Religion: A Source of Human Suppression or Growth?

If you are an atheist in the 21st century, it seems obvious that religion has suppressed the growth of humanity. If science is God, anyone who believes Jesus and Mohammed both defied gravity and ascended into heaven cannot be trusted with the progress of human civilization. Mohammed even did so on a winged horse. This is perceived not only as unscientific, but also dangerous.

The New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others) have argued this exact thing. They actually consider religion a disease to humanity. Many of the points, most will say, are factual and valid. For example, Galileo was tried and charged with heresy by the Roman Inquisition for, among other things, his heliocentric views which turned out to be true: the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. But does this mean religion as a whole has suppressed human development? Or has it, like any other institution, attributed to both good and bad? Let us look at the situation both historically and in contemporary society.

Historical View

Instances like the Inquisition the Crusades are obviously roadblocks to human development. Of course they are, and there is no denying that. Similarly, the charges against Galileo certainly are evidence of religion’s attempt to hinder human progress and development. But does this have to do with religion, or the institutional form that religion takes? All institutions that are in power do what they can to defend their position.

We must not forget, at the same time, the good that religion has done for human development. While the Catholic Church attacked the beliefs of Galileo in the 17th century, the Muslim world in the 9th-13th century undertook strong advancements in astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics that expanded to medieval Europe. Undoubtedly, these ideas were paramount to the shape the Enlightenment took.

While the New Atheists consider religion a disease, recent scholars such as Jonathan Haidt have cautioned us not to be too disparaging of religion. Basing his findings on the contested notion of group selection, Haidt argues that religion has been an essential component to the development of community and morality. Communities moved us away from the barbaric individualism to the advancement toward civilization. And religion has historically been an important factor in binding communities together. It is hard to see any advancements toward civilization taking place without first the creation of communities.

Contemporary View

In taking the stance that religion has suppressed human development, it is easy to argue that Islamism is bad for society. By Islamism, I mean the ideology that utilizes the religion of Islam for political means. Instead of progressing along the lines of Western liberalism, groups like the Taliban, the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations appeal to an ancient time and code. They believe the West had been a corrupting influence, and has led people away from God. Much of what they appeal to is condemned as immoral in the West, particularly their treatment of women and antiquated code of law.

At the same time, if these groups are only listened to, their grievances cannot be ignored. Context is absolutely necessarily for this analysis. For example, in the past half century, the West has promoted and installed secular governments in the Middle East (Iraq, pre-revolutionary Iran, Libya, Egypt, etc). These governments abused their positions to personally enrich themselves and their cohort, while looking out strictly for their tribal interests. The most recent situation being that of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.

These regimes have often isolated sects of the population, repressed any type of dissent, and pushed the majority of the country into poverty while being left to fend for themselves. It is little wonder that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood thrive in this environment, as they build schools, hospitals, and churches in depressed regions. Certain of the views of the Muslim Brotherhood can be considered archaic and even dangerous, but does not their attempt at social justice mean they care about human development?

It is easy to see how the Muslim Brotherhood has done more to help the impoverished regions develop more than their secular dictators. And this can be seen across the globe. In El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, the military-led government undertook a massive campaign of repression by killing and torturing thousands accused of being leftist guerrillas. A brave Archbishop of the Catholic Church, Oscar Romero, dared to speak out against the social injustice, extreme poverty, torture, and murders that were taking place on a regular basis. In March 1980, Romero was murdered by right-wing militias while giving mass, simply for questioning the regime and inspiring others to speak out.

It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood and Romero in these instances are pushing for progress, particularly for vulnerable populations. The question becomes, how do we measure progress? Neo-liberal policy in the past 30 years has certainly propelled the Western world forward, but who has really benefited from this? In the United States, inequality is the highest it has been since the early 20th century, poverty rates remains high, and it has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the industrial world. Is this progress? Maybe for some, but certainly not for others.

So while religion may appear as antithetical to progress, this is not necessarily the case. Religious institutions have done things to hinder progress, but so have secular organizations that adhere to ideological beliefs. Just think of the Social Darwinism of the Nazis or atheism of the Soviets.

Certainly, religion has done some things in the past to harm human progress, but it also cannot be denied that it has been a source for good and progress in the world. So, has religion suppressed societal and human growth? Yes. Has it advanced it? Yes. It is not simply a yes or no answer.