I was an anti-theist before I had ever heard the term. Hell, I was an anti-theist before I even knew I was an atheist. As far back as I can remember, organized religion has struck me as an end unto itself, dissociated from whatever personal connections its adherents may feel towards their god and concerned instead with its own goals of self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Now, these many years later – years of life experience, watching the world in action, and reading lots and lots of history – this is no longer a gut impression but, it seems to me, an evidence-based worldview grounded in centuries of documented institutional religious malfeasance.
Let’s take the Catholic Church as an example. There were the Crusades, of course, which theists tend to dismiss as irrelevant due to having occurred hundreds of years ago, and which at any rate we can set aside in light of abundant, more recent examples. For the most egregious we have to look back a mere 75 years or so to World War II, when the Church was in bed with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. From praying for the Reich from the pulpit to hiding Nazi gold to giving material aid to Nazi war criminals to help them evade justice after the war, the Church was complicit in the Holocaust even under the most charitable reading of history. (This, incidentally, is quite relevant to those who falsely claim that the Holocaust was an atheist undertaking – not only was Hitler himself a Catholic, even if he had been an atheist he did what he did with the full endorsement and backing of the Vatican.)
Then there was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the most Catholic nation in Africa, in which 800,000 people were murdered in a mere 100 days, most by being hacked to death with machetes. Of the millions more who were injured, orphaned, and displaced, many thousands perished in the squalid conditions of refugee camps. Several members of the Church clergy have since been indicted or convicted of crimes against humanity for their roles in the genocide, including the priest who encouraged 2,000 people to take refuge in his church and then had it bulldozed with them inside.
And let us not forget the child sex abuse scandal, still unfolding after more than 20 years, that has resulted in individual dioceses paying out billions of dollars in settlements (and billions more on defense lawyers) to hundreds of thousands of victims molested and raped by priests – and that is in the United States alone. Not only did Church officials fail to protect these children, for all intents and purposes they knowingly sacrificed them in favor of protecting themselves by, among other strategies, moving perpetrators from parish to parish (to offend and re-offend); quietly paying off accusers in exchange for their silence; implementing policies making it harder to remove offenders from the priesthood; and lobbying state legislatures to block laws that would require priests to report crimes against children to secular authorities. They invested no less energy in protecting themselves financially, ensuring that every diocese was an entity unto itself and that no diocese could be held responsible for the judgments against any other diocese – and, most importantly, shielding the massive wealth of the Vatican from any claims by victims.
Any one of these things would be reprehensible for a person or institution to have committed. But the Catholic Church isn’t just any institution. It is an organization that proclaims itself to be The One True Church, led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the ultimate authority on righteous and godly behavior. It claims the right and wields the power to legislate the morality not just of its 1.4 billion followers, but of millions of non-Catholics in many parts of the world where it has the influence to ensure that secular laws adhere to Catholic doctrine. And it is corrupt and morally bankrupt to its very core.
Catholicism is by no means alone in its corruption, of course, but it does provide a compelling illustration of what plagues every other organized religion to greater or lesser degrees: The exploitation of power inherent in the possession of religious authority. If anything, religions are likely to be even more susceptible to this kind of corruption than secular institutions because of the cultural assumption that religious institutions and officials are by default imbued with integrity and entitled to respect, and that shies away from harsh questions or scrutiny.
While I tend to think that faith on its own does more harm to society than good for encouraging belief in that for which there is no evidence, I do not see faith as the enemy of civilization. Religion, on the other hand, presents a grave threat to human progress and indeed to our very survival. It is not faith but religion that builds wealthy institutions. It is not faith but religion that tells individuals to forsake their own better judgement in favor of other humans who claim to speak with god’s authority. It is not faith but religion that lobbies governments to pass or block laws; that trains billions of people how to use ancient scriptures as a pretext for claiming temporal power; and that deploys vast resources and global infrastructure to advance its own agenda.
Would the eradication of organized religion solve all of the world’s problems? Of course not. Would it alleviate many of them by removing barriers to freedom and cutting off avenues for indoctrination? It’s hard to argue otherwise. For history has time and again proven Steven Weinberg right: That in the morally normal universe, “you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”