The Misconceptions Surrounding Religion
Issue   |   Wed, 02/22/2012 - 02:27

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.

NMcCann14 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 17:49

It's about time we had an article that is not only well-written, but also respects opposing opinions. Having extreme views like Andrew Kaake on the conservative end or Daniel Diner on the atheist end not only doesn't fit the message of this college, it also shows a lack of knowledge and awareness of the problems and counterarguments that come up against these views. As a secular Religion major, I'm glad to see that someone exhibit a full understanding of the topic at hand. The article's moderate, neutral view on what remains to be a controversial topic in America today sure is refreshing from all these extreme opinions that have been published in the Student recently and for that I thank you.

Harrison (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/23/2012 - 13:22

In your second paragraph, you dangerously essentialize what "religion" is. Not only do you reduce it to "faith in something greater," completely discounting any possibility that religion can be encountered as superstition, ignorance, or violence, but you also claim this statement as a fact.
The rest of your article outlines clearly and succinctly your own interpretation of Christianity - also an assertion, and certainly not a fact. You say, "A fundamental part of being Christian is trying to make the world a better place." That's wonderful, and I am heartened that you can find ways to use your faith for good. But what of events like the war in the late 90s in Bosnia in which the conflict pitted Orthodox Catholics against Muslims and saw Catholics commit massacres and other unspeakable acts? I am sure they felt, too, like they were using their Christianity to make the world a better place. Because religion is based on assertions, and not facts, and these assertions are different for each and every interpreter, my assertion is thus: religion is just as likely to be used for bad as it is for good.
It is difficult to have "faith" when my faith must be placed in "something beyond [me] that I cannot control" - especially when the thing "beyond" is based entirely on human assertion. For as easy as it is for you to proclaim the inherent goodness of your Christianity in this newspaper, it is just as easy for somebody else to use his Christianity for violence or hatred. In proclaiming the superiority of your Christianity to his, a weakness of "religion" appears - the realization that it is a game of constant one-upsmanship - each person must consider his faith to be the right faith, which can lead occasionally to interfaith conversation but more often to conflict and argument.
When you claim your statements as fact, you only serve to add fuel to this dangerously hot fire.

Stewart (not verified) says:
Mon, 02/27/2012 - 00:48

Thanks for your intelligent comment. I agree that, for the purposes of the article, I oversimplify my definition of religion. Good point. And religion, of course, can cause divisions that lead to violence. So can politics, or skin color, or practically anything else that separates one person from another.

I think you're wrong in asserting that religions are just assertions, though. Religion isn't all illogical revelation. Sure, there are transcendent spiritual experiences, which aren't logical, but religions can have logically defensible beliefs. As I mentioned in the article, philosophers will make logical arguments for the existence of God, some of which I think carry real weight. If you are dubious, check out It's a pretty fair, well-written, and succinct overview of several arguments about God's existence. It's written by a Christian, but it's not preachy or proselytizing at all. We can argue about religion, but in the end, you can't just assume that all religion is mere assertion. That makes it sound like they couldn't possibly be defended as true. Be careful of sounding like you're dismissing religion outright without having some good arguments to back that up. But thanks for your insightful comment. I pray for an end to all religious violence!

Walter (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/23/2012 - 22:39

I appreciate that this is among the most coherent and reasonable articles that has appeared in this discussion (debate?). It is certainly true that disrespect towards and essentialization of religious beliefs is harmful and unproductive. However, I have to agree with Harrison that you seem to draw a line between good religion, which sounds like your particular brand of Christianity, and bad religion, which sounded like Muslim extremists. You can not fairly claim that certain religious groups "completely misinterpret the religious teachings of their faith" because you disagree with their actions. If one religion deserves respect, then all religions deserve respect.
You called upon the various proofs for the existence of God as a "credible and rational basis for faith." I'm not going into the oxymoron of having a "proof" for "faith" Instead I will point out that, although I don't know exactly which arguments you're referring to, I've definitely read a few that you could be referring to, and they tend to be extremely flawed.
Finally, a small detail: Albert Einstein's religious faith is a bit of an urban legend. I believe he referred to himself as an agnostic.

Charlotte (not verified) says:
Mon, 02/27/2012 - 00:36

I liked the article. It was very well thought-out. It also appears to be very well copy-edited. Good job. :)

Alum Class of '11 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 14:04

What is your basic definition of religion? You state is as such: "It is merely faith in something greater, in something beyond us that we cannot explain or control." But that is not all there is to religion. That's more just theism in general. Religion is far more complex and for reasons stated above in the other comments, can lead to religion being used for both good and bad. I think we need to separate the argument for theism versus the argument concerning religion.

Let's start with theism: No matter what philosophical arguments people try to make, there is no way to actually prove God. Granted, there is no way to disprove God either. But this is why any such debate is rather pointless. A belief in God lies outside science because there is no way to test the theory of God, the main tenant upon which science is built. Scientists propose a theory and then perform experiments whose results might disprove the theory or stay within its confines, thereby allowing it to survive another day. It is only through this systematic understanding of the world can we hope to continue technological and intellectual advancement (this is not to say art, the social sciences, humanities, etc. do not help promote intellectual advancement as well. But science is critical to the advancement of society. A belief in God is not.) Therefore, any argument about whether God exists or not should be left to the individual to have his own opinions. As a scientist who was raised Jewish and has discussed spirituality with others a good amount, my belief in God fluctuates a lot and is extremely abstract - imagine something that exists outside the physical laws, which is therefore never comprehensible to human beings. Whether we may be able to grasp it if there is some life after death, who knows? In any case, my beliefs about God may shape my personality to a degree, but I don't impose those beliefs on someone else or use them to really guide my life that much.

Now, religion is a whole other issue. Religion is based around a belief in a God and what that God has dictated to his Chosen People or to Humanity in general. It is generally based around certain moral tenants and principles that guide how one should live their life. This religion usually comes with a set of stories that advocate their moral positions and also comes with practices based either off these stories and/or that strengthen the moral values. In this sense, religion is no more than morals and values upon which to live life, but a person psychologically wants some additional justification for believing what he believes or even just a reason to live. Hence the supernatural being and the stories that justify the moral beliefs. Which is where the basic idea of "faith" comes from. It psychologically allows us to handle stressful situations, to hope things will work out, and maybe gives us the strength to carry on.

I can understand many people's issues with religion. The issue is more concerning organized religion than individual moral and theistic beliefs. Anyone who looks at a basic history textbook would notice that organized religion has been used to systematically and non-systematically target for persecution numerous groups throughout history. It has led to inequality under the law, punishment, and even genocide. As such, most atheists who fear religion, fear organized religion and for good reason if history is any indication. It is one thing to have a set of moral values and having individual justification within your own head that some higher power approves of these values or is working in some way in our physical world to advocate them. It is quite another to want to impose those values on others, which usually derives from some aspect of their religion advocating such imposition or proselytizing. It is yet further another thing for one's religion to discriminate against different groups, calling some inferior and other superior and from this justification, enacting policies that make such discrimination law.

Let us now talk about one specific topic where theism and religion intersect - does God or some supernatural being interfere in the universe? Given the systematic scientific understanding of the universe, it does not seem that God plays some role interfering in the present. You can argue that he may have set things in motion to begin with, but whether that is the case or not should not impose a precise moral framework on your being. Similarly, if you believe things occurring now happen because of how God planned it at the beginning, it once again shouldn't affect your moral framework since God starting the universe doesn't affect how you live your day to day life. (This also brings into questions issues of free will, which are far too complicated to discuss here, but it shows the problems with thinking that God is somehow affecting present life in one way or another).

The more important moral problem with believing God has espoused a specific moral framework is how can you say your belief is right and someone else's is not? Since God exists outside our physical reality, there is no way to know what he really wanted (those who believe that the Bible is God's will have to contend with the numerous other works which are believed to be God's will - this leads to way too many contradictions). This is why atheists make these arguments against religion. People have been using God's name to justify things for generations, leading to bloodshed upon bloodshed. And anyone who continues to use God's name to justify their arguments seems to have ignored the enlightenment and scientific advancement. Morality is of course a good thing, but you don't need God's will to justify the Golden Rule. Moral beliefs can exist without a belief in God or religion. Religion originated as a way to explain the world and also a way to justify a moral framework and even governance. But science has overridden religion as a way to explain the world, at least insofar as any explanations that have bearing on most of life (as I stated earlier, beliefs in God's possible intervention shouldn't alter one's moral framework or destroy a trust in science). We also have secular laws now based in morals and basic rights we believe all humans should have. Some of them may have originally derived from the morals of religions, but they can exist independent of religion. For example, the Golden Rule makes perfect sense even without a higher power than somehow expects you to follow it.

Given all this, I see two main purposes for religion: 1) Community. Human beings like to feel like they belong to a community that isn't just humanity as a whole. We do this with familial bonds, friendships, and clubs we join. Organized religion is no different in this respect (Judaism, which has a significant ethnic and heritage component is trickier to address). 2) While one can have a logical moral framework without religion or belief in God, the human psychological condition likes purpose in life and the idea of some higher power being involved in life makes it seem more meaningful. This might be the sense Dan was getting at when he suggested intelligence and belief in God are correlated. I think it's more that psychologically, some people need a belief in God more than others to get on with life or justify their actions. I don't know if it has been done but it would be interesting to due psychological and neurological tests on those who believe in God and those who don't to see if there are significant differences in the brain.

Stewart: Your individual form of Christianity may be based on a solid moral framework and equal treatment of others: "Christianity, at least, preaches grace, compassion and moral behavior, not violence and hatred." However, as you said using the Westboro Baptist Church and Rick Santorum, not all people use their religion for complete good and a significant number do not. Hence the dangers of organized religion and why there is no a priori reason religious beliefs are better than secular moral values.

Please feel free to respond to any of these comments or point out logical fallacies. I tried to cover a lot of ground.

jabroney (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 16:20

The comment above is longer than the article itself. Only at Amherst lol