Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains his main gripe about organized religion: “It implies things about the real world that are just not true.” Organized religion tends to promote an “us vs. them” mentality that in turn triggers a dangerous form of xenophobia. When people say religion is responsible for much of history’s wars and suffering, this is what they’re talking about.
Krauss then enters an investigation into holy texts such as the Old Testament, which — taken literally — is a “disgusting document” that most people know to treat allegorically. An issue Krauss sees among some Muslims is that the insistence on treating a text like the Koran 100 percent at face value leads to unnecessary violence.
Religion is strange that way. There are plenty of people who identify as Christians who also don’t believe in transubstantiation or the virgin birth or any of the other examples of outdated hocus-pocus. Krauss says we should encourage more questioning of the sacred texts in all religions. We can’t allow blind adherence to vastly outdated texts and values to stifle social progress through ignorance and bloodshed.
Lawrence Krauss: It’s hard to lump religion which comes in many different forms, shapes, sizes, and viewed many ways by different people in a single framework. Ultimately, I think religion is a negative force for humanity because what it does — at least organized religion around the world — is it implies things about the real world that are just not true. That are in disagreement with the evidence of empirical testing in science. And while they may provide comfort to people inevitably whenever you make decisions based on something that’s a myth, the decisions lead to bad consequences. Whether you’re teaching children or subjugating women. So religion of course at various times in human history for individuals provides comfort. It has provided opportunities for groups to sometimes do progressive things. But inevitably it’s based on myth and superstition, based on ideas created by Iron Age peasants who didn’t even know the Earth orbited the sun. And ultimately why we should view that as wisdom is beyond me.
The saddest part that’s characteristic of everything including the Koran and I don’t want to label just the Koran in this regard because I think it’s characteristic in the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Abrahamic religions. Is the xenophobia that religion introduces; it’s us versus them. We are absolutely right because we believe this or because we follow these traditions and other people are absolutely wrong because they don’t. And then the question is what do you do to the people who are wrong because they’re not part of your group? Well in many cases you kill them or you ostracize them or you send them to hell. No one mentions hell more than Jesus. Supposedly he was a loving savior, but he uses the word hell more than anyone else in the Bible. So that’s the same kind of xenophobia. In fact it’s worse in my mind. As my late friend Christopher Hitchens would say, you know, Saddam Hussein only condemned his victims to violence and death, you know, until they died. What about a god who condemns you to eternal pain forever? Far worse than Saddam Hussein in the sky. So I think the kind of xenophobia, the fact that people who don’t conform are to be ostracized or killed is prevalent in every religion and I can understand it because these religions were based, in some sense, [on] preserving order within a tribe. They’re all outgrowths of tribal behavior. To preserve order with a tribe, it’s always us versus them. Here are rules that define you as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. You do those rules and you’re distinguishable from the other and the other is to be swept away.
Now in the current world, I think there’s no doubt that right now Islam is a source of more violence than a number of the other organized religions. It’s not the unique source of violence. But I think the problem is just one of timing. Islam is 500 years younger than say Christianity. And 500 years ago Christianity was producing far more violence than Islam ever is today from the Crusades to the Inquisition. And so it’s not surprising that a younger religion in some sense is coming through its growing pains in that regard. The problem is we live in a time where there’s access to much more destructive forces so you’ve got to worry a little bit about that. Ultimately the real problem — the real difference that I see between Islam and, say, Judaism, I mean the Old Testament is every bit — it’s more violent than the Koran. It’s full of violence, oppression, genocide, hatred. It’s an awful book and it’s amazing that we present it as a moral standard. If you actually read the Bible, it’s a disgusting, disgusting document. There’s beauty in the psalms and the poetry of the psalms perhaps, but it’s every bit as violent if not more so than the Koran. The fundamental difference it seems to me is that we’ve learned even highly religious people take the Bible allegorically. They take it — they don’t — when it says you can stone your children if they disobey you, no one takes that seriously anymore. The difference is that many people take the Koran, every word of the Koran as not only divine, but literally. And therefore when it exhorts you to violence, they take that literally. That’s not done any more in the older religions, in the Abrahamic religions. The Bible still says to do those awful things, but people don’t take it seriously. In fact, when we talk about religion in general, many people call themselves religious because they think if they don’t, they’re not good people.
There was a — my friend Richard Dawkins has his foundation in England did a poll. It looked after the most recent census in England, which happens to ask what your religious affiliation is. For the first time only 53 percent of people said they were Christian or about that number. They took the people who listed Christian in the box and said do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe in transubstantiation? Do you believe in — the whole list of things that are sort of standard parts of Christianity? Most of those people said no. And then they were asked why did you check the tick that said you’re a Christian? And they said we like to think of ourselves as good people. And that’s the — what seems to me the thing that we have to overcome the most is people recognizing that you can be a good person by accepting reality for what it is and questioning everything including questioning the existence of God. There’s nothing wrong with that. I get letters from kids all the time who say, you know, I’m happy to read your books or see the movie you’ve just done because it tells me I’m not alone. I’m not a bad person for questioning what my elders or pastor or teachers say. In fact we should be encouraging our children to question everything. It’s part of education.