An increasing number of overtly secular people believe in myths: myths about religion – and about how religion works.
Unfortunately, many of these secular people are vocal in the public square, driving important discussions around the role of religion in society. As far as they’re concerned, religion’s place in society – including freedom of religion – must be wound back.
But many of their views are based on myths – myths that are potentially dangerous. Here are 4 of those myths:
1) All Religions Are Essentially the Same
The ‘nice’ form of this secular myth says that all religions teach the same (nice) ethics.
The strident ‘New Atheist’ version of this myth says that all religions are just as bad as each other – they’re abusive, and ‘poison everything‘.
Now, to be fair, there are some similarities between various religions: many of them ask similar questions.
However, they often come up with different answers.
And it’s the answers that matter.
Poet Steve Turner nailed this in his sarcastic poem Creed, writing:
We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.
Why this view is dangerous:
Thinking that all religions are essentially the same blinds us to reality. They’re clearly not the same, and the differing impact they have on society and individuals is not he same either – both in this life, and (I would argue) in the life to come.
2) Religion is Merely a Private Belief, that Doesn’t Impact a Person’s Outward Behaviour.
According to this myth, religion is nothing more than private internal beliefs, which don’t impact a person’s outward behaviour. These religious beliefs might affect what worshippers do in a church/synagogue/mosque/temple one hour a week. But outside the four walls of their worship gathering, there are no significant behaviour changes.
In this narrative, Islamic terrorists (for example) are not motivated by their particular religious views, but by cultural, economic, and political reasons (e.g. perceived western oppression).
But again, this secular view is a myth.
As many a Psychologist will tell you, our beliefs – including religious beliefs – drive our behaviour.
As I write this, I’m in a small 30 passenger aircraft 17,000 feet above the east coast of Australia, and my belief in the reliability of this particular aircraft has driven my outward action of getting on board. That’s no small feat for me, considering I occasionally have overwhelming beliefs about the danger of flying – not a good belief to have when you’re stuck in a small aircraft at 17,000 feet!
Our deeply held beliefs about morality, meaning, and purpose – the issues religions deal with – also drive behaviour. An Islamic terrorist might believe that Allah calls upon him to bring death to infidels via the sword or suicide vest.
Other religious people – such as Christian pastor Martin Luther King Jr – were also driven by religion – although their religious beliefs led them to very different behaviour:
Either way, religious belief often leads to outward behaviour.
Why this myth is dangerous:
A society/government that believes religion is merely a private affair will misdiagnose religiously inspired violence – and not respond effectively.
Such a society/government will also misunderstand how religious belief is a key inspiration to good works. This misunderstanding may lead to a reduction in religious freedom, with no attempt being made to accommodate religious behaviour wherever possible. Because (the myth goes) religion is only internal, and doesn’t drive outward belief.
3) Religion is Inherently ‘Irrational’ and Belief Driven
Whereas secular thinking is inherently rational and only evidence based.
I see this myth all the time: religion is inherently an irrational ‘leap of faith’ into the dark, against all the evidence. Whereas secular thinking is rational and evidence based.
Again, this secular view is a myth.
Not all religious thinking is an irrational leap of faith (although I concede much can be). And certainly not all secular thinking is purely rational.
Speaking personally as a Christian (I’ll let people of other religions speak for themselves), I believe in God, Jesus’ resurrection, and the Bible as a whole, not in spite of the evidence, but because of the evidence.
I think it’s more sensible and rational to believe that we were created by a Higher Intelligence, than having come about by some cosmic accident. I am convinced – through historical evidence – that Jesus lived, died, and rose again from the dead.
Believing something because of evidence – historical and otherwise: isn’t that rational?
On the other hand, when it comes to modern secular thinking, much of it – when you dig deep – is based on unprovable beliefs. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong per se, but such beliefs cannot be proved by reason alone.
Take human rights. Can anyone prove by scientific/rational evidence alone that all people have inviolable human rights?
If they can, I’ve yet to see it. (The UN Declaration on human rights has no underlying justification for any of it’s rights – it’s just a ‘Declaration’.)
Writing in the New York Times, political commentator Gary Rosen makes this point well:
On questions of human dignity and human ends, we tend to sputter and assert, setting out propositions that are difficult to justify to those who don’t share them.
They’re difficult to justify to others precisely because they are ultimately beliefs, with no ‘stand alone’ rational/scientific justification for them.
Why this view is dangerous:
If you truly believe religious people are driven by irrational beliefs, then – if you wield the levers of power – you may try to marginalise their impact across society, not least by removing basic freedoms of religion.
Furthermore, by removing the religious beliefs that founded western society – including many things that secular people value – we’ll end up with a very different society – and not necessarily a better one.
4) Religion is Against the Public Good
It needs to be kept out of the public square.
This view has been popularised by ‘New Atheist’ thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It re-appeared last year in MSM articles about the SSM postal survey. Fairfax columnist Aubrey Perry wrote:
It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.’
Religion – at least in it’s traditional forms – is bad for society as a whole, according to this narrative.
But does this view stack up? Is religion a force for evil in society – is it bad for human flourishing?
The evidence is in, and overwhelmingly religion – at least the Christian religion – has been shown to be a positive influence in society.
The evidence is in.
After conducting one of the most comprehensive studies on religion’s effects on American society, respected Harvard sociologist (and non-believer) Robert Putnam concluded:
[R]eligiously observant Americans are more generous with time and treasure than demographically similar secular Americans. This is true for secular causes (especially help to the needy, the elderly, and young people) as well as for purely religious causes. It is true even for most random acts of kindness.’
But the positive effects of religion on society don’t end there.
What about those intolerant missionaries?
The effect of proselytising missionary work to the developing world is often given a bad wrap by secular arts and media (e.g. the novel The Poisonwood Bible). But a landmark study by sociologist Robert Woodberry, entitled The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, suggests a different view. His peer reviewed article was published in the prestigious American Political Science Review, and looked at the effects of 19th century Protestant Missionaries on today’s societies in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceana. In it, he concludes:
[C]onversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.’
That’s no small positive effect for the common good.
Even Atheist observers have noticed these benefits: Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote about his experiences in Africa:
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do…In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
To say religion is almost always against the public good flies in the face of some of the best research of the effects of religion on society – western and otherwise. (That’s not to say Christians haven’t done bad things throughout the ages, but overall the effect has been good.)
Why this secular myth is dangerous:
If Christianity (in particular) is such a positive force for good overall, then placing restrictions on it will not be of benefit to any society. Since so much Christian social work is with the marginalised (e.g. adoptions, foster care, homelessness), restricting Christian freedom will only harm the most disadvantaged in society.
A Better Way Ahead
The Communist government of my country of birth tried to make the public square ‘secular’ – but of course, it merely imposed it’s own beliefs onto everyone else. And that didn’t end so well.
A better way ahead is to recognise that everyone comes to the public square with religious beliefs (be they formal or informal, conscious or subconscious), and then allow people to speak and act in line with these beliefs, as far as possible.
That’s true tolerance. That’s true pluralism – a pluralism that recognises the important role religion plays in people’s lives, and across society.
 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace – How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 453.