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Michael Shermer on the Ambiguity of Religion’s Impact

How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God (Macmillan: 2003), pp. 71-2.

From the Crusades’ numerous attempts to cleanse the Holy Land of infidels (anyone who was not a proper Christian), to the Inquisition’s efforts to purge society of heretics (anyone who dissented from Christian dogma), to the Counter Reformation’s push to extirpate reforming Protestants from Catholic lands, to the Holy Wars of the late twentieth century that continue to produce death rolls in the millions, all have been done in the name of God and One True Religion. However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil; shades of gray complexity abound in all such societal structures, and religion should not be treated any differently than, say, political organizations. One could easily build a case that state-sponsored terrorism, revolutions, and wars make even these horrific religion sponsored catastrophes appear mild by comparison. If God is a meme, so is King and President; and if religion is a virus, politics is a full-blown epidemic replete with copy-me memes such as nationalism, jingoism, and outright racism. Yet no memeticist would propose that we do away with the state. Why? Because the state is a complex social entity with countless nuanced beneficent effects that go along with the pernicious.