On December 26, thousands gathered on Asian beaches and in mosques to pray, marking the fifth anniversary of the Asian tsunami which killed 230,000 people. Will it do any good? No one can say for certain and that is the frightening thing about religion that few believers care to think about.
I distrust religion because of one very important and inarguable fact; there is no reality check. This is in part because it is uniquely armored against criticism. If one suggests that a genuine, compassionate god wouldn’t allow the destruction of 230,000 innocent men, women, and children on Asian beaches, the believer answers that god works in mysterious ways, or that we shouldn’t expect to understand the mind of god, etc. To these believers, god doesn’t have to be logical and thus no evidence is accepted against their god hypothesis.
The unique danger of religion is that it ultimately depends “…on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.” The unique danger of religion is that it ultimately depends “…on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.”* Religion depends on a supernatural realm which none of man’s instruments can detect or measure. As a result, there is no reality check and the “god experts” are insulated from testing. As Proverbs 3:5 says, "Lean not on your own understanding.” And John 20:29 says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Unlike any other area of life, religion teaches that believing without evidence is a virtue, ultimately walling itself off from all appeals to reason.
Communism collapsed in Europe because it failed to deliver on its promises. It failed the reality check. The efficacy of exorcism to cure mental illness failed the reality check. In America, we no longer consult with witch doctors because their “cures” failed the reality check. Over and over, the reality check has delivered us from evil. But there is no reality check for religion. It is an often overlooked fact that “…every single claim made by religion, every single claim, comes from people; not from sources out in the world that other people can verify, but from the insides of people's heads.”*
And religion is armored against criticism in another way; it demands and gets special treatment. If I question religion, I am told that I should respect people’s beliefs, that their religion brings them comfort and I shouldn’t interfere with their comfort. But religion is responsible for an enormous amount of harm in this world too, and this needs to be recognized, talked about, and remembered by all of us. It’s important. Why did the clergy child rape scandal take so long to be uncovered? Could it be because the clergy were assumed to be more moral than the rest of us, perhaps above reproach and beyond suspicion? There is little doubt that special treatment of religion and religious leaders enabled the abuse long after it would have been exposed in any other arena.
Because there is no reality check, Osama bin Laden could convince intelligent young men that Allah would grant them 42 virgins in the afterlife, if they would crash airplanes into tall buildings; the Pope can convince millions of Africans that god hates condoms, and the AIDS epidemic flourishes; religious leaders can convince people that god disapproves of homosexuality, so gay marriage must be condemned; and some believers can be convinced that prayer cures better than penicillin or insulin. Why do people continue to buy into such nonsense? It is because religion is uniquely armored against testing and self-correction. In short, there is no reality check.
One proposed exception from this rule is prayer, which has been tested. It should be instructive that whenever the efficacy of prayer has been examined under controlled conditions, via carefully designed double-blind experiments, it has failed (see http://salon.glenrose.net/default.asp?viewplink&idy12). But, believers generally respond that the results are simply explained by the fact that god refuses to be tested. So, again, there’s no reality check acceptable to believers.
This is why we should all be extremely wary of religion. Any nonsense, any abuse, any immorality becomes possible without any reality check. If the Imam says it is righteous that a young girl’s genitals should be cut (clitoridectomy), how do we test this assertion? If a televangelist says that the money you send him will be seen by god as a seed which will grow into prosperity for you, why does he never show you any data? You see, the way this works, if Bernie Madoff had been promising a reward in the next life instead of this one, his scam might have lasted for two thousand years, maybe more.
* Quoted material is from Greta Christina’s Alternet blog.