Pretty far, but not far enough.
I now present a second reason why orthodox religion (as opposed to religious sensibility or mysticism) is really bad for the human species. This is part two of my previous essay.
Fundamentalist religious conservatives believe that God has given them absolute truth; they are God’s chosen, and the rest of us are God’s enemies; they are saved, we are damned.
In the past, religious conservatives took this belief to mean that they have the right to torture and kill anyone who disagreed with them, whether brown-skinned pagans or white-skinned heretics. Today, of course, they do not do this. They will lie about us in order to get their followers to hate us, but they will not torture or kill us.
But why not? If in fact they are God’s chosen, why shouldn’t they kill us? After all, Joshua killed the Canaanites, putting entire cities to the sword. Religious conservatives say this was right. But they will not put us to the sword, because…why? Perhaps, that’s just not done anymore. Or perhaps it is because they recognize the authority of human governments, which declare murder to be illegal, even if it is done in the name of God. But if God is the same for all time, then if he commanded genocide in the past, he could do so again.
So they will not kill us. But the basis for their refusal to kill us is operational, not fundamental. Read that again. They have operational, not fundamental, reasons to not kill us. They believe God gives them the right to, but has indicated that this is not the right time or place to do so.
But even recent history shows how quickly an operational restraint can change. Just a few years after the fall of Yugoslavian communism, genocide was raging across the Balkan states.
However, science provides a fundamental reason to not kill people who disagree with you. And that fundamental reason is that all of our conclusions, about what to believe and how to live, are tentative. Scientists cannot (without no longer being scientists) kill heretics because there are no heretics in science; there are only people who are wrong. We never say “God has proclaimed that…” but can only say “The evidence clearly indicates that…” In science, there always remains a slight margin of possibility that we are wrong, even about the most obvious things. Maybe the Sun really does go around the Earth, and God just makes it look like it’s the other way around. Therefore scientists cannot pass summary, lethal judgment on anybody on account of their beliefs. But religious conservatives believe that there is no slight margin of possibility of error.
Murderous religious zeal, so common in the past and still so pervasive in large parts of the world, remains within American religious conservatives like a tiny population of bacteria, so tiny that most conservatives refuse to believe it is there, just waiting to emerge and cause a deadly disease when the conditions are right. We can only hope that those conditions never occur.
I have deliberately made this essay very stark in its evaluation of conservative religion. Please understand that if you are a religious person but believe that killing people in the name of God has always been wrong, then my comments do not apply to you. These comments do not apply to most people who are religious in the broad sense of the word.