I had lunch today with a customer (yes, I have a job, just one aspect of the actual life I have beyond arguing about religion and geeking it up on science!) who added me on facebook a while back. I'd forgotten he could see what I talk about on there - or talked about, anyway, I don't really bother with FB any more - and he asked me why I take time I could be using profitably to talk about religion, why I have such a problem with it.
It's a question I get asked all the time; even my family don't understand in the slightest why I do this, so I thought I'd have a crack at answering it. I can only give my reasons, of course (and the list will not be exhaustive, by the way, I'd have to write a textbook for that); nobody speaks for all atheists or all antitheists and in fact I know many of both who would probably disagree with much of what I'm about to say.
There's a lot contained within the following which I'll go into in a moment, but for me the issue with religion can be summarised in one sentence:
Religion wants to tell us all - even those of us who don't believe it - how to live; it demands a say in decisions and policies that affect all our lives, and it does so without offering so much as a single shred of evidence that any of what it tries to dictate is based in reality.
One of many things I wish I could make believers understand is just how much you start to notice the influence religion has on all our lives once you stop believing in it yourself. In fact, there's an idea; if you're reading this and you're a religious person, I have a challenge for you. Watch the news on TV this evening, and just try to reflect honestly on how much of what you see can be directly linked with religious belief. I think you'll be surprised, and it might help you to understand how it can feel to be an outsider to the whole thing.
I'm lucky enough to live in the UK, which is relatively progressive (although we still lag behind other parts of Europe in some respects). Yet even here, I am part of a society in which being gay or bisexual is still considered worthy of note, and where doing nothing more objectionable than satisfying sexual desire can still make a woman the subject of mockery, suspicion, contempt, even outright hatred. Sex - when it occurs outside the traditional one-man-one-woman, pair-bonded-and-monogamous-forever paradigm - is still regarded by many as a dirty, shameful thing to do. Do we really think this is unconnected with the concept of "sin" as promulgated by the Church of England for centuries and by the Catholic church before that?
We still live in a society, too, in which religion is accorded respect it simply does not deserve. I disagree with many religious values on moral grounds, but because I am an atheist - as opposed to a member of another religion or of the same religion but a differing opinion - I am often expected to keep my mouth shut out of "respect". I recently had an argument online with a believer about the right-to-die laws in the UK when they were shown up for the antiquated, wantonly cruel laws they are by the Tony Nicklinson appeal case (outlined here); I think the laws need to be changed, he maintained that they're OK as they are - and his reasoning for this came from his religion. It is not possible to have a discussion about an ethical issue with someone whose ethics are based on religion if you cannot criticise or question that religion. And that means its very fundamentals, too, not just whatever verse the person happens to have pulled out of their arse this time. After all, what Jahweh says about assisted suicide doesn't matter two shits if Jahweh cannot be proven to be any more real than Severus Snape (although personally, I'd prefer to live in a universe run by the latter than by the former). It is utter nonsense - madness - lunacy - to accept "I believe deity X exists, therefore everybody else must take into account what I say s/he thinks about Y" as if it were a reasonable premise, yet we all do it all the time.
But I'm very lucky to live in the UK; there are infinitely worse places to live, and it's no coincidence that - with the still baffling exception of the USA, where people with no idea how lucky they are seem determined to think the laws and mores of places like Somalia something to aspire to - an increase in religiosity is strongly correlated with a decline in human rights, freedoms and quality of life (see this map for a simple outline). Many of the poorest, most deprived, most oppressive and most dangerous places to live on our planet are also the most religious, and when one considers what follows when religion is allowed to become powerful this is not surprising. So I could bitch about being called a slapper for wearing a tight top or about being hit on at a conference or about being met with hostility when I speak my mind on certain subjects - but the fact is that I'm exceptionally lucky. There are places in the world where I could be killed for some of the things I say and do and think - and the laws that would allow that are almost all religiously based.
My right to free expression is protected under law in the UK, but that's not the case everywhere by a long shot - and again, it's often religion that prevents this. People have died this week because of something someone said about a deranged paedophile who lived 1,400 years ago. This is not OK, and to try to argue that we should tolerate or even respect it because it's part of "a different culture" is sickening and utterly cowardly. All that does is label the people who do the killing irretrievable savages and their victims not worth so much as an admonition.
This is not the time to get into the reasons all religions are factually ludicrous; if you're not clear on that, consider how logical you find a religion other than your own and then just try to accept the fact that yours is no different from the outside. Even deism is no better than a grandly illogical god-of-the-gaps argument, and to then take that fallacious premise and progress with it to try and tell us all what the deity thinks of our sex lives or our diets is just insane. Suffice it to say, if belief in the doctrine of any one religion were as reasonable and based on evidence as proponents like to pretend, we would not have thousands of conflicting religions and an ever-growing number of people with no religion at all.
Religion affects me and the people I love by throwing up barriers to birth control, to abortion, to dignity in death, to medical research, to equality, to gay marriage, to free expression, to open politics, to reasoned debate, to scientific advancement and to education. People all over the globe are murdered, tortured, abused, enslaved, mutilated, oppressed, threatened, violated, debased, even starved and allowed to contract lethal but preventable diseases... all in the name of religious beliefs. And to really hammer the point home - religion does all this, and yet never, in the entire course of human history, have we seen one shred of credible, verifiable evidence that what any religion has to tell us is correct. In fact, we've had endless proofs that it's crap... and yet we are still ordered to respect it while it commits such atrocities.
That is why I get so angry about religion.