Overview:

Religion exemplifies the dichotomy of the human spirit: the same churches that gave birth to uplifting philosophies and great works of art are also guilty of horrendous crimes against humanity.

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OK, I admit it: I love stained glass.

In fact, I’m a sucker for historic churches and grand cathedrals. I’m enthralled by the vaulted ceilings, the steeples, the fantastically elaborate carvings, the play of light through the gorgeous tinted windows. When I stand in one, I breathe the air of deep time, imagining the centuries of history that have passed like windblown dust across those stones.

It’s not just churches, either, although those are the religious buildings that are most common in my culture. I find equal enjoyment in historic mosques, synagogues… any structure that sits at the nexus of architecture and history.

Religious ideals that I approve of

There are also religious concepts, as well as religious buildings, that I find laudable. One is the Sikh idea of the langar: a communal kitchen, part of the gurdwara or temple, where volunteers cook food that’s given away freely to all comers. The shared meal is a bonding ritual as old as humanity, and the langar is designed to emphasize equality: everyone sits together and eats together without regard to social status, religion or ethnicity. All food served is vegetarian, although vegetarianism isn’t a tenet of Sikhism, so that the largest possible number of people feel welcome.

Although I’m an atheist, I don’t have a problem acknowledging that every major world religion contains beautiful ideas, lofty moral principles, and great works of art, literature and craftsmanship.

Here’s another example of something I like about religion: the Sanskrit term namaste, a Hindu greeting you might have heard in a yoga class. A literal translation is “I bow to you,” but there are shades of meaning that English doesn’t capture. It employs a form of address that isn’t normally used with a stranger, but that is used when addressing an intimate companion—or the gods. A more eloquent translation might be, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”

Deepak Chopra’s website says:

Tantrik philosophy teaches that everything that exists is one Divine consciousness that longs to experience itself in different forms.

…By saying namasté (and meaning it), you are saying that you see others for what you actually are. It’s an affirmation of the choice to identify with God-consciousness, rather than the ego, which would have you believe that you are somehow superior or inferior to any other being on this planet.

Karson McGinley, “The Meaning of Namasté.” Chopra.com, August 2019.

This, I again don’t mind admitting, is a beautifully uplifting idea: that all human beings possess an internal quality of divinity, and when we greet another person, we acknowledge that they’re no less precious and no less sacred than we consider ourselves. It’s an affirmation of the infinite value of each and every conscious being in the world.

Although I’m an atheist, I don’t have a problem acknowledging that every major world religion contains beautiful ideas, lofty moral principles, and great works of art, literature and craftsmanship. Religion is a manifestation of culture, and every human culture is a distillation of the lived experiences of millions of people across centuries or millennia. It’s only to be expected that each and every one has something valuable to teach us.

But—and here’s the big but—these beautiful ideas and beautiful buildings don’t exist in a vacuum. In almost every case, they were conceived and created by people who were also guilty of horrendous crimes against humanity.

The vehicle for our vicious impulses

The cathedral of Seville in Spain is a soaring example of Gothic architecture, so audaciously huge it pushes the limits of what can be done with stone, and yet densely decorated with gorgeous, intricate art. It has one immense, gilded retablo that depicts dozens of scenes from the life of Christ, which took one dedicated craftsman an entire lifetime to make.

That same cathedral is also a monument to colonialism at its most depraved. It boasts of being the resting place of Christopher Columbus, who was a genocidal enslaver. He conquered the peaceful tribes who greeted him and ruled them with shocking brutality, forcing them to labor in gold mines and punishing even minor acts of disobedience with torture and mutilation, chopping off people’s ears, noses and hands. The gold and silver that decorates Columbus’ cathedral was purchased with the blood of indigenous Americans.

Over the ages, religious ideas have been the shield of defense and the sword of justification for holy war, monarchy, patriarchy, slavery, colonialism, racism, and every other evil you can name.

Hinduism, too, isn’t immune to criticism. The Hindu religion has its share of right-wing ultranationalists—including many in its ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—who want to abolish India’s secular ethos and make it a theocratic Hindu-ruled state, expelling or subjugating members of other religions, especially Islam. Members of this movement have instigated violent riots, burning down mosques, homes and businesses owned by Muslims and beating and lynching them in the streets.

Even the Sikhs, though they preach peace and the equality of humanity, have much to atone for. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her book The Means of Reproduction, the Sikhs also have some of the highest rates of sex-selective abortion in the world. This is a symptom of an intensely patriarchal culture that devalues and mistreats its daughters, viewing them as a burden that families can only rid themselves of through the payment of exorbitant dowries. Some Sikh areas have gender ratios as badly skewed as just 400 girls for every 1,000 boys.

This is the dark side of human culture. Despite all the beauty that we’re capable of creating and all the things we’ve achieved, our history as a species is a bloody saga of war, injustice and oppression. Religion, which serves to justify our beliefs about what’s permitted and what’s taboo, is often the vehicle for these vicious impulses. Over the ages, religious ideas have been the shield of defense and the sword of justification for holy war, monarchy, patriarchy, slavery, colonialism, racism, and every other evil you can name.

The dichotomy of the human spirit

Of course, these evils don’t erase the good things that were created in the name of religion. But neither do the good things override or cancel out the bad. It’s a stark dichotomy, and it’s a mark of intellectual maturity to be able to hold both sides of this equation balanced in one’s mind. When standing in the presence of great religious artworks, we can admire the outflow of the human spirit that produced them, while still recognizing that those artistic inspirations were so often rooted in abhorrent moral ideals.

You might have noticed that this is a larger version of the classic problem of separating the art from the artist. Is it still permissible to enjoy a novel, a TV show or a musical album when the person who created it did awful things? If they were a virulent bigot, a sexual predator, abusive to subordinates, a malicious conspiracy theorist… do we have to throw their entire oeuvre in the trash? Or can we still appreciate a work of art on its own merits, regardless of the unsavory opinions of its creator?

Obviously, going to either extreme yields an absurd result. We shouldn’t hold book-burning festivals for an author who posted a bad take on Twitter once. But neither should we cultivate a completely amoral aesthetic sense that views fascist propaganda to be just as deserving of appreciation as narratives of oppression and liberation. The line is always somewhere in the middle, and there will always be arguments about where exactly it should be drawn and why.

Just the same way, I don’t think cathedrals should be demolished or that ancient religious texts should be purged. I think the great artifacts of culture are worthy of preservation. But we can preserve them with a proper eye to their context, without undue reverence. Most important, we can keep the best parts of our past while discarding the ones that we’ve grown beyond. We can still build beautiful buildings, we can still feed the hungry, and we can still love one another for the sake of our shared humanity, without the goad of a violent, patriarchal, tribalistic skyfather.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...