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Doing good without the good book

There’s a lot for a godless, socialist-leaning, gay-loving, pro-choice, tree-hugging liberal arts student to be angry about these days. Cursed by a stubbornness and temper often attributed to an Irish heritage, it’s also easy for me to spout off on a number of issues — some recent, others thousands of years old.

I find organized religion intriguing and maddening. Even as a child, I thought the bible was silly. As I grew older, I eventually concluded that organized religion is seriously oppressive and that a deity has no place in a sound, logical mind.

I will mainly focus on the three monotheistic religions because they grew out of one another and encompass the 3.6 billion people (of the world’s 6.7 billion population) who worship the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.

I was raised in a household mostly absent of religion. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but no one filled me in on “what we believed in.” Putting down my Harry Potter book when I was 7, I picked up an illustrated, watered-down children’s version of the bible. Not only was I baffled how anyone would believe this collection of fables so poorly cobbled together, I was horrified at its content. The evils of Voldemort did not hold a candle, or a wand or a burning bush, to the wrath of God.

Many religious people have asked me, “If you don’t believe in God, what do you have to live for?” It’s a ridiculous question. There is beauty all around me, but also many injustices to be rectified. The very fact that there is no God compels me to want to bring about positive change in this world. If humans don’t take care of the Earth, no one else will.

In the beginning, religion served two vital purposes. It answered two main questions: Why are we here? How was Earth created? Religion’s second main purpose was to lay the groundwork for a civil society. Take Islam, for example. In a land where government barely existed, and power was divided among (frequently warring) tribal leaders, Muhammad and his successors were able to use belief in Allah to centralize authority and unite tribes. Muhammad became very powerful, and Islam spread quickly.

Similarly, Judaism and Christianity sought to align and unite their followers. They provide perhaps the most comprehensive code of conduct, embodied in the Ten Commandments. Throughout history, the Catholic Church wielded its considerable heft to generate capital, thoroughly punish dissenters and influence leaders.

Debating religion is often futile.

Religion served as an early form of effective government, creating the illusion that a higher power was always watching. Theft wasn’t simply illegal — it was wrong in the eyes of God. The likelihood of negative repercussions was elevated from the possibility of incarceration to the certainty of eternal damnation. An omniscient God is the ultimate Big Brother because “He” sees and hears all, including thoughts.

Developed countries today have refined the nation-state to include efficient, centralized government and guaranteed civil liberties. Citizens have cultivated zealous concepts of individualism. These two societal advances will eventually make religion obsolete in developed countries. Individualism fueled much of the Protestant Reformation that fractured Christianity into numerous sects in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I’ve learned that debating religion is often futile. Atheists and theists tend to hit a wall in such discussions and simply cannot communicate with one another. As an atheist, I’m arguing in a world where there is no god, while theists are arguing in the mindset that there is. This seems an obvious statement, but that barrier alone prevents us from fully communicating our respective points, regardless of validity.

As much as I love to debate religion, I don’t hope to convert anyone. At the very least, I want people to think more deeply about the beliefs to which they subscribe. My only hope is that society will outgrow the need for it.

Religion’s negative influences must be mitigated or brought to an end. The atrocities committed against thousands of children by the Catholic Church must be addressed in a court of law. Christian conservatives lobbying for schools to teach creationism should be using their considerable influence to improve society, not to harm it. The muftis, imams and other scholars of Islam must address the horrors being committed against women, against the West and against fellow Muslims.

Were I to devote my life to searching for that single bulletproof argument that could woo the entire world into thinking my way, my life would be a waste. There are more valuable ways to spend a lifetime. I possess the intelligence, common sense and initiative to better the world and my community. I have a responsibility to my fellow human beings to make a positive impact, one that is real and tangible, with the limited time I have.

Mark Twain once said, “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.” I would rather be the lightning — the activist, the leader, the doer — than the thunder — the philosopher, the lobbyist, the pontificator.

Meg Hourigan, 18, lives in Memphis, N.Y., and is a sophomore at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., where she’s studying international politics and environmental science and missing her Boston terrier, Lily.

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