I was not raised in an especially religious household, we went to Church on an infrequent basis and I was sent to Sunday school for a while, but in general there was no great emphasis on religion that I remember. I was encouraged to pray, but mostly religion was not a subject that was discussed a great deal
I went to Sunday school because my parents wanted me to go, while there we were told stories from the bible and while interesting, I quickly identified them as fiction. There was no basis in reality that I could see, simple, cute, whimsical stories that often had a moral to them. In near every example the story proved that being good to others would generally lead to a good outcome, while being bad would generally be your downfall. I got good at this, I could identify the bad actors within a couple of minutes. I paid all of this education lip-service, because my parents wanted this.
I distinctly remember some of my peers taking this seriously, they took the stories to be actual records of things that had happened, rather than my interpretation of them as being moral-based stories that promoted better behaviour.
At no point did I consider these stories to be a history lesson. Obviously this lead to many debates later in life with those that actually do and a certain amount of incredulity on my half. Since those days in Sunday school, any level of ‘belief’ in God/gods has vanished, I am not sure that I ever did believe as such, I certainly do not remember any moment where I thought to myself ‘Max, this is all bullshit’, so I can only assume that there was never any great belief. Saying that though, I still think that religious studies are interesting and the whole concept of faith is fascinating to me. I’ve also studied psychology and philosophy and understand a great deal of what makes us tick. Beyond that I have debated religion and religious beliefs with religious friends from time to time, albeit mostly in the US and mostly while drinking.
The fall out from this background, education and debate is that I tend to view all religions as some form of a mental viruses. They are like some forms of self-replicating memetic complexes that infect human brains and try to get themselves propagated to the next generation. Many examples of this religious infection are like the common cold – relatively benign under most circumstances – but others are much more dangerous. While some may have been beneficial to some people in some contexts, I fear that it is highly likely that the harm they cause far outweighs any good.
Much like viruses, we can immunize people against religion by exposing them to bits of the religion in controlled circumstances; comparative religion courses are a good example – rather than being indoctrinated with the dominant religion’s creation myth as a young child who doesn’t know any better surrounded by adults and peers who appear to accept this crazy story, compare and contrast half a dozen creation myths as a young adult with enough scientific education to understand that these are fables concocted by pre-scientific peoples in order to help cope with a mysterious and threatening world they could not hope to control. In the latter case, you’ll almost never find someone who decides “oh yes, I completely believe that Raven created the first men by releasing them from a giant clam in order to screw with the other gods!” Similarly, developing a child’s ability to question and think critically before they are exposed to religion will help protect them from these contagious mental illnesses.
My hostility towards religion stems primarily from the cover it provides for heinous behaviour.
“Men never do evil so cheerfully and so completely as when they do so from religious conviction.” – Blaise Pascal.
The blood-soaked history of our species is replete with examples of religion being used to justify atrocities. And yes, of course there are examples of atrocities committed by people who did not use religion as a justification; I am not so smug as to claim that religion is the source of all evil, just that it is a very, very handy and frequently used, excuse for quite stupendous amounts of evil.
But secondarily, and probably more philosophically founded, my hostility towards religion due to the way in which it impairs the moral and rational function of the human brain. By teaching people (especially young, pre-rational children) to address their uncertainty and fear by praying, looking for clues in the writings of bronze-age mystics, and/or trusting the guidance of priests, rather than by collecting and analyzing data, thinking independently, learning how to identify reliable sources and considering the advice of real experts, developing their own knowledge by reading and studying reliable sources, critically analyzing their own conclusions and those of others, or even just accepting that something is currently an unknown, religion prevents the development of rationality and critical thinking skills.
By teaching people (especially young, pre-rational children) that morality is a set of Laws set by an invisible, Magical Police Man in the Sky who keeps everyone under surveillance at all times and who will ultimately judge everyone on the basis of these arbitrary laws, they prevent people from maturing into socially functional, cooperative primates who can engage in mutually beneficial or even altruistic behaviour and take some personal pride in their contribution to a social contract that benefits everyone.
While religion is common, for those of us that are not drinkers of the magical koolaid, these theists have very little understanding of how being surrounded and constantly bombarded with other people’s crazy superstition feels, though I should be clear I am saying I have a negative view of religion, not necessary the religious. While I have an abiding hostility towards religion, I bear no ill will towards the religious. In the same way that I don’t dislike someone who has a cold, I don’t dislike someone who is infected with religion. I just ask that they not spread it around.