Yesterday I walked in the woods with my dear friend, sharing the sights and sounds of Stony Creek Metropark on a warming Saturday morning. We’d started a conversation an hour before, and there was still much to be said on both sides. Or perhaps it began months earlier, after he talked me into reading Richard Dawkins’ controversial work, The God Delusion. I’d avoided the book, not wanted to read a polemic against religion. After reading just over half the book, I couldn’t complete it. It felt hostile and angry, not feelings I hold at all toward religion and religious people. And, yes, it held arguments against the likelihood of the existence of God that resonated with — and expanded on — my own. But I’d had enough.
Whenever the conversation began, its basic components remained the same. He feels the world is worse for religion while I maintain it’s given more to humanity than it has taken. He cites genocide, wars, hate crimes, exclusionary behavior, and a host of hostilities, all in the name of religion. He’s right, of course. Throughout history, religious differences and religious beliefs have led to atrocities, both large and small, many in the name of a god, or at least with the intent of doing what that faith believes is the work of their god.
Yes, he’s right. Terrible acts have been committed and will continue to be committed under the shelter of religion and religious thought. Religion serves to set a group apart, encouraging a community to share values and ideals. In the course of this setting apart, those different may be seen as in the way of the truth as that group perceives it. Those with differing views of the greater reality are sometimes seen as in conflict with that particular truth, which when taken to extreme, can lead to violence. But, I counter, plenty of hate has occurred without religion as a motivator. Racism and sexism, while fostered by some religious groups, run rampant through history regardless of religion. Mass executions under Stalin and Mao were not religiously motivated either. And some atrocities have multiple triggers, as in Darfur.
A bit of googling around lead me to dozens of poorly documented lists tallying the dead from both religious and nonreligious atrocities. The numbers go the way of the one doing the tallying — the religious cite higher numbers killed in conflicts not based in religion while the agnostics/atheists claim the count goes the other way. I’ve not the time nor inclination to do the math myself, and I’m fine with saying its a draw. Either way, human beings have committed unimaginable wrongs against others of their species in an astounding number of ways.
Humans find ways to divide. We’ve evolved to gather in community for protection at the very least. As a species, we thrive when we divvy daily tasks yet still stick together when whomever is perceived as the dangerous ‘other’ comes into our camp. We’re territorial, suspicious, and tribal. We don’t like change, and living in proximity of ‘other’ requires either change or the removal of ‘other’. Religion or not, I maintained, we have always and sadly likely always will battle ‘other.’
And so the conversation went, as we walked through the woods, debating the topic heatedly but without anger. We enjoy a good back-and-forth, which is good, since I seem wired to walk into one sometimes just for the mental stimulation, regardless of how strongly I feel about a topic. We did pause for a group of birders, not sure they’d share our enthusiasm for the subject, but otherwise, the debate continued through the woods.
What bothers me most in conversations like this is what I perceive as hostility against religion. Now, my dear friend is decidedly not hostile against religion or religious people. He’s a tolerant, accepting chap, devoted to peace and human rights and as loving, kind, and smart as they come. He’s just not the hostile type. And yet I find my hackles raised when the conversation takes this turn. Suddenly, I’m ready to defend the tolerant portion of the religious, the part that includes my family (and his) and many of my friends (and his). It’s me against the anti-religious tide, and I raise my verbal staff to part the seas for the faithful and kind.
Well, at least I do put up a good verbal defense. Or at least I think it is. My dear friend (and for this and other traits I do love him), is unfazed, lobbing counterpoints to each of my replies. We’re without statistics, walking by water and through woods, stopping once to wait for a chipmunk to pass and again avoid trampling a butterfly. I talk about the good done by religious people, about churches and temples and mosques committed to helping the poor and downtrodden. I talk about the benefits of the institutionalization of values, such as the Golden Rule, a exhortation repeated in most world religions to treat others as one would want to be treated, to love as we want to be loved. We each attempt to measure the immeasurable to support our respective opinions.
Miles later, we’re no closer to agreement and not entirely out of fuel for this fine discussion. He’s calling me on my logical inconsistencies to the point where I just start pointing them out myself to save verbiage I’m pointing fingers at overstatements and wanderings, at least as I see them. And despite my tone, I’m satisfied and happy. We don’t agree. We’re unlikely to agree on this one, and even if we started toward agreement on some middle ground, I’m not sure either of us would admit it. I’ve had to think deeply, and I’m sure I’ll continue to think deeply about the role of religion in this world. I’ll mull and stew.
And we’ll undoubtedly debate again, and I’m glad. These debates stir my thoughts beyond the subject at hand. I start to think about the motivations behind my stance. Sometimes, it’s just out of desire to be obstinate that I take the up to his down. But generally, like today, there is more there. With this question — the question of whether religion has given more to humanity that it’s taken — I found the strength of my attachment to the hope that religion could some day be tempered and moderate, used cooperatively as a point of shared general values of love and compassion for humanity. I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic that we’ll ever reach that point. We’re just far too…human. I’m just not so sure the balance leans are far into the red as some say. In the woods — in the peace of the trees and waters and residents of both, my friend at my side and my children’s futures in my heart — I have hope.