On reflection, it is a bit ironic that I'm an atheist, since that is a total 180-degree turnabout from where I was a little over a year ago. In my pre-enlightenment era, atheists were the bane of the world, intent on removing anything and everything that remotely referenced God, the supreme creator of the universe. I was also convinced that atheists were a large, powerful, and militant group that exercised great power over the embattled faithful.
I view religion quite differently now; in my previous post I gave an extremely condensed version of my transition to atheism. To be completely honest, I view religion as kind of silly. None of it makes any sense to me whatsoever.
So-- do I wish to remove religion from the world entirely? No, not exactly. I'd like to see religion get out of American government. I would like to see "In God We Trust" removed from the currency and "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. I see these actions as essential for proper separation of church and state. And just like I would like to see all traces of religion removed from government, I would never condone any atheistic expression in government. Religious belief (or lack thereof) is an important consideration, but neither theism nor atheism should play a role in governmental affairs.
However, I would never, ever, ever support anything that would regulate private religious belief or expression in any way, provided that all religious expression does not infringe upon the rights of any person-- e.g., if you want to believe that there are Quakers on the moon, knock yourself out. I do not care. However, if you believe that these Quakers on the moon require that you sacrifice a virgin to them on the 31st of March, then that religious expression ought to be illegal.
Do I believe that religion is a force for good or for evil? I don't think that the question is as black-and-white as that. I absolutely believe that brainwashing is a force for evil, and I am convinced that many religions, Mormonism included, do use brainwashing. To the extent that a religion brainwashes its members, I consider it to be evil. Allow me to clarify: "brainwashing" is a loaded word, and I'd hate to come across as vitriolic. I don't just throw that word around at any group or ideology that I happen to disagree with; I use it in a literal sense. When I say that a group brainwashes its members, I mean that said group uses harmful persuasive techniques, such as coercion, guilt, distrust of one's own rationality, etc., to convince its members to adhere to its tenets. A brainwashing organization will tend to treat obedience as a virtue, vilify apostates and skeptics, and employ methods of making its members feel different, special, or "peculiar". Mormonism, for example, manipulates its members into using false methods of seeking truth (see my post "Oh Say, What is Truth?"), among many other things.
Many religious groups, including many Christian groups, do use brainwashing techniques-- some more than others. My personal test for identifying a cult is to ask oneself if one is afraid to question the group, and to follow those questions to their ultimate conclusions even if they mean leaving the group. (Great-- now I'm going to have to add "cults" to the list of things I intend to blog about.)
A second aspect of religion that I consider to be harmful is its promotion or justification of violence on the basis of ideology. Crusades, the Biblical account of the Israelites conquering Canaan, and jihad are all examples of religious violence that is not only justified, but commanded by religious ideology. I cannot condone this, and I consider any religion that allows, promotes, or justifies violence to be evil.
This analysis of religion is based entirely on my personal rubric for morality: does it cause harm? If a religion advocates, justifies, or allows any kind of harm to anyone, then I consider that religion to be harmful and a negative force in society. Inasmuch as religion supports tolerance and kindness, I consider it to be a positive force. I do not believe that religion is necessary in order for positive virtues such as tolerance and kindness to exist, but I will say that anything that supports those virtues is a good thing, including religion.
To sum up: I view religion in and of itself as neutral. It doesn't bother me if my neighbor believes in a moon god or reincarnation or Santa Claus. Beliefs, by themselves, are generally harmless. However, insofar as religion creates negative effects, I will decry it as harmful.