Originally published in the Mail&Guardian.
Religion matters as much today as it ever did. It matters to a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of the world’s population, even though it is in decline in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Everywhere else, religious adherence is increasing, with Pew Research data identifying Islam as the fastest-growing religion, expected to catch up with Christianity in 2050.
Religious adherence is today, as it has ever been, grounded in both good and bad reasons. The good reasons include things like community, charitable works, comfort in times of need, and a sense of personal significance or meaning.
Atheists, like myself, frequently argue that all of those goods can be purchased in other ways, and more importantly, in ways that don’t involve propagating what can be bad about religion, such as false beliefs, the reinforcement of sexist power relations, and the exploitation of the needy and the gullible.
Even if this is true, though, it’s not a compelling argument for refusing to see the good that can come from religion, and for trying to assist in making religious practice as personally fulfilling and beneficial to society as it could be. And as a Humanist, what that means for me is that there’s no value, and no decency, in being derisive or unsympathetic to religious folk.
The bad reasons for religious adherence should, however, concern us all – whether we are religious or not. If people turn to some version of God because they are poor, and seek comfort the idea of in a hypothetical hereafter simply because there is no comfort for them on Earth, the priority should be to lift them out of poverty before teaching them mythology.
If a religion is practiced in such a way that women are denied access to education, or are made to be subservient to men, it should likewise matter to all of us, even if justification for this inequality can be supported by religious texts. This is because today, we know things about social justice that couldn’t have been known centuries ago, and because today, we’re informed enough to know that any God worth taking seriously wouldn’t want us to live like that.
We also know that if something isn’t freely chosen, that means it is likely to have been forced upon others by either coercion or confusion, neither of which sound like Godly motivations. This realisation should provoke serious consideration for how we educate our children, how we inform and hold policy debates in our society, and how we think about religious freedom in general.
Sometime this year, South Africans are likely to witness a court battle regarding secularism in schools, when an organisation called OGOD takes a number of schools to court for violating the National Policy on Religion and Education. This Policy calls for public schools to give equal consideration to all religions, and to accommodate the non-religious.
This is precisely what secularism entails – not a rejection of religion, but taking religion off its pedestal of special consideration. A case like OGOD’s one should not be understood as a threat to religious freedom at all, but rather a defense of it, in the sense that it seeks to protect our freedom to not be religious. It might well be a threat to religious privilege, but not religious freedom.
Then, when we discuss matters of policy or law, it is likewise important to recognise that while the religious community is a relevant constituency, it is not a uniquely important one. How we govern our society should be motivated by what’s good for all, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs, and if religious wisdom can help inform that, so much the better.
But a view doesn’t count as useful, or relevant, simply because it professes to promote the views of a deity. Also, it’s long-past time for these discussions, when they include religious voices and interfaith groups, to also include representation from explicitly secular and Humanist organisations.
Lastly, our reflection on religious freedom more generally must include respecting the choices that people make, but it crucially should also include respecting and enhancing people’s freedom to choose at all. If someone is coerced or otherwise led to impoverishing or demeaning themselves in the name of religion, our default attitude towards that should not be tolerance for the sake of respecting religion.
We are humans first, and the rest of our identities comes after, whether informed by a holy book, culture, race, sex, your favourite football team or anything else. So if you are religious, try to not be as pleased when politicians engage in special pleading for your vote by name-checking your God, because in doing so, they’re often insulting the rest of us.
As for you heathens, try to remember that religious folk often believe what they do not because they are ignorant, but because they care: about values, about humanity’s future, and often, about you.