The Biggest Threats We Face From Conservative Religion
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Adam Lee's new book, Daylight Atheism.
Beneath our advanced 21st-century economy lies a smoke-belching 18th-century economy. For all our sophistication, we still depend on fossil fuels dug from the earth to power our homes and offices. And it is now abundantly clear that this dependence is becoming a lethal threat. From the burning of coal and gasoline, we release into the atmosphere toxic mercury, acidic sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter that produces choking smog and causes asthma and other respiratory sicknesses. But more dangerous, because less noticeable, is the invisible gas carbon dioxide, which is released in vast quantities, billions of tons per year, by the burning of all fossil fuels.
Rising into the troposphere, carbon dioxide accumulates in a stifling blanket, trapping the rays of the sun and warming our planet as surely as a hot car left in a parking lot. In the past, feedback mechanisms in the biosphere prevented excessive warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: the oceans absorb it, green plants drink it, rain dissolves it, carbonate rocks sequester it. But we're pumping it into the atmosphere at a prodigious rate, burning through millions of years' worth of hydrocarbon reservoirs in decades, driving the climate system relentlessly out of equilibrium. And decade by decade, global temperatures tick upwards, glaciers recede, habitats dwindle, ice caps fragment, sea levels rise, storms gain strength, the extremes of flood and drought worsen, desert spreads, and the powerful and wealthy special interests who stand to profit by mortgaging the planet attempt to denigrate and marginalize the voices crying in the wilderness to warn humanity of the danger.
But combustible hydrocarbons aren't the only product of the Middle East that shapes the face of the world today. From those desert sands comes another fuel. Like oil and coal, this fuel has its origins in the distant past; unlike oil and coal, this one is invisible, intangible. Rather than being transmitted through drills and pipelines, it travels through the air, leaping from one mind to the next, igniting conflagrations figurative and literal. Our economy runs on the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion.
Instead of the compressed remains of long-dead living things, the religions that dominate our world today are made up of fossilized dogmas, shaped in the cauldron of a long-gone world and compressed by time and tradition into a rock-hard mass. Religion, too, has its impurities, but instead of sulfur and mercury, humanity's beliefs are contaminated with impurities of tribalism and xenophobia, fractions of hate and fanaticism and glorification of martyrdom. And when they burn in human minds, instead of smog and acid rain, they give us suicide bombers exploding in crowded streets, the suffocating darkness of fundamentalism, bloodthirsty mobs in the streets screaming for holy war, armies marching forth to conquer under the red banners of crescent and cross, the Twin Towers collapsing in flame.
I'm not claiming that religious belief is uniformly harmful. At its best, religion can inspire human beings to perform acts of great charity and compassion and create works of wondrous beauty. But these good works have been endlessly reported and praised, and they need no additional documentation from me. If anything, people who report on religion have a tendency to only report its good effects, while sweeping the bad ones under the rug or blithely dismissing them as perversions of "true" faith. I seek to provide some balance to these choruses of praise by reminding people that religion has also directly caused many acts of terrible bloodshed, cruelty and destruction.