God is the ultimate ad baculum argument. By claiming to be following God's will, religious believers can concoct rules justified not by reason, but by the threat of force.

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If you asked me to do a free-association test and posed the word “God,” I’d think of a stick.

I don’t mean a branch detached from a tree. I’m picturing a nightstick, a billy club, a cudgel—a tool to bludgeon, to hurt, to punish. I think of a weapon in an angry hand, an instrument of violence used to force others to comply with the wielder’s will.

There are many reasons I could give for this association. But for the moment, let’s consider just one from recent headlines.

A Catholic school in Missouri expelled an eleven-year-old student, not because of anything he did wrong… but to punish his mother for speaking out against book censorship.

According to the letter, he’s being expelled because his parents, Paul and Hollee Muller, have “stated both verbally and in writing you do not agree with nor do you support the teachings of the Catholic Church. After prayerful consideration and discussion among our school administration it is obvious we no longer have a partnership with you, since the values of your family are not in alignment with those of our school. Therefore, the school administration has made the decision to disenroll your child from our school.”

… Hollee was vice president of the school’s advisory board, and she objected to changes at the school since Father Sean McCaffery became pastor of the parish a year ago.

“The priest came rolling in hot,” Hollee said, “yanking books” from the school library, including one about a polar bear with two mommies and all of Rick Riordan’s work, some of which features characters who are gay, bisexual, lesbian and trans.

This book-burning priest was so comically paranoid that he yanked students’ access to the Duolingo app, because it taught them how to say forbidden words in other languages:

The Duolingo language app was taken away, according to parents, because it translates the words “gay” and “lesbian.” CNN 10, a news source for “explanation seekers on the go or in the classroom,” was pulled, Hollee said, “because the priest said we don’t need the media teaching our kids.”

In another age, one gets the sense, this priest would have been a most enthusiastic inquisitor. Alas, he can no longer torture heretics into confessing or burn them at the stake. Instead, he’s limited to committing petty tyrannies against eleven-year-olds.

Belief in God is like a sheet you can throw over all manner of atrocities to cover them in a disguise of sanctity.

There’s much that can be said about this story. You could note that book censorship is now a standard tactic of the religious right, crossing denominational boundaries. You could draw inferences about the sharp rightward turn of organized religion, including Roman Catholicism. You could observe that this choice to drive out liberal believers is tangible evidence that the church hierarchy prefers a smaller, ideologically purified flock to a broader and more diverse one.

However, I want to focus on a quote from the shocked mother:

As Hollee herself sums up her supposed heresy, “I don’t think being blatantly homophobic is a teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with that. Homophobia—in the sense of believing that same-sex relationships are sinful and that cisgender, heterosexual couples should enjoy legal rights not given to other kinds of relationships—absolutely is a teaching of the Catholic church. For that matter, it’s a teaching of most organized religions, period.

I applaud Hollee Miller for believing that book censorship is wrong, that kids should have access to a wide range of media, and that LGBTQ people are entitled to equal rights. I’d also suggest, gently, that she’s in the wrong church.

You never need God to justify why you should be kinder to your fellow human beings.

As with those Catholics who erroneously believe they have a say in who the next pope is, too many religious people have gotten out ahead of their own churches. They’ve applied their expectations of moral progress, learned from the modern world, onto the medieval institution they belong to. Regrettably, it doesn’t work that way.

This is why I argue that, while there are good people who are religious, it’s not their religion making them better. You never need God to justify why you should be kinder to your fellow human beings. You never need a holy book or a priesthood to explain why you should be fair, why you should be compassionate, why you should be empathetic. All we need to ground morality is the simple principle of reciprocity, which even a child can see the sense of.

On the other hand, you do need God to justify why you should treat others worse. Belief in God is like a sheet you can throw over all manner of atrocities to cover them in a disguise of sanctity. It offers limitless justifications for cruelty: it’s for the victim’s ultimate good in the afterlife; it’s a deserved punishment for sin, and everyone is a sinner; and last but not least, because God said so, and God is ineffable and his will may not be questioned.

READ: The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

As another example, take this pastor who claims the Bible condemns illegal immigration. Given the Bible’s strong pro-refugee stance, this might be seen as a reach. However, he’s certain he has a counterargument:

Illegal immigration is—how do I put this delicately so as not to offend—illegal. So, God is against it. “Anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished” (Romans 13:2 NLT)

Every reason he gives boils down to, “Crossing the border illegally is against the law, and God says breaking the law is bad!” It’s that ignorant and that simplistic. His thought process begins and ends with, “These are The Rules, and The Rules must be obeyed, or else.”

He has no room for no consideration of whether the rules are good, just, or sensible; whether they should be upheld or whether they should be changed. He has no need to think about any of that, because God.

That’s why I say God is a stick people use to beat others with. God is the cudgel that ensures morality needs no reason, no logic, and no heart. Claiming that God is on the side of the ruling power confers a mantle of supernatural authority backing up their laws, however inhumane or ill-conceived. That was true during the era of monarchy. It was true during the era of slavery. It was true during the era of patriarchy. And it’s still true today.

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...

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