1) There are two major problems with religion and the way in which it is currently practiced. First, religion exacerbates the differences between groups which directly leads to an “us versus them” mentality that incites hostility and violence. Yes, religion does unite people and forms strong communities; however, religion tends to unite one group against another group. Second, people of faith tend to strictly adhere to religious dogmas, and it is in the adherence to religious dogma that women, homosexuals, people of other faiths or those who simply do not have any faith become oppressed. In an ideal world, religion could be practiced freely and the benefits of religion – community, charity, benevolence – would be shared by all human beings. But we do not live in an ideal world; we live in a world in which religion divides people instead of bringing them together. We live in a world in which religious beliefs become fanatical and are the source endless fighting and slaughter. Too many people of faith – namely the Jews, Christians and Muslims – abuse their respective religious texts and use them as support for their outlandish dogmas. Furthermore, holy texts are cited by religious fanatics as evidence that their insane views and horrific actions are somehow justified.
Let us further examine the damage that religion causes through its polarization and adherence to outdated dogmas. There is no doubt that religion is polarizing. Every single faith believes that there their god is the one true god, thus meaning that the gods of all other religions must be false. This fact divides people and leads to both intolerance and violence. For example, the Middle East exists in a state of turmoil and has for thousands of years because of the division caused by religion. The Muslims, Jews and Christians continue to fight over the “Holy Land” because of the significance that is has for each religion. This constant struggle in the Middle East has led to generations upon generations of people senselessly killing each other in the name of God for a piece of barely inhabitable desert land. Adherence to religious dogma only intensifies the “us versus them” attitude and incites further violence. For example, the 9/11 hijackers actually believed whole-heartedly that the murder of thousands of innocent people would receive 72 virgins in Paradise for their horrific deeds. Even as far back as the Crusades, Christians would kill Muslims in the name of Christ, just as some Muslims now kill in the name of Allah. If killing in the name of God does not seem like an oxymoron, then perhaps degrading other humans because it is the alleged will of God does. In Saudi Arabia, a deeply religious Muslim nation, women are not permitted to drive a car. In fact, the Muslim Saudi government insists that if women were to drive cars, then there would be no more virgins in Saudi Arabia and pornography and prostitution would become rampant.  The Saudi government is insistent upon granting minimal rights to women: the government basically tells women what they can and cannot wear and reserves the right to beat women publically if they do not adhere to the dress code.  This is just one of many examples of how religious dogma leads to the senseless oppression of one group of people. Other examples include the Christian and Muslim belief that homosexuality is a sin and that practicing homosexuals will burn in hell for an eternity.
2) For all of its faults, it can easily be argued that religion is not detrimental to society, but rather it is beneficial. After all, it certainly is hard to deny the large amount of humanitarian work that is done by religious people. Whether it be trying to help the poor in Latin America, the sick and dying in Africa, or responding to natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake or the Tsunami of 2004, religious people generously give their time to help the less fortunate in all corners of the earth. In fact, studies show that people of faith are more likely to be charitable than those who are atheist. Those who attend a weekly religious service are two and a half times as generous as atheists, and the 24% of people who make up this group account for 48% of all charitable donations.  However, it is not the money that the religious give that makes religion socially desirable; it is the time that they give to humanitarian causes. Without the aforementioned missionary work that religious organizations conduct in impoverished lands the people living there would be much worse off than they currently are. If missionaries stopped going to Africa, who would administer treatments for illnesses, build clean water sources in rural villages, teach Africans how to read and write? Yes, secular NGOs and international aid programs would still offer their help, but it simply would not be the same as the religious missionaries. Even some atheists, such as journalist Matthew Parris, recognize the important benefits that missionaries bring to Africa. According to Parris, the Christian beliefs that the missionaries bring to Africa “changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”  Parris also admits that the Africans’ newfound faith in God grants them a new confidence and greater sense of purpose as an individual, and this will ultimately have a positive on the African community.  Religion inspires people to help their fellow man, to recognize each and every individual as a person and not a means to an end, to be compassionate and forgiving, and most of all to be giving of oneself and to treat others as you want to be treated. It can be argued that this last point dates back to Confucianism, and it most certainly does, however it was also a large part of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Atheists, however, would refute these claims and state that although these teachings are found in the Bible or Koran, so are messages about killing those who do not believe in God, or commit adultery, or work on the Sabbath, or how it is ok to sell your daughter into slavery and various other teachings that conflict with the positive messages of religion. While it is undeniable that both the Bible and Koran contain messages of hate as well as love, any true follower of God would know to follow just a few basic beliefs: “Love God and neighbor. Like the Good Samaritan, give of yourself to strangers. Do good even to those who persecute you.”  It is these simple beliefs that make religion socially desirable. Yes, fanatics most definitely do use religion to condone their evil actions; however there is also a great amount of good that comes from religion as well. The religious are charitable, give their time to help the poor, are forgiving and compassionate, and treat others as human beings, not as objects. All of these qualities help to advance societies and they outweigh the evil actions of a few religious fanatics.
Some atheists also make the claim that the world would simply be better off without religion. Atheist scholar Richard Dawkins even believes that religion is the “root of all evil”.  Rest assured, this simply is not true and can been seen using 20th century examples from Soviet Russia and Communist China. Both governments were non-religious and both committed terrible crimes against humanity. In the absence of religion – which some atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris feel is socially desirable – Joseph Stalin killed over 20 million people in Soviet Russia and Mao Zedong killed over 70 million people. These brute facts are enough evidence to show that horrific violence will still occur in a world that is devoid of religion. People will always find ways to find differences between groups and create an “us versus them” culture. It is simply part of human and animal nature to identify with a specific group and then label all other groups as different or less important. Additionally, if there were no religion, wars would still be fought over land and natural resources (i.e. The French and Indian War, Mexican-American War, etc…). If anything, the core values of religion -charity, benevolence, and respect for others – help to discourage atrocious crimes against humanity like those committed by Stalin and Zedong, not encourage them.
3) Religion, in the way that it is currently practiced, is not socially desirable. Too many people of faith – especially those of the Abrahamic traditions – practice their faith in a way that is either fanatical or fundamentalist. When anything is used or practiced in excess it is detrimental to human well-being, and this includes religion. Radicals and fundamentalists spend too much time focusing on dogmas and interpreting holy texts literally that they lose sight of the true values of religion. If people of faith were to learn to be accepting of other faiths and adhere to the true teachings of the Abrahamic traditions (benevolence, charity, love thy neighbor, forgiveness, etc…) then religion would most definitely be socially desirable. Sadly, this simply is not the case because there are too many religious fanatics and dogmatists who practice a misguided version of their faiths that focus on intolerance and oppression. The religious liberals, who are decent well-to-do people, simply do not preach their message of tolerance enough that it will ever stop religious fanatics from practicing religion in a misguided manner. Religious fanaticism imprisons raped women in Afghanistan because they had sex outside of marriage  , causes people of different faiths to distrust each other and kill each other, prevents Christian missionaries from giving condoms to Africans because it is against the teachings of the Church, and causes people to think that harming others in the name of God will somehow lead to their salvation.
Fundamentalist religious views are also equally dangerous when they entire the political arena. The dangers that a fundamentalist politician presents are quite real and we should be fearful of them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is a Muslim radical who holds outlandish fundamentalist beliefs and they heavily influence his policies. For example, Ahmadinejad’s hostile relationship with Israel and vice-versa is a result of the fundamentalist beliefs of both parties and this could ultimately lead to war between Israel and Iran. This possible war would ultimately lead to American involvement, but one must also worry about religious fanaticism within America itself. A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 40 percent of Americans believe that the second coming of Jesus will occur by the year 2050.  If Americans elected a President that shared this view it would impact the country negatively on numerous levels: it would impact our foreign policy and the wars we wage (War to bring about Armageddon possibly?), it would severely damage our economy (If the world is ending soon, why work?), and our country would be governed not by reason, but by the insane and unfounded views of religious fanatics. The dangers of fundamentalist politicians can already be seen in this country; Minnesota state representative Mike Beard believes that we should continue wasting our natural resources because God will always replenish them.  There is no place for religious fundamentalism in politics, as it negatively influences policy and forms destructive relationships between political parties and nations. Governing a nation based on religious dogma is both irresponsible and dangerous. Religion cannot be considered socially desirable because of the misguided faith of countless fundamentalists (whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc…) who use faith to divide people instead of unite them, to harm people instead of help them, and to govern their countries based on faith instead of reason.
 Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists.
 Matthew Parris
 Matthew Parris
 A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists