More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It shows that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.
I see a big problem with this, and what I’m about to say might actually surprise some people. Religion does both. It is a very powerful uniting force in communities that are homogenous or tolerant of other faiths. Its ability to bring people together is nearly unrivaled. It can inspire amazing acts of charity and kindness.
But it can also divide. It can inspire acts of unbelievable violence. It can sow hatred in men’s hearts like few other things. In its name astonishing evils have been unleashed upon the world.
There is no denying either of those things. I don’t know anyone who does. Religion is just like any other human activity, it can be used for good or evil. But the people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are like those 82% of Britons, who believe it does more harm than good. But this is an opinion, cases can be made both ways.
What it comes down to is whether or not the good that it inspires can come from other places, and whether or not the evil it inspires would exist without it. Even those questions have uncertain answers, although I am convinced that ridding the world of religion (at least as it is practiced now) would be a net positive.
Most people have no personal faith, the poll shows, with only 33% of those questioned describing themselves as "a religious person". A clear majority, 63%, say that they are not religious - including more than half of those who describe themselves as Christian.
Older people and women are the most likely to believe in a god, with 37% of women saying they are religious, compared with 29% of men.
Neither of those things surprise me. Personal observation has indicated the same general trend for quite a while, but it’s nice to have some numbers to back it up (even if the numbers are British).
This is totally unrelated, but I wanted to make a quick comment on it anyway. David Irving is a Holocaust denier who was imprisoned in Austria for 16 years because of his Holocaust denial (Orac at Respectful Insolence has been writing about this a bit, see here, here, and here.)
That he was imprisoned at all is disgusting. Even though Holocaust denial is vile and despicable (not to mention idiotic given all of the records we have), no one should ever be imprisoned for a belief. Absolutely, positively never. I don’t care what you believe, but you have the right to believe it. And you have the right to argue for your beliefs, and I have the right to believe something else and argue against your beliefs. That’s how Freedom of Speech works, and without that freedom we have nothing, absolutely nothing.