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James Brennan: Why I hate religion

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published June 4, 2014

The greatest form of human freedom — and the basis for all of our other rights — is the freedom of thought.

The right to believe whatever we choose is the fundamental foundation to speak, associate and act freely. Freedom of thought gives birth to new ideas and challenges the status quo, allowing human beings the courage to resist tyranny and formulate new solutions to the world’s problems. Our right to think freely is what incites us to speak when we’re supposed to be silent, to love when we’re supposed to feel indifference and to do that which was thought to be impossible.

As a writer and vocal critic of anything and everything I dislike, the freedom to think and express my beliefs is a constant source of deep personal fulfillment. I can say with confidence that I love my right to think and say whatever I want more than almost anything in my life. I love it more than any material good, more than any object of sentimental value and more than any person. When you love something that much, it’s logical that you would absolutely hate anything that threatens its existence.

I hate religion because it jeopardizes all of our most treasured civil liberties at their root: the freedom of thought.

Religion requires an individual to suspend critical thinking and abstain from any questioning of dogma, often enforced through the threat of eternal damnation, the promise of endless paradise or both. If one does not believe, he or she has committed an unforgivable crime worthy of punishment. If one breaks any of the religion’s rules, he or she has compromised their fate. In some cases, if one even so much as thinks an impure thought, his or her destiny is in peril. Religion isn't salvation, it's an Orwellian nightmare enforcing thought crimes.

The book Nineteen Eighty-Four opens with its protagonist Winston Smith hiding in the corner of a room out of the view of Big Brother, scribbling his thoughts nervously into a journal. If he’s caught, he faces imprisonment or death. Religion takes away even that corner where Winston can hide.

In a 1969 opinion, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” Religion takes away not only the bastion of freedom in one’s own home, but the most valuable space for freedom that exists: one’s own mind.

Religion isn’t a law that we are all required to follow. It is, in fact, protected by the very freedom I value so much. If a person wants to filter all of their thoughts and actions to appease something they believe in, even if it’s something silly, that’s their choice. Adults are free to lock themselves into refusing dissent and obeying what Christopher Hitchens labeled “a celestial North Korea.” But what about children?

Kids often have religion drilled into their heads by their parents as soon as they’re able to understand, making it nearly impossible to later bore out. While religion is the willful suspension of critical thinking for adults, it’s a command for children who don’t know any better to ask certain questions. Grown adults are free to give away their freedom of thought, but some children are required to do so before they can make the choice themselves.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for the prohibition of all religion by law. Nor do I fail to recognize that some religions are far better in this respect than others, some of which hold very few unquestionable tenets. What I’m saying is that rules on what you choose to think, say and do should not be restricted by an illogical desire to pacify a mythic higher power. A person doesn’t need to defer to a hierarchy that supposedly punishes “bad” thoughts to decide what is and isn’t good to contemplate.

While I love my own freedom of thought, what I love more is everyone else’s. A democratic society is built on a free exchange of ideas, an exchange unfiltered and filled with criticism and creativity. Progress is driven by new ideas, unconventional wisdom and, above all else, dissent.

Religion destroys a person’s ability to fully think for him or herself, in turn destroying their ability to decide their own path in life. On a large scale, it can hinder progress for the rest of society. I understand that religion can be comforting; it offers a person concrete meaning in life, explains what happens when it’s all over and gives someone hope they may see their loved ones again after they die. What it asks for in exchange is a person’s surrender of their faculties to think and act freely.

If you ask me, that sounds like a deal with the devil.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.