Religion Harms Society – my speech at The Oxford Union

by Michael Nugent on November 8, 2013

Update: Video of this speech is now online here.

Jane Donnelly and I had a very enjoyable time in Oxford yesterday, where I spoke at The Oxford Union debating the motion That Religion Harms Society. Thanks to Parit Wacharasindhu and his team for the excellent organisation.

Also proposing the motion were David Silverman, Peter Atkins, Nonie Darwish and Peter Millican. Opposing the motion were Mehrunissa Sajjad, Julian Brazier MP, David Amess MP, Tariq Ramadan and Richard Swinburne.

We won the debate, and God failed to turn up to vote for the opposition.

Here is my contribution.

In the 1970s the IRA used condoms as part of the internal mechanisms of their bombs, and some IRA members were opposed to using condoms on moral grounds.

Today in Belfast, the Health Minister is a Young Earth Creationist who rejects evolution. The High Court has just found him to be irrational for banning gay men from giving blood.

Today in Rome, the Vatican still protects priests who have raped children. And Irish State Tribunals have found that Catholic Bishops have positively lied and deliberately misled.

Today in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, faces execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad. And two politicians who defended her have been murdered – one by his own bodyguard.

Today in Wisconsin, two parents have been jailed for reckless homicide, because they prayed over their dying child instead of calling an ambulance.

Recently Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told the BBC that atheists are not fully human.

Religion corrupts our sense of reality, and it corrupts our sense of morality, and these two corruptions combine to harm society and to cause terrible suffering.

Firstly, religion corrupts our sense of reality.

It encourages us to believe implausible and untestable assertions on faith, by which I mean believing things because we want to believe them, disproportionately to the evidence.

But before I get into that, I have some good news for all of you. I spoke today with Bill Gates of Microsoft, and he is going to give each of you ten million dollars if you vote with me on this motion. Now, none of you believe that is true. You know that I am making it up.

But if I told you instead that I have some good news for all of you, that I spoke today with the creator of the universe, and that he will give each of you an eternity in paradise if you do what I say … Well, some of you here might believe me. Certainly, many people around the world would believe me.

That is because because religion corrupts our sense of reality.

We normally believe that claims are true or false by assessing the available evidence. And as claims become increasingly implausible, we proportionately raise the bar of the evidence that we require.

But with religion, we do the opposite. As the claims become increasingly implausible, we instead lower the bar of the evidence that we require.

Because religion encourages us to believe not only implausible claims, but literally untestable claims. And then it insists that we live our lives on the basis of these untestable claims.

Compare this with secular faiths that cause harm, such as faith in fascism, communism or the unregulated free market. Eventually these faiths bump into reality, and we realise they are not working. But religious faith hides its testability in an imaginary afterlife.

Secondly, religion corrupts our sense of morality.

Morality is a natural function of our brains. It has evolved in the brains of social animals, including humans, because both cooperation and competition help us to survive.

In recent generations, we have refined our sense of morality. We increasingly respect individual conscience, personal rights, and the rights of non-human animals.

It is already hard enough to find the best balance between the requirements compassion, empathy, suffering, wellbeing, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness and justice.

But religion corrupts this already-difficult process by adding in invented supernatural commands that are unrelated to compassion, suffering or justice.

And religion insists that our natural morality is trumped by what some people believe that the creator of the universe is telling them to enforce on the rest of us.

And so many Catholics justify denying condoms to AIDS victims in Africa. And many Muslims justify the claim in the Quran that husbands can beat their wives.

And last year, when an Irish hospital denied an abortion requested by Savita Halappanavar, whose fetus had no chance of survival, and who ended up dying herself, her husband was told in the hospital that Ireland is a Catholic country.

Not only is religion not needed for morality, but religion actively corrupts morality.

Finally, please keep your focus on the motion.

Don’t be distracted by claims that religion can also do good. That is true, and it is also true that religion harms society.

Don’t be distracted by claims that secular ideologies can also do bad. That is true, and it is also true that religion harms society.

Today you are asked whether religion harms society, not whether religion also does good, and not whether other things also do bad.

However implausible the idea may be that I spoke to Bill Gates today, it is surely even more implausible that a supreme being created a universe of a thousand billion galaxies, each of which contains a thousand billion stars like our sun, so that he could tell one member of one species on one planet to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and then impregnate a virgin in order to give birth to himself, and give Muhammad a ride on a flying horse, and appear in Joseph Smith’s hat in order to attire him in magic underwear.

And on the basis of invented and untestable absurdities like this, Asia Bibi is today languishing in a prison cell in Pakistan, waiting to be executed by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad.

Religion corrupts our sense of reality, and it corrupts our sense of morality, and these two corruptions combine to harm society and to cause terrible suffering.

I propose the motion.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anna B McCabe November 8, 2013 at 10:44 am

Excellent, well done, Michael. I would certainly second that motion!

2 christopher mahon November 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Most religions do indeed harm society; but not all, e.g. Unity, Unitarian-Universalists, Science of Mind. Most concepts of God are irrational but not all. You can be spiritual without being “religious”. Don’t throw out the baby with the dirty bath water.

3 Michelle Mayne November 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Excellent – love the Bill Gate’s scenario and your use of what is actually happening at this moment in time around the world. Well done for winning the motion.

4 Paul Bulmer November 9, 2013 at 8:32 am

Cogent as ever Michael. Well said.

Christopher. I agree with you to some degree. The Quakers have always struck me as a pretty decent lot. But what does ‘spiritual’ actually mean? It just strikes me as a generic catch-all for woo. Conscience I understand. Morality I understand. But spirituality? What is there beyond nature?

5 John November 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Of all the countries in Europe, those that are majority Roman Catholic ( historically anyways) are by far the most sensual.

Lots of vino, good food, great looking people and tons of nude beaches.

They’re also the countries most frequented by atheists when atheists find the humour to go on holidays…

6 Steven Carr November 12, 2013 at 10:35 am

‘Recently Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told the BBC that atheists are not fully human.’

To be fair, the Catholic Church teaches that a fertilised egg is fully human.

So Richard Dawkins is not fully human, while a group of 8 cells is….

7 Nick January 11, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Just watched this Michael, your presentation was strong, bold and direct. The way in which Sajjad argued exactly what you predicted, dismissing all the real examples of collusion to protect pedophiles as outliers, etc.

Watching Silverman’s part now, I was just going to add, your point “Don’t be distracted by claims that religion can also do good. That is true, and it is also true that religion harms society.” was good, but I would add a point Hitchens made, that the religious apologists can always point to the good that people do in the name of religion, but they struggle to show how this good could not have been motivated by purely secular means.

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