The January, 2008, issue of Locus celebrates the 90th birthday of Arthur C. Clarke with a number of special features, including a December interview borrowed from BBC’s Focus magazine. The interviewer asks, “What is the greatest threat that we, as a race, are facing?” and Sir Arthur replies:
Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation. It’s spreading the most malevolent mind virus of all. I hope our race can one day outgrow this primitive notion, as I envisaged in 3001: The Final Odyssey.
I think Clarke underestimates the threat of global climate change, nuclear weapons, and continuing population growth, but as he admits elsewhere in the interview, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophesy.” There are a few other threats I’d throw in there before I got to religion — global poverty and associated malnutrition, the growing crisis around clean water supplies, violence against women, etc., etc. — threats that can physically kill you long before religion’s “mind virus” infects you.
Having said that, organized religion that “pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation” is indeed a dangerous thing; George W. Bush’s religion, which appears to have driven him to an ill-considered war in Iraq, is a case in point. Like Clarke, I am wary of religion that claims to deliver morality;– although I’m quite comfortable with a religion that allows consideration of moral issues in a skeptical but supportive community because it seems to me that moral issues are impossible to resolve on one’s own, and today’s market-driven society here in the United States allows precious few places where groups of people can talk through moral issues openly. Like Clarke, I am also wary of any religion that pretends to deliver spiritual salvation;– although I’m comfortable with a religion that simply states that all persons are automatically saved as a way of making the point that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect; but aside from that, I have no interest in a religion that claims to provide salvation only to a chosen few. (And yeah, I admit my bias, I like to think that my religion is one with which I can be comfortable.)
So I think Clarke makes one or both of the usual two errors that people make damning judgement of religion. The first error lies in damning all religion based on a small set of direct experiences with organized religion; and the second error lies in damning all religion based on portrayals of religion in the media. The first error uses too small a sample for adequate statistical analysis, and ignores exceptions that really must be considered before making such broad pronouncements. The second error is the classic error of relying on second-hand sources of questionable accuracy; if adequate first-hand observation isn’t possible, it’s always better to rely on serious peer-reviewed scholarly works, to get better data and a more nuanced analysis of that data.