Imagine No Religion

By Norton Herbst

Would the world be a better place without religion?

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The title says it all. Religion is not something author Christopher Hitchens finds merely unhelpful, unpleasant, or out of place within his own life. Rather, religion is “a poison . . . a menace to civilization . . . a threat to human survival.”1

Sam Harris agrees. His 2004 work, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris likens religion to the medieval practice of alchemy. He suggests that all “faith-based religion must suffer the same slide into obsolescence.”2

These are not new arguments. A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud described religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis.”3 He believed that humans created religion as a coping mechanism in light of their fears and unfulfilled desires.4 But science, he argued, has shown religious belief to be an illusion that must be rejected for human civilization to march forward.5

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Are these modern critics right? Is religion not only a pathetic delusion, but a detriment to all of humanity? Let’s set aside the issue of whether specific religious beliefs are objectively true and take a look at the more pointed question: Would the world be a better place without religion?

Religion and Terrorism

On one level, this question is virtually impossible to answer. How does one calculate the overall costs and benefits of religion over the scope of human history?

Yet no one can deny that there are many tragic events in history in which religion has played a key role. Most obviously, one thinks of violence, wars, crusades, and terrorism done in the name of religious extremism.

But is religion the chief cause in all these instances? How much do other motives—such as greed, politics, survival, duty, bloodlust, or even nationalism—play a more prominent role?6

Let’s consider recent terrorist activity. Many suicide bombers claim affiliation with a religious group. Naturally, critics like Hitchens and Harris use these incidents as Exhibit A to illustrate the violent results of genuine religious belief. But what if religion isn’t the primary motivation for such events? 

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