Here's the fourth question in the questionnaire:
What turns you off?
First let me say that I am not talking about individual spirituality, which I separate from "religion". I'm talking about what's there other than the personal, spiritual aspects.
The recent riots by some Muslims, outraged at the publication of cartoons that they found offensive, is a good example of why I feel this way. I do not think it's a good idea to offend people, and I think those who are offended are right to say what bothers them. They are not right to throw rocks, burn buildings, and threaten murder because someone drew a cartoon. The response is out of proportion to the offense, and, worse, the response only confirms the views of those who already think that Islam is a violent religion.
But this isn't about those rioters. We can look at many situations throughout history in which religion was the reason, or at least the excuse, for terrible behaviour. There was the Inquisition and the Crusades, for instance, where Christians were the aggressors. And the Christians were persecuted in their time, by those who believed otherwise. The Jews have been persecuted often, and have done their own in modern Palestine. Often it isn't really religion that's behind it, when one really gets down to analyze things — in Northern Ireland, it's not really an issue of Catholics against Protestants; that's just an obvious way to characterize those who disagree, but without the religious difference there would be other differences, and the conflict would remain. Still, we continue to use the name of God to persecute and to justify mistreatment and misbehaviour.
Individual spirituality is a wonderful thing for many people. People find comfort in it; people use it to expand themselves, to cope with difficulties, to find a reason to thrive and to contribute. Beautiful art and music have come out of the beliefs that people have. People help each other generously, because the spirit moves them. And often it's religion that supports this, that's the catalyst for it.
On the other side, though, religion oppresses people, restricts them unreasonably and inappropriately, imposes the will of a few on the many. I'm terribly offended and distressed with what's being done in my country now, in the name of religion and of God. And history has seen far worse than this. If there be a sentient entity that is God, how dare we claim to know what God says and wants and doesn't want? How dare we claim to speak for God?
What's as bad is that as part of the group mind-control mechanism that religion uses to maintain itself, the fundamentalists among us are conspiring to keep our children ignorant, to stop them thinking for themselves. There was a situation some years ago, in which fundamentalist parents demanded an alternative reading list for their children, because some of the books the kids were to read in school had messages that went against the parents' beliefs (this goes on continually; I'm referring to a specific incarnation of it). The books in question included Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and The Wizard of Oz, the latter because it teaches that characteristics like intelligence, compassion, and courage can be developed within oneself, conflicting with their belief that such things are given to you by God... or aren't. Another example, of course, is the recent fighting about teaching the biblical account of Creation (or its thinly veiled cousin, "Intelligent Design") in science class. Some would rather teach their children to be ignorant believers than innovative, independent thinkers.
When I'm asked the question, "Has religion, on the whole, been a good thing or a bad thing for society," I have to say, "Bad."
In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote With God On Our Side, a song about all the wars that are fought with the concept that "we" are right, because we have God on our side:
Oh the Spanish-American war had its day,The song ends cynically, with a wish that the singer clearly sees as unrealistic:
And the Civil War too was soon laid away,
And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize,
With guns in their hands and God on their side.
So now as I'm leaving I'm weary as hell.
The confusion I'm feeling, ain't no tongue can tell.
The words fill my head and fall to the floor.
If God's on our side, he'll stop the next war.