Anyone who's read my blog knows I'm a godless heathen who never misses an opportunity to make fun of religion. This week, Pat Robertson popped up to provide an easy target with his inane assertion that the Haitian earthquake was God's little smack-down for a pact made the the devil a couple of hundred years ago. There's something of a battered-woman syndrome in comments like this. Presumably, Robertson really believes that the world is run by an all powerful god who steers the course of hurricanes and pushes the continental plates together to make the earth tremble. And, he also believes that god is a kind, loving, and just entity who wants only what's good for us. So, when a hurricane or an earthquake kills thousands of people, he can't simply shrug and say, "Well, it was just random. Bad things happen for no reason at all." This would conflict with his vision of God, the all powerful driver of the world. Nor can he say, "Maybe God is cold and cruel," since that conflicts with the idea that God is love, love, love. So, instead, he falls back to the only option left: They had it coming. God loves us, but he has to hit us with earthquakes and floods and drought and plague and tornadoes and blizzards and mudslides and locust and forest fires because we've been such disappointments. Can't you see it's our fault? He only hits us because he loves us.
What a sick puppy.
With this incident fresh in my mind, a few days ago I was asked the question: "Don't you believe religion causes more evil in the world than good?"
It may surprise my readers to discover that my answer was "No." If I may borrow a little NRA logic, religion doesn't cause evil, people do. It's true that you can look at human evil throughout history and find it justified by religion. Slavery, the oppression of women, wars--all are frequently justified by appeals to religion. But, while I see a correlation, I don't see direct cause. Something like 98% of the world professes a belief in some form of religion. It seems statistically probable that 98% of the evil done in the world is therefore going to be done by people who have religious views. But, it's not like places that have shrugged off religion turn into heaven on earth. Homosexuals may feel as if religion is to blame for them being treated as second class citizens, but it's not as if Cuba, with its state sanctioned atheism, is some bastion of gay rights. The Soviet Union worked hard to suppress religion, but if you were gay, you were going to be tossed in the Gulag right next to the Mormon missionary. I've written before that people can be good without god, but it's equally true that people can be jerks without god. Religion isn't to blame for man's inhumanity to man.
And, if you can't just tally up the evil and ignore the good done in the name of religion. Pat Robertson may be an idiot, telling Haitians that they've earned their suffering. But, his charity, Operation Blessing, is already on the ground in Port-au-Prince, distributing aid sent in by his followers. If you're a Haitian, do you want to punch Robertson in the mouth for his words? Or do you want to give his representatives a hug as they help search the rubble and set up tents to shelter the homeless, and set up kitchens to feed the hungry? If the organization he's set up helps save a thousand lives, or a hundred, or even a dozen, doesn't this outweigh any harm he's done by being an asshole? No one got killed, or even wounded, by his stupidity.
Right now, atheists have no equivalent charitable organizations. There are plenty of secular charities we may donate to (such as my own efforts to raise money for cancer research), but there aren't any large groups of do-gooder atheists organized along the lines of, say, the Salvation Army. When disaster strikes, I can't send old clothes and some canned food to the League of Atheists for distribution. Some people would say that this points to the selfish nature of atheists. I suspect it has more to do with the relative newness of open atheism. The social stigma of being Godless was pretty powerful for most of American history. But, if we are serious about our ideas being superior to religion, then we really don't have an excuse but to start thinking now about what kinds of organizations we are going to need to form to offer alternatives to things like Operation Blessing. Most atheists I know are pretty decent, charitable people. We just aren't all that organized. If we're ever to evolve from our present minority status, its time that we started thinking like a majority, and building the institutions we need to alleviate suffering in the world.
We're the ones who know that God doesn't cause natural disasters, and isn't there to help the people who suffer in the aftermath. Doesn't that give us a responsibility to act?