If you are reading this you are likely of the atheist persuasion, and thus have most likely seen, among the 9/11 remembrances in your news feed yesterday, at least a few pointing out that religion was at the heart of the tragedy. You may have also seen some of the backlash against those comments – most often some variant of the proclamation, “How dare you criticize something that gives people comfort!”
Let me now explain why that makes no fucking sense.
First and most obviously is that something being a comfort is entirely irrelevant to whether it should be subjected to criticism. What if some people take comfort in shooting heroin? Or setting houses on fire? Or smothering kittens? And before you say I can’t make those comparisons, recall that the claim is strictly that that which gives comfort is off limits for criticism, not that which gives comfort and is also innocuous. Something giving comfort is not evidence that said something is inherently good, or entitled to deferential treatment.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that what they’re claiming is, in fact, we should not criticize that which gives comfort and is also harmless. This still does not exempt religion because of the mountains of empirical evidence which show beyond any doubt that religion is far from harmless – including the point that religion caused the 9/11 tragedy in the first place.
Third, even if we concede that many people do find comfort in their religious beliefs, why should that immunize religion from criticism? Okay, it gives comfort . . . So fucking what? Are you suggesting that the little people are too weak-minded to survive if the rest of us don’t kowtow to their precious beliefs? Or are you inadvertently admitting that the self-delusion required to maintain faith in a just and loving god in the face of a devastating tragedy like 9/11 cannot withstand pointed questions without collapsing in on itself? And if it’s the latter, is that really so terrible? Atheists know well that it is entirely possible to cope with the harsh realities of life without relying on invisible friends; indeed, for many atheists it is more comforting to understand that disasters are the result of human frailty or natural processes beyond our control without having to reconcile human suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who could prevent suffering, but doesn’t.
Beyond its common theme that religion should be privileged above all other endeavors, perhaps the most insidious effect of “don’t criticize religion because it gives comfort” is that it enables continued religious harm. It is not in dispute that religion caused the terrible events of September 11, 2001 – but for reasons that escape me it is considered worse to acknowledge that reality than to perpetuate the conditions that inevitably result in more violence and pointless loss of life. It’s like a terrible cycle of “religion caused this tragedy – but don’t point out that religion caused this tragedy – because people need religion for comfort – which they will need when religion causes another tragedy.” If we instead were willing to look reality in the eye it might be possible for us to find solutions – but as Dr. Phil used to say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
Perhaps it is time to take a more critical and realistic look at what religion actually does in society. Perhaps if we stop pretending that atrocities are not committed in its name there would be fewer atrocities, and we would not require so much of it for comfort.