f Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?” Benjamin Franklin asked some unknown person in 1757. As if to illustrate this point a man named Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi went into a house of worship in Najran wrapped with explosives and detonated them, causing many casualties. He was a very religious man, according to his friends. He differed theologically with the worshippers, calling them “rejectionist Ismaili polytheists” and so murdered them along with himself in an orgy of violence.
Wicked is clearly the right word for this guy, though I could think of some others I’d prefer. And he did have religion. How much worse could he be if he didn’t? I have to wonder, anyway. It doesn’t seem like religion did much to moderate his particular brand of evil—quite the contrary, actually.
The notion that religion is a moderating force for good—whatever that is—has always seemed a bit far-fetched to me. I mean, I get the concept—if people fear supernatural sanctions for bad behavior they will be motivated to do better. But self-love and self-preservation are much tougher than such tinsel phantasms. “I will swear and forswear myself,” Robert Poley famously observed, “rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm.” Exactly. The cobwebby fear of invisible justice means nothing against the visible reality of personal harm.
Ah, but Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi turned to self-slaughter, the ultimate in personal harm. Is this not a refutation of some kind? He was, apparently, willing to die for his religion, at least if he could take believers of another stripe along with him.
Well, maybe he was. But if he suffered from the delusion of his own immortality his action might reflect the hope of reward rather than the fear of dissolution. And that hope of reward, let us remember, is indeed a figment of religious conviction. Which shows, I suppose, that religious belief can influence behavior. Would the Aztecs have practiced human sacrifice on such a large scale without the sanction of the divine? Would the Muslims and the Christians and the Jews have fought so bitterly for so many years over a relatively worthless chunk of terrestrial real estate were it not at the behest of dueling deities?
By any rational standard these are not good things. And yet—and yet we are assured that whatever bad things are caused by religion, life without it would be worse. “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell” John Adams wrote to Jefferson. But there’s one hell of a good argument for his first thought in that same letter: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!”