This proposition is a variant of ‘suffering disproves the existence of God’. They are both flawed arguments: here I’m only looking at the assertion that religion (or religious people) cause more harm than good, so all religions are wrong – or to falsely extrapolate that, God doesn’t exist.

1. People are social creatures, but we also seek to be significant; to be important to someone. One way to do this is to be the best at something; better than other people at least. The easiest way to achieve this is to separate ourselves from others who are different from us in some way, and put them down. Studies have shown that even if the only difference is calling one group A and another B, or on the basis of eye colour (both of these were actual studies), that is sufficient to create inter-group rivalry. Religion is just another way to differentiate people.

The difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland wasn’t religious, but political. If you were Catholic, you were believed to be a republican, separatist, for self-rule; but if you were Protestant, you were associated with those who were English, monarchist and imperialist. Religion was just an easy way to determine whether someone was your friend or your enemy.

Likewise, the Crusades were about political and geographical sovereignty, as well as filling the coffers of the papacy – which office was not always a spiritual one (look at the Borgias). If the Islamic Empire wasn’t a threat to the Roman, it’s doubtful they would have occurred. Of course, the key was Jerusalem, so there was a religious aspect to the war.

2. Bad people can be part of ‘good’ religions, just as good people can be part of ‘bad’ ones. Or a person may claim to be religious; it doesn’t mean they are. A point to keep in mind is that Western/ European culture used to be, for centuries, based on the teachings of the Bible. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the fourth century, the Church – like the army, almost a state within a state – was the strongest social structure remaining. So Christianity became a central – almost a defining – part of European society. In fact, being born in a Western (European or European-settled) country was tautologous to being a Christian. And until recently (the last half century or so), almost everyone with a European heritage went to Christian service on Sunday because it was the ‘done thing’; it was tradition.

But not everyone who darkened the doorway of a church building was, or is, a Christian. This can be said of any religion. Another way of saying this is that religion is not God, and God is not religion. We shouldn’t judge who or whether God is, based on the behaviour of our fellow humans.

3. A point brought up in the previous two but not explicitly mentioned is that one religious person might persecute another when a religion is closely tied to a culture or society. For example, in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, it is an integral part of the society. In that society, if a Muslim becomes a Christian, other Muslims see this not as an individual choice of faith, but as a rejection of their society. This is the same reason Christians were originally persecuted by the Jews, Greeks and Romans!

4. Governments with a religious base at least acknowledge that right and wrong exist. Atheist governments acknowledge nothing greater than the State, and have been guilty of arguably worse crimes against fellow humans: Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia (and later the USSR) and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. National Socialist Germany was built on the atheist ideology of Nietzsche and Norse mythology. While some political murders were ideological – killings intellectuals, lecturers, artists and politicians to prevent potential leaders rising – others were caused by the paranoia of the leaders; to protect their own position and power.

5. Religions have also done much good. It was Christianity who stopped the gladiator fights in Imperial Rome, introduced public education, hospitals, schools, emancipation of slaves, better treatment of prisoners and working conditions for all. While the justice system of Western society is based on that of Imperial Rome, the 10 Commandments form the moral basis that Western law enforces.

6. If you’re arguing that God doesn’t exist because evil things happen – how can those things be called evil? If God doesn’t exist, there is no absolute morality. Good and bad, by definition, cannot exist. All there can be is convenience and inconvenience: good and bad become only relative terms, talking about how we feel about something. If there is no God, then the murder of all the people by the leaders mentioned in point 3 isn’t wrong or bad or evil – just inconvenient for those who were murdered, and a little unpleasant for you if you lived there: you might be next. But on the other hand, less people means less competition for resources – in other words, all the more for the rest of us. If neither murder nor rape nor robbery et cetera are intrinsically evil, why imprison those who do those things? The only answer is, for the convenience of everyone else, that they don’t then hurt us. But why imprison them at all? If their victim could protect themselves or their possessions, hard cheese for them. Right?

But we all believe that absolute right and wrong, truth and falsehood, do exist, even if we can’t give a basis for it. The only basis for absolutes is God. The existence of God doesn’t mean absolutes must exist, but the non-existence of God means that they certainly don’t!

7. The existence of so many religions indicates that there is something inside people that realises or desires that life is more than what we see, or that life doesn’t end with physical death. This fact doesn’t mean ipso facto that God does exist, but it does point to the fact that we all seem to long for something better than this imperfect life.

8. A religion cannot persecute a person; only another person can do that. Most religions tell us to live in peace, to do good to others. If we actually lived those precepts, there would be virtually no war or evil. But for selfish reasons or honourable but misguided and wrong ones, we too often put our own desires first.

9. To reject the existence of God because ‘religious’ people do bad things is like saying that because people steal money, we should no longer use any form of currency. The problem is not with the money as such, but with the desires of the people who seek to use it for their own ends.

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2007.