch to get themselves through life, (2) religion has brought nothing but pain and misery to the world, and (3) rational thinking would force people away from ritualistic reliance on revelation; reason should rule the roost (forgive my alliterative indulgence here). Therefore, we should divest ourselves of the fetters of religiosity and embrace the freedom of rationalism.
In short, theism breeds ignorance, but atheism brings enlightenment.
If you pay any attention to history, you probably spot several of the flaws in this line of thinking. To acknowledge the meta-narrative (and by “meta-narrative” I mean “bigger story being told”) truth, the commitment to a particular faith or value system has, at times, choked the pure exploration of knowledge for its own sake. The meta-narrative will point to the story of Galileo for an example of this. In one version of this tale, the evil religious establishment (the Roman Catholic Church) suppresses the truth of the valiant defender of science and truth, against all reasonable observation. Another version of this tale exists: that Galileo, having previously been wrong about the nature of comets while writing in support of the pope, pushed his agenda of changing the nature of scientific inquiry too far by invoking some hot-button political issues of his day. Galileo, in one of his salvos, actually argued against some of the greatest scientific minds of the time—the Jesuits.
In other words, Galileo thought he was right (although it turns out he was wrong about several things, such as the nature of the tides and circular orbits), and made a rhetorical argument that skewered one of the most powerful religious and political rulers of his day (the pope). That ruler responded with brute force, crushing any chance Galileo had of actually dealing with the scientific issues he’d attempted to address.
I will grant you that the pope was wrong in using the church as an instrument to enforce his will. As a dyed-in-the-wool American protestant christian, I have the same objections to the behavior of some of the pope’s and their ties to (and abuse of) political power as many atheists. I suggest, in contrast to the meta-narrative, that the problem with this is not an issue of religion, but rather an issue of people with power. When you look over history, I believe the more accurate story is not the one which speaks of religions suppression, but rather the story of an engine of economics driving the tools and institutions of power (most often centered in organized religion) to carry out the will of a few. For example, I encourage you to reconsider the actions of Urban VIII in light of the debt and dissension he dealt with at the time of the Galileo affair.
Maybe there’s some truth to the idea of money and evil.