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Now, despite the fact that so much of its influence has been negative, the cultural impact of religion has been so deep that some people have argued that this alone is a good enough reason to want to continue preserving it. They say that because it’s so important to maintain a rich diversity of cultures, we should keep encouraging widespread religious belief even if it leads to harmful results.

But the thing is, while maintaining a rich diversity of cultures is important, the nature of the cultures themselves also matters. Not all cultures are equally good, and not all cultures have equally valuable things to offer. You’ll often hear feminist activists talk about “rape culture,” for instance – a culture in which rape is normalized and accepted, and the personhood of rape victims is diminished. Would such a culture be worth preserving simply for the sake of maintaining cultural diversity? If there were a country or a religion in which every woman was kept as a sex slave and raped daily, would we consider that country or religion’s cultural values to be just as valid as the cultural values of any other country or religion?

This question isn’t as theoretical as it might sound. All across the world, people are suffering from mistreatment that would never be tolerated if it were being committed for any reason other than religion – but because it’s part of a “cultural tradition,” it gets a pass. The right to freely engage in religious practices is somehow considered more important than all the other rights of the people who are harmed as a result of those practices. Here’s Dawkins:

Nicholas Humphrey […] movingly quotes the example of a young Inca girl whose 500-year-old remains were found frozen in the mountains of Peru in 1995. The anthropologist who discovered her wrote that she had been the victim of a ritual sacrifice. By Humphrey’s account, a documentary film about this young ‘ice maiden’ was shown on American television. Viewers were invited

to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honor of being sacrificed. The message of the television program was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

Humphrey is scandalized, and so am I.

Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?

Again, the decent liberal reader may feel a twinge of unease. Immoral by our standards, certainly, and stupid, but what about Inca standards? Surely, to the Incas, the sacrifice was a moral act and far from stupid, sanctioned by all that they held sacred? The little girl was, no doubt, a loyal believer in the religion in which she was brought up. Who are we to use a word like ‘murder’, judging Inca priests by our own standards rather than theirs? Perhaps this girl was rapturously happy with her fate: perhaps she really believed she was going straight to everlasting paradise, warmed by the radiant company of the Sun God. Or perhaps – as seems far more likely – she screamed in terror.

Humphrey’s point – and mine – is that, regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion, and that it originally formed from a disc of gas out of which the rest of the solar system, including Earth, also condensed… Presumably, then, she would not have worshipped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it.

The Inca priests cannot be blamed for their ignorance, and it could perhaps be thought harsh to judge them stupid and puffed up. But they can be blamed for foisting their own beliefs on a child too young to decide whether to worship the sun or not. Humphrey’s additional point is that today’s documentary film makers, and we their audience, can be blamed for seeing beauty in that little girl’s death – ‘something that enriches our collective culture’. The same tendency to glory in the quaintness of ethnic religious habits, and to justify cruelties in their name, crops up again and again. It is the source of squirming internal conflict in the minds of nice liberal people who, on the one hand, cannot bear suffering and cruelty, but on the other hand have been trained by postmodernists and relativists to respect other cultures no less than their own. Female circumcision is undoubtedly hideously painful, it sabotages sexual pleasure in women (indeed, this is probably its underlying purpose), and one half of the decent liberal mind wants to abolish the practice. The other half, however, ‘respects’ ethnic cultures and feels that we should not interfere if ‘they’ want to mutilate ‘their’ girls. The point, of course, is that ‘their’ girls are actually the girls’ own girls, and their wishes should not be ignored. Trickier to answer, what if a girl says she wants to be circumcised? But would she, with the hindsight of a fully informed adult, wish that it had never happened? Humphrey makes the point that no adult woman who has somehow missed out on circumcision as a child volunteers for the operation later in life.

After a discussion of the Amish, and their right to bring up ‘their own’ children in ‘their own’ way, Humphrey is scathing about our enthusiasm as a society for

maintaining cultural diversity. All right, you may want to say, so it’s tough on a child of the Amish, or the Hasidim, or the gypsies to be shaped up by their parents in the ways they are – but at least the result is that these fascinating cultural traditions continue. Would not our whole civilization be impoverished if they were to go? It’s a shame, maybe, when individuals have to be sacrificed to maintain such diversity. But there it is: it’s the price we pay as a society. Except, I would feel bound to remind you, we do not pay it, they do.

The issue came to public attention in 1972 when the US Supreme Court ruled on a test case, Wisconsin versus Yoder, which concerned the right of parents to withdraw their children from school on religious grounds. The Amish people live in closed communities in various parts of the United States, mostly speaking an archaic dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch and eschewing, to varying extents, electricity, internal combustion engines, buttons and other manifestations of modern life. There is, indeed, something attractively quaint about an island of seventeenth-century life as a spectacle for today’s eyes. Isn’t it worth preserving, for the sake of the enrichment of human diversity? And the only way to preserve it is to allow the Amish to educate their own children in their own way, and protect them from the corrupting influence of modernity. But, we surely want to ask, shouldn’t the children themselves have some say in the matter?

The Supreme Court was asked to rule in 1972, when some Amish parents in Wisconsin withdrew their children from high school. The very idea of education beyond a certain age was contrary to Amish religious values, and scientific education especially so. The State of Wisconsin took the parents to court, claiming that the children were being deprived of their right to an education. After passing up through the courts, the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which handed down a split (6:1) decision in favor of the parents. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, included the following: ‘As the record shows, compulsory school attendance to age 16 for Amish children carries with it a very real threat of undermining the Amish community and religious practice as they exist today; they must either abandon belief and be assimilated into society at large, or be forced to migrate to some other and more tolerant region.’

Justice William O. Douglas’s minority opinion was that the children themselves should have been consulted. Did they really want to cut short their education? Did they, indeed, really want to stay in the Amish religion? Nicholas Humphrey would have gone further. Even if the children had been asked and had expressed a preference for the Amish religion, can we suppose that they would have done so if they had been educated and informed about the available alternatives? For this to be plausible, shouldn’t there be examples of young people from the outside world voting with their feet and volunteering to join the Amish? Justice Douglas went further in a slightly different direction. He saw no particular reason to give the religious views of parents special status in deciding how far they should be allowed to deprive their children of education. If religion is grounds for exemption, might there not be secular beliefs that also qualify?

The majority of the Supreme Court drew a parallel with some of the positive values of monastic orders, whose presence in our society arguably enriches it. But, as Humphrey points out, there is a crucial difference. Monks volunteer for the monastic life of their own free will. Amish children never volunteered to be Amish; they were born into it and they had no choice.

There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.

There is a lot to be said for maintaining a rich diversity of cultures, no doubt. But like the old saying that “the right to swing your fist ends where the other person’s nose begins,” this respect for culture has to end when it gets to the point of harming innocent people and animals. Not every aspect of every culture is worth preserving; practices like human sacrifice and infant genital mutilation are flat-out abominable, and this doesn’t become less true just because they’re done for religious reasons.

And again, just to be clear, there are plenty of aspects of religious (and religious-adjacent) culture that really are worth preserving. The art and music and architecture – the old hymns and chants, the beautiful paintings, the magnificent domes and minarets, the breathtaking stained-glass windows – are some of humanity’s greatest treasures. The emphasis on charity and community and inner peace are as valuable today as they’ve ever been, and should be embraced wholeheartedly.

But the important point here is that it’s still perfectly possible to have all these good things without using religion to justify them. There’s no reason why libraries and museums and observatories can’t be built in the same architectural style as cathedrals and mosques (see below), or why songs and sculptures and paintings about non-religious subjects can’t use the same style as religious ones. There’s no reason why people can’t love each other without being commanded to by some divine authority figure, or why they can’t meditate and find inner peace without believing they’re doing something supernatural. As Christina writes:

Without religion, we would still have community. Charity. Social responsibility. Philosophy. Ethics. Comfort. Solace. Art. In countries where less than half the population believes in God, these qualities and activities are all flourishing. In fact, they’re flourishing a lot more than they are in countries with high rates of religious belief.

We don’t need religion to have any of these things.

And we’d be better off without it.


Regarding her point about non-religious societies being better off than religious ones, Phil Zuckerman elaborates:

Consider, for instance, the latest special report just put out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (and recently summarized on the website 24/7wallstreet.com), which lists the ten states with the worst/best quality of life. According to this multivariate analysis which takes into account a plethora of indicators of societal well-being, those states in America with the worst quality of life tend to be among the most God-loving/most religious (such as Mississippi and Alabama), while those states with the best quality of life tend to among the least God-loving/least religious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire).

If you are curious as to which states are the most/least religious, simply check out the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey. It’s all there. And then you can go ahead and check out how the various states are faring in terms of societal well-being. The correlation is clear and strong: the more secular tend to fare better than the more religious on a vast host of measures, including homicide and violent crime rates, poverty rates, obesity and diabetes rates, child abuse rates, educational attainment levels, income levels, unemployment rates, rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy, etc. You name it: on nearly every sociological measure of well-being, you’re most likely to find the more secular states with the lowest levels of faith in God and the lowest rates of church attendance faring the best and the most religious states with the highest levels of faith in God and rates of church attendance faring the worst.

And guess what? The correlation holds internationally, as well.

As I’ve discussed in my book Society Without God, and as I extensively elaborate on in my newest book Living the Secular Life, those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today, such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc.

As University of London professor Stephen Law has observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.”

Consider some specific examples.

The Save the Children Foundation publishes an annual “Mother’s Index,” wherein they rank the best and worst places on earth in which to be a mother. And the best are almost always among the most secular nations on earth, while the worst are among the most devout. The non-profit organization called Vision of Humanity publishes an annual “Global Peace Index.” And according to their rankings, the most peaceful nations on earth are almost all among the most secular, while the least peaceful are almost all among the most religious. According to the United Nations 2011 Global Study on Homicide, of the top-10 nations with the highest intentional homicide rates, all are very religious/theistic nations, but of those at bottom of the list – the nations on earth with the lowest homicide rates – nearly all are very secular nations.


Do societies fall apart when they become more secular? Clearly not.

Now of course, that isn’t to say that religious people are always worse off than non-religious people on an individual basis. Research has shown that religiosity can improve a person’s well-being by giving them a close-knit community that they can feel like they’re a part of. (This is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why religion became so popular in the first place.) But even so, research also suggests that even in these cases, the thing that’s actually improving these people’s quality of life isn’t the religious part of it – it’s the community part. People’s overall level of life satisfaction isn’t correlated with how close they feel to God, but how close they feel with the people around them. Once again, the upshot here is that the best parts of religious culture are… well, the non-religious parts. So if we can preserve these good parts – while disregarding the parts that tell us to believe things we have no good reason to believe, and to oppress people who don’t adhere to our worldview, and so on – our society will be all the better for it.

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